Friday, November 30, 2007

Emily Martin's "Bipolar Expeditions"

Emily Martin is professor of anthropology and a member of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University. Her books include Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS and The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture, and reported the following:
In writing Bipolar Expeditions, I thought of the book like a house with many windows through which readers could look at moods, mood disorders, and bipolar disorder in particular. Pg 99 of the book opens one of those windows, beginning a chapter that explores how psychiatrists learn to diagnose bipolar disorder in "affective disorder rounds." Rounds is a teaching setting in which a patient who has been admitted to the hospital with mood problems is "presented" to a group of medical students. In that chapter, we see how fuzzy the lines between different mood disorders are and how difficult it is for psychiatrists and medical students to decide among alternative possibilities. We also see how patients contest the doctors' efforts to extract information from them, which they anticipate will be used to diagnose them in ways they might not appreciate.

By looking through the other windows in the book, the reader will be able to trace the processes by which a psychiatric diagnosis, like the mood disorders in evidence at Rounds, has emerged into a wide territory beyond psychiatry.

Anyone, from a reader of a teen magazine to a high powered CEO, might regularly chart their moods to determine whether they have a “mood disorder.” Workers undergo training in how to be "manic" so that they can recreate “manic” states – high energy, no sleep, innovative thoughts -- later in the workplace. Hollywood actors show up at their psychiatrists’ offices with their agents in tow, the agents’ job being to make sure that any drugs the doctors prescribe will not take the edge off the actors’ “mania.”

Both depression and mania have become fascinating cultural symbols in schools, the workplace and the market place. The low end of the mood spectrum (depression) signifies failure and unproductivity; the high end (mania) signifies creativity and productivity. Bipolar Expeditions argues that mania and depression have a cultural life outside the confines of diagnosis, that the experiences of people living with bipolar disorder belong fully to the human condition, and that even the most so-called rational everyday practices are intertwined with irrational ones.
Read the introduction to Bipolar Expeditions and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Porochista Khakpour's "Sons and Other Flammable Objects"

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1978. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University writing seminars MA program. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Village Voice,, Paper, Nylon, Gear, Alef, Bidoun, and, among other publications.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects, and reported the following:
Page 99 raises my own eyebrows just for the fact that three characters are involved. Although there are many relationships in my novel, I give pretty one-on-one treatments of each, whether between an immigrant husband (Darius Adam) and wife (Lala), a very Iranian father (Darius again) and his reluctantly Iranian-American son (Xerxes), a struggling New York transplant 20-something-of-color (Xerxes again) and his half-white trust-fund-armored girlfriend (Suzanne). In my mind, much of the novel carries on intimately with characters immersed in moments of watching the second hand in bad hours in dark bedrooms, the tense rides home with a burnt-out father, the silent dinners where the TV would do the talking for a young boy and his mother, the strange and sweet solitude of the many hours of being nowhere but 30,000 feet up in the heavens, the desperate conjuring of memory after memory when you haven’t heard a human voice — including your own — in days....

Rather, Page 99 is set in a loud parking lot, featuring Lala at the onset of her “getting a life” phase (what she regards as her period of eager assimilation to American and even Angeleno life), with Sons-supporting characters: Gigi, the Mexican housekeeper and local busybody of the Southern California apartment complex (Eden Gardens) where the Adam family lives, and Marvin, her affable African-American gay friend. They form a sort of odd trinity with Lala in being her first friends in America and they take her out to pizza parlors, Hawaiian-themed bars, blockbuster movies marathons, etc. She’s pretty hesitant at first, but because she is having trouble breaking out of housewifedom, she slowly begins to look forward to their “nothing nights” out:

“It was a nothing night, nothing much but eating and drinking and talking, and, of course, laughing — she laughed at jokes or sentiments she didn’t understand, or fake laughed at things she did get but couldn’t really get a real laugh out of, or when she felt the urge to put something into the group dynamic where she couldn’t fit words — Oh, never mind, she thought again and again; she was grateful for this life she had gotten.

It happened that one evening when she strutted out of the house
in her jeans, into the parking lot, Gigi’s busted Honda was not there to meet her. Rather, there was an SUV, pulsing with a low bass, presumably from a sound track, hinting of a night out. Inside, a man — dark, obscured by tinted windows, just a silhouette of a large man in his large car — waved at her. She stood frozen, terrified, tried to ignore the driver who had undoubtedly mistaken her. The car honked. She closed her eyes, hoping it would go away. She heard the buzz of rolled-down automatic windows, and the familiar call, “Hell, Lala, it’s me, girl!”

It was Marvin. She was relieved, and yet ... not relieved at
all. He had never picked her up. She had never seen his car. In fact, he knew nothing of her pact with Gigi and their secret outing agreement — hence the blasting of music and honk and holler.

She waved back hesitantly, and he laughed and honked again, motioning her in. She walked reluctantly over, worried that Darius might somehow psychically or just plain physically discover her secret in an incarnation she never anticipated....

Inside, Marvin was laughing to himself and shaking his head at
nothing at all. “Hello, Marvin,” she shouted...”

This first time Lala encounters Marvin solo results in a long outing to Marvin’s favorite “2-for-1 Sushi Nite,” where she tries sushi for the first time. This chapter (“Heavens”) explores race and culture quite a bit and so the episode ends in some unlikely bonding after getting through that rather cringey tale that Lala — a bit drunk — suddenly launches into: the first time she encountered a black person, several years back.

