Saturday, December 31, 2011

Five top books on financial speculation

John Gapper is chief business commentator of the Financial Times, where he writes a weekly column. He co-authored All That Glitters, an account of the collapse of Barings bank in 1995.

One of his five top books on financial speculation, as told to Robert Cottrell at The Browser:
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
by Charles Mackay

[Y]our first book is Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowd by Charles MacKay. It sounds as though we haven’t even digested what Mackay was trying to tell us in 1841.

It’s a very patchy book, but it leads off with three classic financial booms and busts – tulip mania in Holland, the Mississippi scheme in 18th century France, and the South Sea Bubble. MacKay was a journalist with a fine tabloid style, and he writes it all up very entertainingly. He gets the eyewitness quotes and he finds the human foibles. And, because he was the first person to collect these episodes, his book has become the source material for a lot of later works that are more scholarly and more rigorous. And yes, when you read Mackay, you do think, “Oh my goodness, this is what’s happening now.” There are extraordinary parallels.

For example?

In periods of speculation, people start trading derivatives of whatever the primary commodity might be. During the South Sea Bubble they were speculating not only on sailcloth for the expeditions, but on options to buy the sailcloth.

James Surowiecki wrote a recent book called
The Wisdom Of Crowds. Are the wisdom and the madness reconcilable?

Surowiecki talks about the way in which crowds of people making independent judgments can come up with good decisions. But if you have a coordinated mass hysteria, that’s something completely different.
Read about the other books Gapper tagged at The Browser.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds also appears on Frank Partnoy's five best list of books on financial schemes and Jonah Lehrer's list of the five best books on irrational decision-making.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten best debut fiction titles, 2011

One of Kirkus Reviews ten best debut fiction titles of 2011:
This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Learn more about the book and author at Samuel Park's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: This Burns My Heart.

Writers Read: Samuel Park.

My Book, The Movie: This Burns My Heart.

Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five notable books on Americans in Paris

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five books on Americans in Paris:
A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition
by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway decamped from Chicago to Paris in 1921 and quickly fell in with the expat literary scene ensconced there, mingling with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast captures those heady days between the wars in a memoir of the Nobel laureate's travels, escapades, and maturation as a writer. The descriptions of his famous friends are intimate snapshots of historical figures who we otherwise know only from the cold remove of reverence.
Read about the other books on the list.

A Moveable Feast made Neil Pearson's six best books list, Diana Souhami's top ten list of "books about Paris and London lesbians in the early 20th century", Laura Landro's five best list of books about travel; it is a book to which Russell Banks always returns.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ten best science fiction and fantasy books 2011

Kirkus Reviews named its ten best science fiction and fantasy titles of 2011.

One book on the list:
Scholar by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Read about the other books on the list.

Learn more about the author and his work at L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s website.

The Page 69 Test: Scholar.

Writers Read: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five top "economics is fun" books

Daniel S. Hamermesh is Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin and Professor of Labor Economics at Maastricht University. His most recent book is Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.

He shared five top books on "economics is fun" with Sophie Roell at The Browser, including:
The Worldly Philosophers
by Robert L Heilbroner

Let’s go on to the book by Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers.

This is the oldest book I’ve chosen by far. The first edition came out in 1953 – I read it in my senior year in high school. That’s one of the reasons I love this book. We had what was called the Honours Social Studies class. The teacher was quite sophisticated, a very unusual guy. He had an MA from Harvard.

Is this in Texas?

Heavens no! It was suburban Chicago. The median family income in our suburb in 1960 was $3 different from the national average. It was, quite literally, middle class. We took this class and six weeks of it was an economics unit, and he assigned this book. It’s what got me into economics, quite frankly. I am an economist today because of this book.


Let me tell you why. The book did two things. Firstly, it talked about the problems economists deal with. At that time I was terribly interested in public policy and wanted to improve the world. I still am, but I’ve sort of given up hope on much improvement being possible. The other reason is that a number of these essays, at least in that edition, had a few equations. I was quite good at math – not great, but good. I thought, “Here is a chance to use math and think about something in a formal way which, along with being useful, is just a wonderful combination.” For me, that was just glorious. We also had anthropology, sociology and government, but they all just paled by comparison. It was the beauty of the formality and the specificity of economics which to me was demonstrated in that book. So it had tremendous influence. In the mid-1990s, I actually wrote Bob Heilbroner, and this was really bad of me. I wrote: “Your book got me into being an economist. I wish some of your more recent books had inspired me as much as this one did.” That wasn’t a good thing to say. The guy was quite far left – he wrote a lot of stuff which I felt was rubbish. But this book is just beautiful, it really is.

At this point it might be worth mentioning that it’s subtitled “The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers” – so it starts with a chapter on Adam Smith, and then goes through, covering Malthus, Marx and so on.

