Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Five of the best books of poetry for sci-fi fans

At io9 Rebecca Ariel Porte came up with five of the best books of poetry for every kind of science fiction fan.

One title on her list:
Cyborgia by Susan Slaviero (Mayapple Press 2010)

Representative lines: "Theoretically, there's a way to create a ribcage from guitar strings, to fashion jawbones from vintage bracelets. It so happens that a female frame is best woven from titanium knitting needles, peppermint hips, the ends of French cigarettes. The dog might notice she isn't real, but no one else can tell the difference. You'll find she is content" ("Phenomena of Probability" 8)

Working questions: This collection is deeply interested in bodies, particularly in womens' experience of what it means to inhabit a body in a machine age. Slaviero alludes to and ventriloquizes mythic figures from Briar Rose to Eve in playful, erudite language with plenty of vivid sensory detail.

For: Fans of Catherynne M. Valente; folklorists; post-human theorists.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five notable books on home life

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five top books on home life:
Room Temperature
by Nicholson Baker

In his first novel, The Mezzanine, Baker earned a reputation for elevating the minutiae of everyday life to a kind of symphony of detail. His follow-up manages to stretch the simple activity of a man bottle-feeding his baby for a few minutes across 128 entertaining pages that explore the wonder of a child's continued growth in the home and in the world. As he observes his child and the living room around him, the narrator marvels at his own journey from infancy to adulthood.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top ten first person narratives

Kathryn Erskine was a lawyer for fifteen years before turning to her first love: writing.

Her debut novel, Quaking, was one of YALSA’s Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. She is the author of Mockingbird, winner of the 2010 American National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

One of Erskine's top ten first person narratives, as told to the Guardian:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

While it's the classic American novel, it's also a universal story of tolerance. Atticus Finch may be fighting a losing battle in the courtroom and the community but he knows his action will have an impact in the overall war, maybe not today, maybe not in his lifetime, but he gives us hope to keep striving for that goal of human decency. The voice of the young narrator must have haunted me all my life because she unwittingly crops up in my character in Mockingbird, a fresh voice who sees the world with no filters and calls injustice what it really is - something that demeans all of us.
Read about the other entries on Erskine's list.

To Kill a Mockingbird also made Julia Donaldson's six best books list, TIME magazine's top 10 list of books you were forced to read in school, John Mullan's list of ten of the best lawyers in literature, John Cusack's list of books that made a difference to him, Lisa Scottoline's top ten list of books about justice, and Luke Leitch's list of ten literary one-hit wonders. It is one of Sanjeev Bhaskar's six best books and one of Alexandra Styron's five best stories of fathers and daughters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ten of the best owls in literature

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

One entry on the list:
The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Robert Forester is a kind of stalker, surprised to find that Jenny, the object of his attentions, thinks that they are destined to be together. She believes in fate and premonition, fearing that when she hears the cry of an owl it predicts an imminent death. It being Highsmith, she turns out to be right.
Read about the other owls on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Five Nazi-themed novels

At the Wall Street Journal, Sam Sacks wrote about five Nazi-themed novels, including:
"The Detour" (Soho, 307 pages, $25), by the magnificently named Andromeda Romano-Lax, springs from Hitler's real-life purchase of a cast of the ancient sculpture "The Discus Thrower" from the Italian government. In the novel, Ernst Vogler is the man tasked with retrieving the delicate piece, but his return to Germany is sidetracked by the confusing misadventures of his Italian drivers and the appearance of a voluptuous Piedmontese woman.

Ernst was born with a minor physical imperfection, which allows Ms. Romano-Lax to muse about the classical beauty embodied by the sculpture and worshiped by Hitler.
Read about the other books Sacks discussed.

The Page 69 Test: The Detour.

My Book, The Movie: The Detour.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Five best books on bad habits

Emrys Westacott is a Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University.

His latest book is The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits.

One of his five best books about bad habits, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
by Ivan Goncharov (1859)

Goncharov's masterpiece has been translated into English six times yet remains relatively obscure outside Russia. The protagonist, a young nobleman named Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, exemplifies an entire family of bad habits: lethargy, indolence, procrastination, indecisiveness, apathy, escapism, resistance to change, and a refusal to take responsibility or give life a direction. Oblomovshchina is now a Russian word that means something like Oblomov syndrome—a debilitating lack of get up and go. The strange thing is that, for all his many and obvious failings, Oblomov is rather lovable. Maybe that's because most of us are familiar with the feeling, upon waking, that we'd like to stay in bed and let the busy world leave us alone in our comfortable hobbit holes. Oblomov also represents a leisured way of life that was endangered even in the mid-19th century by looming modernity. The trend was welcome insofar as that way of life was based on parasitism and exploitation, but it also has a sad aspect. As Oblomov might have attested, a lack of ambition allows you to enjoy simple things and savor the passing moment.
Read about the other books on the list.

