Monday, October 31, 2011

Five best books with spinster protagonists

Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and moved to London when she was four. She is the author of The Icarus Girl, The Opposite House, White is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, and, most recently, Mr Fox.

One of her five best books with a spinster protagonist, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
by Agatha Christie (1971)

The murder that Miss Marple investigates in Agatha Christie's "Nemesis" is a so-called crime of passion: A young woman was killed on the day she was due to elope with her lover. As Marple looks into the case, she becomes aware of a certain desolation—"sorrow, misery, fear . . . frustrated love"—that is both cause and consequence of the murder. But we also sense that the emotion forms part of Marple's psychological response to the spinster life. After she has confronted the murderer in the name of justice—doing so while wearing a pink woolly scarf—one character who has seen her in action calls her "the most frightening woman I have ever met." He may be referring to the elderly super-sleuth's eerie understanding that "Love is a terrible thing. It is alive to evil," and her translation of that intuition into deductive logic.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ten of the best women dressed as men

At the Guardian, John Mullan named ten of the best women dressed as men in literature.

One book on his list:
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Éowyn desperately wants to avenge her father, killed by orcs. She disguises herself as the male warrior Dernhelm and fights alongside the Riders of Rohan in battle, even managing to kill the Lord of the Nazgûl – who has boasted that no man can ever defeat him and is nonplussed to discover that his opponent is, in fact, a woman.
Read about the other crossdressers on the list.

The Lord of the Rings also made Charlie Jane Anders and Michael Ann Dobbs' list of ten classic SF books that were originally considered failures, 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 bows and arrows in literature, ten of the best beards in literature, 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. It is one of Salman Rushdie's five best fantasy novels for all ages. It is a book that made a difference to Pat Conroy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Five best books by 2012 presidential hopefuls

At the Christian Science Monitor, Husna Haq tagged five books by the 2012 presidential hopefuls, including--under the category "best written"--Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope:
When his books hit coffee table and bookshelves across America – and long after – reviewers couldn’t stop cooing about Barack Obama's gift for writing and the success of his books "Dreams from My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope." The president is a natural storyteller and his days as editor of the Harvard Law Review honed his eloquent style.

“Dreams from my Father,” which was published before Obama began his political career, tells his life story up to his entry in Harvard Law School. One Monitor reader said of the book, "He tells his story so earnestly and movingly that a person learns about himself/herself through this book and about the society she/he lives in."

“The Audacity of Hope,” which introduced Obama as a politician, was an instant bestseller, described, like his campaign, as a shot of inspiration. Monitor reviewer Ari Pinkus wrote of this book in 2007, "The openness and eloquence with which Obama shares his personal story interwoven with his broad vision for America is compelling. For those who have been disillusioned by the divisiveness of politics, Obama inspires."
Read about the other books on the list.

Dreams from My Father also appears on Alice-Azania Jarvis's reading list of family memoirs, Gillian Orr's reading list on fatherhood, Sammy Perlmutter's list of the five best books from Nobel winners who didn't win their medal for literature, and Iain Finlayson's critic's chart of six books on young leaders.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 28, 2011

Top ten short stories

In 2007 novelist and short story writer Alison MacLeod named her top ten short stories for the Guardian.

Her criteria and one title on her list:
Writing a short story is a high-wire act, sentence by sentence, foot by foot. Very few story writers work with the safety net of a plot conceived in advance. They trust in the humming tension of a single opening line or in an image that rises in their mind, or in a fragment of a character's voice. They might have a sense of where they want their characters to go; they rarely know how they'll get them there. At times it's unnerving work. Lose your concentration or the line of tension in the story and both you and it fall. The best short stories have a breathless, in-motion quality to them, a quality that makes them ideal for adaptation into film, as directors are increasingly realising. A great story ending resonates far beyond its final word. It's a hit to the brain. I read stories and love them for that hit. As the writer Elizabeth Taylor commented, the short story gives the reader the feeling of "being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction". The best stories leave you exhilarated.

"What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver

Story writers are naturally drawn to life's undersides - to the bits we perhaps shouldn't see. They're often private worlds, stolen glimpses, and we, the readers, are licensed voyeurs. Here, two couples, Mel, a cardiologist, his second wife Terri, and young Nick and Laura in their first flush of love, sit around a kitchen table sharing a drink. They talk, the sun goes down, the gin bottle drains. That's it. Or it would be, except inhibitions slip. An argument starts, emotions burst like blisters; they're covered over and burst again. As Nick and Laura struggle to hold onto their clichés of romantic love, Terri claims that the ex-husband who used to drag her around the living room by her ankles really did love her. Carver had to have been influenced by Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Things get that ugly. But it's also profoundly moving as Mel struggles through the blur of the gin and the shadows of the setting sun to believe in the strength of the human heart.
Read the entire top ten.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love appears on Ward Just's list of six books with an “autumnal” quality and among Dennis Lehane's five favorite short story collections.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Top ten African memoirs

Alexandra Fuller has written four books of non-fiction.

