Saturday, September 29, 2007

Christopher Lane

Christopher Lane is Herman and Beulah Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University. His new book is Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading three excellent books that take the excesses of American psychiatry and the drug companies as their major theme: Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield's The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (Oxford); Jeremy Greene's Prescribing by Numbers: Drugs and the Definition of Disease (Johns Hopkins); and Peter Conrad's The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders (also Johns Hopkins). All three books are wonderfully sharp and well-documented, but The Loss of Sadness is the most eloquent, raising serious concerns about what antidepressants are doing to our emotions and how they're numbing us to various harsh realities in the world. These books appeared just before mine, on the history of social anxiety disorder, but it's striking that we're all voicing shared concern about where to draw the line between chronic distress and common unhappiness.

Much-lighter fare for me is the recently published and compelling 7 Deadly Sins Sampler, which includes many thoughtful classic short stories by Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, Edith Wharton, and Margaret Atwood: I recommend it highly. I'm just starting Junot Díaz's second novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which so far is a riot. Very difficult to put down!
Christopher Lane (Ph.D. University of London) teaches and writes about mostly Victorian and modern British fiction, with secondary expertise in 19th-century psychiatry, psychology, and intellectual history. He is the author of four books: The Ruling Passion (Duke, 1995), The Burdens of Intimacy (Chicago, 1999), Hatred and Civility: The Antisocial Life in Victorian England (Columbia, 2004, 2006), and Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (Yale, 2007; French translation forthcoming in 2008 with Editions Flammarion). He is also the editor of The Psychoanalysis of Race (Columbia, 1998) and a coeditor of Homosexuality and Psychoanalysis (Chicago, 2001). He’s written for the New York Times, Herald Tribune, and New Statesman and Society, and published articles in journals such as Raritan, Novel, Victorian Studies, ELH, Modernism/Modernity, PMLA, Common Knowledge, and the Oxford Literary Review. He is currently completing a book on Victorian agnosticism entitled Failing Gods: A Century of Doubt.

Learn more about Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is the sole staff member of the quarterly zine, The East Village Inky and the author of Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste, Job Hopper, No Touch Monkey! And Other Travelers’ Lessons Learned Too Late and The Big Rumpus: A Mother’s Tale from the Trenches. She is BUST magazine's Mother Superior columnist and has contributed to a vast array of low-paying forums. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the playwright, Greg Kotis, and their two exceedingly well documented children.

A couple of days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just burned through Dramarama, a young adult novel by my friend and neighbor, E. Lockhart. It's about a yearning Midwestern girl's experiences at a summer theater institute, which hit rather close to home since I had attended such a program at Northwestern University the summer before my senior year of high school. I was really cringing at the main character's initially obnoxious exuberance because it so closely mirrored mine. The wind gets taken out of her sails almost immediately when she blows her audition pieces and is assigned a minor role in the only non-musical show, the loser show that nobody wants to be in. This didn't quite happen to me, but close enough! I had wanted to be one of the hookers in Hot L Baltimore, but instead wound up playing an old lady in an adaptation of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. It could have been worse. When I actually saw Hot L Baltimore, I was horrified that this one girl's part consisted entirely of roller skating on stage with a pizza box, saying, "Pizza," and then clumping up the stairs to deliver it to the whore who'd ordered it. Oh, the shame! The unfairness of it all! Ms. Lockhart does a masterful job of capturing all that, along with the casual cruelty of teachers intent on showing teenagers the cold realities of the biz, and sweet thrill of dormitory romance. Plus, I was very gratified that an anecdote I had regaled her with when she was writing the book made it into the finished work. Think of me when Sadye (nee Sarah) is scapegoated by her acting teacher for the crime of having a tense foot. Oh the humanity!

Earlier this month, I was cat sitting in a book filled house in Juneau Alaska. I crammed so much reading into a two week period, I think I'm going to have to devote a good portion of the next issue of my zine to reviews, which tend to be glowing. I try to keep my big yapper shut rather than trash somebody else's baby merely because it wasn't my cup of tea. Some of the stand-outs from this literary orgy were:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. As a parent, I really appreciated how the main character not only has to scrounge up food and shelter in a treacherous, barely populated, post-apocalyptic environment, he constantly has to reassure his kid that things are okay, even when they're reeling away from the cannibals' house. I wish Saturday Night Live would do a skit about this. I would find me a tv and tune in for sure.

The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle. I've been a fan ever since my freshman year of college, when I read the hilarious "We Are Norsemen." I had that story on the brain the whole time I was in Juneau. My husband is there working on his new play, Yeast Nation, which is about a community of single celled organisms at the dawn of time - and all of them are named Jan. My memory of "We Are Norsemen" was that all of the Norsemen share the name Thorkel, though when I reread it, I realized that this is not exactly accurate. Anyway, it was an absolute delight and thick as a phone book!

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk whose name I can never pronounce or spell without assistance. I loved the repetitive description of one character as a 'big moosie." I loved that this was in this macho phenomenon that everybody, even me, has heard about by now. I remember renting the movie shortly after it came out and being surprised at how good it was. The cover of the cat lady's copy had Brad Pitt on it. Lucky for me that when I told my husband what I was reading, he said, (SPOILER) "Oh right, isn't that the one where the main guy and Brad Pitt are actually the same person?" Thank god, because I'm not one hundred percent sure I would have picked up on that. I'm keen when it comes to recognizing nifty turns of phrase like Big Moosey, but not always so swift on picking up plot twists.

I also spent a lot of time with my children in the kid's room at the Juneau Public Library, where I was able, over a period of four days, to read Cancer Vixen, a graphic memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist, Marisa Acocella Marchetto. I didn't have a library card, so I couldn't check it out and I lived in fear that someone else might check it out before I was finished. Her personality really grew on me throughout, and I found myself disinclined to begrudge her her fabulous connections, fancy shoes, and pampered lifestyle when I was so privy to all the details of her diagnosis, treatment and mental condition. Long may she prosper!
Visit Ayun Halliday's website and check out her food blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dara Horn

Dara Horn's most recent novel is The World to Come.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Christian Jungersen's The Exception, a novel about four women who work at a genocide research center. After two of them receive death threats, they begin unknowingly acting out the behavioral patterns they have researched that lead ordinary people to commit atrocities. That makes the premise sound like pure "afterschool special" material, but it's not like that at all -- the story is actually very suspenseful and raises all kinds of fascinating questions, and ultimately provides some extremely disturbing and wonderfully unredemptive answers. I'm waiting impatiently to find someone with whom to discuss it.

Next on my list is my sister Ariel Horn's second novel, which she just gave me in manuscript form. It's a middle-grade/young-adult novel about a girl who's convinced that her mother is a spy. My sister's first novel (for adults) was called Help Wanted, Desperately, and was a comedy about a young woman trying to find her first post-college job. It was pretty hilarious, so I'm looking forward to reading the new one. Since we write for such different audiences, we both occasionally give each other's characters cameos in our books, so I'm also looking forward to seeing where one of my characters might show up!
Dara Horn received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. Her first novel, In the Image, published by W.W. Norton when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. Her second novel, The World to Come, published by W.W. Norton in January 2006, received the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, was selected as an Editor's Choice in the New York Times Book Review and as one of the Best Books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and has been translated into nine languages. In 2007 Horn was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists. She has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College, and has lectured at universities and cultural institutions throughout the United States and Canada.

The Page 99 Test: The World to Come.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Paul Levy

Paul Levy is a former academic who evolved into a broadcaster and expert writer on food & wine and the arts. His most recent book is The Letters of Lytton Strachey, which he edited for Farrar Straus Giroux and Penguin.

According to one capsule biography: "With Ann Barr (and synchronically Gael Greene), [Levy] coined the word 'foodie' (and some say, exemplified the concept). He has won many British and American food writing and journalism prizes, including two commendations in the national British Press Awards, in 1985 and 1987."

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm currently reading Taste by Kate Colquhoun, and the baroquely erudite A Canon of Vegetables:101 Classic Recipes by Raymond Sokolov, and I re-read Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka, just for the pleasure of comparing their sharp wit. I particularly relished Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 by Joan Thirsk. I commend to readers Frances Bissell, The Scented Kitchen: Cooking with Flowers, especially as her definition of "flower" is attractively catholic and therefore surprising.

Having just finished Winnie and Wolf by A.N. Wilson, I think it is his best novel for some time, and am disappointed that it wasn't included in the Man Booker prize shortlist. I also recently read (and reviewed) The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr. Both Wilson and Carr find themselves sympathetic to Winifred Wagner, the composer's alarming, English-born, unrepentant Nazi daughter-in-law; and I love Andrew Wilson's conceit that she and Hitler were lovers and had a child.

I also admired Delizia: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food by John Dickie. Ditto, Joan Smith, What Will Survive, a very topical thriller. I'm now trying to read the Man Booker shortlist, and paced myself slowly through On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which is short and perfectly formed -- and I think probably his best-ever book.

Also finished Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I found contrived; and I did not enjoy being conscious of being manipulated by the author, clever though he is.
Visit Paul Levy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 21, 2007

Michael Mazarr

Michael Mazarr is the author, most recently, of Unmodern Men in the Modern World: Radical Islam, Terrorism, and the War on Modernity, published by Cambridge University Press.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I'm a professor at an American War College, which is a timely, slightly depressing, but also heartening (given the amazing quality and inspirational character of our students) vocation to have at the moment, all events considered. My reading lately has been in support of my teaching and curriculum design work. Just a few examples: We naturally read Sun Tzu; but to complement that I also re-read major parts of the Tao Te Ching, the Mair translation. Absorbing the worldview of the piece is a sobering reminder of just how linear our American perspective remains -- something on tragic display in our strategy, I tend to think.

The times call for nothing so much as Nietzsche, I try to insist to my students; any of his own works are essential; The Birth of Tragedy, The Geneology of Morals, Thus Spake you-know-who and so forth, but a guidebook that I read recently and really enjoyed was Lee Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche (Routledge, 2003). Nietzsche knew of alienation in the face of modernity, and thus helps us understand some of the basis for the extremism at large in the world today. He knew about willful peoples' devotion to their perspectives and projects, and thus helps explain how a few people with a powerful idea can draw a nation to an ill-thought-through war.

Finally at home I am reading and re-reading (and re-re-reading) Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. In my humble view, no wiser guidebook for life exists -- especially if you own small children with an affinity for mud, paint and homemade weaponry.
Mazarr joined the faculty of the National War College in May 2002. He spent much of his career in research organizations, serving, among other positions, as a senior project director and journal editor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and president and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center. He also worked as a senior defense aide and speechwriter on Capitol Hill, and as senior vice president of an industry association in the Washington area. Earlier he served for seven years in the U.S. Naval Reserve, joining as an enlisted intelligence specialist and later gaining a direct commission. He has BA and MA degrees from Georgetown and a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Maryland. He has authored numerous books, edited five anthologies, and published many articles, most on various aspects of U.S. defense policy and international security.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Austin Grossman

Austin Grossman is a writer and video game designer.

His debut novel Soon I Will Be Invincible was published this summer.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
It would be an act of charity to call me an omnivorous reader -- I don't really have any control over what I read, and it doesn't follow a pattern. My intake is split roughly between early 19th-century fiction and poetry, comic books, and genre fiction, although this year I'm making an effort consider contemporary literary writing.

Where I live in Berkeley there's an enormous used bookstore called Moe's which has a cheap, eclectic, literary selection and rapid turnover. I saw several galleys of my own novel come through, well before publication date. It's also open til 11PM every single night; no one of my age and pretensions to normality should be found there after 9:30PM, god forbid on a weekend night, snuffling along the shelving in search of the magic title, the ax for the frozen seas. I try not to look at the other customers -- it's like looking into a dark mirror of my own future bachelorhood -- a despairing thrill to notice I'm already wearing the same ragged blazer, carrying the same backpack -- I only need a full beard and a few nights outdoors to fill in the picture. My rule is that if it's after 10 and I'm the only one without a beard, then I have to leave.

But I should be talking about books. Books I have read in the past few weeks, or am still reading.

The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Walter Scott. I have to say, fantasy readers should embrace the literary prehistory of their genre; Scott writes at the birth of industrial modernity and its radical nostalgia for an invented medievalism, and in his framing narrative convincingly allegorizes their imagined relation.

The Road. Cormac McCarthy needs no introduction I suppose, devastating and compulsively readable McCarthy's ashen, immaculately straight-faced apocalypse only made me nostalgic for Gamma World, the lushly green radioactive future of my adolescence, when nuclear war was paradoxically generative of an unwholesome vitality. Mutatis Mutandis! I know it's about death and all, but I have difficulty accepting the authority of McCarthy's absolute humorlessness; even Beckett knew there was a black joke in the end of the world.

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh. What is it that's comforting about WWII-era fiction? I read Alan Furst's The Polish Officer, and it led me to this. Is it minor Waugh? Major Waugh? It feels ... kinder, more humane -- I guess that means it's lesser Waugh. It feels less about the war than an account of the clash of temporal cultures surrounding the mass mobilization -- lonely, hearty atavistic Late Victorians mixing with lonely, detached Edwardians.

These, and I guess lots of comics. DMZ, Walking Dead, Birds of Prey, Y: The Last Man. It has been a while since I read something that decisively stunned me.

Upcoming, I have on the stack, selected by the wordless inarticulate creature inside me that selects books: Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts; Joanna Kavenna's Inglorious; and Shelley Jackson's Half-Life.
Soon I Will Be Invincible was widely and very positively reviewed. The Wired review briefly describes the book:
In a world where BlackBerry-carrying superheroes grace the cover of GQ, being a supervillain known as the "angriest dork in the world" isn't easy. A heartbreaking genius of staggering evil, Doctor Impossible avenges lost love, a lonely adolescence, and a plethora of foiled doomsday devices. (That fungus army seemed foolproof!) Every comic-book cliché in this witty, stunning debut is lovingly embraced, then turned inside out.
For more reviews and other links, visit Austin Grossman's website and the Soon I Will be Invincible website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ken Albala

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific.

His new book is Beans: A History.

One thing he did not include in the book but mentioned in a Salon interview (and which elevated my estimation of his palate): "I still don't care much for is lima beans..... [I]n cartoons there are a lot of things about beans, and in one cartoon I have, as a torture device, they feed people lima beans -- like that's the worst thing you could do to someone."

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I've read about a dozen food books in the past year which one might categorize as "lighter fare" - almost wholly without merit, until I stumbled by accident on Ayun Halliday's Dirty Sugar Cookies. The title and blurbs are hardly inviting, nor the cover, but the author has an absolutely incisive wit, and a remarkably deft way with words. I think we must be about the same age, because her recollections of life seem to parallel my own in so many ways, but more importantly, you come to genuinely like her as a person. I am fairly tempted to track her down in Brooklyn and invite her out for a drink. Or maybe make spanakopita for her. I haven't finished the book yet, but it's 5:45 AM and I am looking forward to a few chapters this morning.

For serious reading I am about to start Kate Colquhoun's Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking. She wrote a splendid review of my own new Beans in the Telegraph last week, and I literally bumped into her at the Oxford Symposium this weekend. My instinctive reaction upon seeing her was to deliver a kiss - and she is gorgeous. I anticipate that the book will be just as enchanting.
Albala's other books include: Eating Right in the Renaissance, University of California Press, 2002; Food in Early Modern Europe, Greenwood Press, 2003; Opening Up North America, with Caroline Cox, Facts on File, 2005; The Banquet: A History of Fine Dining in Western Europe, 1520-1660, University of Illinois Press, 2006; and Cooking in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Elizabethan England, Greenwood Press, 2006.

Visit his blog, Ken Albala's Food Rant.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Nicholas Thompson

Nicholas Thompson is currently a senior editor at Wired Magazine. He has also worked for Legal Affairs, the New America Foundation, and The Washington Monthly.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished, a few moments ago, Richard Rhodes's Arsenals of Folly, the third part in his epic cycle about the Cold War. It covers a lot of the same ground that I'm covering in my book on Paul Nitze and George Kennan -- and it covers it quite well. The structure is a little jarring: he opens with a chapter on Chernobyl, takes one through the life of Gorbachev, and then begins a narrative about US policy from Truman through the end of the conflict. It's very good. If it's not as strong as The Making of the Atomic Bomb, that's setting a rather high standard.

Last week, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time. I'm not sure how I missed it in high school, but it was important to one of the characters I'm writing about, so I figured I'd give it a read. Whoah. Great plot, some wonderful imagery. But, yikes. That book is overwritten!

Since I can't figure out a way to use artwork to prevent aging, I've been running a lot and reading Timothy Noakes's The Lore of Running. It's ridiculously long, complicated, and involved. But it's also brilliant and takes one inside the mind of a true obsessive. It's 950 pages, just about running -- though I suppose one ages quite a bit reading the darn thing.

Speaking of obsessives, another great book I've read recently is Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin's The World Was Going our Way, a recounting of Soviet actions in the third world during the Cold War. Mitrokhin smuggled decades worth of KGB documents out of the Soviet Union and turned them into this mind-breaking follow-up to The Sword and The Shield.
Thompson's book on George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and the Cold War is scheduled to come out in 2009, published by Henry Holt. Among the articles he's written based on it: "Mirror Image: Could Iraq Be Vietnam in Reverse? What George F. Kennan's 1966 Senate Testimony Can Tell Us About Iraq in 2006."

Visit Nick Thompson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Alan Furst

The New York Times calls Alan Furst “America’s preeminent spy novelist.”

He is the author of Night Soldiers (1988), Dark Star (1991), The Polish Officer (1995), The World at Night (1996), Red Gold (1999), Kingdom of Shadows (2000), Blood of Victory (2002), Dark Voyage (2004), and The Foreign Correspondent (2006).

Earlier this week I asked him what he was reading. His reply.
I've been reading the magnificent Vasily Grossman -- the big, Tolstoyesque novel -- Life and Fate," and the newer book, a collection of his wartime journalism, which has -- and I won't ruin it for you -- the best line about WWII that I've ever seen, from a Russian Sergeant, in Berlin, at the end of the war.

A book I read last summer, Alberto Moravia's The Woman of Rome, is another great anti-fascist novel -- rare in being written from a woman's point-of-view by a man.

I like also the fine Peter Hopkirk's On Secret Service East of Constantinople.

A small devil just came to my desk and whispered that this is so heavy, this stuff, that I should add Britney Spears' autobiography, but, you know, devils. And No, I didn't.

Is there one?
Visit Alan Furst's website and read an excerpt from The Foreign Correspondent.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Andrew Tilghman

Andrew Tilghman was an Iraq correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper in 2005 and 2006. His article "The Myth of AQI" is the cover story of the October issue of Washington Monthly.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My recent reporting about U.S. intelligence operations in Iraq finally prompted me to pick up a copy of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll. Looking at the Afghan war in hindsight is compelling because no one was able to see what the real story was at the time -- the birth of al Qaeda and the rise of political Islam. It makes me wonder how history will view the war in Iraq 20 years from now. And the book suggests that whatever that may be, it will both profound and completely unexpected.

My interest in war and insurgencies also led me to recently reread Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell's account of the ragtag international brigade of leftists fighting Franco's government in the 1930s. It's a great window on that bit of history. But more importantly it reminds me that Orwell is among my favorite writers in the English language. His depictions of real soldiers at war, completely unsentimental, are among the best I've found.
Read Tilghman's "The Myth of AQI."

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to's "Page 2" and the editor and co-author of Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know about the Game Is Wrong.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Book I'm reading now: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Because I wear two hats as both a sportswriter (primarily for, with occasional contributions to, and other sites) and a stock market writer (Investor's Business Daily), I need to constantly stay up to date on the latest sports and business books. That doesn't leave much time for novels, so it can take me a while to get to some books, even hugely popular ones like The Kite Runner.

With that said, I'm loving it. The subject matter is almost irrelevant. What draws you in is the rich, yet crisp writing, which immediately sucks you into the narrative and the characters' lives. I'm only about 1/3 of the way through it, but find myself sneaking away from work to dive back into the story. If you work from home like I do, do not read this book. It will mess with your productivity.

Book I recently enjoyed: The Cheater's Guide to Baseball by Derek Zumsteg. If you're a big fan of the game and a big baseball historian, you'll love this book. But it's an excellent read even if you're not. The stories detailing how players, managers, groundskeepers and other baseball personnel use underhanded, often illegal tactics to gain an edge on the other team are almost unbelievable. Teams stealing signs by sticking someone inside a manually-operated scoreboard in the outfield, pitchers loading up balls with all manner of foreign substances, grounds crews watering down the dirt around first base to slow down opposing base stealers -- all the best cheating stories are in here, in some cases with how-tos for the reader. It's also rare to see an author combine this much serious research with such a light-hearted, irreverent tone. A great, breezy read.

[Full disclosure -- Derek is a friend of mine, and I made some very minor contributions to the project (though I don't see a dime, regardless of how many copies get sold).]
Keri recently penned a feature for, "The 18 best Jewish ballplayers of all time."

Visit Jonah Keri's website for more links to his work.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 7, 2007

Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Warm Springs, by Susan Richards Shreve. It’s a memoir about the two years she spent at a recuperation facility for children with polio established in Georgia by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1920s. The waters at this Georgia spot were supposed to have healing qualities, and Shreve (a Washington, DC, writer whom I know) uses the history of FDR’s haven, as she calls it, to vividly evoke the days of polio fear and the president’s relationship to his illness and paralysis.

The history is useful and well done, but Shreve is sharpest and most affecting when she turns her analytical skills on herself. In particular, she deftly unwinds her feelings about her mother. Their relationship was a close one. And yet Shreve’s mother left her daughter at Warm Springs on her own for the better part of two years, when she was between the ages of 11 and 13. Even after Shreve had major surgery, her mother came for only a few days. As Shreve remembers it, she put up a brave front throughout, telling her mother that she was perfectly happy staying at Warm Springs by herself for Thanksgiving, for example. Yet as an adult, Shreve probes her mother’s choices and her own apparent nonchalance. And she shows herself acting out in a variety of ways as she casted about for close connections. In the end her efforts cause disaster, when her friendship with a boy called Joey Buckley ends in a wheelchair race in which Joey breaks both his legs. Shreve loses her place at Warm Springs and gains a ticket home. And we gain this sharp account of a childhood broken, interrupted, and yet also bravely restored.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the work of a novelist who is confident in her craft, the sort of confidence that often takes years of writing books and accumulating wisdom to acquire. In fact, it’s a first novel by a 30-something writer, Olga Grushin (another D.C. writer whom I’ve met). Grushin emigrated from Russia to the United States for college and has been here ever since. But for this book she reached back to her homeland the effect of the glasnost of her youth. Her protagonist, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, was once a rebel artist but traded his promise for the life of a career apparatchik. Now the regime is crumbling and he has to face up to the limitations and damage of his own choices. Grushin jumps back and forth from past to present, marking most of the transitions with a shift from the first to third person that could be a gimmick but is instead fluid and moving. She is especially good at rendering Sukhanov’s relationship with his wife. I found the book mesmerizing — the best novel I read this year — and it’s given me a new prism through which to view all things Russian.

After I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty last year, I picked up E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, to which Smith pays tribute. And that got me started on a Forster tour that just ended with Maurice, his book about homosexual love. Published in 1971, nearly 60 years after it was written, the novel is poignant and wistful, and yet Foster never loses his mordant sensibility. He’s a master, and while I sort of can’t believe I didn’t discover him a long time ago, it’s a great pleasure to be immersed in the complete works now.
In addition to her work in Slate, Emily Bazelon's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, The New Republic, Legal Affairs, and other publications. She has worked as a freelance journalist in Israel and as a reporter in California's Bay Area. She graduated from Yale Law School and worked as a law clerk for Judge Kermit Lipez of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon is a history professor and the director of American Studies at Temple University. His most recent book is Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I have had a sort of strange and assorted mix of books in my Timbuk2 bag and on my nightstand over the last couple of weeks. I just finished Phoebe Kropp’s California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place. This book starts with a question – where did all those red brick Spanish title dotting the landscape of Southern California come from? Kropp answers this with a close – really close and really imaginative – reading of the buildings, streets, literature, and maps of California from the first half of the last century.

Last week, I started reading about another Californian – actually I took it on the plane on a trip to California to take my kids to Disneyland from Philadelphia. My father had lying around the house, Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life and I grabbed it as I walked out the door. I’m not really huge baseball fan and I am definitely not a Yankee’s fan, but this book is great. Cramer seems to get DiMaggio – his remarkable skill and pressing loneliness – and he also gets the neediness of sports writers and fans for a hero – a true American hero. So this book has been with me on trains, subways, and planes – whenever and wherever I can steal a minute I open it up. I just read Cramer’s wonderful account of DiMaggio’s great hitting streak.

And finally, yesterday, I picked up Sasha Issenberg’s brand new book, The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. The title says it all. The question for me is whether he can capture the complex flow of culture and products back and forth along the many channels of global commerce. So far, this book is fascinating, if a tad heavy of the bright theme of modernization.
Last year Ben McGrath reported in the The New Yorker that Simon is working on a book about Starbucks -- a cross between Bowling Alone and Fast Food Nation -- which entails a lot of time in many Starbucks outlets. "What we drink has meaning," he explains in an engaging and enlightening video about his research project.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Jordan Ellenberg

Jordan Ellenberg is a math professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of The Grasshopper King, a novel.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
As the father of a two-year-old, I am partway through a lot of books. Only time will tell whether I am actually still reading them. But here are some of them: Super Flat Times, a great collection by Matthew Derby, set in a vaguely defined future, possibly in Korea, where people are only allowed to eat meat and spend a lot of time digging the memories out of corpses buried in concrete. A Summons to Memphis, a typically potent and quiet novel by Peter Taylor. One Jump Ahead, by Jonathan Schaeffer, a sort of biography of Schaeffer's computer program Chinook, the checkers champion of the world. A great read if you've ever tried to write a complicated computer program (but maybe not so much, if you haven't.) On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, which I certainly will finish because it's the book all the students here are supposed to read over the summer, and it looks bad when the professors don't finish their homework. It's splendid so far, though I wonder how much of it will make sense to 18-year-olds.

Some books I've read the beginnings of and haven't decided whether to read: Drop City, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Murmur, a short book about R.E.M.'s first album, by J. Niimi.

Long non-fiction books about murders in early America which I stopped reading more than a year ago but still believe I'm going to go back and finish: the true-crime-and-19th-century Mormonism expose Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, whose writing I learned to love when I read his great Everest memoir Into Thin Air as part of the research for an article I was writing for The Believer about the Riemann hypothesis; and Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas, a giant book which starts out with an ex-governor of Idaho being blown to pieces by a bomb at his own front door, and which spirals out into a history of the vicious battles between labor and capital at the turn of the 20th century, and maybe more -- I don't know, not having finished it.

A book I don't even own yet but I am soon to own and read: The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence, by my friend Stephen Burt -- he' s the poetry critic to read if you don't read poetry criticism, because his writing is so lively, so interested in things outside poetry, and so open to the public.
Read more about Ellenberg's novel The Grasshopper King at the publisher's website.

Ellenberg also writes an occasional column called "Do the Math" for the on-line magazine Slate, and has written for The Believer, the Washington Post, and SEED.

His recent columns in Slate explained how "The New York Times slip[ped] up on sexual math" and why "Roger Clemens might be worth every penny" the Yankees are paying him.

If you found this account of what Ellenberg is reading interesting, visit his personal website which tracks what he was reading.

--Marshal Zeringue