Saturday, March 31, 2007

Alan Furst's "The Foreign Correspondent"

Alan Furst, whom the New York Times calls "America’s preeminent spy novelist," 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).

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Foreign Correspondent and reported the following:
Let's see, page 99, hmm. Three foreign correspondents -- Havas, Reuters, the London Times -- hiring a taxi to get to Prague for the German occupation of March, 1939, and the line, "When your country is being occupied, best stay home," an observation on the deserted streets.

I guess I'd read the novel, based on this test: I like the period, when it really seemed that Adolph Hitler would rule the world, and my heroes and heroines who, in rather quiet and non-thriller fashion, helped to make that not happen.

I'm best for the sophisticated reader, which is the reader who reads lots of books, so I fall right in with the page 99 project.
Visit Alan Furst's website and read an excerpt from The Foreign Correspondent.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Richard Hawke's "Cold Day in Hell"

Richard Hawke is the author of several novels including Speak of the Devil and Cold Day in Hell.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to Cold Day in Hell and reported the following:

So if the question here is, would folks reading only page 99 of my new book Cold Day in Hell be intrigued enough to read the book...? the answer is hell yes! Of course, if I were to choose the most representative page would it be page 99? Probably not, but I am so obsessive when it comes to my writing that I would spend 99 days trying to decide what represents the most representative page. Page 1? The last page? Such a torture! For the record, the scene that shows up on page 99 of CDIH takes place in a lawyer's office. Of the seven books I have published, this is my first lawyer's office scene. So how representative is this of anything? My private eye, Fritz Malone, did some background work on a jury for a big celebrity murder case (no, the celebrity wasn't murdered, he was accused of the murders) and in this particular scene he is getting gently chewed-out for not having dug up some particular info on a juror and her wacko husband that would not only have definitely kept the woman off the jury ... but might have reined in the out-of-control husband (imagine one of those out-of-control fathers who make their son's little league experience a living hell). In this particular case, the husband is emerging as a possible copy cat killer. Interesting? I think so. You won't find this the most colorful or active scene in the book, but insofar as getting a sense of my narrator's voice and how it is that he handles the people around him, it does the deed. If you want to know more about all this ... I think you know what you have to do.

Visit Richard Hawke's website, and read the first chapter of Cold Day in Hell.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Robert Morgan's "Brave Enemies"

Robert Morgan is Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell University. He is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, essays, short stories, and novels; his novel Gap Creek was a selection of the Oprah Book Club and a New York Times bestseller.

Morgan applied the "Page 99 Test" to his novel Brave Enemies and reported the following:
On page 99 of Brave Enemies Josie, the narrator, describes the overwhelming physical attraction she and the young John Trethman feel for each other. As a minister he resists at first, and as a formerly abused woman she is reluctant at the start also. But their growing affection and desire overcome all obstacles.

"He reached his other hand and put it on my other breast, and then he hugged me closer to him.

"It was the first time I really knew what a touch could mean. A touch connects you and makes you feel a part of everything. A touch makes you feel at the center of something."

On page 99 Josie and John begin to celebrate an idyll in the wilderness in the fall of 1780, just before he is kidnapped by the British and accused of being a spy. In these violent times in piedmont Carolina in the American Revolution, Josie dresses as a man for her own safety as she goes in search of her husband. Not knowing if John is dead or alive, she joins the patriot militia pretending to be a man. They march toward South Carolina where Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, at the direction of Lord Cornwallis, is conducting a campaign of terror over the countryside.

Meanwhile John has not been hanged, but forced to serve as chaplain in Tarleton's army. Without knowing it, Josie and John are converging toward the Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781, one of the most decisive victories American forces won in the fight for independence, leading to the final victory at Yorktown.

In Brave Enemies I tried to make the American Revolution intimate, local, personal, through the lives and love of John and Josie, against the backdrop of raging events that changed our history, at the threshold of the Republic.
Robert Morgan is a native of the North Carolina mountains, where he was raised on land settled by his Welsh ancestors.

Visit his official website, and read an excerpt from Brave Enemies.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dara Horn's "The World to Come"

Dara Horn's first novel, In the Image, published 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 highly-acclaimed The World to Come, 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.

