Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ruth Downie

Ruth Downie is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Roman Army medic and reluctant sleuth, Gaius Petreius Ruso: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, Tabula Rasa, Vita Brevis, and the newly released Memento Mori.

Recently I asked Downie about what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually have at least two books on the go at once: one on audio for the times when I can’t sit and read, and one for bedtime.

The latest bedtime reading is S.S. Mausoof’s thriller The Warehouse, in which Karachi-based insurance investigator Syed Qais travels to war-torn Waziristan to find out why a businessman is refusing to claim compensation after his warehouse is destroyed. By the time the reasons become clear, Qais is trapped in the bitter and violent struggle between the Taliban, the Pakistani military, and the American armed forces. Oh, and of course, there’s a woman involved. Several women in fact, including Qais’s mother and his teenage daughter, waiting for him to come home.

Waziristan is a terrific setting for a thriller – Mausoof paints a convincing picture of a province teeming with shrewd operators, violent thugs, fiercely loyal tribespeople, war-weary military officers, religious fanatics, religious people who aren’t fanatics, exhausted civilians and friends who may or may not be trustworthy. Often several of these combine in one character. There are no easy answers, either for Qais or for Waziristan, and that’s one of the reasons I’m very much enjoying this book.

Meanwhile on audio, parts of Victorian London are being devastated not by explosives, but by an outbreak of cholera. In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson relates the story of the hunt to eliminate the source of a disease that wipes out whole families with terrifying speed.

I was vaguely aware of the tale of the notorious Broad Street water pump before now, but had no idea of the complexities behind “and when they turned the pump off, the epidemic stopped.”

It’s an encouraging tale because it demonstrates how real change happens: not with a sudden “eureka!” moment but with a combination of painstaking study, local knowledge and and sheer bloody persistence in the face of opposition and scorn.

The book is wider than the story of one epidemic: it’s about the growth of cities and the challenges they face. I was struck by the parallels with ancient Rome: firstly that the writer Frontinus may have been right when he claimed that Roman water engineering was a far greater achievement than the idle Pyramids or the “useless, though famous, creations of the Greeks”. Also, there’s a marked similarity in tone between the bold – and contradictory, and wrong – Victorian assertions of miracle cures for cholera, and the squabbling medics of Rome, where Pliny claims that memorials could be found bearing the words, “A gang of doctors killed me.”
Visit Ruth Downie's website.

The Page 69 Test: Memento Mori.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Beth Gutcheon

Beth Gutcheon is the critically acclaimed author of the novels The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage, and Good-bye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy-Award nominee The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City.

Gutcheon's new novel is The Affliction.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
The novel that completely knocked my socks off this year was Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I reviewed the audio version for AudioFile Magazine, and am so glad I took the assignment; I almost didn’t, as it didn’t sound like my line of country. Forget that. It is gorgeously written, a rare quality in a book that also has a plot that moves like a train. When reading audiobooks I’m usually outdoors in earphones taking long walks to nowhere. Nearing the end of this one, I was so gripped that I didn’t even want the distraction of crossing a busy street so I kept walking around and around the same block in SoHo until I found out what had happened to … oh, just read it. Don’t read plot summaries, don’t worry what it’s about, it’s a marvel.

Last June a friend handed me a biography of Iris Origo. A writer with a beautiful style, Iris had been raised in Tuscany in the 20’s by her English mother, and had married a Florentine count. As World War II approached, she chose to stay in her adopted country rather than seek safety in Switzerland or return to friends in England. Her fascinating life story led me to her war diary, War in Val D’Orcia, which tells in her own voice what it was like on the ground in Italy during the incredible confusion of first Mussolini, then the partisans, then the Germans, as ordinary people sheltered refugee children, hid and fed escaped Allied prisoners of war, and resisted Fascism in ways that no one outside the country knew was happening. Amazing story, in an indelible voice.

My friend Vicky Bijur, who represents Laura Lippman, gave me an early copy of Sunburn. Nothing like setting the bar high: Lippman makes it no secret that she’s writing an homage to the great James M. Cain, another Maryland crime writer, and for me, she hits it out of the park. The plot is noir and tricky, she’s two steps ahead of you the whole time, and the ending is both satisfying and heart-wrenching.