Her debut book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002, the 2002 Booksense best non-fiction book, a finalist for the Guardian’s First Book Award and the winner of the 2002 Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize.

Her 2004 Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier won the Ulysses Prize for Art of Reportage.

The Legend of Colton H Bryant was a Toronto Globe and Mail Best Non-Fiction Book of 2008.

Her latest book is Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

One of Fuller's top ten African memoirs, as told to the Guardian:
Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

This is a book you will find yourself going back to and thumbing through, not just for the historical perspective that this collection of essays, speeches and conversations that this memoir provides, but for the shot-to-the-heart wisdom of one of the greatest and most inspiring leaders of our time.
Read about the other entries on the list.

Conversations with Myself made Martin E. Marty's five best list of books on the theme of prison writing.

See Alexandra Fuller's five best list of books that "brilliantly evoke the modern American West."

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Top ten English translations

Adam Thorpe is a poet, playwright and novelist...and a translator of Madame Bovary.

One of his top ten English translations, as told to the Guardian:
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

Heaney's magnificent rendering of the earliest English epic has its roots, ironically, in his Northern Irish background: its local voices enabled him to "find the tuning fork … the note and pitch for the overall music of the work". The result is pitch-perfect. My grisly memories of university days ploughing over Old English assignments have been banished.
Read about the other translations on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Five books about renewable energy

Juliet Davenport is chief executive of Good Energy, the UK's only 100% renewable electricity supplier.

With Daisy Banks at The Browser, Davenport discussed five books about "good energy"--having a practical interaction with climate change--including:
Too Big to Fail
by Andrew Ross Sorkin

Your next book, Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin, has got you thinking about how the bankers could fit in with all this.

I wanted to read this book because I didn’t really understand how the global economy managed to get into the current mess. Suddenly the banking system was collapsing and everyone was talking about sub-prime mortgages. And it was fascinating to read this story of greed, egos and disregard for process. There were all these stops and checks to stop things like this happening but the key players had dismissed them all, which was amazing. It was so arrogant.

So where do Wall Street bankers fit in with clean energy and climate change?

One of the things that is really important to any business is that you need to get money from somewhere to do it. The insight I got was that the money markets seem to be happy to implement some very high-risk strategies if they think they can make huge amounts of money – and they did on paper for many years. And actually we need huge amounts of money to be able to deliver the renewable targets that we are talking about. So it got me thinking, what are the issues within banking, who do they talk about, what do they think and might they be interested in us as a market?

Were you trying to get into their minds to persuade them to invest in you?

It was partly that, but it is also about how we frame renewable energy in a way that can be an alternative to the sub-prime market. I am not suggesting that anybody would want to repeat the risks that were taken there, but obviously people were happy to take a certain amount of risk. What we need to do is to persuade bankers that renewables isn’t a high-risk strategy, and it was interesting reading the book to see what the methods for doing that were.

Do you think renewables could be lucrative for bankers as a market?

Definitely. Renewable energy is fascinating because it is a very long-term asset. At the moment pension funds can either buy property, which isn’t doing very well right now, or invest in equities, which isn’t a very good bet either. So I think that maybe they should be investing in renewable energy projects, which will happen in the future out of necessity.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 24, 2011

Five best books about the beginnings of the Second World War

Richard Overy's books include 1939: Countdown to War.

One of his five best books on the beginnings of World War II, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
The Triumph of the Dark
by Zara Steiner (2010)

Every now and again, a book comes along that merits being called "definitive." Zara Steiner's "The Triumph of the Dark" is the most thorough, wide-ranging and carefully argued narrative available on the tumultuous decade that ended in world war. Every historian of the period will stand in Steiner's debt. Not everyone will agree with some of her arguments. Steiner is particularly tough on Neville Chamberlain, taking him to task for being so blinded by anticommunism that he failed to appreciate how a British-French-Soviet alliance in the 1930s might have stopped Hitler's military expansion. That was Churchill's view too, so she is in good company. Whether Stalin would have signed up, of course, remains open to question. But reading Steiner on the subject at least provides the comforts of contemplating an alternative storyline, one in which the dark does not triumph.
Read about the other other books on Overy's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ten of the best cliffs in literature

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

One book on his list:
The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean

Led by Captain Keith Mallory, a New Zealand mountaineer, a British team attempts to knock out the German guns on the Aegean island of Navarone. The only way to get to them is via the island's "unclimbable" south cliff. Do they manage it? Well, who won the war?
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chris Bohjalian's six favorite books about plane crashes

Chris Bohjalian latest novel, The Night Strangers, is a ghost story that begins with a plane crash.