Horn applied the "Page 99 Test" to The World to Come and reported the following:
A reader opening The World to Come to page 99 would be dropped into a conversation between Benjamin Ziskind — a 30-year-old game-show writer who has managed to steal a million-dollar Chagall painting from a museum during a singles' cocktail party — and Erica Frank, an employee at the museum who has been charged with interviewing everyone who attended the party in order to help track down the thief. On page 99, it's clear that she has no suspicion at all that she's talking to the thief, but it's also clear that she's falling for him.

It seems rather defensive to claim that Ford Madox Ford's "Page 99 test" is "unfair." Reading any single page of any novel would of course be "unfair." The World to Come begins as a contemporary art heist, but much of its plot is also historical, dealing with the life of Chagall, the lives and deaths of Yiddish writers in Chagall's circle, the devastating betrayals of the Cold War, and the story of how this painting came to belong to a particular family whose experiences reveal how much our lives are shaped by those who came before us, whether we want them to be or not. There are portions of this novel that take place in 1920s Russia, in 1960s Vietnam, and, at the end, in a supernatural world populated by souls who have not yet been born. None of this, of course, happens to appear on page 99.

Anyone who merely wants a taste of an author's writing style can use this test quite fairly. My style tends to be very direct, focusing on character and plot rather than on language for language's sake, and this page reflects that. I have great admiration for Ford's The Good Soldier and for other novelists in that tradition, like Iris Murdoch, for whom style is a servant of character and plot rather than the opposite — a pattern which has become less trendy in an era of experimental fiction, but which, for me, matters more as both a writer and a reader. To the extent that a reader opening to page 99 wants to know whether he or she will like the style in which a book is written, I think no writer can ever claim this test to be unfair.

But I don't believe that most readers are truly interested in the style in which a book is written. While it's nice to read something written in a style that you appreciate, the style test is more of a way of rejecting a book you won't be able to stand than a way of choosing a book you will enjoy. I think most readers who open to a random page of a book are actually more interested in what the book is "about" — not its plot (which is usually summarized far more efficiently in the jacket copy), but the particular understanding of the world that will animate the story one is about to read.

If this is what readers are looking for, then I think the "Page 1 test" (or however the first page of text is numbered) would be more useful than Page 99. Page 1, after all, is the page that's consciously written with the knowledge that it may be used specifically for this test by potential readers, and it usually is. I usually write Page 1 last, after having finished the entire book — or at least reconfigure the original Page 1 to suit what the novel has become. One can't capture everything on Page 1 either, of course, but it's the one place where the writer has an opportunity to try. The World to Come starts on Page 1 like this, with three sentences:

"There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will."

In the next paragraph, the reader meets the thief, and then the story begins.
Dara Horn received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. In 2007 Dara 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.

Visit Dara Horn's website and read the first chapter of The World to Come.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Donald Harington's "The Pitcher Shower"

Donald Harington is the author of over a dozen novels in addition to several books about artists. (His academic career was in art and art history.)

He won the Robert Penn Warren Award in 2003, the Porter Prize in 1987, the Heasley Prize at Lyon College in 1998, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 1999 and that same year won the Arkansas Fiction Award of the Arkansas Library Association. He has been called "an undiscovered continent" (Fred Chappell) and "America's Greatest Unknown Novelist" (Entertainment Weekly).

Harington applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Pitcher Shower (2005) and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Pitcher Shower just happens to contain two of my "signature" subjects: sex and magic. It is the first time in his life that my hero, Hoppy Boyd, had a "second coming." And it contains a depiction of his girlfriend's "fascinators," a kind of sheer scarf that she uses in dances to entertain the public.
Read an excerpt from The Pitcher Shower, and visit Harington's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Richard Zimler's "Guardian of the Dawn"

Richard Zimler is the author of seven novels over the last decade: The Seventh Gate; The Search for Sana; Guardian of the Dawn; Hunting Midnight; The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon; The Angelic Darkness; and Unholy Ghosts.

His novels have appeared on bestseller lists in 12 different countries, including the USA, Great Britain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia, and he has won numerous prizes for his work, including a 1994 National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Fiction and the 1998 Herodotus Award for the best historical novel.

Zimler applied the "Page 99 Test" to Guardian of the Dawn and reported the following:
My novel, Guardian of the Dawn, takes place in the Portuguese colony of Goa during the early 17th century, and it is an historical mystery that explores the dangers of religious fundamentalism. The narrator, Tiago, is imprisoned as a secret Jew by the Inquisition, which the Church and Portuguese Crown imposed on Goa in order to punish any residents who deviated from Roman Catholicism. On page 99, Tiago is being interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor, and he comes to realize that he can no longer trust any of his friends and family – that one of them must have informed on him. Even the other prisoner in his cell – Phanishwar, an Indian snake-dancer whom Tiago has grown to admire – may have been asked to befriend him in order to learn his secrets and destroy his resolve. And so it is that Tiago realizes that all his ties of love and family are gone, and that he can only count on himself if he is ever to avoid being burnt at the stake. At this point, the Inquisitor promises to let him sign a confession and earn his freedom if he can answer a riddle: “I speak to you on my journey – and only to you – from my departure point to the very end. And though I always die in the same place, you can hear me speaking from my closed grave if you pay close attention. Who am I?”
Visit Richard Zimler's website to learn more about his books, short stories, and reviews and interviews.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Christopher Goffard's "Snitch Jacket"

Christopher Goffard is a general assignment reporter at the Los Angeles Times. His first book is the literary crime novel, Snitch Jacket.

Goffard applied the "Page 99 Test" to Snitch Jacket and reported the following:
On Pg. 99 of Snitch Jacket, Gus “Mad Dog” Miller, the magnetic ex-con, is offering some of his deranged theories of life to our hero and narrator, police informer Benny Bunt. Miller explains that two of his greatest heroes are Nietzsche and Jesus Christ – both great Outlaws, in his view, which is how he likes to think of himself, how he adds a mythic burnish to his lonely and feckless life on the fringes. Benny is beginning to understand the fraudulent clutter of Miller’s character, that his notions of Manhood and Cool are cobbled together from half-read books and misunderstood conversations and a thousand other random sources. The scene goes to the heart of one of the novel’s major themes, which is the improvisational and patchwork nature of identity. In the book’s isolated and godless milieu, where the characters grope in the darkness for heroes, any heroes, to emulate, Miller’s reverence for the German philosopher and the Nazarene, spurious as his understanding is, parallels Benny’s hero-worship of Miller himself, of Detective Munoz, of countless TV cops and comic-book characters from whom he’s borrowed his own codes of manhood. So Page 99 gives a glimpse of the psychosis Miller and Benny share, of the basic dynamic that leads to the book’s tragedy.
Snitch Jacket will be released in the U.S. later this year.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

Deidre Lynch is a scholar of Eighteenth-century literature and Romantic period British literature as well as the editor of Jane Austen's Persuasion for the Oxford World's Classics Series (Oxford University Press, 2004).

She put the novel to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
Lacking (alas) a first edition of Persuasion, I've used the edition that I prepared a few years ago for Oxford's World's Classics series.

As it happens, p. 99 takes us straight to the opening of the novel's second volume and so to a moment when, as seasoned readers of early-nineteenth-century fiction, we are expecting to gear up for transition. We're at chapter 1 again, and primed for a fresh start. Persuasion, however, investigates the situation of a woman who -- older than is the norm for an Austen protagonist -- feels as if change is no longer possible. Persuaded to break off her engagement with Captain Wentworth eight years before the novel opens, Anne Elliot looks initially to be a heroine who already may have missed her only chance at a story, who is forced accordingly to live off and in memory. With the end of a long war, Wentworth returns to England and back into her social circle, but Anne won't let herself re-open the book on the past and let herself hope: "Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement." Still, Volume 1 ends with signs of change. The characters visit the seaside, Anne, revived by the change of scene, seems to start to live in the present -- and then, suddenly, there comes an accident of unexpected, frightening seriousness: Louisa Musgrove (the woman Wentworth appears to be courting) falls from atop a breakwater. As careful readers, witnessing this accident, we will have noticed how at this moment of panic, Wentworth, usually in command, now helpless, turns to Anne for assistance.

Prompted to look hard at this opening to volume 2, I'm struck by how the novel stalls just when we think we are being launched on the plot we've been reading for all along, the plot of Wentworth's and Anne's reunion. This page apparently finds Austen treading water. Her narrator tells us things like "Louisa was much the same"; "every thing was going on as well as the nature of the case admitted." On p. 99 there is little sign of Austen's jubilant wit and not much, even, of the emotional intensity that makes Persuasion's record of its heroine's inner life such a stylistic departure for Austen. Instead, the narrator keeps her distance from Anne's feelings. Page 99 sounds the theme of usefulness that is important in this novel, which locates moral value in professional men like Wentworth and not in the landed gentry: we read that Anne "had the satisfaction of knowing herself extremely useful." But by this point we are well acquainted with Anne's ethos of service and her conviction that she is not entitled to any emotion headier than "satisfaction." I read this page wanting confirmation not that Anne is useful but that she is loved.

Austen is taking her time here -- as if she wanted her readers to feel how burdensome time feels to Anne herself.
Deidre Lynch is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Indiana University.

Her many other publications include The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (University of Chicago Press), which won the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book, and Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, editor.

Her most recent scholarly award is a 2007 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ron Rash's "One Foot in Eden"

Ron Rash is the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Literature at Western Carolina University.

He is the author of the novels One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight, as well as three collections of poetry and two of short stories. His poetry and fiction have been published in more than 80 journals and magazines.

Rash applied the "Page 99 Test" to One Foot in Eden and reported the following:
I decided to go back to my first novel, One Foot in Eden, for my page 99, and I found the following sentence. “That witch had caught that baby, pulled it right out of its mother and cut the biblical cord.” That sentence reveals a lot about the speaker, a teenager in 1950’s Appalachia who is terrified that she will be punished by God or the Devil for having a child by a man other than her husband. The “biblical cord” is not a phrase I’ve ever heard, but it reflects Amy’s state of mind aptly, for it suggests her belief she’s cut her links to God and thus allowed darker forces to control her and her child’s destiny. The world Amy lives in is a place where the supernatural is as real a presence as the world of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and like Macbeth Amy can never be sure if the evil that seems to steer some of her decisions comes from without or within.
Visit the publisher's website to read a description of One Foot in Eden and to sample the praise for Rash's writing from Lee Smith, Pat Conroy, and others.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thomas Perry's "Nightlife"

Thomas Perry was born in Tonawanda, New York in 1947. He received a B.A. from Cornell University in 1969 and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Rochester in 1974. He has worked as a park maintenance man, factory laborer, commercial fisherman, university administrator and teacher, and a writer and producer of prime time network television shows. He is the author of fourteen novels.

His most recent book is Nightlife, to which he applied the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
I have no doubt that Ford Madox Ford could discern most of what needed to be known about the quality of a book by reading only page 99. He wrote over eighty, at least five of them (The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End books) masterpieces. As for the rest of us, it’s probably best if we take a larger sample before making any pronouncements.

I do agree that a reader should be able to open a novel to any page and find something sensible and fluent that increases his understanding of at least one character and advances the story a bit. If things are going well, he’ll also find an observation or two about the way something in the fictional world looks, feels, sounds, or smells. It should not be boring.

As you asked, I just took a look at page 99 of my most recent book, Nightlife. While the page isn’t a climactic scene (Those tend to come later in novels.), it is a fair sample of the things that go on in Detective Catherine Hobbes’s investigation. She has flown down to Los Angeles trying to find a young woman who was at the scene of a murder in Portland. A Los Angeles police detective is driving Hobbes to the young woman’s last known address, hoping for an arrest. The San Fernando Valley that morning feels alien to Hobbes — all heat, glare, and traffic. She’s feeling growing tension as they approach the address, and we overhear a bit of the banter Hobbes habitually uses to keep the male cops around her at arm’s length so she can do her work. As she talks we learn some of her thinking about the deceptiveness of visual identification of suspects. As for whether a reader would be drawn into the novel by this page, I can only hope so. It’s too late to ask Mr. Ford to decide.
For more about Nightlife, see this post on "the thriller that scared Stephen King."

Visit Thomas Perry's official website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Terese Svoboda's "Tin God"

Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of prose and poetry, including Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Cannibal, and Treason.

About her 2006 novel, Tin God, from the publisher:
“This is God,” the novel begins, helpfully spelling G-O-D for the reader, and we are spinning on our way into the heart of a Midwest that spans spirits and centuries and forever redefines the middle of nowhere.

Whispers plague a desperate conquistador lost in tall prairie grass. Four hundred years later, a male go-go dancer flings a bag of dope into the same field. God, in the person of a perm-giving, sheetcake-baking Nebraska farm woman, casts a jaundiced yet merciful eye over the unfolding chaos. Fire and a pair of judiciously applied pantyhose bring the two stories together. A contemplation of divinity and drugs on the ground, Tin God is a funny yet poignant story of the plains that transcends its interstate spine and exposes us to a whole new level of Svoboda’s fiery prose.
Svoboda put Tin God to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
On Tin God’s 99th page, the lost conquistador is staring at what’s left of his horse and its accoutrement, the horse that had stumbled on a peavine and flung him off so hard that he was knocked unconscious, and the horse, wild with the full-sized cross it was carrying suddenly teetering all around him, stumbled again and broke its leg and zigzagged off until it finally died. The conquistador finds it while running from all the whispering he hears in the tall grass, and tries to get some clue from its bit and shield as to where he is, forgetting the Native American woman he’s just had, shoved into his path by the whisperers, the local Indians who think he’s a god and want him to impregnate her. He gives up after peeing a cross over his dead horse, but it could be an x-marks-the-spot instead.