The whole chapter toys with racially-bewildering icons, from the Iranian’s scarlet-suited merry Nourooz mascot — the black-faced tambourine-playing herald Haji Firooz who ushers in Persian New Year — to the book’s celebrity muse fixture, bubbly “I Dream of Jeannie” ingenue Barbara Eden. In fact, I have to confess my interest in this chapter’s, say, Southern California “local color turned Technicolor” at one point made me actually contemplate calling the book Black Santa, Blonde Genie! I suppose other priorities to the plot prevented me from going there, but there is something to it.
Read an excerpt from Sons and Other Flammable Objects at the official book website, and visit Porochista Khakpour's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 26, 2007

McDonagh and Pappano's "Playing With The Boys"

Eileen McDonagh is Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. She is the author of Breaking the Abortion Deadlock. Laura Pappano is the author of The Connection Gap and an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and The Washington Post. Their new book is Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sports.

Pappano applied the "Page 99 Test" to Playing With The Boys and reported the following:
In Playing with the Boys, Eileen and I try to make a point we think is obvious, but that riles people: Sports are not just for guys, not just for fun, and not just so much background yammering (though sports talk radio sure sounds that way), but a social force that doesn’t merely reflect sex differences, but imposes them.

When I applied the Page 99 test to the book, I landed under “Sex Authenticity.” I’m not sure it reveals “the quality of the whole” but it gets at two central ideas. The first is how itchy “sex” issues make people who want strict gender roles and rules. The second is that we’re still debating the same issue, but now it's sports instead of jobs.

In this section, we explore the shock in the 1970s when courts decided companies couldn’t any longer have sex-segregated job ads under headings like “male” and “female.” Just before this, we give space to “the bunny problem” – as a 1965 The Wall Street Journal article puzzled over what would happen now that males and females had to be given equal access to job opportunities. The writer fretted about a “shapeless knobby-kneed male ‘bunny’ serving drinks to a group of stunned businessmen in a Playboy Club.” The writer also envisioned “a matronly vice president gleefully participating in an old office sport by chasing a male secretary around a big leather-topped desk.” (Did this stuff really happen?)

We offer a fly-over of the government’s struggle to figure out when sex does (and doesn’t) matter. They came up with the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) with “Sex Authenticity,” the escape clause that let employers hire women only or men only for certain jobs (think wet nurse). Today, the look back is amusing, revealing – and relevant to the debate about when an athlete’s sex should (or shouldn’t) matter. Why don’t super-power-kicking female athletes become punters and field goal kickers? Why are there different rules for males and females when it’s not about physical difference (men go to 15 in badminton and women go to 11?) Why does Rutgers charge $7 to see men’s soccer and $4 to see women’s (when they’re not trying to make money)?

Just like when the boss could demand a “Gal Friday” but not a “Guy Friday,” we have gender equality work to do in our athletic in-box.
Learn more about Playing With The Boys at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gary McKinney's "Slipknot"

Gary McKinney is a technical writer, rock 'n roll musician, and the author of Slipknot.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the novel and reported the following:
Reading page 99 of a book will reveal the quality of its whole? Bulls*it! How could it possibly? But I read page 99 of Slipknot anyway and found the statement to be more true than I would have expected. Slipknot is a mystery novel whose main character is both the county sheriff and a Deadhead. As a genre piece, there are certain expectations a writer must meet: a strong furtherance of plot, the creation of tension, and the revealing of character. All these points are found on page 99, where Sheriff Gavin Pruitt finds himself in the midst of a plot development (pressure to solve the crime); tension (a friend's betrayal); and character development (Pruitt's feelings expressed).

So, yes, to some extent the quality of Slipknot can be gleaned from page 99. What a reader will not find is any sense of setting. The forests and farmlands, salt and fresh water, mountains and beaches are missing completely. Missing, too, is the heart of the book: Sheriff Pruitt's reliance on the lyrics and social perspectives of the Grateful Dead to make meaning of both his personal and professional life.

Nevertheless, the page 99 test appears to have some validity -- if not also a degree of glibness. For instance, if page 100 were read, the quality of writing would also be revealed, with the focus shifting to the elements of place and setting. If page 101 were read, the quality would again be revealed, with the focus this time on the Grateful Dead aspect of the book. Nonetheless, Ford's idea is not as much bulls*it as one might think. Page 99 may or may not be the fulcrum of a book, but it certainly should stand up to a close reading.
Read an excerpt from Slipknot and learn more about the novel at the Kearney Street Books website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 23, 2007

Christopher Coyne's "After War"

Christopher Coyne is Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at West Virginia University and author of the new book, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to After War and reported the following:
In After War, I explore the constraints facing attempts by U.S. occupiers to “export” liberal democratic institutions abroad. I focus on two broad categories of constraints. The first category consists of constraints that are “internal” to the country being occupied. This includes such things as culture, historical experiences, and so on. The second category consists of “external” constraints, which are outside the country being occupied. One example of an external constraint is the U.S. political system, which directly influences the nature and dynamics of foreign occupations. In many cases the U.S. political system generates perverse outcomes in foreign interventions.

One specific aspect of the U.S. political system, which I analyze, is the various agencies and bureaucracies involved in foreign occupations. These bureaucracies often face competing goals and agendas that contribute to the failure of reconstruction efforts. On page 99 of After War, I note:

Michael Scheuer, in his analysis of the current effort in Afghanistan and the larger war on terror, has highlighted the tensions between the missions of the CIA and the FBI. As Scheuer notes, “At the most basic level, the FBI is meant to enforce U.S. law…The CIA, on the other hand, is authorized to break the law to gather information that helps defend the United States.” Note that it is the clash between missions that leads to these outcomes and not the malevolence of those within these organizations. Members of each agency pursue their respective missions, which do not mesh with the ends being pursued by the other.