At The Week magazine he came up with a list of six favorite books about plane crashes, including:
Outliers by Malcom Gladwell

Most of Outliers is about why some people are preternaturally successful. My favorite chapter, however, is "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes." The black box transcripts are riveting, as are Gladwell's insights into how the catastrophes that he details could have been avoided.
Read about the other books on the list.

Check out Malcolm Gladwell's six best books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 21, 2011

A.E. Hotchner's five favorite coming-of-age tales

A.E. Hotchner is best known for Papa Hemingway, his 1966 biography of Ernest Hemingway, whose work he had adapted for plays and television. His other books include King of the Hill, a memoir about growing up in St. Louis during the Great Depression. It was made into a film in 1993, the screenplay written and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

In 2007 he named a five best list of coming-of-age tales for the Wall Street Journal.

One book on the list:
The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger
Little, Brown, 1951

Holden Caulfield thoroughly deserves his status as the quintessential teenager of American literature. J.D. Salinger found a note-perfect teenage voice, with Holden's venomous contempt for everything "phony," a voice that the author expertly deploys in capturing all the prejudices and emotions of a troubled prep-school boy from New York. Holden's escapades are both hilarious and painful, as when he decides to lose his virginity with a prostitute that he has procured with the help of a hotel bellhop. When she arrives, Holden has second thoughts about this misguided attempt to grow up and finds himself bargaining with the indignant woman to let him out of the deal. Holden zig-zags through an amusing, pathetic, confusing year, battling inner turmoil every step of the way. But in the end he does grow up -- somewhat.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Catcher In The Rye appears on Jay McInerney's list of five essential New York novels, Woody Allen's top five books list, Patrick Ness's top 10 list of "unsuitable" books for teenagers, David Ulin's six favorite books list, Nicholas Royle's list of the top ten writers on the telephone, TIME magazine's list of the top ten books you were forced to read in school, Tony Parsons' list of the top ten troubled males in fiction, Dan Rhodes' top ten list of short books, and Sarah Ebner's top 25 list of boarding school books; it is one of Sophie Thompson's six best books. Upon rereading, the novel disappointed Khaled Hosseini, Mary Gordon, and Laura Lippman.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ten memoirs by children of famous parents

At the Christian Science Monitor, Molly Driscoll came up with ten memoirs by children of famous parents, including:
Reading My Father, by Alexandra Styron

Alexandra Styron, daughter of "Sophie's Choice" author William Styron wrote in her memoir Reading My Father that her father would have rages at the tiniest provocation and told her stories intended to scare her when she was young. Alexandra also recalls, however, moments of warmth that they shared, and remembers that her father – who suffered from depression – would sometimes take calls from people feeling suicidal to try to convince them to abandon their plans.
Read about the other books on the list.

See Alexandra Styron's five best books about fathers and daughters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Five best books about writing for the newspaper

Bob Greene, a columnist and commentator for CNN, is the author of 25 books, most recently Late Edition: A Love Story.

One of his five best books about writing for newspapers, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
The Press
by A.J. Liebling (1961)

Before media criticism had a thousand voices, there was one: elegant, precise, funny, authoritative. It belonged to A.J. Liebling. Readers at their breakfast tables back then may have only vaguely sensed that newspapers were imperfect institutions, not as magisterial and infallible as their publishers liked to promote. After encountering Liebling in the New Yorker, those readers understood exactly why he, with irrefutable, amiable logic, regarded the press as "the weak slat under the bed of democracy." In this collection of his columns, written mostly in the 1940s and '50s, Liebling uses a diamond-cutter's touch to probe the press's flaws—but along the way, by doing it with such care, he inadvertently reveals his own great secret: He loved newspapers. Loved them. Loved them.
Read about the other books on Greene's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Top ten pulse-racing adventure books

Philip Webb, author of Six Days, had a happy childhood, roaming and exploring and was fascinated by the local rubbish dump where he played out lots of post-apocalyptic adventures with his friends. He was born in 1967 and works as a user experience consultant. He has a computer science degree and a Masters in human computer interaction. His interests include travel, art, design and film.

For the Guardian, Webb named his top ten pulse-racing adventure books, including:
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

It's a sci-fi dystopia, it's a romance, it's touching and brutal and real. But most of all it's a perfect adventure. Bow-wielding ass-kicking Katniss goes into the Hunger Games arena to save her younger sister from certain death. It's survival of the fittest –a terrifying fight to the death, so addictive and so exciting you'll be gnawing your knuckles to the bone by book two.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Hunger Games also appears on Charlie Higson's top ten list of fantasy books for children and Megan Wasson's list of five fantasy series geared towards teens that adults will love too.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ten of the best appropriate deaths in fiction

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

One item on his list:

The deranged captain of the Pequod, the whaling ship in Moby-Dick, does manage to stick his harpoon into the great white whale, but he is snagged by a loop of rope attached to the harpoon. "The flying turn caught him round the neck, and … he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone".
Read about the other entries on the list.

Moby-Dick also appears among Katharine Quarmby's top ten disability stories, Jonathan Evison's six favorite books, Bella Bathurst's top 10 books on the sea, John Mullan's list of ten of the best tattoos in literature, Susan Cheever's five best books about obsession, Christopher Buckley's best books, Jane Yolen's five most important books, Chris Dodd's best books, Augusten Burroughs' five most important books, Norman Mailer's top ten works of literature, David Wroblewski's five most important books, Russell Banks' five most important books, and Philip Hoare's top ten books about whales.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Five memoirs of identity, dislocation & belonging

Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland, and emigrated to America in her teens. She is the author of Lost in Translation, Exit Into History, Shtetl, The Secret, After Such Knowledge, and Appassionata, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Award, and an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

With Alec Ash at the Browser, Hoffman discussed "five striking memoirs of identity, dislocation & belonging," including:
Speak, Memory
by Vladimir Nabokov

Next is Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory. I gather Nabokov originally titled it Speak, Mnemosyne but his publisher complained that readers “would not buy a book whose title they could not pronounce”.

I can see how publishers would say that. This was written in fragments, parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. It is a memoir which emerged from exile. Nabokov was forced into exile after the Russian revolution. In 1920 he moved to Berlin, then to Paris and finally to America in 1940. The memoir is a reconstruction of his own life, but also of his lost world. He grew up in the most privileged circumstances imaginable, in a palatial house in St Petersburg, part of a very prosperous and aristocratic family. His father was a liberal statesman, and was assassinated in 1922 by a stray bullet meant for someone else at a political conference. But Nabakov had a very happy childhood. He was convincingly loved by both of his parents, what I think of as the “Oedipal winner”. He was nurtured, nourished and loved.

Then, exile – and all of this was utterly lost. His mother lived in very meagre circumstances in Prague. He was reduced to impoverishment himself, and had to give tennis and language lessons to support himself. Fortunately, he was good at tennis. His wife was Jewish, and as World War II approached there was an increasing sense of threat. That is why they eventually went to America. The memoir takes them up to the point of emigration, but really is about the old world. He claims the rights to his bit of ecological territory – I mean the human ecology. And the memoir constitutes an almost palpable reconstruction of that ecology, of a lost world, through the powers of language and memory.

The narrative bears similarities to yours in Lost in Translation and you share one of his chapter titles, “Exile”. Was it a strong influence?

I reread it as I was writing my memoir, and I love it for several reasons. First, it made me feel that it is possible to give written form to nostalgia. The lyrical affirmation of that was quite important to me. Secondly, his preoccupation with language. I kept looking for books which talk about language, and at the end of the book Nabokov has a dedication to the Russian language, or an invocation of it and his incredibly poignant loss of it. That gave me the courage to think that this was a subject I could write about. His memoir was mostly written in English, although I believe some parts were written in Russian first. He was brought up in English as much as in Russian. It was practically his first language. He came from a part of the Russian aristocracy that was very Anglophile.

Nabokov was important to me because in a sense he was a counterpart to my own situation, and perhaps even to my response to exile. He responded to exile with largesse. It’s triumphant. He always felt that he could assert his absolute originality. He didn’t need to belong to any group, even though he came from a certain background. And he didn’t need to define himself by larger circumstances. At one point he mentions the Russian revolution by the by, as if a terrible event but below the notice of his attention. So in a sense it was the opposite of the vexed struggle that I had with the condition of exile, and I loved it for that.

How crucial is the language one speaks to one’s sense of identity?

To me it was absolutely crucial. And what was crucial was not the particularities of Polish or English, but my relationship to the language. The relationship to your first language is very different to your relationships to subsequent languages, no matter how well you speak them. You learn the first language unconsciously, and it seems to stand for the things that it names. There is no distinction between the word and the thing. It has a kind of absoluteness that seems to emerge from yourself. It is very difficult to recreate that in subsequent languages, especially if one learns them later in life.

But this was very much what I wanted to recreate in English for myself. That was my project for quite a few years – for English to drop into my psyche, so that I didn’t feel a distance from it. Initially, for quite a long time, I felt it was a different self when I spoke English. I sympathise with Sartre’s self-creation through words, and the element of falseness and bad faith that it necessarily involves. I made the decision to write my diary in English when I still hardly knew English. It involves a very wilful self-creation.
Read about the other memoirs Hoffman tagged at The Browser.

Speak, Memory is one of Susan Cheever's favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Five best books on nations and lives in transition

Martin Fletcher, NBC News's former Tel Aviv bureau chief, is the author, most recently, of the novel The List.

One of his five best books on nations and lives in transition, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
Swedish Tango
by Alyson Richman (2004)

The cry of every refugee, the eerie sense of being transparent, dispensable, irrelevant, emerges powerfully from Alyson Richman's intricately plotted and touching narrative: a fictional tale of World War II refugees from Finland and France and asylum-seekers from Pinochet's Chile whose new lives cross in Sweden. One of the Chileans, we're told, has a "divine ability to re-create" her Santiago home even in dark, cold Sweden, "The rooms smelled of dried geranium leaves, eucalyptus, and wild mint, for she had hidden tiny sachets filled with these fragrant leaves throughout the house." Everyone in "Swedish Tango" has a secret, and everyone longs for something, especially human connection. The four main characters are so authentic, so flawed and so touching, and their stories so believable, that a reader ends up rooting for all of them. It's a measure of the book's realism that nothing in this saga of refugees struggling to build new lives ties up neatly.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 14, 2011

Lucette Lagnado's six favorite books

Lucette Lagnado was born in Cairo, Egypt. She and her family left Egypt as refugees when she was a small child, an experience that helped shape and inform her memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. Her follow-up memoir, The Arrogant Years, revisits her first years in America, and describes a difficult coming-of-age interrupted by a bout with cancer at age 16.

One of her six favorite books, as told to The Week magazine:
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

An exquisite and soulful novel about a pair of Cuban exiles who land in New York. Hijuelos does a wonderful job of capturing the longings of expatriates for their lost culture and country.
Read about the other books on Lagnado's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Reading list on Nobel Prize winners

At the Independent Samantha Herbert compiled a brief reading list on Nobel Prize winners, including:
This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, was elected the first, and so far only, female president in Africa.

Her memoirs follow her incredible journey from a humble upbringing and young marriage, through domestic abuse and imprisonment during the civil war, and finally her role in bringing peace to Liberia – the country that she now runs.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Top ten farming novels

Belinda McKeon, an award-winning playwright and journalist, was born in Ireland in 1979 and grew up on her parents' farm. She studied literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and worked as an arts writer for The Irish Times. McKeon has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia and lives in Brooklyn and Ireland.

Her debut novel is Solace.

At the Guardian, McKeon named her top ten farming novels.

One title on the list:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Another one in which a young woman comes to stay with her farming relatives in the middle of nowhere. This, like every other trope of the farming novel, is booted up the yard with fond irreverence by Gibbons in her 1932 satire. Broke, orphaned Flora Poste has decamped to Sussex, to the farm of the Starkadders, where the cows have names like Pointless and Aimless and the dialogue is so earthy as to be worm-eaten. Those of us who love our farming novels need to check in with this one every once in a while.
Read about the other novels on McKeon's list.

Cold Comfort Farm is one of John Mullan's ten best parodies in literature and Lisa Armstrong's top books on shoes.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Five books on the decline of violence

Steven Pinker's new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

With Daisy Banks at The Browser, he discussed five books on the decline of violence, including:
Violent Land by David Courtwright

Your third book, David Courtwright’s Violent Land, explores why America is more violent than other democracies, and why certain Americans are more violent than others.

Why is America so much more violent than other democracies? Why is the American South and Southwest so much more violent than the rest of the country? Why are African-Americans more violent than Americans of European descent? Courtwright takes on these puzzles in a rich narrative which weaves American history with evolutionary psychology and neurobiology.

He argues that large parts of America were settled by young men living in anarchy. These are the ingredients for violent competition for dominance, which puts a premium on a reputation of toughness and resolve. He notes that young men’s competition for dominance was necessary for access to mating opportunities with women, in settings in which either the women are scarce and have to be fought over, or there is de facto polygamy, so a dominant man can have access to many females, leaving the not-so-dominant men mateless.

The stereotype of the Wild West from the old cowboy movies is historically accurate. The American West – the gold rush towns, the mining camps, the itinerant workers’ camps in expanding America – saw horrendous rates of male-on-male killing. With murder statistics there was, as he puts it, “an abundance of other evidence that Gold Rush California was a brutal and unforgiving place. Camp Names were mimetic: Gouge Eye, Murderers’ Bar, Cut-Throat Gulch, Graveyard Flat. There was a Hangtown, a Helltown, a Whiskeytown, and a Gomorrrah, though, interestingly, no Sodom.”

Courtwright also argues that the American West was eventually civilised by women. Once women started to seek their fortunes in the marriage market by moving west, they had the bargaining power to force the men into a civilised lifestyle more suited to their interests. The women spearheaded temperance movements to reduce drunken brawling, and joined forces with the church to force men into church and family life. They also worked to shut down the saloons and brothels, to steer the men away from their lives of boozing, whoring, brawling and gambling.

I suspect that this combination of history and sociobiology solves a puzzle that has long baffled liberal America and Europe – why red-state America fetishises religion, sexual propriety and “family values”.

Much more so than in the UK, for example.

Very much more so, and far more than in the northern and coastal United States – the divide we call “the culture war”. Based on Courtwright’s history, I suspect that the split arose from a history in which the American West, Southwest and South were largely civilised by women and the church, whereas the Northeast – like Europe – was civilised by government, commerce and the court system.
Read about the other books Pinker tagged at The Browser.

Learn more about Steven Pinker's most important books and Steven Pinker's five best list of books that explore human nature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top ten books in which things end badly

Richard Gwyn is Director of the MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. His books include The Colour of a Dog Running Away, Deep Hanging Out, and The Vagabond’s Breakfast.

In 2007 at the Guardian he named ten books in which things end badly, including:
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Things end badly simply by dint of the hero, Patrick Bateman, remaining alive at the end of this gruelling odyssey to nowhere, although he does make a phantasmagorical appearance in the writer's latest, and most interesting novel, Lunar Park, when the character 'Bret Easton Ellis' believes he is being stalked by his own fictional creation. Yes, we are asked to believe, as his list of murderees grows, this is what a corporate culture allows us. No room for God here since the power of the killer has made redemption unthinkable and a devil's bargain expedient.
Read about the other entries on the list.

American Psycho appears on John Mullan's list of ten of the best zoos in literature, Nick Brooks' top ten list of literary murderers and Chris Power's list of his six top books on the 1980s. It is a book that Nick Cross "Finished Reading but Wanted My Time Back Afterwards."

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 10, 2011

Top five books about Los Angeles

Christian Science Monitor contributor Megan Wasson came up with a list of five top books on Los Angeles.

One title on the list:
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The classic detective novel, made into the equally classic Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall film, is the first appearance of Los Angeles noir detective Phillip Marlow. Marlow is hired to expose the blackmailer of a tycoon's daughter, but along the way he exposes a lot more about the seedy underbelly of 1930's LA society. Chandler's eloquent prose and quirky characters are enchanting.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Big Sleep also appears on Greil Marcus's six recommended books list, Barry Forshaw's critic's chart of six American noir masters, David Nicholls' list of favorite film adaptations, and the Guardian's list of ten of the best smokes in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Five science fiction books to hook new readers

Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game and its sequel Speaker for the Dead both won Hugo and Nebula Awards.

In an interview with Alec Ash at The Browser, he named five books sure to get new readers hooked, including:
Foundation Trilogy
by Isaac Asimov

Let's begin with Isaac Asimov and The Foundation Trilogy.

Isaac Asimov wrote many good books, but the one that stands as his finest, and the one that most rewards periodic rereading, is The Foundation TrilogyFoundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. (Yes, Second Foundation is the third volume of the trilogy.) Following Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in tracing the predictable collapse of a galaxy-wide interstellar empire, Asimov wrote with an episodic structure because each section was to be published separately in John W Campbell’s magazine Astounding.

The stories never feel fragmentary, though, because they are all woven together by the Seldon plan. Hari Seldon, at the beginning of the book, is a psychohistorian who predicts the fall of the empire – not a politically safe move to make – but instead of being executed for treason he is given safe passage to Terminus, a world at the edge of the galaxy. There, he and a team of scientists can work on the Encyclopedia Galactica, a compendium of all human knowledge, so that the dark ages following the collapse of the empire won’t take so long or sink so deeply into ignorance.