Most of the prominent economists of the first half of the 20th century and before are discussed. It’s not just the ideas, it’s to give a feel for the people as people. I won’t go through them all, but I’ll just tell you the ones that intrigued me. I’m very interested in Keynes, personally. He was an amazing character, a tremendous investor. He made a fortune on the stock market, he was probably bisexual, he was very heavily involved in the Bloomsbury group. I also like David Ricardo, partly because he was of Jewish origin. He too made a bundle. I visited the synagogue where he was brought up, in East London. I also like Joseph Schumpeter, who ended up at Harvard. He had a tremendous reputation as a ladies’ man. He said, “I always wanted to be a great economist, a great lover and a great horseman, and I regret life has only granted me two of the three.” When he went to Harvard people were worried that he’d chase after the wives of his colleagues in economics. After he went to a department party, he said, “Gentlemen, your wives are safe.” I can’t remember if that story is in the book or not. [Heilbroner was one of Schumpeter’s pupils.]

Here is one of the questions I wanted to ask you, with regards to Heilbroner’s book. With the economics profession, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, being somewhat in disrepute

Stop! Stop, stop, stop. The economics profession is not in disrepute. Macroeconomics is in disrepute. The micro stuff that people like myself and most of us do has contributed tremendously and continues to contribute. Our thoughts have had enormous influence. It just happens that macroeconomics, firstly, has been done terribly and, secondly, in terms of academic macroeconomics, these guys are absolutely useless, most of them. Ask your brother-in-law. I’m sure he thinks, as do 90% of us, that most of what the macro guys do in academia is just worthless rubbish. Worthless, useless, uninteresting rubbish, catering to a very few people in their own little cliques.

I’m not sure most people in the outside world would make a distinction between macro and microeconomists.

I know. It’s up to us to educate them. I got this line from a friend in architecture the other day. He said exactly the same thing. I went through the same litany, trying to disabuse him of this notion. It’s like pushing a stone up a giant hill. It’s not going to get me very far, I agree. But nonetheless it is the case that most of us, and most of what we do, remains tremendously useful, tremendously relevant, and also fun!

The point I was going to make is that with the public perception of economics being on the negative side right now, and the limitations of economics being highlighted in the media, this book, The Worldly Philosophers, is just fantastic at showing what an amazing thing economics was, what amazing insights it brought to bear on the world. People just hadn’t thought about things in that way before.

I agree, and a lot of the insights are still very much valid. Nonetheless, all the people in the book have been defunct for at least 60 years now. There have been some great economists since then, in the last 30 to 40 years. For example, George Akerlof, with his notion of asymmetric information and the failure of markets. It’s a truly brilliant idea and it’s ubiquitous in our lives. There’s Gary Becker, who in my view is the top economist of the last 50 years. His notions of family bargaining and how families behave are terribly important, and affect how, in the end, we all think. These guys who Heilbroner is talking about and the other ones of the last 50 years – none of whom is a macro person, by the way – have had equal influence. It goes on. It just is no longer stuff that is relevant to the macroeconomy. Unfortunately that’s a very important area and we have been derelict on it.

What’s the solution, do you think?

I do believe in markets. People are interested in being useful in this profession. It doesn’t mean the people who were the bad guys from the last 20 years in macro are going to be doing anything different. They’re incapable of doing anything different! But markets do work and the dead and useless get shoved aside by the young and useful. I’m a tremendous optimist. I do believe markets work and that people run to fill niches. There’s an obvious niche here, and you’re already starting to see it being filled. I’m sure the journals in academe are going to reflect this change too.
Read about Hamermesh's other "economics is fun" books.

The Worldly Philosophers is one of Sheena Iyengar's six favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Six best historical fiction titles of 2011

Kirkus Reviews named its best historical fiction titles of 2011.

One book on the list:
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Read about the other titles on the list.

About The Paris Wife, from the publisher:
A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.
Read an excerpt from The Paris Wife, and learn more about the author and her work at Paula McLain's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Paris Wife.

--Marshal Zeringue

Ten of the best cardinals in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the most memorable cardinals in literature.

One entry on the list:
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Mantel's story of the reign of Henry VIII is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, but the early chapters are dominated by Cardinal Wolsey, his tutor in the worldly arts of serving a prince. Even Cromwell, the man who will displace him, feels sympathy for the cardinal as power seeps away from him.
Read about the other titles on the list.

Wolf Hall made the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five books on dangerous minds and Lev Grossman's list of the top ten fiction books of 2009, and is one of Geraldine Brooks's favorite works of historical fiction; Matt Beynon Rees called it "[s]imply the best historical novel for many, many years."

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Five best 2011 fiction titles about love & family

Kirkus Reviews named its five best fiction titles about love and family for 2011.

One book on the list:
The Sisters by Nancy Jensen
Read about the other titles on the list.

Learn more about the book and author at Nancy Jensen's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Sisters.

Writers Read: Nancy Jensen.

The Page 69 Test: The Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five best books about cities

Simon Jenkins's new book is A Short History of England: The Glorious Story of a Rowdy Nation.