The Page 69 Test: Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov.

Learn about Westacott's five top books on philosophy & everyday living.

See: The Page 99 Test: Emrys Westacott's The Virtues of Our Vices.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sam Bourne's five favorite classic thrillers

Sam Bourne is a literary pseudonym for Jonathan Freedland, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He writes a weekly column in the Guardian, as well as a monthly piece for the Jewish Chronicle. He also presents BBC Radio 4's contemporary history series, The Long View.

His latest novel Pantheon is now available in the UK.

One of his five favorite classic thrillers, as told to Daisy Banks at The Browser:
The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

Finally, what is it about John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps that makes it such a good thriller?

I haven’t read this for a long, long time. But it has stayed with me since reading it in boyhood. It is extraordinarily fast paced. A huge part of any good thriller is the chase, and this is very good on that. Buchan has a protagonist who is in some ways a precursor to James Bond, in that he is suave, sophisticated and ingenious. It is an espionage story, and the fate of the country is at stake. And it has what every good thriller story should have, which is that no matter how high-concept and overlaid with political intrigue a novel is, it has to be a cracking good yarn. This is one of those classic page-turner, fast, exciting stories.

How do you go about creating suspense and pace yourself?

You know the beginning and you know the end. Your job is a bit like holding a reel of yarn and unspooling it very gradually and steadily. It is very tempting to let the reel start spinning and have all the yarn out in a matter of seconds. You will get to the end that way, but it is better to unspool it gently and steadily. Each scene should only reveal one more stretch of yarn at a time.

In that sense it is quite different from journalism, where the first line of any news story essentially tells you what the entire story is. Writing a novel is the reverse. You shouldn’t know fully what has happened until you read the last line. A thriller should be slow release, even when it is a very fast-paced story – and that will keep people with you. In each chapter you give them another piece of the puzzle.

It’s quite similar to how people tell a story. If you see people sitting around a table, they all do this. Both my parents, in different ways, are storytellers. When I was a child, they would tell me a little bit at a time and keep my interest alive. So – despite being a journalist – when I came to write novels, I found it less of a departure from everything that I had done before than I was expecting.
Read about the other books Bourne tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Top ten books about China

Paul Mason is the BBC's Newsnight economics editor. He is the author of Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (2008), Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed (2010) and, this year, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions.

His first novel, Rare Earth, has also just been published in the UK.

One of Mason's top ten books on China, as told to the Guardian:
Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan

This is Mo's masterpiece: China's 20th century told symbolically through the story of one man, from birth to maturity; an adult who cannot wean himself from his mother's milk, assailed by wave upon wave of misfortune, poverty, war, imprisonment and finally release into the grubby capitalism of the 1990s. Mo Yan's China is a world of magic, sexual exploitation, ignorance and senseless violence.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Five of the best Hollywood tell-alls

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five top Hollywood tell-alls:
My Wicked, Wicked Ways
by Errol Flynn

In iconic film roles such as Robin Hood and Captain Blood, Errol Flynn thwarted the bad guys and made female fans' pulses race with debonair good looks and charm. With the same flair that his filmic counterparts displayed in mock duels, Flynn takes up the pen confronting the popular perception of him as a womanizer head on. He shares details of his days as a soldier of fortune in the South Seas, his three marriages, his countless sexual conquests, and even his trial for statutory rape. More recent editions include passages that were removed when the book was originally published for fear of lawsuits.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Nevada Barr's six favorite books

Nevada Barr is an award-winning novelist and New York Times best-selling author.

She has a growing number of Anna Pigeon mysteries to her credit--the latest, The Rope, is set in the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area--as well as numerous other books, short stories, and articles.

One of Barr's six favorite books, as told to The Week magazine:
The Poacher's Son by Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron's sleuth, Mike Bowditch, is a 24-year-old Maine Fisheries and Wildlife man, and most definitely not hard-boiled. Using Bowditch's youth and vulnerability, Doiron gives us a fresh sense of the harsh realities of crime and law enforcement that years of tough guys have allowed us to forget.
Read about the other books on Barr's list.

The Page 69 Test: Paul Doiron's The Poacher's Son.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 20, 2012

Five of the best books on jazz

Nat Hentoff is an American historian, novelist, jazz and country music critic, and writes regularly on jazz and country music for The Wall Street Journal.

He named a five best list of books on jazz for the Journal, including:
Thelonious Monk
by Robin D.G. Kelly (2009)

Jazz musicians who continue to impress their peers and audiences have "signature sounds." After hearing a player for a short time, the listener almost immediately knows who he is. Sometimes it takes only a few bars, as with Thelonious Monk, an always surprising original both as a pianist and a composer. The creative dimensions of this ceaselessly inventive jazz master are artfully brought to life by Robin D.G. Taylor in his engrossing biography. When Monk had a long gig at the Five Spot in New York, the bar was packed with musicians not working that night. I was often among them. Being in the musical presence of Monk, who sometimes got up and danced to his music, was like being part of a beguiling adventure—a sense of possibility that Kelly fully captures. Another magnetic original, John Coltrane, who was a sideman with Monk at the Half Note, tells the author: "You never know exactly what's going to happen. One thing above all that Monk has taught me is not to be afraid to try anything as long as I feel it."
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Top ten siblings' stories

Will Eaves was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011 before moving to the University of Warwick, where he is Associate Professor in the Writing Program. His new novel, This Is Paradise, is now out in the UK.

One of his top ten siblings' stories, as told to the Guardian:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Constance and Merricat Blackwood are sisters and neighbourhood pariahs who live in the shadow of scandal: Constance was once arrested for poisoning the rest of the family. She has been acquitted, however, and seems to have settled down to a quiet life when a money-grabbing cousin knocks on the door. Merricat, whose fidelity to the idea of family unity no one is in a position to question, comes to her aid. Scary, mad and gleeful, Jackson's marvellous thriller is also a clever meditation on sibling protectiveness. And insanity.
Read about the other titles on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ten of the best bankers in literature

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

One entry on the list:
Bulstrode Nicholas

Bulstrode is the Mr Big of George Eliot's Middlemarch, a wealthy provincial banker on whose good will every local gentleman seems to depend. He wields his influence moralistically, for he is a severe Methodist – but of course he has a shady past. He is being blackmailed by a former associate, and takes desperate measures to get rid of him.
Read about the other bankers on the list.

Middlemarch also made John Mullan's lists of ten of the best marital rows, ten of the best examples of unrequited love, ten of the best funerals in literature, and ten of the best deathbed scenes in literature. It is among Emrys Westacott's five top books on philosophy & everyday living, Selma Dabbagh's top 10 stories of reluctant revolutionaries, Philip Pullman's six best books, Rebecca Goldstein's five best of novels of ideas, Tina Brown's five best books on reputation, Elizabeth Kostova favorite books, and Miss Manners' favorite novels. John Banville and Nick Hornby have not read it.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 17, 2012

Tess Gerritsen's five favorite thrillers

Tess Gerritsen is the best-selling author of the Jane Rizzoli crime thrillers.

One of her five favorite thrillers, as told to Daisy Banks at The Browser:
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

The first thriller you have chosen is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which has one of the most evocative opening lines of any novel: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

This a modern – well, 1930s – version of Jane Eyre. In the grand tradition of Gothic novels, it features an innocent young woman and a scary house with secrets. The heroine marries a widowed Englishman and moves into his mansion, where the servants are still mourning his stunning first wife, Rebecca. Throughout the story, she feels the first wife haunt the house, and she can never quite measure up to her. And then the heroine begins to wonder: What if Rebecca was murdered? What if my husband did it?

Rebecca has many different sides to her as a character, depending on who is describing her.

Yes, it is a little bit like [Akira Kurosawa's film] Rashomon in that you look at this dead woman from different points of view. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers sees the late Rebecca as a queen, an object of total worship. The heroine sees her as a flawless and beautiful ideal that she can never match up to. Then you find out that, from the husband’s point of view, Rebecca was in fact a monster.

What makes it such a good thriller?

The exploration of who this dead woman really was, and whether her husband might have killed her. That’s the underlying theme for a lot of good crime novels – the unknowable person. We all walk around with a public face, but we don’t really know what is underneath that mask. Crime fiction is about finding out who the real person is.

And what they are capable of!
Read about the other thrillers Gerritsen tagged at The Browser.

Rebecca appears on Mary Horlock's list of the five best psychos in literature and Derwent May's critic's chart of top country house books.