The book alternates between chapters on the conquistador’s struggles and those on two guys who lose a bag of dope in the same field the conquistador’s lost in. It’s the funniest of my four novels. The book designer became so excited about how the two stories came together that he had the last six pages printed in black with white text.
Read an excerpt from Tin God and learn more about Terese Svoboda and her writing.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jonathan Santlofer's "Anatomy of Fear"

Jonathan Santlofer is a highly respected artist whose work has been written about and reviewed in the New York Times, Art in America, Artforum, and Arts and appears in many public, private, and corporate collections such as Chase Manhattan Bank and the Art Institute of Chicago. He serves on the board of Yaddo, one of the oldest artist communities in the country.

His fourth novel, due out in April, is Anatomy of Fear.

He put Anatomy of Fear to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
I suspect that any page of my prose may well be like another. One could say that words are like brushstrokes in a painting, independent but working together to create an image or in this case, a story.

Here goes...

Page 99, Anatomy of Fear:

Ah, the end of a chapter, and a cryptic one if read independently. Here we have the FBI gathering evidence. They've been brought onto the case of a madman who leaves portraits of his victims at crime scenes. The agent in charge, Monica Collins, is nervous -- and she should be. She is trying to trump the NYPD, but it's going to be a close race. The protagonist, sketch artist Nate Rodriguez, has the only tangible clue at this point having drawn half of the unknown subject's face from talking to witnesses. But soon enough Nate will find himself the subject of FBI scrutiny.

This is page 99 of the advance galley which will be different in the finished book, out in April. I have illustrated the novel with both Nate's and the killer's drawings, and the pictures will be larger in the final copy and therefore page numbers will shift. If it turns out that page 99 is entirely a drawing will it verify the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words?

I had to check out page 69 (McLuhan vs. Ford Madox Ford), which turns out to be one of the most revealing in the book. Here, sketch artist Nate Rodriguez, is trying to draw the face of the unknown killer, but an image of his dead father keeps rising in his subconscious. Trying to get past his father's death will be as great a challenge for Nate as coming face to face with a savage killer.
Visit Jonathan Santlofer's official website for more information about his art and novels, including an author's note that discusses Anatomy of Fear.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Edith Pearlman's "How to Fall"

Edith Pearlman has published over one hundred and fifty stories in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and on-line publications. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best Short Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection. Her first collection of stories, Vaquita, won the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, and her second, Love Among The Greats, won the Spokane Annual Fiction Prize. Her third, How to Fall, won the Mary McCarthy Prize.

Pearlman put How to Fall to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
Page 99 of my latest collection, HowTo Fall, takes place in the town of Godolphin. Godolphin, though geographically a wedge of Boston, is self-governing – by a representative Town Meeting whose members scream at each other for several evenings every October. Bow-fronted apartment buildings line Jefferson Boulevard; trolley tracks run down its middle like a zipper. In the town live ancient Yankees, prosperous Jews, envious academics; shopkeepers selling camisoles, chocolates, and scrimshaw; secretaries and music teachers; Asian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Russian-Americans forever quoting War and Peace. A few inhabitants sleep in alleys. Godolphinites exhibit every sexual preference including the preference to be left alone.

Godolphin is my domain. I invented it – or, at least, adapted it. I populate it. I run it, I worry about it, and I write about it. A writer who uses the same setting and a familiar troupe of supporting characters can be said to be constructing a continuing saga, a human comedy. More modestly – more truthfully – she is simplifying her milieu, making it flexible, ready for any tale she wants to set there.

Godolphin is not microcosmic or generic. It is particular and peculiar. I cannot bring tanks onto Jefferson Boulevard, or make the public golf course the site of a fair where a man gets drunk enough to sell his wife. But crime can find its way to the town’s leafy streets, as can a measure of magic, and lust and death and accident and sin. For glitz, high culture, and drugged misery, I can send my characters to the city nearby.

It is a pleasure, this work – the work of trying to render a detailed, physical, immediate town which develops further in every new story. Each small neighborhood within Godolphin is home to somebody or other; each street-corner is someone’s hang-out. Hanging out with my characters, I am unlikely to slip into preachy abstractions or indulge in high-brow theories. But if I do get smug or careless, the citizens of Godolphin will no doubt run me out of town and hire themselves a new chronicler.
Visit Edith Pearlman's official website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Peter Spiegelman's "Red Cat"

Peter Spiegelman is the author of three John March novels. His debut novel, Black Maps, was published by Knopf in August, 2003 and won the 2004 Shamus Award for Best First Novel. It was followed in 2005 by Death's Little Helpers, which Ken Bruen called "...a multi-layered novel of compassion and power."

And last month Knopf brought out the third terrific John March novel, Red Cat.

Spiegelman put Red Cat to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
At first it struck me as a little like phrenology, or reading tea leaves — the notion that one page of a novel could reveal “the quality of the whole.” Then I gave it a try with Red Cat. While I won’t say I’m completely sold on the idea, it turns out that page 99 provides some nice examples of certain things I try to do in my writing.

On this page, private investigator John March, the protagonist of Red Cat and of my two previous books, is calling on Jorge Arrua, the neighbor of a woman March has been searching for. Arrua is reluctant to provide March with any information, and March has had to pay for Arrua’s cooperation, not in cash but by making a trip to the market for the elderly gent (it’s an icy winter day). The page begins with March delivering the groceries, and seeing Arrua for the first time.

He was a small man, worn but well-kempt in khakis, a gray cardigan, and a white shirt. His apartment was much the same. The living room was a narrow rectangle with white walls, beige trim, and a hardwood floor that had seen rough use, but also recent waxing. There were two windows that looked onto a fire escape, and that were fortified by metal accordion gates. In front of them was a sofa covered in gray fabric, with arms that had frayed and been carefully mended. There was a bookshelf in the corner, stocked with Spanish titles, and some pictures hanging above it. A photo clipped from a newspaper and yellowing under glass: Argentine soccer players in white and sky blue, and Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal against England. Next to it, a plaque commemorating twenty-five years of service to the Metropolitan Transit Authority — hail and farewell, Car Maintenance Engineer Jorge Arrua. Next to that, another photo, black and white, of a pale, pretty, sick-looking woman in a high-necked dress. Wife, mother, sister, daughter — whoever she was, I got the impression that she hadn’t survived her illness, and that it had all happened long ago.
[Excerpted from Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman Copyright © 2007 by Peter Spiegelman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.]

One of the things I try to do in my books is to give even minor characters as much life as I can, and one way I do that is through setting. This passage provides a good example. The apartment is worn but well-tended, and in this way is like Arrua himself — a bit battered, but with dignity intact. It’s also somewhat lonely — clearly the home of one person, not of a couple or of a family. There’s a forlorn quality to the place (the yellowed newspaper clipping, the retirement plaque, the woman’s photo), just as there is to Arrua himself.

There’s something else going on too, less obvious but perhaps more to Ford’s point. Red Cat is told in first person, and everything the reader knows is mediated through the character of March. So, besides telling us a story, March’s narration tells us a lot about March himself. Everything he reveals about Arrua — the dignity, the loneliness, the hint of sadness—also reveals something about March: his powers of observation, his emotional sensitivity, and the sorts of things he’s attuned to. That kind of access to a character is one of the great strengths and pleasures of first person narration, and something I try to take advantage of.
Visit Peter Spiegelman's official website, and read my rave Spot-on review of Red Cat.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"

While Ford Madox Ford may be the godfather of this blog, he has a very good excuse for not being asked to subject his most famous book to the Page 99 Test: he's been dead since 1939.

Anyway, Max Saunders may know Ford better than the man knew himself. Saunders is Professor of English at King's College, London, and the author of the critical biography, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, 2 vols (OUP, 1996), co-editor of the Everyman’s Library edition of The Good Soldier (1989), and editor of Ford’s other major fictional work, the tetralogy Parade’s End (1924-28), for Penguin (2002).

He also edited Ford's Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1997, 2003); War Prose (Carcanet, 1999); (with Richard Stang) Critical Essays (Carcanet, 2002); and is the founder and General Editor of the annual series, International Ford Madox Ford Studies.

Saunders is also chairman of the Ford Madox Ford Society.

He put the Everyman's Library edition of The Good Soldier to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
‘I didn’t know’. John Dowell, the narrator of Ford’s pre-war tour-de-force, tells us so often what he didn’t know, that Ford could almost have called the novel What Dowell Didn’t Know. He didn’t know that his friends the Ashburnhams, who made such a good first impression, are living out a sham marriage. He didn’t know that his close friend Edward Ashburnham was a serial adulterer. Nor that his own wife, Florence, was only feigning a heart condition, and using it as an excuse not to consummate their marriage, as well as a screen behind which she could conduct her own affairs. Most spectacularly, and revealed on the page before this, he didn’t know that Florence had been having a protracted affair with his friend Edward. Now he reveals that he didn’t know Florence’s death was suicide.

After such ignorance, what forgiveness? Not much from some critics, who have felt Dowell’s credulity is beyond theirs, and that he is obtuse to the point of idiocy, or self-delusion, or comedy. To others he has seemed to be manipulating the situation. Perhaps because it’s hard to credit such impercipience, especially in a narrator otherwise so rich in impressions, he has sometimes been taken to know more than he lets on: acting deceived in order to be less so.

One of the ways this passage is typical of the novel is how Dowell’s tone here is so arrestingly strange in its equanimity. Who else would take time to comment on ‘the extraordinary sense of leisure’ in between two such fundamental revelations – which ought, by normal standards, to be devastating? Is it simply for the contrast between outer idleness and inner turmoil? Or is it a sign of psychopathic lack of affect? Dowell’s confession of having been ‘singularly lacking in suspiciousness’, in drawing attention to its own singularity, of course potentially arouses our suspicions about him. One critic has even suspected him of murdering both Florence and Edward. The charge can’t be proven. But perhaps what is important is that shadow of a doubt. Ford’s friends often remarked on his ‘omniscient’ manner, which makes his impression of unknowingness here all the more striking. Because real people always remain opaque to our understandings, we only know them, perhaps, at the point at which we know we don’t know them. Ford’s impressionism creates the aura of doubt around Dowell’s every utterance. Our response to him thus re-enacts his own experiences of the other characters, whose hearts have been, and remain, darkness.
--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 5, 2007

Stuart Dybek's "I Sailed with Magellan"

Stuart Dybek is the author of five books. His two collections of poems are Brass Knuckles and Streets in Their Own Ink. His fiction includes Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed with Magellan, a novel-in-stories.

Dybek's work has won numerous awards -- a Lannan Prize, a PEN/Malamud Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim, and numerous O. Henry Prizes and inclusions in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Poetry and other anthologies. His work appears regularly in magazines such as Harper's, The New Yorker, Atlantic, Poetry, DoubleTake, Ploughshares, and Tri-quarterly.

He put I Sailed with Magellan to the "page 99 test" and reported the following:
I just looked at p. 99 and it turns out to be a bit of a cliff-hanger in that a drugged-up mob hitman named Joe Ditto has just encountered a blond from his past who might or might not be a ghost. I'd hope the reader would at least turn the page to find out what happens next. It's a page from a novella-length story titled "Breasts." "Breasts" is part of a novel-in-stories set in an inner-city neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and it is based on a murder that took place there when I was growing up and how local tavern owners in the neighborhood were intimidated into renting jukeboxes from the mob. One thing I wanted the story to do was to detail the neighborhood, Little Village -- complete with its economic clashes and its diverse ethnicities. The book, I Sailed With Magellan, is mainly realistic, but I believe that one of the beauties of the novel-in-story form is that it allows for departures in a way that a more linear form does not. "Breasts" is a story that makes a departure from the realism.
Read Dybek's short stories "Brisket," "Swing," "Ant," and "Confession," and a poem, "Today, Tonight."

--Marshal Zeringue

About the blog

The social scientist (and Friend of the Blog) Cary Federman recently alerted me to an observation once made by Ford Madox Ford: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

That's a bold claim.

Is Ford's Page 99 Test any more reliable than Marshall McLuhan's Page 69 test?

For the Page 99 Test, I hope to have authors comment on whether Page 99 reveals "
the quality of the whole" about their books. We'll try the test on new books, contemporary classics, and a few time-honored books, with recognized experts applying the test to the text.

Perhaps some authors will apply both tests.

Thanks for reading.

--Marshal Zeringue