Likewise, the journalist Robert Dreyfuss has documented battles between the Pentagon and the CIA as the U.S. prepared to go to war with Iraq.29 The main tension was between those in the Pentagon who supported the war effort in Iraq and those in the intelligence agencies who were largely opposed to the invasion.

David Phillips, who was involved in the early stages of planning for a post-Hussein Iraq, notes that during the postwar reconstruction efforts, “Relations between the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the State Department became increasingly acrimonious. U.S. officials vied for control over the Iraq policy.” Similarly, Larry Diamond, who was also involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, indicates that “A number of U.S. government agencies had a variety of visions of how political authority would be reestablished in Iraq...In the bitter, relentless infighting among U.S. government agencies in advance of the war, none of these preferences clearly prevailed.”

In theory, the various agencies and bureaus in the U.S. government will work together in efforts to “export” liberal democracy abroad. However, in reality, the incentives facing bureaucrats often lead to conflicts between departments and agencies which actually contribute to the failure of such efforts.
Read Chapter One from After War and learn more about the book at the Stanford University Press website.

Find out more about Coyne's research at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kyle MacDonald's "One Red Paperclip"

Kyle MacDonald applied the "Page 99 Test" to his book One Red Paperclip: Or How an Ordinary Man Achieved His Dream with the Help of a Simple Office Supply, and reported the following:
Upon your request, I turned to page 99 of the UK version of my book, One Red Paperclip.

The page talked primarily about Tootsie Pops, Dalmatian dogs, and firefighters named Bobby. I think that pretty sums up the book One Red Paperclip, as I like dogs, and have actually met several people named Boddy. Also, Tootsie Pops are a delicious treat best enjoyed in the company of friends.
Read an excerpt from One Red Paperclip and visit the One Red Paperclip website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Robert Aronowitz's "Unnatural History"

Robert Aronowitz, M.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book Unnatural History: Breast Cancer and American Society, and reported the following:
On P. 99 of my book, Unnatural History: Breast Cancer and American Society, we are in the middle of a late 19th and early 20th century medical controversy. Who should make the cancer diagnosis, the surgeon or the pathologist? On what grounds? William Halsted, reviled today by many people today for his promotion of radical breast cancer surgery, argued that the surgeon should be in charge and that it should be diagnosed based on the look and feel of the tumor in the examining and operating room. “There is a gap between the surgeon and the pathologist which can be filled only by the surgeon,” he wrote in 1898. “A tumor on a plate and a tumor in the breast of a patient, how different! Its blood, its color, its form, its freshness, its consistency are more or less lost when the tumor is removed.” Halsted also argued that surgeons should be in charge because they were ultimately responsible for the patient.

While Halsted ultimately lost this seemingly narrow, technical debate – today cancer is defined and diagnosed by pathologists – the questions raised, like many other clinical issues in the history of breast cancer, are still with us and remain important to doctors and patients. What exactly is cancer? Who gets to decide? What are the consequences of one definition or another?

Cancer diagnosis remains an act of prediction under great uncertainty. Since Halsted, pathologists have defined cancer “earlier” in its natural history, creating different “pre-cancer” diagnoses which have some (constantly changing) statistical probability of causing harm in the future. These diagnoses often create terrible treatment dilemmas for both doctor and patient. What is their real clinical significance? Should they be ignored or treated?

The two most prominent pre-cancer diagnoses are lobular carcinoma in situ and ductal carcinoma in situ. These pre-cancer diagnoses increased an astounding eightfold between 1975 and 2002. This change has contributed to the widely touted and frightening 1:8 lifetime odds of developing breast cancer. The massive increase in breast cancer diagnoses, trumpeted in cancer education and awareness programs, has radically transformed how women perceive and react to this disease. Cancer fear is more widespread and intense. A recent scientific report showed that the number of women with breast cancer choosing a “preventive” mastectomy in the unaffected breast soared from 1.8 percent in 1998 to 4.5 percent in 2003. That’s an increase of 150 percent in just five years.

So who defines cancer and how we define it matters. I hope that my history of breast cancer in American society will empower doctors, patients, and lay people to see many present ideas and practices as not inevitable and therefore open to debate and change.
Read an excerpt from Unnatural History and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 19, 2007

Katherine Marsh's "The Night Tourist"

Katherine Marsh is managing editor at The New Republic magazine in Washington, D.C., where she edits stories and essays on politics and culture. Her writing has appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times magazine.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book The Night Tourist, and reported the following:
The Night Tourist tells the story of Jack, a lonely 14-year-old Classics prodigy, who travels to the New York City version of the Greek mythological underworld to search for his dead mom. His guide is a 14-year-old ghost who calls herself Euri and on p.99 of my book, Jack and Euri are at the St. James Theater looking for a ghost who can help them named Edna Gammon. A performance of "The Producers" is underway before a packed house of both the living and the dead but there is a disruption: A ghost with a red bob takes the stage and begins to sing.

All around [Jack], ghosts began to grumble and shift. "Oh for God's sake," said the silvery-purple-haired old woman. "Do we have to hear The Merry Malones every night?"

"Edna, shut up!" shouted another.

Jack tugged on Euri's sleeve. "They said, 'Edna'! Do you think that's
Edna Gammon?"

The silvery-purple-haired ghost leaned in between them. "You don't
look like you've been dead long enough to remember Edna," she observed.

Jack noticed her giving him the familiar stare. "Well, I…I…wasn't. I
just heard of her once."

"Once! You must know your theater. Most people haven't heard of
her at all. She was the understudy for Polly Walker in The Merry Malones, back in 1927. Horrible musical. She died before she could take the stage."

"That may have been a good thing," Euri remarked as Edna fell
to her knees screeching.

Suddenly, one of the living chorus girls tripped. "She's
interfering with the performers!" someone shouted from near the ceiling.

Page 99 is an accurate snapshot of my book and its themes — it illustrates the way the dead and living worlds interact, integrates real New York City history (The Merry Malones was the very first musical to run at the St. James, then Erlanger's Theater), and shows the constant threat Jack is in of being discovered as a living boy in the underworld. Readers will judge quality for themselves but, for me, the page embodies the combination of page-turning plot, humorous and inventive world, and the integration of history, culture, and mythology, that I hope will make The Night Tourist as a whole an enjoyable read.
Listen to an excerpt from The Night Tourist, and learn more about the book and author at Katherine Marsh's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ronald M. Green's "Babies by Design"

Ronald M. Green is Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and Director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford's "page 99 test" - "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you" - seems to work remarkably well when applied to my new book, Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice.

My theme on p. 99 is one of the most important of the whole book: that we are entering an era when the human genome has been converted into pure information: a sequence of DNA letters three billion units long. The symbol for this is the "$1,000 genome," which some researchers have promised will make its appearance as early as five years from now. It took ten years (from 1993-2003) and three billion dollars to sequence the first human genome, but automated sequencers are now being developed that will reduce that work to a matter of hours and a cost of around $1,000. What does this mean for the choices that face us?

For one thing, it promises a day when each newborn child could go home from the hospital with its entire genome sequence on a CD. This opens up the era of "personalized medicine," when many decisions about your health care will begin with a glance at your genome. Are you prone to colon cancer? Then start early with a diet high in fiber and low in food toxins. Do you have genes that make you less able to control alcohol? Watch your drinking, or consider one of the new anti-abuse medications likely to be available.

Because the same genomic information will be available at the gamete and embryonic levels, these possibilities also open the door to the genetic selection of our children's characteristics - the main theme of my book. Why should a child or adult spend a lifetime fighting obesity when her parents can either select an embryo with a more favorable DNA sequence or request a simple genetic fix that replaces the obesity-prone gene sequence with one likely to lead to a more balanced metabolism?

Of course, the possibility of embryo selection and gene modification raises many troubling ethical questions. Will gene selection deform parenting, replacing unconditional love with critical appraisal and pressure? Will it produce a "Genobility," as the rich not only get richer but physically and mentally stronger because they are able to buy better genes for their offspring? Does gene modification amount to an arrogant "playing God" that will only end by inviting divine wrath? These are among the questions I examine in this book.

Some fear that human beings' attempts to manipulate the genome will lead to a dangerous reduction in human genetic diversity. Will thousands of parents choose children resembling Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt? As attractive as this couple is, we risk human health and diversity if we create a "monoculture" of people with qualities that are deemed to be desirable from the limited perspective of our own age. Some also worry that by eliminating disease-related genes we risk losing valuable genetic abilities. The example I mention on p. 99 is sickle cell anemia which, though potentially lethal in its homozygous (2-copy) form, protects against malaria in its heterozygous (single-copy) form.

Here, I argue that the conversion of the human genome into pure information is one protection against this loss of human genetic diversity. We do not have to keep every variant of the human genome alive in some individual, especially if that variant causes disease, when it can be recorded as information for permanent storage and retrieval. We are now developing the ability to reproduce any sequence of DNA and insert it into a cell, sex cell or embryo. We do not have to perpetuate sickle cell to protect against a future malaria epidemic. Instead, we can call on our knowledge of the protective sequence to create new drugs or, if necessary, give our children the genes they need to survive and flourish in new environments.

I am no booster for human gene modification. This book is less an argument for it than an effort to show that panicked arguments against it are not as strong as they seem. Basing myself on a solid footing in the science and ethics of genomic research, I try to ease some of our fears and suggest that they derive from too strong a hold on the genetic status quo.

My brief argument on p. 99 epitomizes the direction of Babies by Design as a whole. Thus, it strongly supports "the page 99 test."
Read an excerpt from Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 16, 2007

Craig Davidson's "The Fighter"

Craig Davidson's stories have been published in The Fiddlehead, Event, Prairie Fire, and SubTerrain. His debut collection of stories, Rust and Bone, was called "remarkable ... challenging and upsetting, but never boring" by Chuck Palahniuk and "the best I've read in a long time from a young writer" by Bret Easton Ellis. He also writes horror fiction under a pseudonym.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his novel The Fighter, and reported the following:
I’m not sure if this maxim really applies to my book. Certainly it would to many and certainly, depending on what you take away from my book as a reader, perhaps, weirdly, pg. 99 is emblematic of the book as a whole. Pg. 99 concerns the backstory of one-half of the two sets of characters making up the narrative: in this case, the Tully family — brothers Reuben and Tom, and Reuben’s boy Rob — who live in the Love Canal district of Niagara Falls where Rob(bie) is training to become a boxer. Does it speak for the book in general? I mean, most of the reader reaction I’ve had, be it good or bad, is in reference to the fight scenes, one of which — the final match — goes on for some ten pages. Those are, I suppose, the “showpieces” of a book written by a fellow, me, when he was in his late-twenties and probably over-interested in really going overboard or being terrifically visceral or something ... which is going to appeal to some readers at least in certain frames of mind, as indeed such books often appeal to me. But pg. 99 is one of the softer portions of the book, so someone picking it up and reading only that page might come away with the mistaken assumption there is much cute and cuddly about the work — which, in point of fact, in this book specifically, no, there is not. Hopefully in later books down the line I will be able to find a finer and more temperate balance between viscerality and softness, but with The Fighter that balance is skewed.
Read more about the author and the novel at the official website for The Fighter and at Craig Davidson's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wallace Stroby's "The Heartbreak Lounge"

Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of the novels The Heartbreak Lounge and The Barbed-Wire Kiss.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the former and reported the following:
Page 99 falls at an odd – but fitting – juncture in The Heartbreak Lounge. It bridges two scenes involving Johnny Harrow, a career criminal and borderline sociopath who’s just been released from prison in Florida and made his way home to New Jersey. In the first scene, Johnny is reunited with his natural – albeit deeply dysfunctional – family, including pedophile stepfather and small-time-crook brother. And though I wasn’t conscious of it, I guess it was the first glimpse I was giving into Johnny’s past, as opposed to presenting him as the vengeful force of nature he is at the beginning of the book. During a tense sitdown in the kitchen of the brother’s trailer, the stepfather is trying to make nice with Johnny – who, after all, has grown up to be a dangerous guy – but Johnny isn’t having any of it. He gives the old man some money and tells him not to come back – or else. In the next scene, in an office above a North Jersey porn store, Johnny is reunited with his other father figure, a wannabe crime boss named Joey Alea who sent Johnny on the errand that landed him in prison. Alea and his lieutenants – who have moved up in Johnny’s absence – are Johnny’s other family. “It’s good to be back,” Johnny says when he meets Alea for the first time in eight years. He means it too, but not in a way that will do anybody any good. This prodigal son has major scores to settle.

In retrospect, I think some of the inspiration for these scenes came from James Gray’s great-but-little-seen 1994 film Little Odessa, in which a hitman for the Russian mob (played by Tim Roth) comes back to Brooklyn to visit his troubled family and dying mother after years on the lam. Gray’s movie is very nuanced and character-driven; there are no big gestures, blazing shootouts or operatic violence. Roth’s hitman has come home to try to make sense of the two worlds that shaped him, and finds they’re equally poisonous – and that he’s become the deadliest poison-bearer of all. So if you’re out there James Gray, thanks for that. Even if it is a couple years too late.
Learn more about the author and his novels at the official Wallace Stroby website and The Heartbreak Blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Daniel Walker Howe's "What Hath God Wrought"

Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus at Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA. He lives in Sherman Oaks, California.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 - 1848 and reported the following:
On the 24th of May, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse tapped out a message on a device of cogs and coiled wires: “What hath God wrought.” Forty miles away in Baltimore, Morse’s associate received the electric signals and telegraphed the message back. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world.

The years between 1815 and 1848 witnessed dramatic transformations in the United States. In 1815 the U.S. was what we would call a third-world country. People lived on isolated farmsteads; their lives revolved around the weather and the hours of daylight. By 1848 the United States had become a transcontinental major power; industrialization, urbanization, and the diversification of both population and economy were all well underway. Revolutions in communications and transportation facilitated these innovations.

I have written a book about this transformation and about how the America we know came into being. It is not an academic argument to demonstrate a hypothesis; it is a story with characters. The characters, both famous and obscure, have personalities and make choices, both public and private, that, taken together, make history.

On page 99 I am telling the story of how the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 as a consequence of Andrew Jackson's decision to invade Florida with his army. Whether Jackson’s invasion had been authorized by President Monroe, or was undertaken on his own, has never been entirely clear, and it provoked bitter controversy at the time.

The administration decided to turn over the main theater of operations to General Andrew Jackson.... The choice of Jackson showed a disposition in Washington for a commander of demonstrated energy and aggressiveness. (He was also known to disobey orders, having refused to return lands to the Creeks in 1815.) There is a letter dated January 30, 1818, in which the president tells Secretary [of War] Calhoun to instruct Jackson “not to attack any post occupied by Spanish troops” [and confine himself to making war on the Seminole Indians.] But Calhoun never sent the order. Perhaps he forgot to send it; perhaps the president changed his mind and told him not to....

But Monroe did compose a letter to Jackson dated December 28, 1817, giving him vague yet momentous instructions, or rather, exhortations. “Great interests are at issue, and until our course is carried through triumphantly & every species of danger to which it is exposed is settled on the most solid foundation, you ought not to withdraw your active support from it.” ... Jackson seems to have chosen to interpret this letter ... as presidential authorization for the conquest of Florida.

What did the Monroe administration really hope for from Jackson? Did they intend him to attack only Seminoles or Spanish forts as well? ... It is conceivable that the administration deliberately chose ambiguity, leaving the impetuous Jackson to expose the weakness of Spanish authority, while allowing the president to disavow later an intention to wage an undeclared war.... Many a covert action in the area of foreign policy has been undertaken in such a way as to preserve official deniability. Andrew Jackson, however, proved to be a more dangerous loose cannon than his civilian superiors had foreseen.

No single story can illustrate the variety of What Hath God Wrought. It includes both the traditional kinds of history (political, diplomatic, and military) and the newer kinds that have preoccupied historians in recent years (social, economic, and cultural) because I am convinced that both kinds are necessary to an understanding of the past.
Read more about What Hath God Wrought at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 12, 2007

Paul Bibeau's "Sundays with Vlad"

Paul Bibeau applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Sundays with Vlad: From Pennsylvania to Transylvania, One Man's Quest to Live in the World of the Undead, and reported the following:
I am a freelance writer whose book, Sundays with Vlad, is about the history and pop culture legacy of Dracula. And also about ruined honeymoons, scary theme parks, and the lethal Romanian road system.

By page 99 I have already visited Philadelphia, where Bram Stoker’s notes are kept, for a historical discussion of how Vlad the Impaler got mixed up with that book Stoker wrote. And I’ve taken a side trip to Wildwood, NJ, for a discussion about arson, the horrors of funnel cake, and the defunct carnival ride that brought the literary and historical Dracula’s together. But when we talk vamp, we really need to hit the movies… So I spend 48 hours dug into my couch, eating bad food and viewing everything that Hollywood can throw at me. And at this point in the book, we come upon the Coppola version of Dracula:

"...Winona's English accent wouldn't pass muster at a high school production of Oliver. And Keanu's known for emotionless acting, but he reaches new depths here. His eyes are just blank. He looks like a golden retriever who's just been hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper.”

I talk about how “the movie keeps alternating wonderful special effects and lush scenes with truly horrible examples of acting and crappy, high-school-theater accents, and you thrill and wince, thrill and wince, like the worst S&M game ever…”

And then I describe the end, where “Dracula changes to a human and heavenly light bathes everything, and he says, 'Give me peace,' and when Winona stakes him, all is forgiven. Because we no longer have movies where the bad guys are just bad guys. Now every villain has to have a backstory and a childhood trauma and a need for redemption, like some washed out heavy metal rocker talking about His Nightmare Descent into Booze and Pills on a Behind the Music show.”

I stand by everything in the book. Even the part where I say that Winona has a really, really stupid hat.
Read an excerpt from Sundays with Vlad, and learn more about the book and author at the Sundays with Vlad website and Paul Bibeau's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Partridge's "Dark Harvest"

Norman Partridge has written tales of horror, suspense, and mystery — “sometimes all in one story,” says his friend Joe Lansdale. Partridge’s latest novel, the prize-winning Dark Harvest, was chosen as one of the 100 Best Books of 2006 by Publishers Weekly.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to Dark Harvest, and reported the following:
When I set out to write Dark Harvest, I wanted to put my own spin on a Halloween tale. Part of the challenge in doing that was working with all the familiar holiday elements you’ll find teetering on the line between iconic and clichéd — the pumpkins and scarecrows and cornfields, the small town with a secret — while trying to make them my own.

So I ran my imagination down those well-traveled tracks, and I found a Midwestern town circa 1963. A mythic creature called the October Boy (a.k.a. Sawtooth Jack) rises from the cornfields each Halloween. Armed with a butcher knife, he’s hunted by packs of teenage boys eager to confront a walking nightmare in an annual rite called the Run. The kid who takes down the monster gets a one-way ticket out of town… the only means of escape possible.

A friend boiled down my approach as “Twilight Zone noir,” and that’s certainly part of the vibe I was trying to create. But I was looking for something a little more primal, too. In Dark Harvest, I wanted to step across the page and directly address my readers. I wanted them to feel me sitting there, the way you do when you’re listening to a campfire tale and you get that “I gotcha!” moment that’s best delivered through oral storytelling.

While you don’t get a moment like that on page 99 of Dark Harvest, you do get a revealing glimpse at the winners and losers who make the Run what it is. In this scene, we’re in a deserted house, in a bedroom where one of the Runs’ winners once lived. My technique here had a little more in common with cinematic montage than campfire storytelling, but it begins to peel away some of the town’s truths through snapshots of those who have visited that room.

From page 99:

the wall in black letters, written by a loner who spent a solid week’s worth of corn-shucking money on a Levi jacket just like the one Shepard wore the night he won the Run. And there’s another kid standing next to him — he’s barebacked on an August night, wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. And he can’t believe he’s writing JUMP THE LINE!!!!! on this wall while his girlfriend lies naked on the mattress behind him, drifting in a halfdream as she thinks of the things she just did in the room where Jim Shepard used to sleep.

That girl can’t hide her feelings — her boyfriend might as well be a shadow as she dreams her dream… and pretty soon he is. A lush cornfield eclipses his face, the words WELCOME TO CORNCOB, NOWHERE threading like dark weeds through the green. Coming through that cornfield is a pumpkin-headed maniac with a knife, and if that naked girl got a look at him she’d scream her little head off. But she’s long gone by the time this particular September night rolls around — Sawtooth Jack’s razoring a path toward an artistic kid who’s so damned scared he can barely work up the courage to draw the demonic scene stirred up in his brain… a kid who’ll knuckle under in just a second and run into the night, leaving his art-class chalk there on the floor. And his pumpkin-headed creation will live up there on the wall as the calendar turns another page, but the chalk won’t last. It’ll grind to dust under a pair of heavy boots two weeks later as an angry boy with one hand in a cast cavemans a message on the wall, calling down the sadist who shattered his wrist with one crack of the nightstick.
Read an excerpt from Dark Harvest, and learn more about Norman Partridge and his other books at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Jamie Malanowski's "The Coup"

Jamie Malanowski is the managing editor of Playboy. He is the author of the novel Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington; co-author with Kurt Andersen and Lisa Birnbach of the play and book Loose Lips; co-author, with Martyn Burke, of the HBO movie Pentagon Wars; and co-author, with Susan Morrison, of the humor book Spy High.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest novel The Coup, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford's stated "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

Do I agree?

Mmmh. The answer is "I suppose so," although it would be true mostly in the way a look at the care and material used in wiring and plumbing reveals the quality of a whole house. I believe Norman Mailer once said something to the effect that the difficulty in writing a novel is getting people in and out of rooms, and something like that is happening on page 99 of The Coup, except that my main character, Vice President Godwin Pope, is already in a very big and crowded room, and he is moving his attention from one character (the President) to another (reporter Maggie Newbold, to whom he is mightily attracted.) So page 99 is where I make this transition. I like how economically I accomplished this move. I wanted the pacing here to feel natural, not rushed or contrived, but at the same time smooth and compact, so the reader wouldn't get bored. In that way, page 99 represents the good quality of the writing in the book. However, there's not a lot of humor going on here, nor are the major characters doing much that interesting, so in that way it's not representative of the whole. Had Ford advised looking on page 98, we would see the president giving an after-dinner speech, where he is charming and humble and acts in a way that might make the reader think very differently about him. Or if we look at page 100, we would see the beginning of a several page-long sequence in which Godwin and Maggie continue their seduction dance, a scene which is witty and even romantic, something pretty delightful, given what a pair of ambitious vipers these two are. On such pages would you find more of the energy and sharp humor that readers have liked about The Coup.
Read an excerpt from The Coup, and learn more about the book and author at Jamie Malanowski's website and his blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Neil Hanson's "Unknown Soldiers"

Neil Hanson is the prolific and successful author of an acclaimed series of popular histories including The Custom of the Sea, The Dreadful Judgement, and The Confident Hope of a Miracle.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his more recent book Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Unknown Soldiers is true to the book in one sense: I wanted it to reflect in unflinching, soldier's-eye-view detail, the experience of trench warfare in all its horror, for example, 'a three hour march to reach the front lines laden with equipment and under constant gunfire, the last hour and a quarter in a narrow communication trench, and the last 500 metres from the communication trench into the front line in the open, from one shell-hole to another. It was hardly endurable... we lie down in an unfinished sap, exhausted and almost sick. Our uniforms are dripping with sweat.... The trenches look terrible, all shot to pieces. Numerous bits of equipment belonging to our dead and wounded are lying about. There are a large number of corpses and we can hardly bear the smell... Many here - nearly all - have gone mad and have had to be taken away.’

However, page 99 tells the story only from a German soldier's perspective and the book as a whole draws on a larger canvas, resurrecting three of the missing of the First World War - a Briton, a German and an American - and bring them briefly back to life, if only in the pages of the book. It also tells the tale of the symbolic Unknown Soldiers: how and why unidentified and unidentifiable bodies came to be chosen at random, and buried at Arlington Cemetery, Virginia; in Westminster Abbey, London; beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and in places from Bandung to Baghdad - though not in Berlin - in memory of all the unknown dead of each country, at ceremonies that brought their nations to a standstill amid scenes of public mourning that have never been repeated - even the public hysteria at the death of Diana Princess of Wales, pales into insignificance beside the reaction to the burial of the unknown Soldiers of Britain, France, America and all the other combatant nations.

The bald statistics of the Great War - nine million soldiers dead or missing, twenty-one million maimed or wounded and at least twelve million civilians killed - tend to numb us to the fact that every single one of those millions was an individual human tragedy, a young life cut short, a child orphaned, a woman widowed, parents robbed of their son. None were more tragic than the unknown dead, men lost without trace in the carnage of the battlefields or whose mangled bodies retained no form of identification. The grieving families of such men were deprived even of the consolation of a grave-site, and for them, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier became the grave and gravestone of their lost loved ones. In almost every other combatant nation an unknown soldier was also buried at some national shrine and, at once became the focus of a pilgrimage that continues to this day.

Unknown Soldiers is based on the personal testimony contained in the letters and diaries of my three chosen individuals - the ‘war memoirs of the dead’ - and I have also drawn on the eyewitness testimony of scores of other soldiers present in the same trenches and battlefields, and the recollections and oral traditions of their families and descendants; indeed my book is dedicated not just to the Great War dead, but to their surviving relatives, who 90 years later, are still keeping their memory alive. Nothing has been invented or over-dramatised; every statement is underpinned by the personal testimony of those who were there, or knew the chosen men.

They are of different nationalities, backgrounds, personalities and circumstances. They are not clichéd stereotypes: Iowa farm-boys, chirpy Cockneys, Prussians with bristling moustaches. They are young men, barely beginning life’s journey, each with their own hopes, fears, ambitions and dreams. Their tracks, faint as smoke in the wind, intersect time and again, but they are united only in death, for each was killed on the Somme, within gunshot sound of each other, and each - like three million of their fellows - has no known grave. They disappeared as completely as if they had ‘gone through a mirror, leaving only a diminishing shadow’. No trace remained; the war had claimed even their names. Their story is the story of the Unknown Soldiers.
Read an excerpt from Unknown Soldiers and learn more about the book and author at Neil Hanson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Anne Landsman's "The Rowing Lesson"

Anne Landsman is the author of The Devil's Chimney and, published this month, The Rowing Lesson.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to the new novel and reported the following:
In The Rowing Lesson, page 99 marks a very clear turning-point in the life of the main character, Harold Klein. He’s eighteen years old and on a train bound for Cape Town to attend medical school. An old man with runny eyes who shares the compartment with him takes his hand when Harry tells him he’s going to become a doctor.

Clever boytjie, he says, and you wonder if what’s dripping down his cheek landed on his hands, whether you’re going to catch it too, and dissolve into a pool of water before you have a chance to become anything. Clever boytjie, he says again. Clever sounds like cleaver, cleaver sounds like clobber. Clever, cleaver, clobber. Clever, cleaver, clobber. You’re in the song, on the train, and flying up there with every goddamn bird in the sky. ‘All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the lord God made them all.’ You’re going to see everything and make the world whole and look at bodies and babies and breasts, and touch and smell and feel every ounce of life that ever walked or rolled or crawled on this funny old planet!

What’s expressed here is a distillation of many of the themes in the book – Harry’s intense connection to the land with its sights and sounds, his euphoria and excitement about entering the adult world coupled with his terror of germs. The repetitive sounds of “clever, cleaver, clobber” mimic the sound of the train’s wheels click-clacking on the tracks and intensify Harry’s heightened, almost ecstatic awareness of what being a doctor means to him. As in the whole book, the rhythms of the language itself guide the reader into the volatile workings of Harry’s inner life. He dreams, he believes, he fears – all with the same childlike ferocity and hope.
Learn more about The Rowing Lesson and Anne Landsman at her website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 2, 2007

Amalia Kessler's "A Revolution in Commerce"

Amalia D. Kessler is Associate Professor of Law and Helen L. Crocker Faculty Scholar at Stanford Law School and has an appointment (by courtesy) with the Stanford University Department of History.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book A Revolution in Commerce: The Parisian Merchant Court and the Rise of Commercial Society in Eighteenth-Century France, and reported the following:
Page 99 addresses one of the two major themes of A Revolution in Commerce. The first, discussed elsewhere in the book, is how ordinary merchants thought about commerce during a period of dramatic commercial expansion, when the foundations of modern capitalist society were first being laid. Eighteenth-century merchants, I argue, fundamentally reconceptualized commerce, and in so doing, helped to undermine the corporatist logic of the Old Regime and thus to give rise to the French Revolution.

The book's second main theme, which I address on page 99, concerns the law applied by the Parisian Merchant Court and, in particular, the standard account of the law merchant. According to the standard account, from the middle ages well into the early-modern period, merchants across Europe resolved their disputes by applying a distinctive body of merchant customs -- namely, those constituting the law merchant -- and towards this end, developed their own merchant-run courts. While there are some variations in the standard account, they all share two core features. As I argue on page 99:

[First,] they assume that the law merchant is the product exclusively of merchant norms and practices. Second, they assume that the law merchant arose in a way that was clear and incontrovertible, such that merchants at all times knew what the law merchant was -- and, in fact, they knew what it was, because it facilitated what they all understood to be their interests.

One of my primary goals in the book is to ask how accurate this description of the law merchant actually is; and I conclude that while some aspects of the standard account are valid, many are not. Thus, contrary to the standard account, the law applied by the Parisian Merchant Court was not produced exclusively by merchants and was not aimed solely at promoting market expansion. For example, parish priests played an important role in resolving many disputes before the Court and, in so doing, they often implemented Church law (like principles of just price) or sought to promote such religious values as shielding the weak (the poor debtor) from the powerful (the wealthy creditor).

On much of the remainder of page 99, I point to the serious evidentiary problems with the standard account of the law merchant:

One of the most remarkable features of the standard account of the law merchant (in all its forms) is that it is based on relatively little historical evidence. In support of their claims, proponents of this account rely significantly on citations to other secondary scholarship written in the same vein--and, in particular, to the classic works of Levin Goldschmidt and William Mitchell. As for the primary sources cited, these are largely published treatises and statutes, rather than archival court records. Moreover, because the driving theme of the standard account is that the law merchant was the same throughout Europe and across many centuries, proponents sometimes deploy these published sources in strikingly ahistorical ways. For example, one author bases his description of procedure in the supposedly pan-European, medieval law merchant largely on a single treatise, written by the late-seventeenth-century French jurist Toubeau -- a treatise concerning the French merchant courts of Toubeau's own era. In addition, while the standard account relies on published primary sources only minimally, and often poorly, it largely ignores archival records from actual merchant institutions. The absence of such archival evidence is due, no doubt, in part to the inherent difficulty of archival research, but is also likely due to the nature of the standard account itself. Since the law merchant is presumed to have been the same everywhere, and since merchant interests are presumed to be universal, unchanging, and self-evident, why bother to explore how the law merchant actually operated in particular institutions at particular moments in time?

As an archival study of the Parisian Merchant Court and its practices, A Revolution in Commerce provides a much-needed glimpse into the realities of how merchants actually resolved their disputes.

Page 99 concludes with a brief look at how recent scholars have used the standard account of the law merchant to support their presentist goals:

The standard account of the law merchant has a long history, which has been given new life in the last several decades by two groups of scholars. First, legal scholars advocating the establishment of a transnational commercial order created by and reflecting the interests of merchants have called for a return to the law merchant. Second, some of the economists instrumental in developing the field of institutional economics were inspired to trace the institutional foundations of the modern Western economic and political order -- and, thus, perhaps to transplant these in the developing world -- by the history of the law merchant.

To the extent that bad history will (or has) formed the basis for modern-day policy-making, the need to correct this history, I conclude, is all the more urgent.
Read more about A Revolution in Commerce at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue