Friday, January 30, 2009

Catherine Blyth's "The Art of Conversation"

Catherine Blyth is a writer and editor. She has contributed to publications like The Times, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman and Mail on Sunday, and written scripts for the BBC and Channel 5.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, and reported the following:
The first question: which edition, British or American?

Anglophiles enter the tail end of chapter four, 'The Rest is Silence'. Yes, an entire, brief chapter celebrates a communication tool 'as versatile as the queen in chess' – able to provoke thought, aid negotiation, and more. This page relishes the confidence silence bestows, before arguing it opens 'a window of opportunity' – either to mend a hole in conversation, or exit.

Meanwhile, Gotham Books' lean volume skips ahead to Five, 'Fit Subjects'. What makes a good topic? With help from Aristotle, I explain why 'topics are unstable mixtures of attitude and subject', whose interest rate (like most people's) declines with time, before offering a menu of topics, rating their virtues, and risks.

Does either 99 faithfully represent my book?

Well, obviously I explore how conversation works, and how anyone can do better. But neither page displays the range of reference (from nomads to kings to waitresses to hostage negotiators), the funny stories, or my argument: that conversation is an everyday luxury that costs nothing, but can bring you the world.

Beyond how to talk to anyone, this art encompasses all our tools for reading and changing minds. How we listen, persuade and flirt; how Dolly Parton entrances interviewers; why we should laugh at our jokes, and how to navigate tricky discussion, at work, in love, and play.

In short, everything we need to survive – and enjoy – tough times.
Listen to an excerpt from The Art of Conversation, and learn more about the book and author at Catherine Blyth's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dalton Conley's "Elsewhere, U.S.A."

Dalton Conley is University Professor of the Social Sciences and Acting Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He also teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Slate, among other publications. His previous books include Honky; Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America; and The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, and reported the following:
On page 99 (spilling over from bottom of 98) I discuss how “the purchase” has displaced the gift relationship in today’s economy. In the classic anthropological text, The Gift, Marcel Mauss describes the “potlatch” in which primitive societies would exchange shells or other gifts around in a great big circle before throwing the lot into the sea. The gift promotes social solidarity by binding the recipient to the giver through the responsibility to reciprocate (and to treasure the gift – hang the proverbial picture on the wall when they visit). By contrast, the modern agora – ­or marketplace­ – with monetary exchange relationships for everything (think Craigslist) undermines that social economy by pricing the formerly priceless (despite what the credit card ads claim).

This is but one way that the rapid expansion of markets has changed the texture of social life in recent years. The second way I point to on page 99 is the ubiquity of the “winner’s curse” thanks to the proliferation of auction sites (think eBay and Priceline). The winner’s curse is a term that economists use to describe the fact that the so-called winner of an auction is actually the loser, since s/he paid too much – by definition – given that s/he outbid the wisdom of the market, which sets value & price.

These are two tidbits in a book meant to explain the new texture of social and economic life in today’s Elsewhere Society and how we got there.
Read an excerpt from Elsewhere, U.S.A., and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Dalton Conley's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jeff Benedict's "Little Pink House"

Jeff Benedict is an award-winning investigative journalist, a lawyer, and a best-selling author of seven books. He is a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated and the Hartford Courant.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage, and reported the following:
Little Pink House is the behind-the-scenes account of Kelo v. New London, the most controversial Supreme Court case since Roe v. Wade. The story is set in a seaside, blue collar town in Connecticut, where a neighborhood street fight escalated into a high-stakes federal case. But what happened there could happen anywhere. The fight is over private property rights. The City of New London used a development corporation to condemn, seize and demolish homes to make way for a five-star hotel, a spa, office space and upscale housing. All of this is intended to complement plans by Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, to build its global research and development headquarters next door to the neighborhood. But a nurse – Susette Kelo – and her neighbors rally to save their homes from the wrecking ball.

Page 99 of the book has the NLDC (that’s the development company going after the houses) working hand-in-hand with Pfizer and the government to acquire more and more property. And a local newspaper is trying to find out what they’re up to. It’s all part of the build-up to a dramatic confrontation that ultimately plays out on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and on the steps of the Supreme Court. This case makes history and changes the meaning of eminent domain when the court says it is okay to take land from one person and give it to another capable of generating higher taxes.

On one level this is all about government overstepping its bounds and crushing the little guy. “The specter of condemnation hangs over all property,” Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote in a blistering dissent. “Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory.” Yet beneath this obvious injustice, there’s an even more compelling hidden drama driven by the conflict between unchecked power and raw defiance. At its core this story is about human pride, a virtue that breeds self-respect and a condition that is first among the seven cardinal sins.

Sir Edward Coke said: “A man’s house is his castle …and where shall a man be safe if it be not in his own house?” Little Pink House will make you think twice about this.
Read an excerpt from Little Pink House, and learn more about the book and author at Jeff Benedict's website. View the Little Pink House video.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

P.W. Singer's "Wired for War"

P.W. Singer is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; at 34 years old, he's the youngest person ever to hold that position. He's written for or appeared on a wide variety of media, from "60 Minutes" to the New York Times. He has worked for the Pentagon and Harvard University, and in his personal capacity, served as the coordinator of the defense policy advisory task force for the Obama campaign. In his previous two books, Singer foretold the rise of private military contractors and the advent of child soldiers - predictions which proved to be all too accurate.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, and reported the following:
Something big is going on in the history of war, and maybe even humanity itself. The US military went into Iraq with just a handful of drones in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are over 5,300 drones in the US inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground, with the latest models armed with a lethal armory of missiles, rockets, and machine guns. And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared to what is already in the prototype stage. For my book Wired for War, I spent the last several years trying to capture this historic moment, as robots begin to move into the fighting of our human wars. The book features stories and anecdotes of everyone from robotic scientists and the science fiction writers who inspire them to 19 year old drone pilots and the Iraqi insurgents they are fighting. The hope wasn’t just to take the reader on a journey to meet this new generation of warriors—both human and machine, but also to explore the fascinating, and sometimes frightening, political, economic, legal and ethical questions that our society had better start facing in how our wars will be fought and who will fight them. In other words, “What happens when science fiction becomes battlefield reality?”

The book is also written in a style that reflects my generation, and is thus a bit of insurgency against the staid, often inaccessible, way that people in my field write on the most important issues of our day. So, with that, I thought it fun to do the “99 Test” in a way that reflects this goal as well. That is, my generation has such short attention spans that when we pick up a book (if we are not downloading it onto our Kindle instead), we wouldn’t just lock in on just one page, but would be more likely flip the pages. So the following 99 Test includes a clip from p. 99, p. 199, and p. 299 of Wired for War. The p. 99 clip is from a section entitled “To Infinity and Beyond: The Power of Exponential Trends.” It’s a bit of a scene-setter for explaining Moore’s Law and the looming technology changes before us (I also loved having a Depeche Mode shout out in a book about war). The second clip from p. 199 is from a section called “Deep Fried Robots” that explores how even our most advanced technologies are not always triumphant in war. Finally, the clip from p. 299 is from a section called “Un-Manslaughter,” which opens with a discussion of a man (Daraz Khan) mistakenly killed in a US military drone strike because he had the unfortunate luck to resemble Bin Laden and goes on to look at some of the legal complications that are starting to arise when you digitize war.

Excerpt, p. 99:

When Moore first wrote on the phenomenon in 1965, a single transistor cost roughly five dollars. By 2005, five dollars bought five million transistors. With lower exponential costs comes greater exponential demand. In 2003, Intel made its one billionth microchip after thirty-five years of continuous production. Only four years later, it had made its next one billion chips. The same changes have happened with the ability to store data. The cost of saving anything from the military’s Predator drone footage of Iraqi insurgents to your old Depeche Mode songs is going down by 50 percent roughly every fifteen months.

Moore’s law explains how and why we have entered a world in which refrigerator magnets that play Christmas jingles have more computing power than the entire NORAD nuclear defense system had in 1965. Exponential change builds upon exponential change and advancements in one field feed advancements in others. And lower prices in one field help feed new development in others. A good example is how advancements in microchips made portable electronics accessible to consumers. As more and more people bought such items as video and then digital cameras, it dropped the cost of equipping robots with the same kind of cameras (their electronic vision systems) by as much as 75 percent. This eliminated the barriers to entry for robots to be used across the marketplace, further dropping costs for robots as a whole, as more people could buy them. Rodney Brooks at iRobot calls this kind of cross- transfer “riding someone else’s exponentials.”

Excerpt, p. 199:

Whether it is Superman and Kryptonite or Wimpy and hamburgers, everything has a weakness. Indeed, even the Death Star, the most powerful weapon ever imagined in science fiction, was taken out by a young insurgent (yes, that’s what Luke Skywalker was) dropping a bomb through a ventilation shaft. The same is true with real technologies of war. As writer and retired army colonel Ralph Peters explains, “The more complex any system becomes, the more inherent vulnerabilities it has. You just need to find one chink in the armor, change one integer in the code.”

Excerpt, p. 299:

The causes of these mistakes are often in great dispute. Sometimes the blame is placed on the humans behind the machines. In a U.S. airstrike in 2001, for example, twelve out of fourteen smart bombs inexplicably missed their target by a wide margin. It turned out the humans who had programmed the weapons’ targeting back at the base had punched in the wrong coordinates. Other times, the data itself is bad. As we know from the case of Daraz Khan, as well as all that Iraqi WMD we found, our intelligence is sometimes flawed and unmanned attacks don’t always get the right person. In 2005, U.S. officials said that on at least two occasions, “The Predator has been used to attack individuals mistakenly thought to be bin Laden.” Garbage in, garbage out.
Learn more about the book and author at P.W. Singer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 26, 2009

J. Kaufman's "The Origins of Canadian and American Political Differences"

Jason Kaufman is a sociologist and historian. He is the author of For the Common Good? American Civil Society and the Golden Age of Fraternity and numerous articles on American politics and culture. He is the former John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, where he is currently a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Origins of Canadian and American Political Differences, and reported the following:
In a nutshell, Origins tries to answer a question that I have often mulled over with left-leaning friends: Why can’t the US be more like Canada? Even with a liberal President in the White House and a Conservative Prime Minister in Ottawa, the US is likely to remain a more competitive, litigious, individualistic place than Canada. Origins explores four centuries of North American history in search of answers.

Page 99 itself relates a little known fact about the American revolution: On the brink of the War of Independence, many Americans were just as upset over the King of England’s recent grant of religious freedom to French-Canadians (via the Quebec Act of 1774) as they were over issues relating to colonial political representation, taxation, and so forth.

Anti-Catholicism was a chief cause of the American Revolution!

Page 99 quotes famous patriot Samuel Adams, for example, who says, “I did verily believe, and I do so still, that much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery [i.e. Catholicism] in America, than from the Stamp Acts of any other Acts destructive of civil rights.”

Page 99 also relates how American military strategy in the ensuing War of Independence (mistakenly) revolved around the belief that French-Canadians could be easily convinced to join in this uprising against their English King. When Quebec rebuffed American diplomacy –led by none other than Benjamin Franklin — the American army tried, unsuccessfully, to invade Quebec. (Think Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

Lest you be misled, however, this episode is not mustered in an effort to harp on the Protestant origins of American exceptionalism but to point out the unusual nature of Canada’s founding. By nesting and protecting a pocket of French-Catholics in Anglo-Protestant Canada, the English colonial government laid the groundwork for many of Canada’s contemporary virtues: multi-culturalism; immigrant-friendly people and policies; a long tradition of respecting provincial and local rights; and a government dedicating to mitigating inequality and conflict across and among diverse peoples.

Most democratic countries don’t achieve even half of this. Canada does, I argue, in part because the Quebec Act of 1774 forced all Canadians to at least tacitly respect people from other ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. In contrast, the early American colonial system thrived on conflict, perpetually pitting colony against colony, group against group, and person against person in a winner-take-all system that still flourishes today.

The rest of the book is, I hope, equally as wide-ranging in its observations and conclusions. In particular, it examines how the ‘frontier’ was settled differently in the two countries, and how that impacted their respective economic, political, and civic systems; it also looks at legal culture and conflict-arbitration techniques in both societies over time; and it focuses on how many of the founding visions of each country were undermined over time, for better and worse.
Read an excerpt from The Origins of Canadian and American Political Differences, and learn more about the author and his work at Jason Kaufman's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Martin Wiener's "An Empire on Trial"

Martin J. Wiener is Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Rice University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, An Empire on Trial: Race, Murder, and Justice under British Rule, 1870–1935, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book, An Empire on Trial, describes the struggle between Governor Arthur Gordon and Trinidad planters in the 1860s over how the ordinary people of this British colony, formerly enslaved blacks and indentured East Indians, were to be treated. This struggle was repeated later in Trinidad and in many other parts of the British empire. It highlights one of the themes of the book, which is that the empire was not only divided racially, but also divided within the dominant "white" race. British officials, on the one hand, and white settlers, landowners and businessmen on the other, often had very different values and aims; indeed, often two distinct and clashing understandings of what "Britishness" and "the rule of law" meant. These clashing understandings deeply influenced the history of the British empire, more so than historians have as yet appreciated.

In the book I use the criminal justice system - the prosecution of inter-racial killing - as a lens through which to explore, in seven different territories of the empire, how this conflict expressed itself over a specific, and highly inflammatory, issue. This conflict was part of a broader conflict than ran through the modern history of the empire, one which has implications even today: between the liberal values that permeated British life and thought and the facts of racial inequality in Britain's empire.
Read an excerpt from An Empire on Trial, and learn more about the book from the Cambridge University Press website.

Martin Wiener's other publications include the books English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 and Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Louise Penny's "A Rule Against Murder"

Louise Penny's first Three Pines mystery, Still Life, won the New Blood Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association and the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada. In the United States it received the prestigious Anthony and Barry Awards at Bouchercon 2007, as well as the Dilys Award for the book that the members of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association most enjoyed selling. Her second in the series, A Fatal Grace, won the 2007 Agatha Award for Best Novel. And her third, The Cruelest Month, was number one on the hardcover Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller list in March 2008.

Penny applied the “Page 99 Test” to A Rule Against Murder, the fourth novel in the series, and reported the following:
I think Page 99 is very representative of the rest of the book in that A Rule Against Murder is about a family at conflict with itself. That much even they know. What they don’t realize is how much at odds they are with the rest of the world. How out of step. The book really is about perception and reality.

Not everyone makes the boat, she thought. But HMCS Morrow was sinking. Even Clara could see that. It was a steamboat in the age of jets. They were old money in a meritocracy. Alarms were sounding. But even Peter, her lovely and thoughtful husband, clung to the wreckage.

On page 99 the body has just been found and revealed to be one of the family. They’re staying at a remote Quebec Inn, a place both luxurious and isolated. The entire Inn has been taken up by the family. Except for two other guests, Armand and Reine Marie Gamache. The Morrows have no idea he’s the Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sûreté du Quebec, and have been treating his as though he’s a slightly thick family retainer.

They’re about to learn the truth. And all their delusions are about to be stripped away. About Gamache, and about themselves.
Learn more about the book and author at Louise Penny's website and her blog.

The Page 69 Test: Still Life.

My Book, The Movie: A Fatal Grace.

The Page 99 Test: The Cruelest Month.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lorne Tepperman's "Betting Their Lives"

Lorne Tepperman is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and is the author of many important books on sociology in Canada.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Betting Their Lives: The Close Relations of Problem Gamblers, and reported the following:
Someone opening my book Betting Their Lives to page 99 would, at first, be puzzled: for this page contains short quotes from Latin American immigrants to Canada. Though puzzling at first, these quotes make an important point that is key to understanding the entire book.

Betting Their Lives is about the reasons people become gambling addicts, compulsive gamblers, or “problem gamblers,” and the ways this gambling addiction affects their family life -- especially, their marriage. It also addresses the role a spouse can play in helping an addict overcome this addiction. It approaches this issue from a sociological standpoint, which is unlike the psychological approach taken by most researchers and therapists. This means the book focuses on the social learning of gambling. It is concerned with the “normality” of gambling, even excessive gambling, and the social determinants of this social problem. So, the book focuses on the family experiences of problem gamblers, as children and as adults. And it focuses on the ways different cultures, communities, and families encourage or discourage gambling.

This it does, in part, by listening to the voices of gamblers from a variety of ethno-cultural backgrounds – Anglos, Hispanics Chinese, Russian, West Indian, and Aboriginal. The data show that members of different ethnocultural communities run different risks of gambling addiction. In turn, this points to important group differences in beliefs about gambling, opportunities to gamble, and incentives to gamble (such as poverty). And, if the causes of gambling addiction are largely social and cultural, then we must make a collective, societal effort to deal with the problem. We cannot leave it to individuals to “get treatment” if they have a gambling problem. Problem gambling is a public health problem, needing a political solution.

In the long-term we need to regulate the gambling industry, including the ways gambling is advertised; we need to re-think the role of government in gambling (i.e., should governments rely on gambling for revenue, as they do increasingly today?); and we need to be more cautious about creating gambling inducements for particularly vulnerable populations (e.g., the young and the old, the housebound, and the impoverished). Meanwhile, we need to help spouses enter the “secret worlds” of problem gamblers, from which they are typically excluded. If the long-term solution is through legislation, the short-term solution is through new marital relationships.
Read more about Betting Their Lives at the Oxford University Press website.

Learn more about Lorne Tepperman's teaching, research and publications.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

D. Sperling and D. Gordon's "Two Billion Cars"

Daniel Sperling is Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science & Policy at the University of California, Davis, and Founding Director of University of California, Davis's Institute of Transportation Studies. Deborah Gordon is a senior transportation policy analyst who has provided consulting services to the National Commission on Energy Policy, the California Energy Commission, Hewlett Foundation, and the Chinese government to develop fiscal policies for their burgeoning auto fleet.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, and reported the following:
Over and over, the public interest has been overwhelmed by regional and special interests. This recurring theme is conveyed on Page 99 and elsewhere in Two Billion Cars. When it comes to cars, Detroit’s automakers and their billions in bail out funds amply prove this point. And when it comes to the fuel to power them, corn ethanol is a case where special interests have begotten bad energy policy. On Page 99 readers find out why, when made the American way from corn, ethanol is a clear example of all that’s wrong with U.S. transportation, energy, and climate policy.

Despite its energy, economic, and environmental shortcomings, corn ethanol is the current fuel du jour ordered up by policymakers. Corn ethanol has long been the recipient of massive public subsidies amounting to $10 billion in 2008. Midwest farmers have grown used to these public handouts. On the other hand, federal commitments to clean vehicle and energy R&D have been shortchanged, dwindling to nearly nothing. As a result, real fuel and vehicle solutions that could serve the public interest just cannot compete with corn.

From Page 99:

Corn ethanol is expensive and provides little or no environmental benefit. The only societal benefit is a small reduction in oil imports, but gained at a huge cost. The political success of U.S. corn ethanol demonstrates how narrow special interests can steer federal policy and trump the public interest. Surprisingly, policymakers and the public have steadfastly supported corn ethanol without first determining if this domestic fuel is in America’s best interest. Special interests—American farmers and agribusiness giants in particular—have convinced the public that corn ethanol deserves broad support. It does not.

What we need to do is dig more deeply.

More promising biofuels do exist. These are fuels made from the vast array of cellulosic plant materials: grasses, fast-growing trees, municipal trash, and crop residues. They’re abundant and they’re not crops that would otherwise nourish people. For a given plot of land, cellulosic biofuels have a far smaller carbon footprint than corn. And cellulosic material can even be grown on marginal lands not suitable to farming.

Beyond biofuels, electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are other promising options worth investing in.

The transportation sector is in need of a transformation. It is up to policymakers, industry, and consumers to set clear goals, advance innovative products, and make wise choices so we can accommodate two billion cars on earth.
Learn more about Two Billion Cars at the Oxford University Press website. Visit Deborah Gordon's website and Daniel Sperling's faculty webapge.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

C.A.J. Coady's "Messy Morality"

With an international reputation for his research in both epistemology and political and applied philosophy, C. A. J. (Tony) Coady is one of Australia's best-known philosophers. His recent publications include Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge, 2007).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his book Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics, and reported the following:
Page 99 introduces an objection to my line of argument concerning corruption that I then proceed to analyse and reject. I hope it is sufficiently intriguing to satisfy Ford Madox Ford’s requirements.

The book aims to chart a viable course between several attractive but dangerous philosophical reefs besetting the good ships morality and politics. The first two chapters propose and develop an unusual interpretation of the outlook of “political realism”. This doctrine is commonly read as advocating a form of amoralism regarding politics and international relations. As such, it is easily refuted, but I suggest that we can learn from realism by viewing it as warning against certain distortions of morality, distortions that I call moralism. The realists own best insights are obscured by outright rejection of a role for morality and devotion to a murky concept of national interest in its place. I explore what moralism means in the context of politics and show why it endangers a feasible commitment to a moral engagement with politics.

Chapter 3 discusses the concept of ideals, the analysis of which is much neglected and the positive value of which for politics is often rejected. I explore the nature of ideals and defend their importance for politics against arguments purporting to show that they are useless or positively dangerous. In chapter 4, I seek to unravel the fashionable thesis that it is necessary to have “dirty hands” in politics. This claims that, although morality certainly applies to politics, politicians should occasionally violate the deepest moral prohibitions. The thesis may not make sense (how can it be right to do wrong?) but if it does make sense there remain formidable obstacles to its being true. In the final chapter, I discuss the nature and moral significance of lying and other forms of deceit and relate this to the challenges of political life.

Page 99 starts a section dealing with an objection to the concept of corrupt character, a concept I employ in connection with dirty hands. The objection holds that there is no such thing as character. So, Gilbert Harman has argued that psychological research has refuted the idea of character, showing that belief in it is a product of the “fundamental attribution error”. I argue against this that Harman’s resort to the attribution error and his use of counter-examples in connection with the supposed error is fatally flawed.
Read more about Messy Morality at the Oxford University Press website.

Learn more about Tony Coady at his webpage at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Russell and Cheryl Sharman's "Nightshift NYC"

Russell Leigh Sharman is a writer and anthropologist. He received his PhD in cultural anthropology from Oxford University in 1999, and now teaches at Brooklyn College. Cheryl Harris Sharman has written for publications including Scientific American Online, The Lancet, The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) magazine, Perspectives in Health, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Central America’s The Tico Times.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Nightshift NYC, and reported the following:
We believe that the Page 99 Test proves an accurate test for Nightshift NYC. It comes toward the beginning of Chapter Eight, “I Don’t Know Where is the Keys,” about Sunny and his all-night Brooklyn bodega. And it shows Sunny behind the grill on two Saturday nights, managing customers, dropping a few dishes, and talking on the phone. A small excerpt:

“It’s my granddaughter. She’s on the phone.”

Approaching 1 am on another Saturday night, Sunny’s four-year-old granddaughter cannot sleep. He laughs into the phone and offers a few soothing words. Sunny’s graying hair is freshly cut but he sports a day’s graying stubble on his chin. His paper chef’s hat has a blue stripe tonight, his black t-shirt advertises, and his pants are crisp Tommy Hilfiger khakis. He hangs up and says with a broad smile, “She wants me to bring her a cheeseburger for breakfast.”

Page 99 also describes how Sunny, a self-described Palestinian, came to New York from Ramallah, speaks Hebrew with Israeli regulars, and doesn’t let politics interfere with commerce.

But the main reason why it’s an accurate test of the quality of the whole is that it speaks to the immigrant experience in New York City, which became a key theme. Page 99 discusses the difficulties immigrants face when owning businesses in New York City. There are the usual entrepreneurial struggles to acquire credit and capital, and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, but these are compounded by their newcomer status and language barriers. Digressing a bit, to Page 98, a 2007 report from the Center for an Urban Future found foreign-born New Yorkers to be more likely than native-born to start businesses, sometimes twice as likely. Immigrants from some Middle Eastern countries start businesses at more than twice the rate of native-born New Yorkers, sometimes four times as often. But, back to Page 99, for entrepreneurial immigrants from the Middle East, things changed after September 11, 2001. Deportments and detainments shut down many of these small businesses. For those still open, their owners and workers routinely face being called terrorists.

However, Page 99 also reflects the whole by capturing the specific to show the myriad ways nightshift workers live inverted lives. Because Sunny is wide awake, he has the time and patience to talk with a sleepless child. Because he will be awake and off work when she wakes, he can enjoy breakfast with her. Because he understands the strange logic of working nights, he can grant her wish for a cheeseburger for breakfast. These are the benefits of a life out of phase. But there are, of course, costs. He must talk with her by telephone because he cannot be there in person. He eats breakfast with her because he’s asleep while she plays during the day. And he’ll surely raise a few eyebrows for bringing her that cheeseburger for breakfast.
Visit the Nightshift NYC website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Blaize Clement's "Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof"

Blaize Clement is the author of the Dixie Hemingway mysteries: Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter, Duplicity Dogged the Dachshund, and Even Cat Sitters Get the Blues.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new novel, Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof, and reported the following:
I'm not sure why, but stories printed in book format have a slightly different quality than they do when they've been spit out by a printer on eight-by-eleven paper. The difference is even greater between printed books and pages read on a computer screen, and different in another way when they're narrated by a disembodied voice on a CD. It's as if each medium contributes something of itself to the story, so the story changes slightly according to how we receive it.

Take page 99 of Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof, for example. I've seen those words a zillion times. On the screen when I wrote them, again and again as I reviewed and edited them, finally in hard copy, then in the publisher's "first pass pages." Today I read them in the final publication to see if Ford Madox Ford was right when he said that page 99 of any book reveals the quality of the entire book.

I recognized the page immediately. It's when Dixie is talking to Sergeant Owens, her former commanding officer, who is quizzing her about a murdered woman. The passage reads:

Owens deliberated a moment. "You know anybody else who could identify her?"

"Besides me?"

"I think it would be better if it was somebody else, Dixie. You don't need to see that."

My heart quivered. Morgan had upchucked at seeing Laura's body, and now Owens wanted to protect me from seeing it.

"It's that bad?"

"It's about as bad as it can get, Dixie."

It's funny how your mind can split at times like that. One side of my brain recoiled from what was happening around me. The other side was cool as grass. The cool side knew investigators would look through Laura's address books looking for names and numbers for her relatives. The cool side knew calls would be made, awful truths said, grim arrangements made.

The cool side said, "I'll take care of Leo until the house is cleaned up."


"Laura's cat."

And there it is -- the quality of the book as a whole. The writing style, the way a woman's murder is handled, the fact that a pet is left and that Dixie assumes responsibility for it. Page 99 even explains why my mysteries are so often called "dark," even though they're also described as "laugh-out-loud funny." Dixie is often funny, but murder never is. And Dixie is the kind of person who takes care of pets who get left behind when their humans die. So from my perspective, Ford Madox Ford was right. Page 99 really does reveal the quality of the whole of Cat Sitter On A Hot Tin Roof.
Learn more about the book and author at Blaize Clement's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Even Cat Sitters Get the Blues.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 16, 2009

Marc Egnal's "Clash of Extremes"

Marc Egnal is a professor of history at York University and the author of several books, including A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution and Divergent Paths: How Culture and Institutions Have Shaped North American Growth.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War, and reported the following:
Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War presents a new interpretation of the causes of the sectional conflict. It’s the first extensive rethinking of the reasons for the war since James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom appeared in 1988. If McPherson’s book can be summarized with the single word “slavery,” Clash of Extremes can be boiled down to “economics.”

The playful spirits that preside over page ninety-nines, offer up a sheet with only five words -- “Part Two: Roots of Conflict.” The first part, “An Era of Compromise,” discusses how economic ties, such as Mississippi commerce, kept the country together during the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Part Two looks at developments that shattered those unities. These including changing patterns of trade and the rise of antislavery. The last two parts examine the intensifying sectional clash and the period after 1861.

Readers will find that Clash of Extremes is more than a new argument about the causes of the war. It’s also a story built around the perceptions and actions of many individuals. In writing the book I was concerned to make it a “good read,” not simply a work that (I hope) will lead historians to rethink long-held assumptions about the causes of the war.
Learn more about Clash of Extremes at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Justin Marozzi's "The Way of Herodotus"

Justin Marozzi is a writer, journalist, and historian who has traveled extensively throughout the Herodotean world. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Tamerlane.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Way of Herodotus takes us to Baghdad, to a conversation I had with an Iraqi academic called Fadel over lunch in Saddam Hussein's old republican palace. The discussion began after I spotted a Christian evangelical pamphlet on the table, belittling Islam and calling for the conversion of Muslims. I was surprised to say the least, Fadel rather less so.

“You asked me a moment ago if I thought this was a religious war,” Fadel said. “Well, I don’t think it is. There are all sorts of other reasons for this war. But many Iraqis do feel President Bush is attacking Islam. They listen to the language he uses, they listen to his call for a crusade, and they remember the history of Islam and the West. History matters very much here.”

It was a classic clash of civilisations embodied in one word.

In one sense, it was a minor gaffe. In the largely non-Muslim West, the word crusade is not considered so offensive. Over the past thousand years it has managed to shed much of its historical baggage in general usage so that outside discussions of the eleventh-, twelfth- and thirteenth-century attempts to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, we understand it more in the sense of the Oxford English Dictionary’s “vigorous movement or enterprise against poverty or a similar social evil” or as a “personal campaign undertaken for a particular cause”. Many would excuse Bush for what might have been – claims of presidential Christian fundamentalism notwithstanding - a simple slip of the tongue. Yet Muslims, with a more narrowly historical definition and understanding of the word, are unlikely to be so forgiving. Victims tend to have longer historical memories. If the leader of the Western world used the word crusade in the context of launching a war on terrorism, was it any wonder that many Muslims considered this a war on Islam?

Travelling through Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Greece with Herodotus over the course of four years, cultural collisions were regular occurrences. Iraq was the extreme manifestation of this, a conflict which sounded the echoes of the catacylsmic Persian Wars reported by Herodotus two-and-a-half millennia ago. That conflict helped give birth to the West, to what we know today as freedom and democracy.

Herodotus warns us again and again of the dangers of failing to respect other nations' cultures and religion. He cautions that hubris, imperial and otherwise, is likely to lead to hubris.

Apart from his obvious wisdom, Herodotus is huge fun to read. He tells rollicking good yarns, full of sex, humour, fantasy, speculation, architectural surveys, revelling in the weird and the wonderful and never missing an opportunity to digress wherever and whenever the fancy takes him. Not only was he the Father of History. He was the world's first travel writer, foreign correspondent and anthropologist, a pioneering geographer and explorer, author of the world's first prose narrative and a raconteur bar none.
Learn more about the book and author at Justin Marozzi's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

L. Harris & C. Molesworth's "Alain L. Locke"

Leonard Harris is professor of philosophy at Purdue University. Charles Molesworth is professor of English at Queens College in New York.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher, and reported the following:
Alain Locke was the first African American to win a Rhodes Scholarship - in 1907, after graduating from Harvard, he went to Oxford to extend his studies in philosophy and there formed his vocation to be a leader of his race. When he came back to America, after three years at Oxford and another in Berlin, he was one of the most educated people of his generation. Page 99 of our biography catches Locke as he prepares his re-entry into America, where he will lead the Harlem Renaissance and become a cultural critic with polymathic skills and interests. At this moment in his life he was hounded by debtors and concerned that his mother not fret needlessly about his prospects. What page 99 doesn't show is how skillful Locke already was as a writer, having produced excellent essays at Oxford on cosmopolitanism and the American temperament. Our biography - the first full length study of this impressive intellectual - expounds on all of Locke's many published works and details his life and achievements in ways that reanimate his claim to be one of the most important African American philosophers of the twentieth century. There are four hundred more pages like page 99 before Locke's story is complete.
Read more about Alain L. Locke at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Deborah Nelson's "The War Behind Me"

Deborah Nelson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist currently at the University of Maryland College of Journalism as the Carnegie Visiting Professor. Her Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting is for a series that exposed widespread problems in the federal government's Indian Housing Program. She won an AAAS Science Journalism Award for an investigation into the death of a teenager in a gene therapy experiment.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, and reported the following:
The War Behind Me is based on the Pentagon’s once-secret collection of reports on war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. While not a complete accounting, the declassified archive represents the largest compilation to surface thus far. There are hundreds of substantiated allegations--murders, massacres, torture, rapes, assaults, mutilations and cover-ups. The Army quietly declassified the archive in 1990, but it remained largely unnoticed until recent years, when a handful of scholars and journalists learned of its existence. One of the scholars was Nick Turse of Columbia University, who researched the records for a dissertation and then contacted the Los Angeles Times, where I was the Washington investigative editor. We teamed up to investigate the archive’s origins, contents and fate. We entered the information into a database, tracked down scores of veterans, traveled to Vietnam and published a series on our findings in the Times in 2006. The series focused on the records. But the book goes beyond the documents to reveal what we discovered during our interviews and travels. Indeed, the heart and soul of the book are the conversations with suspects, survivors, whistle-blowers, officers and men up the chain of command to the White House. In that sense, page 99 truly is representative. Nick and I are interviewing Larry Wilkerson at a Starbucks in Northern Virginia about a year after he resigned as chief of staff for then Secretary of State Colin Powell and became a critic of the Iraq War. Wilkerson recalls his experiences with “free-fire zones” in 1969-70 while a helicopter unit commander in Vietnam. Free-fire zones were swaths of countryside declared off-limits to civilians and treated by some soldiers, in Wilkerson’s words, “as a license to shoot anything that moved--wild boar, tigers, elephants and people.” Civilians were supposed to be warned but often didn’t get word or ventured across the invisible line of demarcation to forage for food. If you turn to page 99, you’ll read the first of two anecdotes about Wilkerson’s battles with superiors over their orders to open fire in free-fire zones. All but five lines on the page are in Wilkerson’s distinctive voice. Throughout the book, I tried to give people a respectful space to tell what happened in their own words. One of Wilkerson’s accounts has a happy ending and the other not, illustrating the importance of strong leadership on the front lines and its limits against deleterious policies from above.
Read an excerpt and learn more about the book and author at the official The War Behind Me website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 12, 2009

Clay Risen's "A Nation on Fire"

Clay Risen, formerly an editor at The New Republic, is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He's also written for Smithsonian, Slate, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, and reported the following:
In a strange coincidence, page 99 is one of the most important in the book. It is the first page of Chapter 7, which details how the rioting that had erupted in Washington the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death on April 4 picked back up a little after noon the next day. The page shows how expectations of rioting differed greatly in official Washington and "black" Washington. By 1968, rioting was a regular occurrence in inner-cities, but experience had taught that they waned during the day. And so tens of thousands of suburbanites pored into downtown that morning, only to flee in panic a few hours later. One of those thousands was my mother, who had fought to get on a bus headed across the Potomac (a story that played an important part in the genesis of this book). At Howard University Stokely Carmichael gave a rousing, some said incendiary speech, while at the White House President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders in a desperate strategy session aimed at avoiding further violence elsewhere. But they wouldn't succeed: Around the same time, civil disorder was erupting in Chicago, and tense standoffs between angry crowds and overwhelmed law enforcement could be found in dozens of other cities across the country. By nightfall, Army units were on patrol in the nation's capital. In Chapter 7 I try to capture this swirl of events, and page 99 drives home how, in the aftermath of a tragedy, official Washington and the streets of inner-city Washington were driving dangerously apart.

Deputy Mayor Tom Fletcher later called the morning of April 5 the "shadow war period." The streets were quiet, and the running assumption among officials--from the local schools to the Pentagon to the White House--was that a riot wouldn't break out until evening; that was how riots had always worked, in Watts, in Newark, in Detroit, and in dozens of other cities over the last four years. And so that morning tens of thousands of school children headed off to class, and almost a hundred thousand suburbanites went to work in downtown Washington.

But the mood was much tenser in black Washington. "There," wrote Ben Gilbert of the Washington Post, "the same ominous tension that had preceded Thursday night's inner-city outbreak was noticeable, not on on the riot-torn 14th Street shopping strip but also on 7th Street and in neighborhoods in the northeast and southeast sections of the city." Many people stayed home from work and idled on sidewalks. Principals were having a hard time keeping students in class; in some places, teenagers were drifting out as they saw fit. By noon, half of the seventeen hundred students at Cardozo High School had vanished.
Read an excerpt from A Nation on Fire, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 10, 2009

J.T. Ellison's "Judas Kiss"

J.T. Ellison is Murderati's Friday columnist, a short story writer, and a novelist.

She has applied the Page 69 Test to her debut novel, All the Pretty Girls and both the “Page 99 Test” and the “Page 69 Test” to the sequel, 14.

For Judas Kiss, the third installment in her critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, Ellison used the “Page 99 Test”:
Page 99 of Judas Kiss is an internal monologue from homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson as she drives to Forensic Medical for the autopsy of pregnant mother Corinne Wolff. It covers a lot of ground – her father who’s in jail, problems with her city, but most importantly, it shows a crack in Taylor’s code. This is the first time in the series that Taylor thinks about doing something that breaks the rules. Granted, it would be to save one of her team, Lincoln Ross, but it’s a seminal moment in the development of her character. This is a woman who arrested her own father, and she’s wondering what she can do to cover up Lincoln’s transgression. It’s subtle, just a fleeting thought, really, but isn’t that how the slippery slope begins for us all? I hope readers will see that this marks a shift in her core, and wonder what is going to happen. Judas Kiss is all about Taylor being pushed into gray areas, and this particular page sets that up nicely.

She’d been inside Riverbend’s death row cells, with their blue doors and creamy concrete walls. She never wanted to return. The overwhelming sense of malevolence coupled with dread was too much to take. She’d sent more than one of the men housed in that unit to death row and hadn’t lost a moment’s sleep over them, but she didn’t want to experience their last moments firsthand.

Her dad, well, his prison environs were a damn sight cushier than a state penitentiary. The feds were kind to their white collar criminals.

The Interstate 24 split came, and she passed the exit, driving a few more miles to the Dickerson Road access ramp. Off the highway now, into the run down streets. This was a sad part of town. A crack whore strolled by, arms swinging wildly as she walked, a timid black man in his forties following some fifty feet behind. Had they made the deal already? They must have, the hooker had the bright, insistent glow in her eyes of a junkie who knows she’s about to get a fix.

Taylor shook her head. There seemed to be no legal measures that could stop the pervasive sex trades on the back streets of Nashville. For the pros, a night in jail meant either safety or withdrawal, neither an inducement to break free from the life. For the johns, it was just an embarrassment.

She turned on Gass and passed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations offices on the right. The TBI taskforce would be furious if they knew Lincoln had broken the rules. Even though he had done something that was life preserving, they would still punish him. He’d be kicked off the taskforce at the very least. She wondered if she could keep the situation quiet, then forced the thought from her mind. She was a master at keeping each aspect separate, tackling one thorny issue at a time. It was the only way she could get through the day.
Read an excerpt from Judas Kiss, and learn more about the book and author at J.T. Ellison's website and MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 9, 2009

G. Lock & D. Murray, eds, "The Hearing Eye"

Graham Lock and David Murray are the editors of The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art and Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film.

Lock applied applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Hearing Eye and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Hearing Eye falls in a chapter by Sara Wood on abstract expressionist painter Norman Lewis. In one quote on that page, he airs his concerns about “the limitations which every American Negro who is desirous of a broad kind of development must face, namely, the limitations which come under the names ‘African Idiom,’ ‘Negro Idiom’ or ‘Social Painting.’” Lewis wrote this in 1946, yet as several of the contemporary artists interviewed in The Hearing Eye tell it, a change has yet to come. In chapter 12, for instance, painter Ellen Banks relates how one dealer praised her rigorously abstract work as “beautiful and incredible” before telling her, “but I can’t put your work with you”—a gibe revealing of the racial and gender stereotyping that still hinders a wider appreciation of abstract art.

The book’s focus on jazz and blues influences in African American visual art perhaps risks becoming a kind of stereotyping too; certainly, many of the artists we spoke to emphasised that their work had been inspired by all kinds of music. Yet black music and black art have been engaged in a fruitful dialogue since the early decades of the 20th century, a relationship that has been completely overlooked by most books on music and art. Aiming to illuminate some key aspects of that dialogue, The Hearing Eye features chapters on several remarkable painters, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden and Joe Overstreet, as well as the photographer Roy DeCarava, the quilter Michael Cummings, and the graphic art unique to early advertisements for blues records—a breadth of reference made possible by the cross-genre expertise of contributors such as Paul Oliver, Robert O’Meally and Robert Farris Thompson.

On page 99, Sara Wood also quotes Norman Lewis’s credo that excelling at his art would prove to be “the most effective blow against stereotype”. To date, that excellence has not prevented his exclusion from most formulations of the abstract expressionist canon. But we continue to believe that, over time, artistic excellence will out and racial prejudice will perish, and our hope is that The Hearing Eye will help to accelerate both of these processes.

(Incidentally, two things that page 99 doesn’t reveal is that the book includes over 50 colour reproductions and has a companion web site with nearly 50 more colour reproductions plus a selection of audio recordings by musicians who range from Ma Rainey to Jane Ira Bloom.)
Read more about The Hearing Eye on the Oxford University Press web site.

An excerpt from the book, in which Joe Overstreet discusses his painting Strange Fruit, is available in the December 2008 issue of the online magazine Point of Departure.

The Page 99 Test: Thriving on a Riff.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 8, 2009

G. Lock & D. Murray, eds, "Thriving on a Riff"

Graham Lock and David Murray are the editors of Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film.

Lock applied applied the “Page 99 Test” to the book and reported the following:
Page 99 of Thriving on a Riff finds poet Michael S. Harper recounting how the phrasing of his poems reflects his lifelong love of jazz, in particular the solos of master saxophonists such as John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon.

MSH: [. . .] So much of it has to do with the sound. And when I say phrasing, I don’t mean only the arrangement of the words; I mean the periodic sentence. Where I want the details.

GL: The cadences?

MSH: It’s not only cadences; it’s also delay. When I say periodic sentence, I mean a sentence that waits until the end to give you the predicate and the subject. It’s like a solo that gives you a certain kind of suspense but is also building toward something. And what the building is, is the theme, the thematic of it. Sometimes it has to be discovered. It’s not only something that you start out with as an idea and just bring it to completion; it’s more than an idea. In fact, it’s the performance of it.

Thriving on a Riff is a collection of essays and interviews on the theme of jazz and blues influences in African American literature and film. So page 99 is both representative, since it addresses this theme, and not representative at all, in that the book features a dozen contributors, who each explore, in very individual ways, a different angle or artist or piece of work. These range from Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The White Boy Shuffle (Bertram D. Ashe) to John Lewis’s score for the late noir Odds Against Tomorrow (David Butler) to a survey of railroad sounds as influence and cultural resource (Michael Jarrett). Some chapters offer close scrutiny of musical presence in a particular work—see, for example, Steven C. Tracy’s detection of the “John Henry” folk ballad in Sterling Brown’s poem “Strange Legacies”—while others adopt a broader cultural perspective, as when Corin Willis argues that early Hollywood musicals revived blackface and minstrel tropes to counter the potency of African American musical performance.

Co-editor David Murray and I believe this diversity of voices and viewpoints is appropriately “jazzistic”—like a series of improvised solos. Actual performances by Michael S. Harper, plus fellow poets Nathaniel Mackey and Jayne Cortez, as well as versions of “John Henry” by Steven C. Tracy (video) and DeFord Bailey (audio) can be enjoyed on the book’s companion web site.
Read more about Thriving on a Riff on the Oxford University Press web site.

An excerpt from the book, in which Krin Gabbard discusses Miles Davis’s autobiography, will appear in the February 2009 issue of the online magazine Point of Departure.

The Page 99 Test: The Hearing Eye.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Michael Welland's "Sand"

Michael Welland is a geologist who has worked around the world in the energy industry. He is a fellow of the Geological Societies of America and London and the Royal Society for the Arts and Commerce.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sand: The Never-Ending Story, and reported the following:
When the idea of a post was suggested, I naturally hastened to my page 99, curious about what message it might (or might not) convey. I discovered that it was in the chapter on rivers, in which the long journey of an individual sand grain down the Susquehanna tells the story of most sand grains on such journeys, rivers being the arteries that deliver sediment from the continents to the oceans and sand being, by habit, more or less constantly on the move. Page 99 introduces channel bars to the narrative, those island-forming but ever-shape-shifting buildups of sand in the midst of a river. But the book is not a geological text, nor simply a homage to games sand plays in the landscapes of our planet, and Page 99 includes the theme that threads its way throughout, I hope surprising and entertaining the reader: the intimate encounters and intersections between sand and us, our lives, our history, our imaginations.

Here's the second half of page 99:

Channel bars can be large and take up much of the channel, hindering navigation but aiding river crossing and providing habitable space. They are fragile and unstable, however, constantly shifting size and position, steadily marching down the river, disappearing and reappearing during floods and under the attack of ice. Tropical storm Agnes, for example, completely changed many of the Susquehanna’s islands. Historic maps and paintings of the river, compared to its appearance today, graphically illustrate these changes.

One dramatic result of the 1811 New Madrid earthquakes was the appearance and disappearance of channel bars along the Mississippi. But regardless of seismic events, the naturally peripatetic nature of Mississippi sandbars can cause problems—even legal ones. A channel bar was the subject of a long-running boundary dispute between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. Stack Island is a large, uninhabited channel bar, sometimes above water and at other times not. In the early nineteenth century....

The problem was that Stack Island and the dynamic nature of a great river have no respect for state boundaries - the island moved on, and accusations of land-grabbing, never mind the location of the state line, led inevitably to litigation, which, after many years, wound its way to the Supreme Court. In a final ruling, having ruminated deeply on sand, mud, channel behavior, and the games that rivers play, the Court decreed that Stack Island belonged to Mississippi.

And another wonderful thing about channel bars is that we don't really understand them - their formation and wanderings are too complex. Which illustrates another of the book's themes: science is too often presented as done and dusted, the storyline being what we know. But what makes science - and our planet, and ourselves - continually inspiring and fascinating is what we don't know, and my hope is that, throughout the book, the reader will find the character of sand a compelling illustration of this.
Learn more about the book and author at Michael Welland's blog, "Through the Sandglass."

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 5, 2009

Michael Bart & Laurel Corona's "Until Our Last Breath"

Michael Bart and Laurel Corona are the authors of Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance.

Corona applied the “Page 99 Test” to the book and reported the following:
Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin’s Press, 2008) tells of Jewish resistance efforts during the Nazi occupation of Vilna (Vilnius) Lithuania. The most obvious form of resistance was a small, armed underground movement that took hold in the ghetto, but other efforts involved almost every ghetto resident in one way or another. Maintaining hiding places for vulnerable residents, setting up schools and libraries to keep minds active and alive, and offering medical and social services to keep residents as healthy and well-fed as possible were also ways that Jews refused to give in to their oppressors.

Page 99 shows yet a third way of fighting back--the extensive effort put into recreating in the ghetto as much of pre-war life as possible. The Jewish community of Vilna had enough highly skilled musicians for a symphony orchestra, and concerts were one of the most successful diversions. As I wrote on page 99, “it was a chance to feel normal again, to forget their shabby clothes, and the aches and pains of hard work and hard floors to sleep on, to think about something other than cold, and fear, and hunger.” It is impossible to imagine the horror of those times, but I tried to picture how I might feel and react if I were there, and bring the reader as close to that experience as possible in words.

Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled when I see Until Our Last Breath described as the biography of the parents of Michael Bart (whose research into their lives was the genesis of the project). My intent as the author was to weave Leizer and Zenia Bart’s narrative into a book about thousands of equally quiet heroes caught in a terrible time and place. When I think about the book I wrote, I see it as a broader story of resistance in different ways by many people with whom I’m sure Leizer and Zenia would want to share the spotlight. Wonderful and inspiring as their story is, the book is much bigger in scope than that. As I wrote, I tried to incorporate as many different perspectives as possible—historical, sociological, psychological, religious, and more—into a wide-ranging, multifaceted, and compelling story of the personal courage and resilience of many. That’s how I would like the book to be viewed.
Learn more about Until Our Last Breath at the publisher's website.

Visit Laurel Corona's website and blog, and read the Page 69 Test entry for her novel, The Four Seasons.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Mark Wolverton's "A Life in Twilight"

Mark Wolverton is the author of The Depths of Space and The Science of Superman. His articles on science, technology, and history have appeared in Scientific American, American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Air & Space Smithsonian, Skeptical Inquirer, Quest, and American History, among other magazines.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Life in Twilight finds the book’s subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, at something of a point of transition and contemplation. It’s spring 1957, and for the first time since the Atomic Energy Commission stripped him of his security clearance and banished him from government service in 1954, Oppenheimer has decided to discuss his security case directly and publicly. He tells journalist Victor Cohn of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune that although he’s still persona non grata in some circles of American society, he’s found a refuge as administrator of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, since it was a place where...

...Oppenheimer could feel secure, accepted, and needed, and where, even with his administrative responsibilities, he was still free to do science...

And in a larger sense, Oppenheimer is grateful for “the good sense and good courage of many Americans,” including all those citizens who hasten to defend him in the editorial pages and letters columns and who refuse to believe the many inaccuracies and untruths regarding him peddled by various demagogues and rabble-rousers.

What about his family? How did Oppenheimer’s ordeal affect them? Here, as always when such personal matters came up with the press, Oppenheimer is tight-lipped, but regarding the children, Peter, then sixteen, and Katherine (“Toni”), then thirteen, he offers: “It has not affected their lives. Everyone has treated them very well.” Unfortunately, although no one, including Oppenheimer, fully realized it at the time, the lives of both Peter and Toni would in fact be profoundly affected by their father’s difficulties, even if those effects would not be manifested until much later.

As to the larger effects of his security case? “I know the incident had a disturbing effect on a lot of young people, both in their attitude toward government service and toward the pursuit of science,” says Oppenheimer. “I believe it may have discouraged some scientists from speaking on the disturbing aspects of United States weapons and military planning.”

Here, as he usually did with the press, Oppenheimer was playing it close to the vest. He knew all too well the devastating effects his persecution had had on the willingness of talented scientists to advise and work for the U.S. government, effects which would become all too clear only a few months after this interview appeared in papers across the country. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, a stunned and humiliated America would wonder how it had been bested scientifically and technologically by a supposedly backward nation that couldn’t even build a working refrigerator...and realize that the answer might be that, as the Washington Post would observe, “we have driven out of our laboratories a great many preeminent men of science...we have let scientists become targets of the name of security, we have sacrificed security.”

But the public redemption of Oppenheimer himself remained a distant, yet tantalizing prospect.
Watch the video preview of A Life in Twilight and learn more about the author and his work at Mark Wolverton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 2, 2009

Jan Zalasiewicz's "The Earth After Us"

Jan Zalasiewicz is a Lecturer in Geology at the University of Leicester, before that working at the British Geological Survey. A field geologist, palaeontologist and stratigrapher, he teaches various aspects of geology and Earth history to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and is a researcher into fossil ecosystems and environments across over half a billion years of geological time. He has published over a hundred papers in scientific journals.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, and reported the following:
For over a billion years, between roughly three billion and two billion years ago, rust precipitated on to the ocean floor, interbanded with layers of silica, to form the distinctive strata of the Banded Iron Formations, so ubiquitous in Precambrian terrain that they have their own acronym, the BIFs. We now exploit them for almost all the iron and steel we use, for they dwarf any other iron ore deposit on Earth. When our extraterrestrial explorers also need iron for their expanding colonies, it will be to the BIFs that they will turn; and they will no doubt soon form a conclusion as to how these deposits arose, as by-product and witness of the revolution that led to an oxygenated Earth.

--The Earth After Us, p. 99 (pars)

The sheer excess of it all! Human epics – those of the magnificent Ambersons, and of the urbane Forsytes, and of other such dynasties, may dance to the music of human timescales, measured in decades and centuries. But, in a biography of the Earth, one may casually skip across a billion years in a single paragraph. Encompass, too, the lives of trillions of generations of those organisms, the first photosynthetic microbes, that were, then, bringing about a revolution more profound than any before or since: the creation of that crazy, dangerous, unstable, cosmic rarity: a planet enveloped in free oxygen.

Narrated thus, it’s an absurdly abbreviated story, of course – an utterly minimalist cartoon. It hides, absolutely, a myriad complexities of biology and chemistry. It glosses, unpardonably, over the countless twists and turns and setbacks in turning what was, in effect, an alien planet, into one that that was to become familiar to us. This transformation did happen, though, and rendered possible that us who can then look back on (and, all too rarely, thank) those industrious microbes who first greened this planet.

We, too, are now transforming the Earth. We are not yet having the planet-changing effects of our unimaginably distant, single-celled ancestors. But we are executing our own distinctive changes to the Earth’ surface much, much more quickly. We are doing so, too, now, in full awareness of what we are doing, even if not in full control (some might argue, not in any significant control) of our collective actions.

The unconscious and amoral Precambrian microbes altered the planet for the better, almost unarguably (though with the sacrifice of myriad microbe species to whom oxygen was as poisonous as chlorine is to us). They opened the way for the beauty and complexity of multicellular life: of orchids and velvet worms and octopi and humming-birds. And of us. Now we are the pinnacle (in some interpretations) of that life, with manipulative intelligence and an avowed morality. It may be a brief ascendance, but if our legacy is to smash a good deal of the biosphere’s beauty and complexity, how will we compare, then, morally, with those microbes? Now there’s a point to tax the post-modern philosophers. While there’s still time for debate.
Learn more about The Earth After Us at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue