Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jim Endersby's "A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology"

Jim Endersby is a lecturer in the History Department at the University of Sussex. His first book, A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, appeared last year (from William Heinemann in the UK, and Harvard University Press in the USA).

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following, beginning with most of page 99:
Lumpers and splitters

By the mid-nineteenth century, hawkweeds, brambles and dandelions were at the centre of a botanical war in which ‘lumpers’ faced off against ‘splitters’. These two factions brought two very different philosophies to bear on one of the most contentious scientific subjects of the day, the classification of life. In essence, they disagreed about how many kinds of living things there were in the world, an issue that was fundamental both to important scientific and religious questions.

Beginning with the discovery of America, European knowledge of the incredible diversity of the world’s animals and plants had been growing rapidly – and at an increasingly rapid pace. Initially, Europeans tried to fit the plants of the New World into the categories they had inherited from the ancient Greek authorities. For centuries, naturalists had been following in the tradition of authors like Pliny, compiling and writing commentary on ancient wisdom, but from the Renaissance onward Europeans were forced to recognize that there were more plants and animals in the world than even the wisest Greeks had dreamed of. These new plants and animals needed new names and new classifications. Within 100 years of Columbus’s arrival in America, the Cambridge Professor of Botany, John Ray, observed that while the ancient Greek botanist Theophrastus had recorded just 500 species of plants, his own Historia Plantarum Generalis contained 17,000 species.

It was largely because of this massive expansion of knowledge that – in the century after Ray’s book appeared – the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus carried out his massive reform of classification. Part of the trouble was that naturalists, botanists, farmers and florists all gave plants their own local names: H. auricula is not merely known as pale hawkweed, yellow hawkweed and yellow devil hawkweed, it is also known as kingdevil hawkweed and as the smooth (or in Connecticut, ‘smoothish’) hawkweed.

Is this representative of the book as a whole? Well, yes and no. It’s a bit dry compared to other pages – no jokes or anecdotes on this page, but it does give a flavour of the book. Each chapter is based around a plant or animal, starting with some kind of story about the organism itself – it might be its evolutionary history, the story of its interactions with people, its religious or cultural significance – each chapter is different. Page 99 is part of the chapter on Hieracium auricula, one of a group of flowers that look much like dandelions (and are often confused with them) and which, like dandelions, are annoying weeds that are hard to eradicate once they get into your lawn or your farmland. This page covers a topic that recurs throughout the book: how and why humans have classified the living world, how plants and animals got their names and why they got them. The chapter is subtitled, ‘what Mendel did next’, and concerns the use that was made of hawkweeds by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (although, as I point out in the book, he was – strictly speaking – a German-speaking Moravian friar). This chapter takes up the story of how we came to understand biological inheritance, by showing what Mendel did and – even more importantly – what he didn’t do. He did not, for example, discover the basic laws of genetics, even though he is routinely credited with having done just that.

My intention in telling the story in this rather eccentric, roundabout way, was to get away from kind of history of science that presents the past as a succession of lone geniuses whose brilliant ideas led us gradually onward and upward to the truth. By looking at the animals and plants, I hope to show that science is as much about hard work as it is about brilliant ideas. And by making the organisms the heroes of the chapters, and introducing the people as characters in the organism’s stories, I hope to show that science is always collaborative, always about cooperation (or sometimes competition) between groups of people. Lone geniuses are very rare indeed.
Read an excerpt from A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Learn more about the author and his research and other publications at Jim Endersby's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sarah Graves' "The Book of Old Houses"

Sarah Graves lives in Eastport, Maine, where her "Home Repair Is Homicide" mystery novels are set.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to the latest novel in the series, The Book of Old Houses, and reported the following:
"...Bob Arnold was an unlikely-looking cop, with a round body that nevertheless was able to move very fast, a pink face whose deceptively mild expression had been the downfall of many a crook, and unemphatic blue eyes that failed to hint at the sharp mental machinery behind them."

That's the first paragraph on page 99 of The Book of Old Houses. Next, sleuth Jake Tiptree tries to persuade Bob to keep an eye on a mysterious visitor whose links to a strange old book may include having committed murder for it.

Or maybe someone else did, either to get the book or while under its uncanny influence. After all, the volume is written in --

You guessed it. But can you guess the rest?

I think not, actually. Meanwhile as for page 99's quality being revelatory, I tend to believe each page probably has its hands full just managing to reveal its own goodness or badness, never mind the whole book's. So if it does an even halfway decent job of that I'm generally satisfied with it.
Read an excerpt from The Book of Old Houses and learn more the author and her books at Sarah Graves' website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Edward G. Lengel's "To Conquer Hell"

Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on military history, including General George Washington: A Military Life. A recipient, with the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project, of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918, and reported the following:
Page 99 of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918, begins with a grisly episode from September 26th, the first day of the battle:

“Another captured German soldier approached a group of Americans begging for water. ‘In reply,’ said a witness, ‘one of the men put a revolver to the German’s head and shot him through the temple.’”

War is capable of brutalizing the best of men. Americans, like soldiers from every other nation, sometimes committed atrocities in the heat of battle; and the fighting in the Meuse-Argonne was hotter than anything the Doughboys had ever seen. Page 99 continues:

“A lieutenant, a sergeant, and four privates from this regiment cleared a network of barbed wire defenses and moved over the crest of a knoll when the fog lifted. An automatic rifle opened fire on them from a clump of bushes ahead, and ‘as if by prearranged signal, enemy machine guns, automatics and snipers located in trees, gullies, and bushes ahead and on the flanks, opened with a hot fusillade which filled the air with snaps, cracks and whines of flying lead. Cut weeds, flying gravel and the harsh cracks of the bullets were proof enough that the patrol had located the resistance — and were in a bad trap.’ The sergeant fell, shot through the head; two privates were hit in the legs and another in the stomach. The lieutenant, carrying his revolver and two grenades, slithered through the mud and rolled into a shell hole, wondering how he had survived. ‘When the helmet rings with the cracks of ‘close ones’ and bits of flying gravel play a tattoo,’ he later explained, ‘one just naturally feels weak in the stomach and expects everything to suddenly turn black.’”

To Conquer Hell is about the Doughboys, and how they experienced and were transformed by what remains, with 26,000 dead, the bloodiest battle in American history. Utilizing hundreds of published and unpublished first-hand accounts, I describe how men from all over the United States overcame abysmal training, inadequate equipment, and sometimes incompetent generalship to crack one of the strongest German defensive systems in France and appreciably hasten the end of the First World War. The final chapter describes how the veterans returned home and attempted to readjust to civilian society. Some succeeded. Many didn’t.

In telling this story from the point of view of individual Doughboys, I am careful to avoid generalizing about their feelings and value judgments about the war. It would be all too easy to toss out narratives that don’t fit in with certain pre-conceived notions of what war is supposed to be like, although many historians of this and other wars have done so. Instead, I treat each soldier’s testimony with equal respect, finding that each man carried his experiences of the Meuse-Argonne in a unique way. My sole purpose in To Conquer Hell has been to tell the Doughboys’ stories, and to keep them alive in America’s historical memory.
Learn more about To Conquer Hell at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jana Richman's "The Last Cowgirl"

Jana Richman is the author of the memoir Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman's Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail and her first novel, The Last Cowgirl.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to the debut novel and reported the following:
The quality of the whole will be revealed ... In a novel, I would have to say the quality of the whole largely depends on three elements: intriguing characters, a compelling story, and good writing. Does page 99 of The Last Cowgirl give a representative sample of each?

On page 99, Dickie Sinfield, the main character and narrator of the story, returns to the newsroom at The Beehive Banner, a Mormon church-owned daily where she is a journalist, after hearing about her brother’s death from an accident at the U.S. Army’s nerve gas incinerator located in Utah’s west desert — also the location of the small ranch where Dickie grew up. We find out a little bit about her in the opening paragraph as she walks through the unusually quiet newsroom into her editor’s office:

Charlie and I had been hired at the paper within weeks of each other twenty-five years ago and had gravitated toward each other as outcasts tend to do. I was the most radical apostate the church had ever hired ... and Charlie was one of about ten African-American Mormons in the entire state at the time...

Although Charlie has given her time off, Dickie is intent on finding out exactly what happened at the incinerator the day her brother, Heber, died. She knows from past experience that the Army will not offer up information without a fight, and she’s hoping Charlie will help her wage that fight. As is her style, Dickie hides her pain behind sarcasm and a tough exterior:

“What the hell’s wrong with everybody out there?” I ask. “I can’t be the first person to have a death in the family.”

“No, but I’m pretty sure you’re the first to have one killed by nerve gas.”

“That doesn’t make me toxic — although growing up in Ganoa County might.”

From page 99, we do get a glimpse of Dickie’s character, but we get an awfully narrow view of the story itself. Although the relationship between the U.S Army and the west desert ranchers is an integral part of the story, it is not a good representation of the whole, which is about love, loss, passion, regret, and our relationship to the geography around us. As for the “good writing” criteria, I’ll leave that up to the readers.
Read an excerpt from The Last Cowgirl and learn more about the novel from the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Glenda E. Gilmore's "Defying Dixie"

Glenda E. Gilmore is the Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale University. A North Carolina native, she writes extensively on Southern history.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950, and reported the following:
Defying Dixie is about those people in the South who opposed segregation and white supremacy from 1919 though 1950 and who paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. The first third of the book focuses on Communists, who stood almost alone in espousing integration, social equality, and full political rights for African Americans in the 1920s and early 1930s. It's not easy to write compellingly about the details of Communism theory on the ground in the South. The records were secret, people used aliases, and they changed approaches and revised organizations based on national and international policies. I used the Soviet archives in Moscow and matched that information to local southern sources. Page 99 is about the nuts and bolts of Communist organizing in the South and why black southerners joined the party. It's more organizational and less personal than most of the narrative because it documents a change in Communist policy toward organizing African Americans. Page 99 uses local stories to illustrate international politics and introduces human characters to exemplify complicated political ideas. To answer Ford Madox Ford, it's representative, but it's not comprehensive.

Page 99:

over some commercial transaction.1 Moreover, poor black transients looking for work often found themselves accused of crimes by people they had never met in places they had only visited. The Communists realized that white southerners used the criminal justice system to enforce their political economy. Lynching a black man taught other black men to stay in their places at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Organizing around issues such as lynching helped bring southern African Americans into the Party. When Otto Hall left Gastonia he traveled to Baltimore, Atlanta, Richmond, Birmingham and throughout North Carolina. He hoped to turn radical pre-existing black organizations into American Negro Labor Congress chapters.2 At the close of 1929, the ANLC had forty-six locals, including twelve in the South, an amazing increase over the five northern locals it had had when the Gastonia strike began. The next year, “for the first time in the five years’ history of the A.N.L.C. since its founding in Chicago in 1925, a delegation came from the South.” Hall had succeeded where Lovett Fort-Whiteman had failed.3

New ANLC branches should have furnished black CP members to integrated Party units, but getting the local white Party members to accept black people proved a difficult task. For example, in Norfolk, Virginia, Party members were Jewish small businessmen who conducted meetings in Yiddish. A young white Communist organizer built a union among black women who worked in a bedspring factory there, only to be charged with a violation of Virginia’s law against “conspiracy to incite the colored population to insurrection against the white population.”4 Moreover, he reported, the local Jewish Communists adopted an “open antagonistic attitude towards Negro Comrades.” The practice of interracial Communism proved too much for the Jewish members, who feared their own arrests would come next. They voted to “disband the branch in the face of all the terror.” The Party called them “petty-bourgeois elements” and expelled them.5 The Party had to impress the Negro Policy’s importance on their white members.

The interracial League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR) was a step in that direction. It replaced the all-black American Negro Labor Congress with an organization that would be “more broad and all-inclusive,” and include “white workers standing on the program of Negro Liberation.”6 By the end of 1931, ferreting out racism in the Party

Read an excerpt from Defying Dixie and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 25, 2008

"Microtrends" by Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne

Mark Penn is worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller and President of Penn, Schoen and Berland. E. Kinney Zalesne is a former White House Fellow, Counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, and was president and executive vice president of two national social-change organizations, College Summit and Hillel.

They applied the "Page 99 Test" to their new book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes, and reported the following:
Page 99 wraps up the 20th microtrend -- of 75 -- in Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes. This chapter is about America’s Hard-of-Hearers – the nearly 30 million people (up from just 12 million in the early 70s) who strain to hear, or miss out on sounds entirely.

It’s a classic microtrend: Americans are largely focused on myopia, but it fact deafness is the hot new sensory malfunction. And more pointedly, the rise in Hard-of-Hearers has huge, untapped implications for business and policy. Look for deafness-related innovations -- like bionic ear processor implants that run on a 15-year battery, or antioxidant drugs that protect cells in the inner ear – to take off in the stock market. Look for a public health campaign against noise (assuming advocates can get over the challenge of being heard in Washington without shouting). And look for more revolutionary inventions: both the telephone and the Internet were actually invented by men who were trying to improve their communication with their deaf wives.

We like Page 99 as a solid sample page of Microtrends – on it or almost any other page, you can grasp a new, under-the-radar but growing group of people in America who, by virtue of their circumstances and/or passions, are reshaping our nation. Office Romancers. Working Retired. Pro-Semites. Protestant Hispanics. Impressionable Elites. Long Attention Spanners. Caffeine Crazies. XXX Men. In the 75 groups, you will see yourself, your friends, your family, and your co-workers. And you will get a better understanding of how society works and where it’s going.

The big picture, from the microtrends, is that America is niching out into small, intense groups. But what sustains them all is an increasingly common set of values around tolerance and respect. That’s our strength and our challenge as a nation: we can meet the needs of more and more people, but only if we recognize that what makes that possible is the shared understanding that there’s more than one way to be an American.
Read an excerpt from Microtrends and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Aimee Bender's "Willful Creatures"

Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own, and Willful Creatures. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper's, Tin House, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and she has received two Pushcart prizes.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to Willful Creatures and reported the following:
So, page 99 of Willful Creatures -- it's not all that representative, but maybe in an unexpected way it is. It's close to the climactic moment in a story where a woman has stumbled upon a store that carries words, made out of solids, liquids and gases. Page 99: they (she and the shop owner) enter the gas room, and it appears to be empty. Turns out the woman who runs the store has an elaborate explanation about how she has made the gases into words. So maybe, since this could be interpreted as a metaphor for the idea of writing, and the book is a book of writing, it's absolutely representative. Sometimes, the concept of writing, to me, feels a whole lot like making gas into words. Something less tangible into something more tangible. Like grabbing at air.

Also there's a silver key which reminds me of Bluebeard stories, and all fairy tales like that one are a guiding force when I sit down to write.
Read an excerpt from Willful Creatures and learn more about the author and her work at Aimee Bender's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Harvard Sitkoff's "King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop"

Harvard Sitkoff is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the author or editor of more than eight books, including A New Deal for Blacks; The Struggle for Black Equality, 1945–1992; and A History of Our Time.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop, and reported the following:
My page 99 is the end of a four-page description and analysis of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which I consider one of the most cogent and eloquent American political writings. It is King at his best: violating a court injunction (an unjust law is no law at all); going to jail (by accepting imprisonment in order to arouse the community over its injustice, you were expressing the highest respect for law); refuting charges of being an “outside agitator” (Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere); defending his “extremism” and tactics of nonviolent direct-action civil disobedience (We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.... We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed); explaining why African Americans should not be patient with injustice (Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation); and scorching the moderates or gradualists (I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block is not the White Citizen Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice).

The King of my book is no mere dreamer and apostle of love. He is a fighter for change. And the Movement he helped lead did, indeed, change the legal status of African Americans, usher in significant political change, and undermine a way of life built on ingrained racial discrimination and segregation.
Learn more about King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

José Ramón Sánchez's "Boricua Power"

José Ramón Sánchez is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of Urban Studies at Long Island University, Brooklyn. He is also the Chair of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his 2007 book Boricua Power: A Political History of Puerto Ricans in the United States, and reported the following:
I grapple with explaining power in this book. How do people get others to do things? Why do others comply? Puerto Ricans are a good case study for these questions because so much research and popular thinking has characterized this Latino community as one of the poorest and weakest in the U.S. I show that, contrary to popular thinking, there have been moments when Puerto Ricans have amassed power. More importantly, I show that these moments cannot be explained by traditional theories of power.

This chapter analyzes the Puerto Rican experience with power in the post-World War period in New York City. On this page, I remind the reader of the overall theme of the book. I explain power as an unstable product of the interactions between people. Power, in this sense, is less a thing and more a movement. It is a dance, the intersection of people driven by passions and interests with people who have the ability to satisfy them. It is within that engagement or dance that people gain the ability to move and to be moved, to act and to resist, to lead and to follow. Money or weapons, in this sense, do not create power. They can make power possible for those who possess them, but only if other people need or desire money in one or fear injury and death if a weapon is used in the other. Money loses value. Desires differ and change. Some people fear death. Some don’t. These changes and differences shift power, making it fundamentally unstable and fluid.

Though this chapter explains how the Puerto Rican community in New York City was able to gather political power, I suggest on this page that power actually does not exist so neatly compartmentalized into political, economic, and cultural boxes. I write “these dimensions of life are both too tangled together and too omnipresent for one to always dominate. It is the gravity of the relationship at particular moments that gives any of these dimensions the special ability to pull and push bodies across the social plane and expose its power.” Puerto Ricans in the post WW Two era gathered political power but not because they voted or had good political organizations. They simply became more valuable as cheap labor to local New York City industries and important examples of capitalist freedom in the emerging Cold War politics between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Changed economic need for Puerto Rican labor and superpower political interests thus created the gravitational forces that resulted in political power for Puerto Ricans in this period.
Read more about Boricua Power at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 21, 2008

Amanda Eyre Ward's "Forgive Me"

Amanda Eyre Ward is the award-winning author of How to Be Lost and Sleep Toward Heaven.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest novel Forgive Me, and reported the following:
Oh, man, this is hard. This reminds me of my college application essay where we had to write page 137 of our autobiography and I did my level best to make sure that was the page where I mentioned how much my parent’s divorce had strengthened me and how I was the only girl in AP Physics.

On page 99 of Forgive Me, a young boy who loves to sing Sinatra meets a creepy man named Malcon who tells him he’s going to be a star. Although much of the book takes place in South Africa, and involves murder and motherhood, I think this page does reflect the tone of the novel, which is both sad and hopeful. I think this is what I always write about: how the saddest thing in the world is a hopeful person, and vice-versa. To hope for joy takes so much courage.

Page 99 is in the first person voice of the little boy. I had written much of the novel before I heard his voice, and at first, I had no idea who he was. I was in a hotel room in San Francisco, and I heard this voice say, “Today I was discovered.” I started writing on the hotel pad with the hotel pen, and I didn’t stop for some time.

Richard Hugo writes about “the triggering town.” He says, “You found the town, and now you must start the poem. If the poem turns out good, the town will have become your hometown no matter what name it carries.”

On Page 93, I began writing about this boy, my “triggering boy.” By page 99, I loved him.
Read an excerpt from Forgive Me and learn more about the author and her writing at Amanda Eyre Ward's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kathleen George's "Afterimage"

Kathleen George is a professor of theatre at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the acclaimed novels Taken and Fallen, the short story collection The Man in the Buick, scholarly theatrical books and articles, and many short stories.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new novel Afterimage, and reported the following:
I’ve sometimes administered something like the Ford Madox Ford test on my own when browsing in a bookstore. Perhaps I didn’t go to p. 99, but I opened the book at random to see if the author's voice was clear and compelling. Now I’ve been asked to do it to my own book — and that’s a test all right! I look at the bookshelf nervously. Will I protest? Will I say, “Oh, but there’s so much more scene description elsewhere,” or “Oh, oh, if you would just check out this other character, I think you’d be pleased.”

So I heave a breath and open to p. 99 and I find that that’s the scene in a poverty-ridden household in which the young rookie detective Colleen Greer is questioning a man about his daughter whose body has been found in the park. The man is lithe, gorgeous, alcoholic. Does he know anything at all? Is he hiding knowledge? Is he completely innocent?

The fact is, I’ve found a somewhat representative scene. Colleen Greer is trying to be polite. There is a horrible tragedy sitting in the room and yet she’s quietly pressing him for details. And she’s listening closely to the facts that she will have to sort out — the alibi he gives her.

As I was writing this scene and others, the characters were (always are) very real to me. I can feel the pace of their heartbeats, I know when they swallow, I know when something gets caught in the throat. That means that, for moments, I must be them. Then, too, I think I know how they smell — breath, underarms. That means that in other moments I stand beside them. I also watch them interact. To do that, I have to stand back a few feet.

Inside: Deon Washington is heartbroken, confused, and hungover. Next to: He smells of sugar, alcohol, sweat, and sex. A few feet back: He hands over pieces of his life, bit by bit, as he can, to Colleen who treats them objectively, both of them focusing on ordinary details and putting off, for a time, the enormous grief for what has happened.
Read an excerpt from Afterimage and learn more about the author and her work at Kathleen George's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Charlotte Brewer's "Treasure-House of the Language"

Charlotte Brewer is a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, and CUF lecturer in English at Oxford University. She has published extensively on topics related to the Oxford English Dictionary.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED, and reported the following:
Treasure-House of the Language tells the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary in the twentieth and twentieth-first century. While researching the book, I read hundreds of long-neglected documents kept in dusty archives in the basement of Oxford University Press’s offices, many of them letters and memos about the meaning of individual words and whether and how they should be treated in the dictionary.

Page 99 of my book uses these documents to illustrate both the delights and the problems of word-hunting and dictionary-making. On this page, senior officers in Oxford University Press discuss (in 1938) definitions of ‘know your onions’, a phrase of particular interest to them since one of the OED's own editors was called Onions:

‘It means “knowing what one is talking of”, “being master of the subject”, - being, in fact “the cat’s whisker” or “head man” in this or that matter”. I have no idea of why it means what it is said to mean!’

Given the infrequency with which supplement volumes were produced, however, ‘know your onions’ had to wait until 1976 before it was included in the OED – although its first usage was c.1922. Also reviewed on this page is the noun higgle, as in 'the higgle of the market' ('the adjusting of prices so that demand and supply are equal'), which had just got into the 1933 OED Supplement with a first recorded date of 1908. Two of the publishers are convinced it was used earlier than this:

'the verb is common in commercial use. We have ourselves been talking a good deal lately on the relative merits of two systems of interdepartmental prices — standardization and higgling.'

But the entry they criticized in 1938 remains untouched to this day, though their conversation suggests that not only the noun but also the verb higgle needs revision in the OED:

the relevant sense [of the verb] is not defined, though it is indicated by a sole quotation dated 1866: ‘When
A knowing or hoping that figs will be soon inquired for, buys up all the figs in the market he higgles; but when A keeps a grocer’s shop and asks B eightpence for a pound of figs and B offers him sixpence, then B haggles.’

Elsewhere on p. 99, individuals complain that the OED has left words out (e.g. John Bunyan’s slithy, from 1680), and demand that recent coinages (e.g. biosophy) should be included.

So this page illustrates a point I return to several times in my book (and explore further on my website). Although the OED is an unparalleled work of scholarship, it has never, until today, been fully revised (revision began around 1995 and will take decades to complete). Consequently, it still contains many out-of-date definitions and dates – and these are often corrected by members of the public who write in with suggestions. You can too, at ‘How to contribute words to the Reading Programme’, thus becoming one of the hundreds of volunteer contributors since 1857 who have helped to make the OED the living dictionary it is today.
Read more about Treasure-House of the Language at the Yale University Press website and learn more about "Examining the OED."

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 18, 2008

Natasha Cooper's "A Greater Evil/Evil is Done"

Natasha Cooper is the author of six historical novels published under another name, the crime novels in the lighthearted Willow King series, and the grittier Trish Maguire crime novels.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her latest novel A Greater Evil (Evil is Done in America), and reported the following:
Page 99:

Chapter 9

On Wednesday Trish was sitting in the Temple Church beside David, listening to the first line of 'Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar'. In spite of the stone vaulting and the muffling effect of the huge crowd, the sound of the solo voice was pure and literally thrilling. She shivered and could feel hairs on the back of her neck stiffening. The other voices of the choir joined in and the effect became a lot more ordinary.

She looked away from the singers, around the rich crowd, and thought how odd it was that they were only a twenty-minute Tube journey from the miserable, impoverished world contained within Holloway's red walls. To her left she could see the life-sized effigies of supporters of the order of Knights Templar, which lay only inches above floor level under the dome. Long legged and dignified in their chain mail and surcoats, they were images of stoicism in suffering.

They reminded her of the voices of the foundlings she'd heard in the museum, which in turn reminded her of how she still hadn't decided what to tell Sam about Maria-Teresa. Would it help him to meet her and see that, even if she had been the woman who'd abandoned him, she was no monster? Or would it stir him up even more? After all, this must be just about the worst time to take any risks with his fragile stability.

The Page 99 Test:

Can you really judge a whole novel from a single page? I wonder. You can, of course, get a flavour of it, and I think page 99 of A Greater Evil/Evil is Done provides that much.

Trish, the main character, is a barrister, which is why she is in the glorious Temple Church in the heart of legal London for the annual carol service. Here, listening to the amazing singing, she is very much aware of the difference between the privileged bunch around her and the miseries endured by inhabitants of Holloway prison, where she has been visiting a woman on remand for the killing of her child.

Like most major cities, London is a place where great wealth exists right next to extreme deprivation of all kinds, and the divide between the two has been a big part of all the novels in the Trish Maguire series. In this one, the gap is symbolised by Sam, who is mentioned at the foot of page 99. He is now a well regarded sculptor, but, as an abused baby, he was dumped on the steps of the Royal London Hospital in one of the poorest parts of the city. The woman in Holloway, Maria-Teresa, has been writing to him, claiming to be the person who left him there and wanting contact and forgiveness, now that he is rich and famous. To add to his miseries, his wife has been killed and he has been accused of her murder....
Read more about the author and her work at Natasha Cooper's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Margaret Graver's "Stoicism and Emotion"

Margaret Graver is Associate Professor of Classics at Dartmouth College.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book Stoicism and Emotion, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book is concerned with whether Seneca and other ancient Stoics considered tears, turning pale and similar corporeal manifestations to be emotions in themselves or whether an additional judgment is always required. If this is the kind of question that interest you then yes, you'd probably like the whole book.
Read more about Stoicism and Emotion at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Julia Buckley's "The Dark Backward"

Julia Buckley is the author of the mystery novels Madeline Mann, which Kirkus called a "bright debut," and The Dark Backward.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Dark Backward and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Dark Backward reveals what I suppose is a common feature of the suspense novel: shifting allegiances. I like to read books that don’t make it clear, initially, whom I should trust, and I like to employ that concept in my writing, as well.

The novel revolves around a young policewoman named Lily Caldwell and the corrupt governor, Nob Stevens, whom she is trying, single-handedly, to bring down. Initially, no one believes her; on page 99, though, two different people have begun to question the governor’s integrity: his wife and his personal assistant.

It is still unclear, I think, on what side these characters will fall — or at least one of them, John Pierre, is morally ambiguous. But page 99 hints that changes are afoot for that young assistant:

“Pierre was twenty-nine years old and experiencing his very first crisis of conscience ... he had trusted the governor implicitly for four years and now, in an instant, he didn’t trust him anymore.”

This is a transition point in the novel, and I would beseech you to read the whole thing in order to understand why Pierre’s trust is such a crucial thing. I’m told that it’s a rapid read with many cliffhangers — but judge for yourself!
View The Dark Backward book trailer and learn more about the author and her books at Julia Buckley's website and her blog, Mysterious Musings.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Declan Burke's "The Big O"

Declan Burke is a freelance writer, editor and author. His two novels published to date are Eightball Boogie (2003) and The Big O (2007).

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Big O and reported the following:
The belly, yeah, thickening up, the love-handles running flabby, the stretch-marks like trenches from some abandoned war. But what did they expect, she was fifty-fucking-one, had twins for Chrissakes …

The kick for Madge wasn’t so much the mellow buzz, the chilling out. No, what Madge enjoyed best was that she, Margaret Dolan, mother of twins, was smoking grass, weed, pot, call it whatever. All the movies she’d ever seen, the hippies rolling up in a haze of smoke, Madge’d wondered, okay, it looks fun but how’s it feel?
--Page 99, The Big O

I’ve always liked the Pixies’ style, that quiet-LOUD-quiet dynamic they had, and The Big O is organised along those lines: fast-slooooow-fast-fast. Page 99 (the start and finish of which is given above) comes in the middle of one of the slow chapters, in which the ostensibly refined Madge contemplates her recently pierced navel while smoking a joint in a parking lot.

The chapter concludes with Madge, soon to be divorced, deciding she’s ready for some life-changing action. What Madge can’t know, but the reader already does, is that her life is about to change irrevocably – Madge’s ex-husband, Frank, has arranged for her to be kidnapped, and intends absconding with the ransom his insurance company will pay out.

The majority of The Big O is pacy and dialogue-driven, so page 99 isn’t very representative of the whole. On the other hand, Madge is emblematic of most of the characters, all of whom are trying to break out of their lives of quiet desperation without realising that they’re caught up in a broader narrative that will, despite their best efforts, thwart their ambitions and deflect them away from their hoped-for destination.

This in turn feeds into the novel’s overarching theme, that of life as black farce which requires constant adaptation and reinvention, especially in the most daunting of circumstances. I suppose it’s because I generally tend to feel that the inability of people, myself included, to accept or even recognise their limitations is in equal measures funny, moving and inspiring.

In that sense, page 99 is probably as pure a synthesis of what I was hoping to achieve as any other page in The Big O. If I’d known I’d be taking this test, though, I’d have included a few explosions.
Read an excerpt from The Big O and learn more about the book and author at the publisher's website and Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 14, 2008

Nicola Barker's "Darkmans"

Nicola Barker is the author of two short-story collections: Love Your Enemies and Heading Inland. Her novels include Reversed Forecast, Small Holdings, Wide Open, Behindlings, and Clear, the last of which was long-listed for the 2005 Booker Prize.

Invited to apply the "Page 99 Test" to her latest novel Darkmans -- which was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize -- she responded:
I regret to say that I do not believe Ford Madox Ford ever wrote a decent sentence in his life, let alone a whole page, so you will have to forgive my reluctance to use my own work as a testing ground for his specious theories...
Learn more about Darkmans at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Kyle Mills' "Darkness Falls"

Kyle Mills is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including his award-winning The Second Horseman. Growing up in Oregon as a Bureau Kid, Kyle absorbed an enormous amount of information about the FBI, which he incorporates into his novels.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest novel Darkness Falls, and reported the following:
I had no idea that Ford Madox Ford ever said such a thing. I’ll keep that in mind while I’m writing my next book.

In Darkness Falls, page 99 is actually only a half page — the beginning of chapter fourteen. In it, one of my protagonists is attending an extremely uncomfortable meeting in which the President discovers that a number of oil fields have been attacked with a biological weapon.

So, by a wild stroke of luck, this page represents my book pretty well. Darkness Falls is constructed around the possibility that someone could use one of nature’s many hydrocarbon-eating bacteria to wipe out the world’s oil supply.

What page 99 only gives the reader a glimpse of, though, is the chaos that would ensue if someone actually attempted this. In the United States, we rely on oil for virtually everything: food, transportation, medicine, heat. Many of us live in large, densely populated cities that must be constantly supplied from the outside. And almost none of us have the kind of survival skills that someone a hundred years ago would have taken for granted.

It’s a frightening thing to think about. What would you do if grocery stores were suddenly empty? If your power went out indefinitely? If everyone around you was suddenly cold, hungry, and willing to do anything to survive?
Read excerpts from Darkness Falls and learn more about the author and his work at the blog and official website of Kyle Mills.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Simon Kitson's "The Hunt for Nazi Spies"

Simon Kitson is Senior Lecturer in the French Studies department at Birmingham University.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France, and reported the following:
I’d like to be able to state that page 99 was written in the same inimitable style as the rest of my book, equally reminiscent of Shakespeare at his best yet with the ready accessibility of Harry Potter novels! But that would be a lie. Of 37 lines on page 99, only 15 are my own. This does not mean that the rest were plagiarised. But this page contains two long quotations extracted from administrative reports. That is totally untypical. I hate long quotations and I loath the style of administrative reports which are usually as dry as a camel’s jacuzzi. But I still want to salvage Ford Madox Ford’s reputation as I think with such a name he can’t be a bad guy. So I’ll happily report that his quotation does seem relevant since page 99 touches on many of the themes of the book. My monograph deals with espionage and counter-espionage in World War Two. It reassesses the relationship between the German occupation authorities and the collaborating ‘Vichy’ government highlighting the diplomatic strains caused by French attempts to preserve their independence. Ultimately it shows that the effectiveness of Vichy’s attempts to preserve sovereignty was undermined by a desire not to compromise state collaboration. Page 99 also hints that I’m interested in the personal histories of those accused of espionage. How well the book tackles the above themes, or indeed how far my style is reminiscent of Shakespeare or Harry Potter, will be up to the reader to decide. But one thing that page 99 cannot reveal is that my book is currently heavily discounted at certain online bookstores. And to that highly commercial note I’d just add that page 122 is my own personal favourite but that it only makes sense if you read the other 163 pages of text!
Read an excerpt from The Hunt for Nazi Spies and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about Simon Kitson's research interests and other publications at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Michelle Wildgen’s "You’re Not You"

Michelle Wildgen is senior editor of Tin House Magazine, an editor with Tin House Books, the author of the novel You’re Not You, and the editor of the anthology Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to You’re Not You and reported the following:
I was pretty sure page 99 would be a description of gorillas or something random, but actually the page opens on a scene that — to me, anyway — is pivotal in terms of the relationship between the two main characters, its underpinnings, insecurities, and shifts, and the reasons why it’s shifting in the first place.

So: Kate and Bec are in the bathroom. Bec is applying makeup to Kate, and hearing, bit by bit, about why Kate has just asked her husband to move out. The relevance of the separation for Bec is that she is Kate’s caregiver (Kate has advanced ALS) and the departure of the husband will eventually mean more responsibility for Bec, and a much tighter bond between the two women. For me, however, the significance is in the way the conversation proceeds:

“But do you think this is temporary?”

Kate opened her eyes. “No,” she said. “It’s probably permanent.”

I stopped sharpening the eyeliner and watched Kate’s lips carefully. “’Permanent’?”

Kate nodded. She shut her eyes again so I could smudge the gray eyeliner near her lashes….

“He thinks,” Kate said, “he should have another outlet.”

From there Bec hears the rest of the story, in the singular way she and Kate communicate throughout: Kate, whose illness has left her hard to comprehend, gives a few words at a time and Bec translates and repeats for confirmation. What she learns is that Kate’s family disagrees with her choice to ask her husband to move out if he insists on sleeping with someone else, that Kate herself has had mixed feelings about the idea, and tried for awhile to accept the situation. Throughout the scene Bec keeps revising her own opinions: realizing she had assumed Kate and Evan’s marriage proceeded with just this kind of accommodation, shock at how suddenly a marriage could be ended (which is of special relevance to her given that she has slept with a married instructor for months), and her own attempts to comfort Kate and bond with her by insisting that she, Bec, understands the complexities of the marriage between the older couple. What seems like an intimate moment falls apart when Kate understands that Bec is telling her she too has been in a complicated relationship — but as the other woman. Kate closes down the conversation and the moment.

The page feels like the book in a nutshell because it glimpses the ideas that develop throughout the novel: the issue of sexuality and sexual rules for both women, Bec’s attempts to connect emotionally with Kate, whom she deeply admires, and Kate’s mercurial willingness to open up to her, her constantly changing feelings about how much of herself to bare. Their intimacy grows, but only haltingly, uncomfortably, and for Bec it is forever in question, just as it is here.
Read an excerpt from You're Not You, and learn more about the author and her writing at Michelle Wildgen’s website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 7, 2008

Zoë Sharp's "Second Shot"

Zoë Sharp's professional writing career began in 2001 with Killer Instinct, the first Charlie Fox book. This novel was followed by Riot Act (2002), Hard Knocks (2003), and First Drop (UK 2004; US, 2005), which earned a nomination for a Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel. The fifth Charlie Fox book is Road Kill (2005), and the latest is Second Shot. Another Charlie Fox book, Third Strike, will be out in summer 2008.

Sharp applied the "Page 99 Test" to Second Shot and reported the following:
Whether page 99 of my Charlie Fox crime thriller, Second Shot, gives you a real insight into the rest of the book, partly depends on which version of it you read. The layout of the UK and US editions differ a lot - the UK book is 396 pages, but the US one is a slender 278, even though the story is exactly the same give or take some differences in spelling. So, in the UK Second Shot, page 99 has Charlie accompanying the woman she’s protecting, Simone, and Simone’s young daughter, Ella, on a tour of Boston, stopping off at Boston Common for what seems like a harmless walk in the park.

In the US Second Shot, however, the story is much further advanced. Simone has already met up with the man claiming to be her estranged father, Greg Lucas, and she and Ella have travelled up to his home in New Hampshire, despite Charlie’s misgivings on the subject. By page 99, Ella is just getting to know her step-grandmother, who is letting her mess around in the kitchen, making cookies under Charlie’s watchful eye.

But do either of these pages give you a real feel for the book? Honestly? No, I don’t think they do. A page or two further on in the UK book and Charlie has to rush Simone and Ella away from a man who approaches them while they’re building a snowman on the Common. A page earlier in the US book, and Charlie’s on the phone with her boss, Sean, who’s back in London, learning all about Lucas’s violent past as an SAS instructor. Either of those, I would have said, would give you a better idea of Charlie’s character and how protective she feels towards her principals. This is particularly true of four-year-old Ella, who becomes the focus for all Charlie’s bodyguarding skills as the story reaches its conclusion.
Read an excerpt from Second Shot and learn more about the author and her books at Zoë Sharp's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Finkelstein & Zuckerman's "The Fattening of America"

Eric Finkelstein, a renowned health economist who has spent much of his career studying the economics of obesity, and Laurie Zuckerman are the authors of The Fattening of America: How The Economy Makes Us Fat, If It Matters, and What To Do About It.

They applied the "Page 99 Test" to their new book and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Fattening of America is a great example of the obesity conundrum. On page 99 we discuss how obesity may be hurting our military readiness. While we might think that boot camp and rigorous physical training would make being overweight in the military nearly impossible, members of the armed forces have been gaining weight just like the rest of us. As a point of reference, today’s soldiers are, on average, 37 pounds heavier than those in the Civil War. More than 54 percent of military personnel are now overweight. In fact, over the past few years, thousands of servicemen and -women have been discharged due to their excess weight (3,000 servicemen and -women in 2003 alone).

And because the military recruits from the general population, the fact that Americans are getting heavier makes it more difficult (and more expensive) to meet recruiting targets. For men and women of prime recruiting age, 2 out of 10 men, and 4 of 10 women weigh too much to be eligible to enlist.

So the evidence suggests that obesity is weakening our armed forces. But how much of a problem is it, really? We revisit this issue on page 110. We argue that although it is true that the military is having a tough time recruiting, the cause likely has far less to do with obesity than it does with the fact that those entering the military today have a far greater likelihood of serving in combat, and perhaps dying, in an increasingly unpopular war.

And what about the extra pounds that our military personnel are carrying around? How does that impact the troops’ performance? Well, in actuality, the increasing weight among active-duty members may be no more of a problem than it is in the private sector. As with private-sector jobs, many military specialties have been mechanized to the point where carrying a few extra pounds may not decrease job performance. (Note that while military personnel are increasingly more likely to be overweight, very few fall into the obese category.) Clearly, there are some roles that require individuals to be in elite fighting shape, but there is no evidence that these individuals are the ones who are overweight.

How about those 3,000 servicemen and women that were discharged due to their weight? In reality, this figure represents only one fifth of 1 percent of the total armed forces population. Moreover, given the pressures imposed on today’s military, it is certainly possible that some of these individuals fattened up as a way to get out.

As this example points out, nothing is obvious when it comes to obesity. The Fattening of America provides a unique perspective on the causes and consequences of the obesity epidemic, and provides a roadmap for evaluating obesity interventions, including whether or not they are likely to be effective.
Learn more about The Fattening of America at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ray Banks' "Saturday's Child"

Ray Banks is the author of The Big Blind (his debut), Saturday's Child, and Donkey Punch.

applied the "Page 99 Test" to Saturday's Child, which is released this month in US by Harcourt, and reported the following:
Well, page 99 is the start of Chapter Eighteen, so I have less of a page to deal with, but it's the start of a pretty major chapter in Mo Tiernan's development, so it figures that it would be important. We join smalltime drug dealer Mo in a rare moment of downtime – he's smoking a spliff, drinking Courvosier, settled in his beanbag to watch Predator 2 – before he's interrupted by his father, Morris Tiernan.

"I didn't give a shit, like. Already seen the good bit when the Predator fucked 'em all up, Rastas getting proper splattered all over the shop and this bird with her tits hanging out giving it with the vocals. Weren't as good as the first one, mind."

That's about all the critical analysis you get, because the telly's soon turned off and Morris Tiernan gets on with talking shop with his son – "I didn't know people were still doing pills." – and before you get to find out Mo's mark-up, the page ends.

Great. Nothing special there.

But while page 99 isn't particularly symptomatic of the rest of the book, that chapter is. You're asked to empathise a little with Mo, understand why he ends up doing what he does, primarily by understanding the relationship he has with his father. And there's nothing as insulting to a wannabe hard man than getting bitchslapped by your own dad. Plus, it's just come off the back of a chapter that's had the "hero" of the novel called (quite rightly, as it happens) a hatchet man. So we're switching loyalties a little here, messing with the good guy / bad guy thing.

Which is kind of the point of the book.
Learn more about the novel and Ray Banks at his website and at Crimespace and MySpace.

--Marshal Zeringue