He named a five best list of books about cities for the Wall Street Journal. One title on the list:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
by Jane Jacobs (1961)

I still cannot walk down a city street without Jane Jacobs rushing up to me and shouting: "Look at that." It might be an incident on a sidewalk or a car parking or a family on a stoop. She could read meaning into anything. Every patch of urban ground was grist to her mill as observer of the evolution of cities. She wrote of America, but her philosophy applied equally to London, Tokyo, Paris or Moscow. Above all she loved city streets, those microcosms of all human settlement. "It may be romantic to search for the salves of society's ills in slow-moving rustic surroundings, or among innocent, unspoilt provincials," she wrote, "but it is a waste of time." She saw in streets the crooked timber of mankind on vibrant display—informal, casual, diverse, possibly cruel, defying governments, planners and architects. Jacobs's concept of neighborhood and defensible space, her "ballet of the sidewalk," and her hatred of "decontaminated" urbanism entered the language of planning but were largely disregarded. Her glorification of urban clutter produced by organic change remains anathema to city planners. Hers was an intellectual triumph but a practical failure.
Read about the other titles on the list.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is one of Tim Harford's top 10 undercover economics books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 26, 2011

Twelve unusual Christmas reads

At The Daily Beast, Stefan Beck tagged twelve of the more unusual Christmas reads.

One title on the list:
Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal.

The crown jewel of the Christmas bookshelf. Rock Crystal contains the most gorgeous descriptions of a frozen landscape you’re likely to encounter in any book, as well as the most affecting Christmas miracle in world literature. Adam Kirsch called it a “parable of frightening depth.” That this simple story of two lost children manages to scale such heights is a testament to the holiday season’s imaginative power. The NYRB version, translated by the poet Marianne Moore, belongs on every civilized bookshelf, all year round.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five notable books about winter

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five books on winter:
Winter: Five Windows on the Season
by Adam Gopnik

Might "winter" one day become a historical concept rather than an ordinary aspect of the year? Faced with the prospect of global warming, the New Yorker contributor and author of the bestselling Paris to the Moon delivers a stunning meditation on the season, a brilliant evocation of all that we treasure in winter -- and might one day lose.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Five top books on rock music

Greil Marcus's new book is The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years.

One of the five books on rock music he discussed with Eve Gerber at The Browser:
Bye Bye Baby
by Caroline Sullivan

The author of your next selection is a noted rock journalist. Tell us about Caroline Sullivan and Bye Bye Baby.

Caroline Sullivan is an American woman who became a completely obsessive fan of the Bay City Rollers, a Scottish group that dressed in all tartan costumes in the early to mid-seventies and were momentarily huge. Like a lot of teenage girls, Caroline Sullivan fell in love with them, but unlike most of their fans she proceeded to devote her life to them. She ended up moving to the UK to follow them around, to become part of their world. Bye Bye Baby, which was the title of one of their songs, is a hilarious and entertaining book about crazy fandom. It's completely gripping and what it comes down to is: Will she ever sleep with one of them? And the answer is left ambiguous.

Sullivan is now The Guardian’s music critic. What makes for great music criticism in your view?

You’ve got to care about what you're writing about, and you have to be able to write. I don't think that there's any more to it than that. If you just do it because you want to get free records or you want to meet famous people or because you're a frustrated musician, then it's going to feel false and it's not going to work. If you don’t care about writing, if you're not alive to style – the style in other people's work and the style in your own – then it's going to be leaden and boring and lifeless.

I read a piece recently that a young writer had sent me. He wanted advice on how to publish it. It was a profile and it read like a thousand other ones that you and I have read, where someone is trying to convince you that somebody is really of importance and you should care about him. But there was no emotion in it – it was incredibly slick and everything in it seemed secondhand. It was a flood of clichés, not because the writer didn’t care about what he was trying to write about but because he didn’t care about or understand writing.
Read about the other books Marcus discussed at The Browser.

Also see: Nile Rodgers's top ten music books, Samuel Muston's ten best music memoirs, and Kitty Empire's ten best rock autobiographies.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Six notable books about World War I

Wade Davis is a scientist, anthropologist, and writer who received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany from Harvard University and has spent twenty-five years studying the plants, psychotropic drugs, and ceremonial rituals of indigenous cultures around the world. His books include The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was later released as a feature motion picture, and One River.

His latest book is Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.

One of Davis's six favorite books about World War I, as told to The Week magazine:
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

If the war shattered the last vestiges of the old order, peace heralded the birth of modern times. This is the seminal book for understanding what the war implied for a "lost generation," and for the world to come.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 23, 2011

The top photo books of the year

At the Independent Sophie Batterbury picked the top photo books of the year.

One title to make the grade:
I was delighted to see that Kurt Tong's wonderful project In Case It Rains in Heaven became a book this year. It shows the paper offerings to the dead that are burnt in China by relatives. As western influence has spread, these have progressed from paper money to everyday objects....
Read about the other books Batterbury picked.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Five notable books on Christmas history

Bruce Forbes is professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Iowa, and the author of Christmas: A Candid History, co-editor of Rapture, Revelation, and the End Times, and co-editor of Religion and Popular Culture in America.

One of five notable books on Christmas history he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
The Battle for Christmas
by Stephen Nissenbaum

Let’s carry on telling the story with The Battle for Christmas.

This may be one of the most important books written about Christmas. Nissenbaum shows that, prior to those developments in the 19th century, there was a carnival atmosphere of activities at Christmastime – which is one of the reasons why Puritans objected to Christmas. The party was wild. You had roving mobs, and riots, and some people feared for their safety. That happened in England, and also in New England and in New York.

He then outlines how various leading figures attempted to domesticate Christmas, to emphasise it as a family holiday for children. That pulled the Christmas celebrations indoors. People always talk about Christmas as something special for children and the gathering of families. But it wasn’t always that way. Christmas as celebrated in the Middle Ages was more about gathering in taverns. This family-centred, domestic holiday is really a creation of the 19th century. And Nissenbaum, better than anyone else, describes how that happened.

He also discusses, along the way, the commercialisation of Christmas.

Let’s talk about that. People are always saying how Christmas has become a shopping holiday, and its God is consumerism. What are your thoughts?

The way I see it, because of the developments of the 19th century and since then, we really have two holidays now. You might call one a cultural Christmas and the other a spiritual or Christian Christmas.

I think it is true that business interests helped make Christmas a celebration where the whole culture stops. When Christmas moved from a more isolated to a culture-wide celebration, it’s not because the Church campaigned for that. It’s because business interests learned that holidays don’t have to wreck your business. We’re back to Scrooge again. The idea previously was that Christmas is paying people for work that they don’t do. But you see Christmas in a different light if there is commercial possibility. So business as well as religion – as well as people like Dickens who just love the winter holiday – all come together to make it a culture-wide holiday.

But my question is whether you think this other, commercial life of Christmas harms its religious meaning?

Yes, I think the gift-centredness of the holiday is an interference. I always encourage people to simplify Christmas. My personal perspective is that it is a tragedy that when people are done with the Christmas season, they’re not renewed and refreshed, they’re exhausted. So it would be helpful to reduce the hectic nature of Christmas, and also the mass consumption.

I’m not calling for people to not give presents or boycott gifts, but simply to be more personal and to focus on what they find most meaningful. Sometimes that is Christian centred, sometimes it is family centred. We ought to be intentional about Christmas, rather than simply going on autopilot. I think the typical pattern is that when advent starts, you say to yourself: OK, this is the time of year when I must do this, this and this. I think it’s the time that we should pause, evaluate how we’ve celebrated Christmas in previous years, make some decisions about what was most meaningful and what wasn’t, and not do the things that weren’t so meaningful.

More and more people wish “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”, so as to not offend non-Christians. I think that’s political correctness gone mad, but I don’t like the fuss kicked up about it by the American right either.

I live in the American mid-West, and I don’t see much political correctness happening here. I do hear a lot of stories in certain news outlets, such as Fox News, who claim that there’s a war on Christmas – but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that around me, at least where I am.

And I’m not offended by the general phrases because I have used them too. Sometimes I send out Christmas cards that say “Season’s greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas”, but that’s simply because I’m slow and don’t get my cards out in time. “Season’s greetings” helps me cover myself for the general Christmas and new year period. I don’t see myself as diminishing Christmas by doing that!
Read about the other books Forbes tagged at The Browser.

The Battle for Christmas is on Penne Restad's five best list of books on Christmas traditions.

--Marshal Zeringue

Top ten stories of reluctant revolutionaries

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer of fiction based in London.

Her writing is mainly set in the contemporary Middle East. Recurring themes in her work are idealism (however futile), placelessness, political engagement (or lack thereof) and the impact of social conformity on individuals.

Dabbagh’s first novel, Out of It, is being published by Bloomsbury (UK) this month; the US edition is coming out with Bloomsbury USA in June 2012.

One of her ten favorite "novels depicting private struggles with public commitment," as told to the Guardian:
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

No one describes the grind and malice of marriage better than Yates, but what this novel uniquely touches upon is how damaged expectations for involvement in society in a loosely revolutionary sense can be entwined with how a wife views her husband's integrity. There is sexual infidelity in this novel, but that act is of no consequence compared to the betrayal April Wheeler experiences when her husband Frank is reluctant to break out of their comfortable middle-class existence to make a go of it in Paris. Presented as a chatty suburban novel, this novel is as tightly bound as a steel cable.
Read about the other books on the list.

Revolutionary Road also appears on Jenny Eclair's six best books list, Laura Dave's list of books that improve on re-reading, Tad Friend's seven best fiction books about WASPs, and James P. Othmer's list of six great novels on work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ten landmark coach rides in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the most memorable coach rides in literature.

One entry on the list:
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

The erotic connotations of a coach are taken to a new extreme when our adulterous Normandy housewife has her assignation with Léon in Rouen. They meet at the cathedral and set off round the city in a coach with curtained windows. They drive round and round, all afternoon and evening, their relationship consummated on the move.
Read about the other entries on the list.

Madame Bovary is on Mullan's lists of ten of the best cathedrals in literature, ten of the best balls in literature, ten of the best bad lawyers in literature, ten of the best lotharios in literature, and ten of the best bad doctors in fiction, Valerie Martin's list of six novels about doomed marriages, and Louis Begley's list of favorite novels about cheating lovers. It tops Peter Carey's list of the top ten works of literature and was second on a top ten works of literature list selected by leading writers from Britain, America and Australia in 2007. It is one of John Bowe's six favorite books on love.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Rap Sheet’s 10 favorite crime novels of 2011

J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.

One of his ten favorite crime novels of 2011:
City of Secrets, by Kelli Stanley

Beautiful but blasphemous San Francisco sleuth Miranda Corbie starts out trying to identify the murderer of a peep-show employee at her city’s 1940 world’s fair, a woman found desecrated with an anti-Jewish slur. Following a second slaying, though, the pool of suspects expands to include not just prospective lovers and racial bigots, but American Nazis, and lands Corbie in a Napa Valley asylum where it might not just be the insane who are crazy.
Read about the other novels on the list.

My Book, the Movie: City of Secrets.

The Page 69 Test: City of Secrets.

Writers Read: Kelli Stanley.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five top books on modern China

Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford, is the author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

One of five top books on modern China he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Call to Arms
by Lu Xun

Let’s go back to the time when the Republic of China was still young, and around the time when China’s Communist Party was founded in 1921. Your first book choice is Call to Arms. It’s the first collection of stories by one of modern China’s most major and influential writers, Lu Xun. Why should everyone know the name of Lu Xun and how does Call to Arms sum up the mood of its time?

Lu Xun should be known to a wide range of readers overseas for two reasons. One – in a sense the more boring reason – is that he is politically very important. He’s always been brought up by the Communist Party as being the single most important writer of the 20th century in China. That’s partly because his message is about how China needed to radically reject its past associated with the Confucian system of ethics that underpinned the old empires, and instead embrace something more new and radical. You can see how that appealed to people involved in the Communist project.

But the real reason why people need to appreciate Lu Xun is that he was a very interesting and subtle writer. Interestingly, although the Communist party were very keen to get him on board, he never actually joined the party. I think this is because one element that runs through his writing which is absolutely core to his being is a very black, nuanced, sardonic sense of humour. Speaking of Communist literature, he once said – probably with a smile on his face – that the Communist idea of a perfect poem went as follows: “O steamwhistle! O Lenin!”

This particular collection consists of a series of short stories, most of which have very subtly – not in a way that shoves the message in your face – an underlying current of ideas about modern China. One of the most famous is “The Diary of a Madman”, homage in part to Gogol’s original in the 19th century, and based on the same idea that a public official who has suddenly gone crazy but actually sees things much more clearly than his supposedly sane counterparts, colleagues and family.

In this case, what he suddenly sees, in the light of the moon while he’s in his mad state, is that the whole of Chinese culture has consisted of cannibalism. He looks between the lines of the great Confucian classics of literary tradition, and sees that the secret message is “go and eat people”. This is clearly a metaphor for Confucian thinking – for the old-fashioned way in which Chinese society had been bound up in expectations of the past, which had almost become encrusted on society and from which they needed to break free.

These short stories were a real indictment of Chinese society as a whole. I should add though – and Lu Xun himself saw the irony – that when Call to Arms was first published, I think the first edition sold a grand total of 40 copies, so it didn’t exactly turn China upside-down on publication. Although there are many very fine English translations, the latest one from Penguin classics translated by Julia Lovell has a very colloquial, lively feel in its translation.
Read about the other books Mitter tagged at The Browser.

The Page 69 Test: Rana Mitter's Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 19, 2011

Top 12 science fiction releases of 2011

At Barnes & Noble, Paul Goat Allen named his favorite science fiction releases of 2011.

One title on the list:
Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
Read the rest of the list.

Visit Will McIntosh's website.

My Book, The Movie: Soft Apocalypse.

Writers Read: Will McIntosh.

--Marshal Zeringue

Top ten dark & haunted heroes and heroines

H.M. Castor is the author of more than forty books--fiction and non-fiction; VIII, her first novel for teenagers, was published this year.

One of her top ten dark and haunted heroes and heroines, as told to the Guardian:
The Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

A thrilling page-turner written in 1782 entirely in letter form! By a soldier who only wrote one novel and incidentally happened to invent the artillery shell! Yes, unlikely but true. Valmont is the lizard-like, cynical and amoral hero who, along with his ex-lover, delights in ruining others' reputations for sport: he seduces women and abandons them. Then, against all his own rules, Valmont seems to fall in love. He treats the woman cruelly, but appears haunted by what he has done – even to the point of giving up on life. However, Laclos never makes it entirely clear whether this is yet another charade. The fantastic 1988 film (with John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and a very young Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman) gives a more definite romantic ending. Read the book and decide for yourself if Valmont really loses his heart.
Read about the other entries on the list.

Valmont is also on John Mullan's list of ten of the best lotharios in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Five top books on life in the Victorian age

Judith Flanders's first book, A Circle of Sisters, the biography of four Victorian sisters, was published to great acclaim, and nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. In 2003, The Victorian House (2004 in the USA, as Inside the Victorian Home) received widespread praise, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards History Book of the Year. In 2006 Consuming Passions, was published. Her most recent book, The Invention of Murder, was published in 2011. Her book Dickens’ London: Everyday Life in a Victorian City will be published in 2012.

One of her five top books on life in the Victorian age, as told to Toby Ash at The Browser:
Becoming Dickens
by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

This leads us neatly on to the first of your five books. A huge number of books have been written about Dickens – why did you choose this one?

Envy, mostly. I would love to have been able to write this book. It focuses on the first half decade of Dickens’s writing life, from his beginnings to Oliver Twist. Yet at the same time it ranges widely. The author suggests that, because we know Dickens was a great novelist, we don’t imagine that in 1833 that was not the case – he might just as easily have become something else. And the book is an exploration of the circumstances, both external and internal, that created the writer we know. So the past and the future is not ignored – it is really, “What made Dickens, what was he made of, and what did he make of it?” How did he use his experiences – the childhood trauma of the blacking factory and his father’s imprisonment for debt, his scanty schooling, his young life as an impoverished clerk, his career as a journalist? These experiences, which could have taken him on lots of routes, led him to be the writer we know. Douglas-Fairhurst examines both how and why.

He is an amazingly close reader of the novels and a terrific stylist. He’s also dryly funny. So it’s the perfect book. It told me new things about a subject I thought I knew well, it made even the things I knew about already consistently interesting, because of a really original point of view, and it made me laugh.

Douglas-Fairhurst has said that few people lead as many lives as Dickens – novelist, playwright, actor, social campaigner, journalist, editor, philanthropist, amateur conjurer, celebrity – and that trying to pin him down is like putting your thumb on a blob of mercury. Do you agree?

Absolutely. There are many Victorians who are absolutely exhausting to read about – it’s perfectly clear they must have found days with more than 24 hours in them to do what they did – but Dickens is perhaps the most exhausting. He just never stopped, and each thing was different, and each done with amazing energy. I have focused on Dickens as an observer of London, as a city walker – 15-mile walks were routine for him, several times a week. But it would have been just as possible to do a different half-dozen Dickenses.

Next year will be Dickens’ bicentenary year. Perfect timing for your book.

Indeed. I just hope everyone isn’t sick to death of him by then.
Read about the other books Flander's named at The Browser.

My Book, The Movie: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens.

The Page 99 Test: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's Becoming Dickens.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Five top fantasy novels

Lev Grossman is the author of The Magicians and The Magician King, which were both New York Times bestsellers. He also writes about books and technology for Time magazine.

One of his five favorite fantasy novels, as told to Sophie Roell at The Browser:
A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K Le Guin

It was published in 1968 and it was a revelation for fantasy readers, and possibly a revolution. In Le Guin’s work you can see a predominantly Christian, patriarchal, English tradition reinvented by a writer who was not only an American woman but a Taoist-atheist. (I like to think of the map of the archipelagic Earthsea as an image of a Middle Earth without a middle, as if it had been dropped and shattered.) Both Tolkien and Lewis were devout Christians, but Le Guin – who’s still alive and in her 80s – brought fantasy back to its pagan roots. She used as the foundations of her magic system and her story the building blocks of nature and sex and language.
Read about the other novels on the list at The Browser.

Also see a top 10 list of fantasy books for children

The Page 69 Test: Lev Grossman's The Magicians.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five best books about John Lennon

The staff of the Christian Science Monitor came up with five of the best books on John Lennon.

One title on the list:
Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Music, by Tim Riley

This recent biography by Tim Riley explores Lennon from his childhood beginnings to his tragic end and draws on previously unseen or under-utilized materials, including the memoir of Lennon's father Alf, new records from the city of Liverpool, and fresh interviews with the Beatle's friends and enemies. "I think [Lennon] was an enigma to himself," Riley said in an interview with Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe. "He was very mercurical, felt differently on different days ... as reflected through his writing, he is really deeply fascinating and quite unknowable."
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ten satires to teach you to survive the future

At io9, Charlie Jane Anders tagged ten satirical novels that could teach you to survive the future.

One novel on the list:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams' masterwork starts as a satire on bureaucracy — Arthur Dent's house is going to be demolished by a hidebound council, and then the same fate befalls the whole planet, thanks to the hideous Vogons. But H2G2 becomes a much broader satire, coming to encompass the quest for meaning in the universe and the true randomness of everything. This is the only novel which tells you how to carry on after the destruction of the entire planet, which makes it immensely valuable for that reason alone. But like a lot of the books on this list, it's also a tremendous satire on human nature, exposing all of our pettiness and idiocy. This book (and really the whole series) shows how our lives and deaths are ultimately futile... but then reveals what happens to us if we embrace futility: we become like Marvin the Paranoid Android. And nobody wants that.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy appears on Don Calame's top ten list of funny teen boy books and John Mullan's list of ten of the best instances of invisibility in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Five notable books on hell

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five books on hell:
The Living End
by Stanley Elkin

When Elkin's protagonist, Ellerbee, gets killed in his Minneapolis liquor store at the start of this 1979 comic novel her finds himself in heaven. But it's not long before he's sent down to the other place, where a whole new lifetime awaits. While Ellerbee's quest says something about human fortitude (and folly), the author uses this sly fantasia to open up even bigger questions about our conception of divinity, humanity, and meaning.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Living End is one of Adam Ross's favorite books under 200 pages.

Also see John Mullan's list of ten of the best visions of hell in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Top ten Christmas books for children

Mary Hoffman has written more than 70 books for children, and her powers of observation bring vitality and humor to all her stories and retellings.

Her books include Henry's Baby and A First Bible Story Book. Hoffman's best-known picture books are Amazing Grace, Three Wise Women, and An Angel Just Like Me.

Her new book is Grace at Christmas.

One of Hoffman's top ten Christmas books for children, as told to the Guardian:
Four Tales by Philip Pullman

Christmas books should be beautiful and this one is stunning, with its sumptuous dark blue jacket and silver decoration by Peter Bailey. It contains four already published stories by the author of His Dark Materials: The Scarecrow and his Servant, I Was a Rat, Clockwork and The Firework-Maker's Daughter. These will be enjoyed by children who are not quite ready for the big trilogy. And you can start with I Was a Rat, which has a twist on a familiar story associated with Christmas...
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ten of the most memorable governesses in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the most memorable governesses in literature.

One entry on the list:
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

It seems to be Becky Sharp's fate to be a governess: she is clever, educated and impecunious, so she takes a job in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley. But she has ideas well above this modest station and has soon used her intimacy with the family to ensnare her employer's son Rawdon – her first step up the social ladder.
Read about the other entries on the list.

Vanity Fair also appears on Stella Tillyard's list of favorite historical novels, John Mullan's lists of ten of the best fat men in literature and ten of the best pianos in literature, and Thomas Mallon's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 12, 2011

Top ten writings from the edge of language

Philip Gross is a writer of many parts, author of poetry, fiction and drama for children and adults and Professor of Creative Writing at Glamorgan University.

One entry on his list of favorite writings from the edge of language, as told to the Guardian:
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

Compulsively memorable, in spite of the fact that half the words are invented, this poem speaks to children and adults equally. Is it simply a parody of folk/heroic ballads? No way. As any imaginative child knows, words can breed monsters. The jabberwock might seem to be slain by the vorpal sword, but it's still out there somewhere – beware!
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Five best books on politics & the movie industry

An eminent historian of film, Steven J. Ross is recipient of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Films Scholars Award and author of the prize-winning book, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America.

His new book is Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.

At the Wall Street Journal, Ross named a list of the five best books about politics and the movie industry. One title on the list:
The People's Machine
by Joe Mathews (2006)

Arnold Schwarzenegger had a simple but profound insight before he ran for governor of California: Planning a campaign was like planning a movie—both needed a compelling storyline to succeed. Joe Mathews's engrossing book examines the process by which Schwarzenegger transformed himself from blockbuster action hero into the state's chief executive. We learn how the explosion of 24/7 entertainment media paved the way for a new era of celebrity politics—one in which a movie star could be elected to high office without the benefit of an established party network or a precise ideological message. By placing entertainment at the center of his campaign, Schwarzenegger discovered new ways of mobilizing voters tired of "politics as usual." His Hollywood-influenced campaign offers important insights into how politicians might reach the 50% of the eligible electorate who never vote in presidential contests, let alone gubernatorial or local races.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Page 99 Test: Steven J. Ross's Hollywood Left and Right.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dagoberto Gilb's six favorite books

Dagoberto Gilb's books include The Flowers, Gritos, Woodcuts of Women, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, The Magic of Blood, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the newly released story collection Before the End, After the Beginning. Gilb is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Critics Circle Award.