But it soon emerges that this is all a blind. Terminus is really a place for the successor empire to be seeded and grow in isolation, with Seldon’s plan marking great psychohistorical thresholds that the new empire will pass through. At each important juncture, Seldon himself reappears as a holographic image. But midway through the second book we run into something that even psychohistory couldn’t predict – a charismatic leader who throws a wrench into the works, derailing the Seldon plan and leaving the secret guardians of his future empire to scramble in order to put things back on track.

Foundation and its sequels show you the scope of first-rate extrapolative science fiction, and there is no better writer of the American plain style than Isaac Asimov. He never calls attention to himself as writer, but invisible as he is, he writes with such lucidity that everything is always clear and you slip through the story effortlessly. I loved it when I first read it at 16, and I loved it still when I reread it recently in my late 50s.
Read about the other books Card tagged.

Foundation is a book that inspired Paul Krugman.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Five books on baseball

At the Independent Will Dean compiled a brief reading list on baseball, including:
The Curse of the Bambino by Dan Shaughnessy

Wednesday night [September 28, 2011] was one of the most remarkable evenings in baseball history – with the Boston Red Sox managing to throw away an almost unassailable lead to get into the play-offs. It was back to the bad old days of the "cursed" ball club when the team went 86 years without winning the World Series after losing Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Boston Globe writer Shaughnessy covers the story of the Sox's struggle with great colour.
Read about the other books on the list.

Also see Allen Barra's five best works of fiction about baseball, Marjorie Kehe's ten best list of baseball books, Doug Glanville's best books on baseball, Richard J. Tofel's list of the five best books on baseball as a business, Tom Werner's six favorite baseball books, Fay Vincent's five best list of baseball books, Tim McCarver's five best list of baseball books, and Nicholas Dawidoff's five best list of baseball novels.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 7, 2011

Five best San Francisco novels

During the 70s and 80s, Armistead Maupin introduced the world to the diverse inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane in his pioneering serial, Tales of the City. The serial went on to spawn a successful succession of books and television miniseries.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, he named five "books which best capture [San Francisco]’s sense of possibility and noirish feel," including:
The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan

Finally, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Tell us about this novel.

The Joy Luck Club is a mahjong club composed of four Chinese-American women. The novel is structured around the four corners of the mahjong table. The device makes clear the distance between the old world of China and the new world that these women inhabit in San Francisco. The novel focuses on the memories and secrets that these women carry about their mothers and their daughters. It shows modern Chinese-Americans dealing with cultural differences across generations. Although it might sound like that terrible term “chick lit”, it’s completely compelling because Amy writes with remarkable wit.

What does it say about the role of immigrant communities in the larger life of San Francisco?

The city is nothing but immigrant communities, and the Chinese have been here as long as anybody. The Chinese built the railroads. We wouldn’t have been able to cross the continent if it weren’t for the Chinese community. They came here in search of gold as well as new lives. The Chinese name for San Francisco translates as “old gold mountain”. As Amy Tan enduringly shows, these people are San Franciscans...[read on]
Read about the other books Maupin tagged.

Also see Janet Rudolph's ten favorite San Francisco-backdropped crime novels.

Learn about Armistead Maupin's favorite poem and his hero from outside literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Top ten psychological thrillers

Alex Barclay is the author of two novels featuring NYPD detective Joe Lucchesi, Darkhouse and The Caller. She won the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award at the Irish Book Awards for her third novel, Blood Runs Cold.

In 2007 at the Guardian, she named her top ten psychological thrillers, including:
Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman

Children as victims, children as perpetrators - unsettling and expertly handled in this story of two 11-year-olds, one considered the good girl, one the bad. Thrown out of a pool party for misbehaving, they stumble across an unattended child in a buggy. Cut to seven years later when the girls are being released from juvenile detention for their roles in her death, another child goes missing and questions are raised about the true circumstances of the original crime.
Read about the other books on the list.

Also see Andrew Klavan's 5 best psychological crime novels.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Five worthy books on photography and reality

Errol Morris is an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. He has directed nine films, including The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, and most recently Tabloid.

His new book is Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, he named five notable books on photography and reality, including:
A Day with Picasso
by Billy Klüver

Let’s move forward to A Day with Picasso, about the back-story to a series of 24 photographs taken of Picasso, Modigliani and their artist friends over the course of one afternoon in Montparnasse in 1916.

This is definitely a book by a kindred spirit. I first heard about it from the writer Lydia Davis, who is a friend of mine. We knew very little about these photographs – the circumstances, how many there were, who took them, you name it – until Billy Klüver set for himself this project of trying to figure it all out. He did a forensic investigation of the photographs and discovered that they were taken by Jean Cocteau of his friends Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani et cetera. It's a true detective story about photography.

Did Klüver’s decade-long quest to sleuth out the facts behind these photos inspire the investigations you write about in Believing in Seeing?

It’s an obvious precursor to what I've been trying to do. It’s also a great book in its own right. Unfortunately, Klüver died just a couple of years before I started working on my own book. I would have loved to talk to him.
Read about the other books Morris tagged.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Top ten author/illustrator double acts

Chris Riddell is an accomplished graphic artist whose distinctive line drawings, with their clever caricature, fascinating detail and often enchanting fantasy elements are familiar to both children and adults.

He studied illustration at Brighton Polytechnic and has illustrated many acclaimed books for children, including two Kate Greenaway Medal winners.

Together with Paul Stewart, he is co-creator of the Far-Flung Adventures series, which includes Fergus Crane, Gold Smarties Prize Winner, Corby Flood and Hugo Pepper, both Silver Nestle Prize Winners.

Riddell and Stewart are also co-creators of the bestselling Edge Chronicles series, which has sold over two million books and is now available in over thirty languages.

Riddell is also a renowned political cartoonist, whose work appears regularly in UK newspapers the Observer and the Guardian, as well as The Literary Review and The New Statesman.

At the Guardian, he named his top ten author/illustrator double acts, including:
Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

Roald Dahl worked with other illustrators but it was only when he teamed up with Quentin Blake that the chemistry began to fizz. Quentin Blake is Britain's greatest living illustrator and has that special talent all the great illustrators have, of unobtrusive brilliance. He never grandstands, or overpowers the text, but quietly breathes a visual life in to it and, in so doing, makes it his own. Dahl appreciated that and held on to him for the rest of his career. A great collaboration!
Read about the other entries on the list.

See: Top 10 children's books by Roald Dahl.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ten of the best fat men in literature

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

One entry on the list:
Casper Gutman

The appropriately named villain of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon is a hugely obese man who tries to get Sam Spade to find the jewel-encrusted avian figurine for him. Gutman is a smooth-talking sadist who brutalises his own daughter and whose rolls of fat bounce as his expressions change.
Read about the other entries on the list.

The Maltese Falcon appears on Mullan's list of ten of the best femmes fatales in literature and among Janet Rudolph's ten favorite San Francisco-backdropped crime novels.

Also see Mullan's list of ten of the best thin men in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Top ten books of the 1980s

Andy McSmith is a senior writer at the Independent and the author of biographies of John Smith and Kenneth Clarke, a collection of short biographies called Faces of Labour, and the novel Innocent in the House. His latest book is No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s.

At the Guardian, McSmith named his top book for each year in the 1980s. His pick for 1982:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

This is the 1980s novel still read by schoolkids in the part of the country where I live. The format is innocent, 90 letters addressed to God by a semi-literate 14 year-old black girl from Georgia; but the content, from the stunning opening onwards, is shocking. It can be read either as a treatise on black emancipation, or as a "women's novel", or an old-fashioned tale of love overcoming adversity.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Color Purple is one of Sophie Ward's six best books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five best: prison writing

Martin E. Marty, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's 'Letters and Papers From Prison': A Biography.

For the Wall Street Journal he named a five best list of books on the theme of prison writing. One book on the list:
Conversations With Myself
by Nelson Mandela (2010)

"'I feel I have been soaked in gall" was Nelson Mandela's summary of his 27 years in prison during the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. He experienced the gall of bitter suffering under a brutal prison regime but did not let spiritual bitterness befoul his soul. "Conversations With Myself" has a scrapbook quality, as it is with letters, memorabilia, excerpts from recorded conversations, entries from diaries and notebooks. But the effect in some ways brings readers closer to the man than even his autobiography did. In a letter written in 1971, when Mandela had been in prison for nearly a decade, he expresses regret that he possesses only "superficial information on a variety of subjects" and laments that he "lacks depth and expert knowledge on the one thing in which I ought to have specialised, namely the history of my country and people." Mandela of course went on to write a new chapter in that history when he was elected president in 1994.
Read about the other books on the list.

Also see John Mullan's list of the ten best books written in prison.

--Marshal Zeringue