My Christmas reading was Avedon, Something Personal, by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L.Aronson, a word portrait of the great photographic portraitist, Richard Avedon. It was flu season in Maine, and I was too sick to get out of bed and didn’t care because I didn’t want to stop reading anyway. (The only other time in my life that happened, it was a stomach bug and the book was I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass, in case you feel two bouts of indisposition coming on.) The Avedon was on my Christmas list less because I knew much about Avedon, than because I’m a huge fan of Steven Aronson’s work in the oral history form. For me, nobody living does it better. To see even an ordinary human personality and life from so many points of view is an experience only art can give you and Avedon was anything but ordinary. A novelist can only marvel at the layers and subtle shifts of understanding woven together here as different kinds of people react to the same man in so many different ways. And Avedon’s pictures! Not that there are many in the book; you have to keep your device by your side the whole time so you can google the images being talked about. You’ll be amazed at what a vivid record his pictures made of the latter half of the American century and how many scores of them are already part of your memory bank.
Visit Beth Gutcheon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of many biographies for young people, including Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People and Hot Pink: The Life and Fashions of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Her new book is Coco Chanel: Pearls, Perfume, and the Little Black Dress.

Recently I asked Goldman Rubin about what she was reading. Her reply:
I write biographies for young adults and middle-grade children, and struggle to bring my subjects to life. What events are the most important to include? How to dramatize those episodes as if I had been there? I look to other biographers as role models whether they write for adults or children. I found understanding and delight in The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas. I’ve devoured every chapter. Atlas, the celebrated biographer of poet Delmore Schwartz and writer Saul Bellow, is also a former editor at The New York Times. Despite his professional achievements, he confides how he struggles along as I do with each biography.

Atlas discusses his process of research and writing with humor, honesty, and brilliance. The reading, the trips to the library, the heaps and piles of endless notes, are, he says, “the pleasures and ordeals of archival research.” Atlas writes as though he’s talking directly to me! “Biography is a lonely trade,” he says. “It requires a capacity for sitting by yourself all day for years, sometimes decades.” In some chapters he presents his own heroes in the field: Richard Ellman, Leon Edel, and James Boswell. In others, he talks about his personal life as though it were a sidebar to his obsession with a work-in-progress. Finally, he questions the purpose of biography. How can a writer explain the genius, the talent, of someone worthy of a biography? You can’t. However, says Atlas, we can show other factors and influences that contributed to forming the person. “There is no such thing as Biography School,” he concludes. But his marvelous book reassures me.

Because I write nonfiction for young readers, I crave adult fiction at the end of the day. I especially love novels by English women writers. One of my favorites is Tessa Hadley. I’m currently reading her newest book, Bad Dreams and Other Stories. Hadley is masterful with imagery, surprise, and character development. Her writing is so exquisitely compact, that climactic moments come without warning and hit hard. With a few lines of dialogue, interspersed with the narrative, Hadley brings her characters to life. She knows exactly what to include and what to leave out. I finish a story and find myself going back to see how she packed such a wallop, and to linger over the beauty of her poetic language.
Visit Susan Goldman Rubin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Clarissa Harwood

Set in 1907 England, Clarissa Harwood’s debut historical novel Impossible Saints follows the competing ambitions and growing love between Lilia Brooke, an agnostic militant suffragette, and Paul Harris, a peace-loving Anglican clergyman.

Recently I asked Harwood about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lately I’ve read two works of fiction that are very different in genre and plot, yet similar in their masterful use of sensory details and setting. I’m always impressed by other writers’ abilities to transport me to a place so different from my own.

Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, by Sara Ackerman, is a historical novel set in Hawaii during WWII. Violet’s husband has disappeared, and she senses that her troubled daughter Ella knows something about his disappearance. The uncertainty of not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead is amplified by the uncertainty of wartime. When the American soldiers they make friends with leave to fight abroad, Violet and Ella are again left in a suspended state.

Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers is much more than a war story. It is a story about many different kinds of love: maternal love, friendship, romance, love for animals, love for one’s neighbors: “in the islands, the Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Hawaiian, haole, all managed to coexist.” One of the ways Violet and her friends show their love is through food. The pies alone will make your mouth water: who wouldn’t want to try chocolate honeycomb pie or sweet potato and coconut pie? Ackerman’s writing is as fresh as a Hawaiian breeze, immersing the reader in the lives of women who try to make sense of their disrupted world.

Rachel McMillan’s Love in Three Quarter Time is a contemporary romance novella about Evelyn, an American woman whose crush on Rudy, the Austrian marketing director of her firm, leads her to accept his invitation to work with him in Vienna for a couple of months between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. During her time there, she falls in love with the city but realizes that her heart may be deceiving her with respect to Rudy. Although she ends up with the right man in the end, Evelyn’s main romance is with Vienna. I dare you to read this novella without being tempted to book a flight there to sample the Viennese coffee, music, and architecture!

Readers who need an escape and can’t afford the airline tickets to Austria or Hawaii could do worse than read these books. Please excuse me while I try to find some Viennese coffee to drink with my chocolate honeycomb pie…
Visit Clarissa Harwood's website.

The Page 69 Test: Impossible Saints.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Patricia Fara

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She is the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, has been translated into nine languages. In addition to many academic publications, her popular works include Newton: The Making of Genius, An Entertainment for Angels, Sex, Botany and Empire, and more. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programs such as In Our Time. She also contributes articles and reviews to many journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary Supplement.

Fara's latest book is A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Fara's reply:
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Somebody I Used to Know, by Wendy Mitchell

Whenever I swim back up to reality after being absorbed in a book, I try to prolong the pleasure by reflecting on how the world I’ve been reading about relates to my own experiences. I’ve just reread Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and although I’m living in Venice, Italy for a few weeks, I immediately picked up many resonances. No doubt the associations were heightened by seeing the narrow alleyways of the city blanketed in snow, and thronged with normally hyper-elegant Italians bundled up in bulky scarves and hats.

Paradoxically, the house of Dickens’ title is warm and welcoming, but Bleak House the narrative offers a bleak view of humanity, exposing over several hundred pages the melancholy fate of litigants so consumed by greed that the inheritance they are claiming disappears into the pockets of avaricious lawyers and petty bureaucrats. This plot line reminded me of the cruise ships that, by mooring in central Venice, are accelerating the apparently inexorable demise of their passengers’ favorite destination as the city slowly sinks into the lagoon.

Dickens’ novel is a savage indictment of cut-throat capitalism and its pernicious consequence: the yawning divide between rich and poor, which is nowadays reverting to Victorian dimensions. I thought back to Bleak House when I visited a 16th -century building near San Marco and the Doge’s palace, Venice’s medieval centres of power, and has been converted into a modern temple to wealth – a shopping-centre whose jaw-dropping prices make Harrods look like Walmart. Nearby, the artist Lorenzo Quinn has created a political statement as powerful as anything by Dickens: a giant pair of hands, two storeys high, which appear to be propping up an ancient mansion on the edge of the Grand Canal. Called ‘Support’, this sculpture evokes both the city’s fragility as it collapses, and the power of its administrators to halt the decline should they decide to do so. It made me remember that not all deterioration can be arrested by human will alone. In Somebody I Used to Know, Wendy Mitchell describes her own brain’s irreversible descent into chaos as she succumbs to early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Although supporting hands are provided by her two daughters and the medical system, it is Mitchell’s own determination to fight against the inevitable that makes this an inspiring rather than a depressing read. Her memoir is structured as a conversation between her present and former selves, and despite a tendency to cloying sentimentality (can bath bubbles really be filled with love?) it demonstrates how courage and initiative can help delay the slide into dependency. As well as practical tips – stick photographs of a cupboard’s contents on the door, set timers to tell you when it’s time for lunch – it includes painfully-won advice on what not to say when trying to help an
afflicted friend.

Horrifying as Mitchell’s story is, her resolute spirit offers laughter and hope, while the blackness of Bleak House is redeemed by the kindly Mr Jarndyce. Venice, the economy and the environment are still waiting for their saviours.
Learn more about A Lab of One's Own at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Erasmus Darwin.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Gae Polisner

Gae Polisner's books include The Memory of Things, The Summer of Letting Go, and The Pull of Gravity. Her new novel is In Sight of Stars.

A family law attorney and mediator by trade, but a writer by calling, she lives on Long Island with her husband, two sons, and a suspiciously-fictional-looking small dog she swore she’d never own. When she’s not writing, she can be found in a pool, or better yet, in the open waters of the Long Island Sound where she swims upwards of two miles most days.

Recently I asked Polisner about what she was reading. Her reply:
Because I write YA, I am often reading YA (though my novels are now categorized as YA/crossover into adult), and right now that is no exception. Because I am a slow reader, and have too much I must, for various reasons, read, or simply want to read, I am often reading several books at one time. Now is no exception.

So, here you go! Given that my March release In Sight of Stars has a much to do with Vincent Van Gogh, I am in the middle of Deborah Heiligman’s Printz-honored tome, Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers. While the prose feels a bit simplistic for me at times, it is impressively chock full of fascinating facts and information, all gleaned from Van Gogh’s Letters to Theo and other such meticulous research. Additionally, I have just started my writer pal Amy Fellner Dominy’s April release, The Fall of Grace, about a girl whose family seems to be at the center of a Bernie Madoff type scandal, and was gripped from the first pages. I’ve long been a fan of Amy’s writing, and, per usual, she is an absolute pro at setting up a story in a few brief lines, thereby grabbing you from the get-go.

Last but not least, out of belated curiosity the other night, I decided to take ‘just a quick glimpse’ at my writer friend Tania Unsworth’s middle grade thriller, Brightwood, soon out in paperback. Now, more than 70 pages in and some lost sleep, I can’t put it down, and can’t wait to return to it. In the vein of Neil Gaiman or Jonathan Auixier stories, Brightwood is already a dark delight, and Tania incredible at creating both atmosphere and compelling, almost tongue-in-cheek story and characters. There are damaged people with damaged history, and a child who has suffered, who makes all around her come "alive. . . " If you have a reluctant reader, this is the type of story that will absolutely grip them and keep them turning pages long after you call lights out.
Visit Gae Polisner's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Summer of Letting Go.

The Page 69 Test: The Memory of Things.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 9, 2018

Phillip Margolin

Phillip Margolin has written over twenty novels, most of them New York Times bestsellers, including Gone But Not Forgotten, Lost Lake, and Violent Crimes. In addition to being a novelist, he was a long time criminal defense attorney with decades of trial experience, including a large number of capital cases. Margolin lives in Portland, Oregon.

His new novel is The Third Victim.

Recently I asked Margolin about what he was reading. His reply:
My favorite book I read recently is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It is magical and everything a novel should be.

I also finished Greg Iles' Natchez Burning trilogy while on vacation. This consists of three huge books – Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood – which are really one very long but thoroughly engrossing novel set in the present that revolve around civil rights murders committed by a secret offshoot of the KKK in the 1960s that might have been involved in JFK’s assassination.
Visit Phillip Margolin's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan is an award-winning author and columnist. Her books include Return to India: an immigrant memoir, Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes, and the newly released The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure.

Narayan graduated from the Columbia Journalism School which awarded her a Pulitzer Fellowship. She is an alumnus of Mount Holyoke College and Women’s Christian College.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Narayan's reply:
I know this gets asked a lot but I love this question. I think that it should be required asking for every blind date-- before every blind date in fact so that you can then decide whether or not you want to go out with someone who reads, say Alistair Maclean or Sophie Kinsella-- I have read both by the way.

I tend to go through phases with reading. Currently, I am reading a lot of natural history (because I am a birder/bird-watcher), a lot of humor and some novels.

I loved the avian bits of H is for Hawk. I loved her descriptions of how she trains the Norther Goshawk. As a memoir writer, I was looking to learn from her writing about grief, but somehow I found that less appealing than the compelling stuff about birds.

I am re-reading Jonathan Franzen's collection of essays, Farther Away. I love how he weaves in so many strands into his pieces. The title piece is about friendship, a quest, a novel, and solitude.

I am also re-reading David Sedaris's books. I love all of them but I am currently reading Holidays on Ice. The mixture of comedy and drama and how he walks the line so finely with both is what I envy about him, particularly when he writes about family.

Wendy Doniger's The Hindus. My book about cows showed me how central they are to Hinduism. Since then, I have been reading books about my faith. I like Doniger's irreverence. It got her into trouble in my homeland, but I love her writing.

Diana Eck's book, India: a sacred geography, is sweeping in its scale and yet written with a gripping pace. I have read most of Diana Eck's books: Darsan, the one on Varanasi. She knows a heck of a lot about Hinduism.

Amy Tan was in India recently, which drew me back to her novels. So the Joy Luck Club.

My father did his Ph.D. thesis on R.K. Narayan. He shares my last name but we aren't related. I love the gentle humor in his book, The Vendor of Sweets.

My daughter is reading Rupi Kaur's poetry so I am reading Milk and Honey too.

I am always reading Indian ornithologist, Salim Ali’s books all the time. They are open in pages that I use to reference and learn about bird sightings, range, and markings. The Book of Indian Birds is a classic.

Bianca Bosker’s Cork Dork, which follows in the tradition of Moonwalking with Einstein. I love quests and drink a lot of wine. Bosker’s insights about the world of wine made me nostalgic for New York, where I lived.
Visit Shoba Narayan's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Milk Lady of Bangalore.

The Page 99 Test: The Milk Lady of Bangalore.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Amy Bass

A professor of history in New York, Amy Bass lived in Lewiston, Maine for four years as a student at Bates College. Her writing has appeared in Slate, Salon, and CNN Opinion, and her work for NBC’s Olympics coverage earned her an Emmy in 2012 for Outstanding Live Event Turnaround.

Bass's new book is One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Over the last two years while writing One Goal, the book that has remained on my nightstand and I’ve picked up again and again is Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. Like me, Strout went to Bates College, which is in Lewiston, where One Goal takes place. Her book is set in the fictional Shirley Falls, an economically-depressed Maine mill town fraught with racial and religious conflicts since the onset of thousands of Somali refugees. Sound familiar? The story is based on a ripped-from-the-headlines incident that took place in Lewiston years ago, and is detailed in One Goal. While I read mountains of pages to research One Goal, from the local Lewiston sports pages to UN documents on refugees and everything in between, Strout’s book was what I picked up every time I needed clarity. If I needed to hit the reset button on my thinking, on my writing, it was Strout.

In terms of reading for leisure – and it had been a while – I just finished Celeste Ng’s magical Little Fires Everywhere. I adored her first book, Everything I Never Told You, and taught it this past fall in my senior seminar. It was a joy to sit down with Little Fires Everywhere, a deceptively complicated story about a small town in Ohio festering with class and racial tensions. The way she frames a story – telling us, as with her first book, what the tragedy is upfront and then bringing us along as the narrative unfolds, meaning we focus on the why instead of the what – is something I am fascinated with. I am duly fascinated by her compelling female characters– complicated, not always likeable, and disturbingly authentic. We need more of that. I need more of that.
Visit Amy Bass's website.

The Page 99 Test: One Goal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 5, 2018

John Marrs

John Marrs is a freelance journalist based in London, England, who has spent the last twenty years interviewing celebrities from the world of television, film and music for national newspapers and magazines. His novels include The Wronged Sons, Welcome To Wherever You Are, and, newly released in the US, The One.

Recently I asked Marrs about what he was reading. His reply:
Sweet Pea by CJ Skuse

I like to think there is no one particular genre of book that I’m attracted to. That said, romance and paranormal aren’t high up on my checklist. But in the last few months, my choices have been more towards the dramatic. The Circle by Dave Eggers is the book I wish I could have written; Before The Fall by Noah Hawley had me guessing the whole way through and Lies by T M Logan was a completely unpredictable psychological thriller. This time around, I wanted something both light and dark in one novel. Through an online book club, I’d read about Sweet Pea, which has been pitched as American Psycho meets Bridget Jones. And that’s just what I wanted, a serial killer yarn with a comic twist. It follows Rhiannon Lewis, a girl-next-door with a dead end job and a cheating boyfriend. She hates her friends, compiles lists of everything and everyone that angers her, then decides to do something about it. Slowly she unravels as the book progresses and her desire to murder gets harder and harder to deny. And when the kills begin, she can’t stop herself. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s a frequently laugh-out-loud novel dripping in dark humour and with a sequel in the pipeline later this year. Having just finished it, I can honestly say I absolutely adored it.
Learn more about The One, visit John Marrs's website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

--Marshal Zeringue