Also see Tess Gerritsen's six favorite books featuring female sleuths.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ten top science fictional bars

At io9 Esther Inglis-Arkell tagged ten of the best bars in science fiction. Many of the bars are from movies and television; one bar from a novel:
Chatsubo from Neuromancer

Chatsubo does not sound like a nice place, and it's not in a nice universe. It is, however, in a very good book, and so it's pretty normal to want to explore it. Neuromancer's tale of technological intrigue is heavy with unpleasant consequences for anyone who wasn't hardened enough to deal with it or was hardened enough that they even remotely stepped out of line. Although Chatsubo is an ex-pat bar in Japan and seems more like a pretentious hipster place than a smoldering den of corruption, a place to be annoyed with the clientele rather than terrified by them, it doesn't still doesn't seem like a fun place to go. Instead, you would go to Chatsubo (or the rest of the Neuromancer universe) like you would swim with sharks or run with the bulls - just to say you had done it and not to enjoy it.
Read about the other bars on the list.

Neuromancer made PopCrunch's list of the sixteen best dystopian books of all time and Annalee Newitz's lists of ten great American dystopias and thirteen books that will change the way you look at robots.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ten of the greatest kisses in literature

At Flavorwire, Emily Temple listed ten of the greatest kisses in literature.

One smooch on the list:
Lolita and Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

For its sheer creepiness and genius lyric discomfort — and the way we squirm in our seats whenever we read it.

Hardly had the car come to a standstill than Lolita positively flowed into my arms. Not daring, not daring let myself go — not even daring let myself realize that this (sweet wetness and trembling fire) was the beginning of the ineffable life which, ably assisted by fate, I had finally willed into being — not daring really kiss her, I touched her hot, opening lips with the utmost piety, tiny sips, nothing salacious; but she, with an impatient wriggle, pressed her mouth to mine so hard that I felt her big front teeth and shared in the peppermint taste of her saliva. I knew, of course, it was but an innocent game on her part, a bit of backfisch foolery in imitation of some simulacrum of fake romance, and since (as the psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules of such girlish games are fluid, or at least too childishly subtle for the senior partner to grasp — I was dreadfully afraid I might go too far and cause her to start back in revulsion and terror.
Read about the other kisses on the list.

Lolita appears among John Mullan's list of ten of the best lakes in literature, Dan Vyleta's top ten books in second languages, Rowan Somerville's top ten books of good sex in fiction, Henry Sutton's top ten unreliable narrators, Adam Leith Gollner's top ten fruit scenes in literature, Laura Hird's literary top ten, Monica Ali's ten favorite books, Laura Lippman's 5 most important books, Mohsin Hamid's 10 favorite books, and Dani Shapiro's 10 favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ten literary lessons in love

"In our quest to reach romantic nirvana, we turn to self-help manuals, daytime TV, magazines, talk shows, friends, relatives, and shrinks," notes the publisher's description of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals by Jack Murnighan and Maura Kelly, "But we’ve forgotten a far better source of wisdom: the timeless stories written by the great novelists."

Christian Science Monitor contributor Molly Driscoll collected ten literary lessons in love from the Murnighan-Kelly volume, including:
Pride and Prejudice

In Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet and her sister Jane are excited to meet their new neighbor Mr. Bingley and his friend, Mr. Darcy. Jane and Bingley instantly fall for one another, but Lizzy is put off by Mr. Darcy's rudeness – until he learns to get over his arrogance, at which point Lizzy falls in love with him. But Murnighan and Kelly say that there could be a problem with the message that some readers may take from this novel. The idea that anyone who acts like a jerk is probably just misunderstood, they say, is a dangerous one. Even if someone seems to have changed, say the authors, you should require a lot of evidence before you believe it. And if someone's mean to everyone else and nice only to you, that could be the sign of a manipulative character.
Read about the other entries on the list.

Pride and Prejudice also appears on Simon Mason's top ten list of fictional families, Cathy Cassidy's top ten list of stories about sisters, Paul Murray's top ten list of wicked clerics, John Mullan's lists of ten of the best housekeepers in fiction, ten great novels with terrible original titles, and ten of the best visits to Brighton in literature, Luke Leitch's top ten list of the most successful literary sequels ever, and is one of the top ten works of literature according to Norman Mailer. Richard Price has never read it, but it is the book Mary Gordon cares most about sharing with her children.

The Page 99 Test: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 13, 2012

Five top true love stories

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five true love stories:
Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him
by Resa Willis

When Samuel Clemens met Olivia Langdon in 1868, she was an invalid with little hope of regaining her health or finding a husband. He was a roughhewn writer on the rise, ten years her senior, and so smitten that he quickly proposed. Livy rejected him, but the man who would be Twain was not so easily dissuaded. Over the next thirteen months and in more than 200 letters, he advanced his case, insisting that Livy could help smooth his jagged edges. He proposed a second time, and throughout the 36 years of marriage that followed, she was his editor, muse, critic, and advisor,while raising their three children and following him around the globe. Access to their letters gives Willis a fresh perspective on one of America's defining voices and one of the most touching courtships of the 19th century.
Read about the other true love stories on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Ten of the best bouts of insomnia in literature

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

One novel on the list:
Insomnia by Stephen King

Ralph Roberts suffers from insomnia and worse: the visions that come with it. Elevated by sleeplessness he can detect people's auras and can see an odd race of invisible beings (he calls them "little bald doctors") engaged in a cosmic struggle against the Crimson King.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top ten literary frenemies

Lars Iyer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of two books on Blanchot (Blanchot's Communism: Art, Philosophy, Politics and Blanchot's Vigilance: Phenomenology, Literature, Ethics) and the novels Spurious, which was 3:AM Magazine's Book of the Year in 2011, and Dogma.

One entry on his top ten list of literary frenemies, as told to the Guardian:
Patricia Highsmith's Bruno and Guy

Patricia Highsmith is a master of the perverse friendship, and her first novel Strangers on a Train was no exception. Hitchcock's film version portrays Bruno as merrily murderous and Guy as morally upstanding, but the novel presents the two men intertwined in a twisted friendship that is more significant than any other in their lives. Guy may be disgusted by the drunken, vicious Bruno, but when Bruno falls overboard at sea, Guy instantly dives into the waves, unable to imagine life alone without his cruel friend.
Read about the other literary frenemies on the list.

Strangers on a Train is on John Mullan's list of ten of the best railway journeys in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dylan Ratigan's six favorite books

Dylan Ratigan is the former global managing editor for corporate finance at Bloomberg News and host of MSNBC's The Dylan Ratigan Show.

His new book is Greedy Bastards: How We Can Stop Corporate Communists, Banksters, and Other Vampires from Sucking America Dry.

One of Ratigan's six favorite books as told to The Week magazine:
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

If [Dov] Seidman [in How] is saying that how we work at our challenges is the answer, Kahneman's current best seller says, Here's how. Kahneman is a psychologist, and he asks us to understand that our brains have two systems for solving problems, and that we each need to recognize when the rational side is being overridden by the system driven by emotion.
Read about the other books on Ratigan's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five notable books about predictions

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of five books on predictions:
The Futurist
by James P. Othmer

Othmer’s hilarious satire of corporate life and mass media follows a high-priced speaker around the world (Bible conferences, corporate-sponsored orgies on Fiji, etc.) as he tells people what they want to hear about their future. A personal crisis involving celebrities in a space station changes his life forever and forces him to reevaluate the course he has charted.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 10, 2012

Five top unusual histories

Geoff Dyer is a British writer whose many books include Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, and Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.

One of the five unusual histories he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
by Rebecca West

Let’s begin on your book selection with Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which I know to you is one of your great core canon. Will you introduce the book for our readers, and tell us why it’s so important to you?

I guess it’s good that we’re starting with this, because it’s a seriously off-putting book. It’s close to 1,200 pages – a travelogue-history of Yugoslavia.

But it’s quite readable.

It’s incredibly readable. But it seems like such an enormous commitment, doesn’t it, to read a book in excess of a thousand pages. The opportunity-cost of committing to this book seems so huge when you could have got through six other books. So you have to be absolutely assured of its quality. And then there’s the thing of – we were talking about content before – why should you read this book if you’re not interested in Yugoslavia?

I know I had no particular interest in Yugoslavia until I was going to Serbia, Belgrade, for a British Council seminar and they mentioned this book that we might read, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as preparation for that. As always happens when I’m going to a place, I didn’t read it. I didn’t do the homework. And again as happens when I’ve been to a place, I then became incredibly interested in it. This was, interestingly, during the Milosovic era and one of the wars – although I can’t remember which now. Anyway, I came back and wanted to learn much more about this place I’d been to. I started to read this book, because I’d been to the place it was about, and then I started to realise: My God, this is a major, huge literary masterpiece. It’s without question Rebecca West’s magnum opus.

It’s the account of her trips to Yugoslavia in 1936-8, so in the context of Nazism. What are some of the things that she witnesses and considers?

The first thing to say is that she very cleverly stitches together three trips she made, so the book reads as if it’s one continuous journey – with this character who’s only ever identified as “my husband”. The husband is doing and saying all sorts of things but he’s just “the husband”, and I think it’s great to sustain that for 1,100 pages. She meets a whole load of people – some of whom, in Rebecca West’s great way, she takes this virulent dislike to.

I should say that nothing particularly dramatic happens to her – she’s never caught up in major events in the same way that Kapuściński is – but what is really remarkable, first of all, is that her experiences become an excuse for these huge metaphysical digressions about anything and everything. And also the extraordinary thing is that she’s describing events that she’s seeing at this particular moment in history, yet the book has this incredibly prophetic quality to it. So all the stuff we’re reading that is going on in Bosnia or Serbia, fast forward 60 years and you’re seeing the same scenes being enacted. So she’s reporting about a particular moment, but also she’s tapping deep into some essential and timeless quality of the place.
Read about the other books Dyer tagged at The Browser.

Anna Beer makes a case for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as the greatest travel book ever written.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nine of the best books featuring notorious figures

The Christian Science Monitor culled nine of the best books featuring notorious figures from Thomas Craughwell's Great Books for every Book Lover.

One title on the list:
The Politics of Rage: George Wallace and the Transformation of American Politics, by Dan T. Carter

In the 1960’s, an ambitious Alabama governor – who would later run for US president – saw an opportunity to use pre-existing racial divisions to his advantage. According to Carter, George Wallace ran on a platform that catered to the fears of the emerging – and oft overlooked – white middle class, and introduced heavy criticism of the federal government into the modern conservative discourse.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ten perfect books for Valentine's Day gifts

At the Christian Science Monitor, Marjorie Kehe came up with a list of ten perfect books for Valentine's Day gifts.

One title on the list:
Persuasion, by Jane Austen

It's hard to make a list of love stories nowadays without including a Jane Austen novel. And certainly Persuasion – a book that some Jane-ites love even more than "Pride and Prejudice" – is a worthy addition. The story of the romance between Anne Elliot and naval officer Frederick Wentworth gives new hope to all readers who would like to believe that even a terrible mistake – in this case, Anne's youthful refusal of Frederick's marriage proposal – doesn't close the door on the hope of a happy ending.
Read about the other books on the list.

Persuasion is among Howard Jacobson's 5 favorite literary heroines and top ten novels of sexual jealousy, Elizabeth Buchan's top ten books guaranteed to give comfort during the ending of a relationship, and appears on John Mullan's list of ten of the best concerts in literature.

The Page 99 Test: Persuasion.

--Marshal Zeringue

Top ten books to get you through high school

James Dawson, author of dark teen thriller Hollow Pike, grew up in West Yorkshire, writing imaginary episodes of Doctor Who.

One entry on his list of the top ten books to get you through high school, as told to the Guardian:
Carrie by Stephen King / Matilda by Roald Dahl

Nothing got me through school more than the glimmer of hope that I might one day develop telekinetic powers and kill everyone. Luckily for my classmates, that never happened. Two similar stories, with very similar heroes – you'll be rooting for both Carrie and Matilda right up to the equally moving (albeit quite different) finales.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Seven notable robber barons from film & fiction

"They used to be called robber barons. Now we call them one percenters," writes novelist Alan Glynn at The Daily Beast. "They’re the preposterously rich, and they got that way by casually crushing the hopes and dreams of the little guy. For each one of them, there are 99 of us, but that doesn’t matter—because they have all the moolah and they control everything."

Glynn tagged seven of the more infamous one percenters in film and fiction.

One entry on his list:
[One] great Victorian one percenter is Augustus Melmotte, the financial speculator in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now (1875). Melmotte seduces London high society with his promise of a new railway system running from Salt Lake City to the Gulf of Mexico, but the project never materializes and the financier is revealed as a fraud. Today, comparisons are sometimes drawn between Trollope’s Melmotte and Bernie Madoff.
Read about the other one percenters on the list.

The Way We Live Now is on John Mullan's list of ten of the best scenes on London Underground.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five top books on philosophy & everyday living

Emrys Westacott, a Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, is the author of The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits.

One of five books on "Philosophy and Everyday Living" he discussed with Sophie Roell at The Browser:
by George Eliot

Let’s talk about Middlemarch, which I haven’t read in a while but is just fabulous. Before this interview, you told me that George Eliot was something of a philosopher – she translated Feuerbach and Spinoza – and that this book presents everyday moral dilemmas and issues in all their messy complexity.

It is a fantastic book. I think Virginia Woolf described it as the only English novel written for grown-ups. It’s got everything – it’s beautifully plotted, the characters are wonderfully drawn. When I come to the end of a semester I always treat myself to a big, long classic novel, and I just reread Middlemarch. What struck me is what a wonderful psychologist George Eliot is. One very nice thing about her is that, for instance, Casaubon, the dry, self-centred scholar who Dorothea marries, and the banker, Bulstrode, who is a pious hypocrite… she calls on the reader to pity them, because she sees they’re trapped in their way of being. No one in the book likes Casaubon – except Dorothea – and I don’t think any reader ever likes him. But several times she says, pity him, because he’s stuck. I love the sympathy with which she portrays characters that, from a moral point of view, we have to be very critical of. Casaubon has got no business asking Dorothea to marry him – it’s very much a self-centred, self-interested request.

What insights does the book give into the philosophy of the everyday?

Eliot is very good at showing how people act against their best interests because of subtle social pressures that lead them a certain way. One of the central characters is Lydgate, the doctor, who marries a rather shallow woman. He’s trapped into this marriage and they get into debt. He’s a noble character, who is ambitious in his profession, who wants to do good work in the world, and he finds himself dragged down. With the best will in the world, and very noble intentions, he can’t prevent the subtle social pressures of people’s expectations of him from dragging him down.

Another thing I noticed in the novel is that time and again social expectations prevent people from talking directly to others about difficult matters, such as whether they love each other or are critical of each other. But when they do, when they break through those social expectations, then something good happens. Lydgate, for example, is suspected of having taken a bribe from the banker Bulstrode. Dorothea crosses the threshold of social convention and says to him: “Just tell me directly. What happened?” She’s warned against doing this by her friends, who say, “You can’t do that.” But she does, and the fact she is very open and honest and truthful makes a big difference to Lydgate’s life. That happens several times in the book. The most admirable characters are people like Caleb Garth, who always speaks very directly and openly. For him, there is no fannying around, no dithering, no masking of intentions or euphemisms.

Aren’t social conventions a lot more relaxed these days though? Does it still apply?

It’s true they are a lot more relaxed and we probably find it easier today than in the 19th century to be straightforward and open because of the growing informality of social life – something I talk about in my book. There’s still a fair bit to be learned from Middlemarch though. The moral I’m drawing isn’t that everyone in all cases should always be straightforward and open and blunt. There are...[read on]
Read about the other books on the list.

Middlemarch also made John Mullan's lists of ten of the best marital rows, ten of the best examples of unrequited love, ten of the best funerals in literature, and ten of the best deathbed scenes in literature. It is among Selma Dabbagh's top 10 stories of reluctant revolutionaries, Philip Pullman's six best books, Rebecca Goldstein's five best of novels of ideas, Tina Brown's five best books on reputation, Elizabeth Kostova favorite books, and Miss Manners' favorite novels. John Banville and Nick Hornby have not read it.

See: The Page 99 Test: Emrys Westacott's The Virtues of Our Vices.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ten of the best erotic dreams in literature

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

One novel on the list:
V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. has an affair with Mélanie l'Heuremaudit, whose father owns a large estate in Normandy. Among Mélanie's dreams, which Pynchon details, is one in which she slides down the great mansard roof of the family house. "Her skirt would fly above her hips, her black-stockinged legs would writhe" and the sensation of "roof-tiles sliding beneath the hard curve of her rump" would arouse her to ecstasy.
Read about the other erotic dreams on the list.

Also see Mullan's list of ten of the worst nightmares in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Elizabeth Hand's six favorite books

Elizabeth Hand is the author of several novels and short-story collections. She has won the Shirley Jackson Award, the James Tiptree Award, the Nebula Award (twice), the World Fantasy Award (three times), and many others.

Her new novel is Available Dark. Robert Crais calls it “A skin-blistering crime novel, as edgy and black as dried blood on a moonlit night.”

One of Hand's six favorite books, as told to The Week magazine:
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg

W.H. Auden believed that north is "the direction for adventures," an observation brought to life in a terrifyingly literal sense by Hoeg's Smilla, a woman whose obsessive hunt to understand and avenge the mysterious death of a boy in Copenhagen leads her through a nightmarish, bleakly beautiful Nordic landscape.
Read about the other entries on Hand's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Five top books on U.S. generals in an era of change

One title on the Barnes & Noble Review's list of top books about American generals in an era of change:
The Best and the Brightest
by David Halberstam

The classic account of the genesis of American involvement and strategy in the War in Vietnam, Halberstam's work brings into focus the policymakers -- diplomatic, political, and military -- who shaped the country's entry into a tragic conflict that permanently altered the course of American history. It also delivers an indelible portrait of the U.S. military on the cusp of sweeping cultural change -- uneasily presided over by General William Westmoreland and others who are brought to life in this work of journalism-as-epic.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Five best portraits of pioneering women

John T. Matteson has an A.B. in history from Princeton University and a Ph.D. English from Columbia University. He also holds a J.D. from Harvard and has practiced as a litigation attorney in California and North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times; The Harvard Theological Review; New England Quarterly; Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies; and other publications. His 2007 book, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Matteson's new book is The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography.

One of his five best books about boundary-pushing women, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
Dorothea Lange
by Linda Gordon (2009)

Though it's possible that you do not know the name Dorothea Lange, you probably know her photographs: the raw, intense gaze of a migrant worker, a mother with two children leaning on her, in 1930s California; the grim man in a San Francisco bread line, as weather-beaten as his slouch hat and worn-out coat. Lange could photograph suffering so well because she had known it; she survived childhood polio. Linda Gordon's biography would be essential reading if only for its harrowing description of Lange's disease, or for its finely wrought exegesis on the iconic migrant-mother image: "The picture could even be said to stand for the nation, much as Marianne stands for France—Migrant Mother is the enduring, ultimately invincible nation enduring a terrible collective tragedy." But the book is sharply crafted throughout as it tells the story of a woman who made a name for herself in an era when photography was still a largely male preserve. "Lange's photographs will always evoke the best in American democracy," Gordon writes. "Dorothea Lange" evokes the best in chronicles of artists' lives and work.
Read about the other books on Matteson's list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 3, 2012

Five best books about the Nuremberg trials

William Shawcross is a widely renowned writer and broadcaster. His books include Dubcek (1970), Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979), The Shah’s Last Ride (1989), Deliver Us From Evil: Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict (2001), and Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (2012).

One of his five best books about the Nuremberg trials and the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, as told to the Wall Street Journal:
The Nuremberg Interviews
by Leon Goldensohn (2004)

In early 1946, a psychiatrist in the U.S. Army named Leon Goldensohn was assigned as the prison psychiatrist at Nuremberg. He conducted interviews with most of the principal defendants in the trials and kept detailed notes of the sessions, which were conducted through a prison interpreter. In this posthumously published work, he makes no bones about seeing the prisoners as "subjects"; he wanted to understand the Nazi "pathology" and the reasons for their "depravities." One must remember that all the prisoners talked to this alien doctor while they were on trial for the lives, and they must have feared that whatever they said might be used in evidence against them. (It was not.) But even special pleading can be revealing. Hermann Goering, the former high-ranking Nazi officer and the most important defendant at Nuremberg, was asked why he had joined with Hitler in the 1920s. "Well, I was against the Versailles Treaty and I was against the democratic state which failed to solve the problem of unemployment" and was diminishing Germany, he replied. "I am convinced that German culture, even now with Germany in ruins, is the highest in the world because we had the greatest art, music, industrial capacity, and so forth." Goering committed suicide on the eve of his execution.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Top 10 fictional characters struggling with faith

Alex Preston's books include This Bleeding City and The Revelations.

One of his top ten fictional characters struggling with faith, as told to the Guardian:
Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

While his lover Sarah's faith is stronger, Bendrix's tentative, stumbling epiphany brings the novel to its breathtaking end. Greene pits the jealous lover against a jealous God; there will only ever be one winner. Bendrix's lament of "I hate You as though You exist" finally, reluctantly, becomes a prayer: "O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever."
Read about the other entries on the list.

The End of the Affair also appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best explosions in literature, ten of the best umbrellas in literature, ten of the best novels about novelists, and ten of the best priests in literature, and Douglas Kennedy's top ten list of books about grief. It is one of Pico Iyer's four essential Graham Greene novels.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Five top novels on U.S. frontier social history

Simon Winchester's books include Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, and Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, a history of the world’s second-largest ocean.

With Daisy Banks at The Browser, he discussed five novels about the social history of America's expanding frontiers from the late 19th century to the Great Depression, including:
Crossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner

Your next choice, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, is about the friendships between two very different couples who met during the Great Depression.

In a way this is an expansion of the theme in [John Williams's] Stoner, once again set in a university. It is a novel mainly about friendship and suffering. It is very sad, beginning with the death of one of the protagonists and how it ends is incredibly touching. Wallace Stegner is known as the great western novelist and is famous for books about Montana and the crossing of the west, most notably a novel called Angle of Repose which is an absolute classic. But in terms of human tenderness I find this particular book remarkable and unforgettable.

The couples are very different characters – one is a very subdued elder couple.

Yes, they are very different indeed. The differences between them are reflected particularly in the Vermont chapter, where all sorts of bizarre things happen during a walk in the woods. What I really love about this novel is the depth of friendship which crossed between these couples from very different classes, who are on the one hand academic failures and on the other academic successes.
Read about the other novels Winchester tagged at The Browser.

Crossing to Safety is on Lan Samantha Chang's five best list of novels on friendship.

Also see Simon Winchester's six favorite books about sailing.

--Marshal Zeringue