One of his six favorite books, as told to The Week magazine:
With His Pistol in His Hand by Américo Paredes

Written with fine humor, Paredes's book explores the story behind a popular ballad about a Texas Mexican who in 1901 was wrongly accused of being a horse thief and stood up to the Texas Rangers who chased him. It's a fascinating account of the incident, and of the racism that Mexican-Americans lived through.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, December 9, 2011

Five notable books on ruling women

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five books on ruling women:
The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici
by Elizabeth Lev

In this thrill-a-minute, jaw-dropping life of Caterina Sforza (1463 - 1509), female ruler of the province of Forlì, Elizabeth Lev puts us in the shoes of a Renaissance woman wielding never-before-seen power. During a period of fractious Italian politics, she managed to thrive, prosper, and succeed largely through force of will. Following Sforza from her youth in the Milanese court, through her marriage at the age of ten to the Pope's corrupt nephew, to her husband's assassination -- which forced Caterina to negotiate a deadly rivalry with the Borgias by herself -- Lev charts a bloody, survivalist career for her heroine that will both appall and inspire.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five of the best recent novels that channel classics

At The Daily Beast Caryn James named five top recent novels that channel classics.

One book on the list:
What Happened to Anna K.
by Irina Reyn

Reyn’s stunning first novel, published in 2008, deserves to be better known. The title signals her affection for Tolstoy as she shrewdly turns Anna Karenina and her family into Russian emigres living in Queens.

Like Anna Karenina, Reyn’s story sympathetically charts the dislocation of a woman who hasn’t found an identity of her own, marries an older man because it is time, then leaves him and their son, Sasha, for her romanticized younger lover. Reyn’s version of the dashing military man Vronsky is even less ideal than Tolstoy’s; he’s an impoverished adjunct professor named David.

The subplot echoes Tolstoy too, as Anna K’s cousin, Katia, marries the earnest Lev (Anna Karenina’s Kitty and Levin). Her most Tolstoyan touch, though, comes with her detailed realism, a total immersion in Anna’s world, from the Queens and its discount fashion shops “with their mirrored walls, their fur-swaddled mannequins,” to her married life on East 80th Street in Manhattan, furnished by visits to “auctions at William Doyle, SoHo showrooms.”

Throughout, Reyn’s taut dramatic trajectory never lets us forget that a subway is also a train.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Page 69 Test: What Happened to Anna K.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ten great American dystopias

At io9 Annalee Newitz tagged ten great American dystopias, including:

William Gibson's 1984 novel revolutionized science fiction and popularized the subgenre of cyberpunk. What truly blew readers away was Gibson's vision of a future where governments have crumbled and multinational corporations rule the Earth from orbital mansions. This same worldview was realized in visual form in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, based on a Philip K. Dick novel, which solidified in many audience's minds the idea that America's future would be a polluted, corporate-controlled urban sprawl.
Why is this an American dystopia?
In the United States, there are less government checks on corporate power than in many other developed nations. Many of our nightmares are fueled by the idea that there will be a runaway power grab by corporations.
Read about the other dystopias on the list.

Neuromancer made PopCrunch's list of the sixteen best dystopian books of all time and Annalee Newitz's list of "Thirteen Books That Will Change The Way You Look At Robots."

Also see Robert Collins' top ten list of dystopian novels and Gemma Malley's top 10 list of dystopian novels for teenagers.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ten of the most memorable hunting scenes in literature

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the most memorable hunting scenes in literature.

One entry on the list:
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Early in the novel, sexy Gwendolen goes hunting for the first time with her cousin Rex, who fancies her. "Gwendolen felt no check on the animal stimulus that came from the stir and tongue of the hounds, the pawing of the horses, the varying voices of men." Hunting is aphrodisiac. When her nasty husband goes off to see his mistress, Gwendolen goes hunting with Daniel Deronda, whom she fancies.
Read about the other titles on the list.

Daniel Deronda is one of Dani Shapiro's ten favorite books and on Ruth Wisse's list of essential works about Judaism.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Five top books on food production

Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook’s book about how industrial agriculture has ruined the tomato in all ways–gastronomic, environmental, and in terms of labor abuse–was published in the summer of 2011.

Estabrook blogs at politics of the plate.

One of his top five books on food production, as told to Daisy Banks at The Browser:
Four Fish
by Paul Greenberg

Four Fish by Paul Greenberg takes us to the ocean to explore some of the solutions to overfishing and fish farming.

This book is totally unbiased and very serious at looking for solutions to the global fisheries problem. He picks four iconic fish to use as examples to serve for the whole spectrum. So there is tuna, salmon, cod and sea bass. He doesn’t condemn fish farming outright but he explores ways to do it so that we continue to fish in what is the last wild place where we get our food.

What kinds of solutions does he come up with?

For wild fish, he says flat out that we must reduce fishing effort. There are too many fishermen in too many boats chasing too few fish. He suggests that certain areas of the oceans be completely off limits for fishing, and that we manage fish populations such as tuna, which can travel across oceans, on a global basis. For fish farming, he says that the species we raise should be efficient. Salmon, for instance, are carnivores that must be fed more fish protein than they produce. That’s not efficient. Tilapia can get by on a vegetarian diet. So that is more efficient. Any fish farm should not damage wild systems and we should limit the number of fish farms in a given area.
Read about the other books Estabrook tagged.

--Marshal Zeringue