Friday, November 30, 2012

New in Paperback: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

It’s difficult to imagine the booklover who wouldn’t enjoy The Paris Wife (Ballantine), Paula McLain’s sad and searing look at Hemingway’s relationship with first wife Hadley. January editor Linda L. Richards reviewed the book in this space early last year. Wrote Richards:
McLain’s jazz age love story is perfect from the beginning. “The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, ‘It’s possible I’m too drunk to judge, but you might have something there.’”
Of course, it’s not all wonderfully brown eyes and strains of jazz. You know going in that The Paris Wife is going to end badly. After all, before Hemingway killed himself in 1961, there would three wives after Hadley. The book concerns itself mainly with the five mad years the couple spent in Paris and includes the birth of their son, John Nicanor Hemingway (known as Bumby), who would one day grow to be the father of Mariel and Margeux Hemingway.
The paperback edition includes a reading group guide as well as all the delicious details of the original.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide: Books to Die For edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke

As much as readers may enjoy selecting their own literary diversions, they’re also curious to know what novels authors themselves have enjoyed. Which makes Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels (Atria/Emily Bestler), a 560-page compilation of tributes to more than 120 memorable works of crime, mystery and thriller fiction, so delightful.

Edited by Hibernian wordsmiths John Connolly (The Burning Soul) and Declan Burke (who also compiled last year’s study of Irish crime fiction, Down These Green Streets), Books to Die For isn’t fully representative of what’s been published in this field over the last 171 years; notable omissions include Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Peter Lovesey, Thomas B. Dewey, Peter Robinson and Stanley Ellin. However, it serves as both a primer on the evolution of the genre and a welcome escort into its less-familiar corners.

Some of the essays included here were fairly predictable -- Max Allan Collins writing about Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, for instance, or Linwood Barclay extolling the virtues of Ross Macdonald’s The Goodbye Look. However, there are also unexpected pairings of contributor and subject matter. I particularly relished Mark Billingham’s remarks on The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; Laura Lippman’s recommendation of Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, by James M. Cain; Eddie Muller’s piece about The Big Heat, by William P. McGivern; Megan Abbott’s praise for In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes; James W. Hall’s encomium to LaBrava, by Elmore Leonard; Gary Phillips’ ovation for The Scene, by Clarence Cooper Jr.; Val McDermid’s study of On Beulah Height, by Reginald Hill; and ... well, the real problem here is that there are so many intriguing choices, it’s hard to know where in the book to begin.

Take my advice: Just flip open this volume at random. Chances are, you’ll learn something interesting from whatever you read first. ◊

J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor of January Magazine, editor of The Rap Sheet and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews.

Labels: , , , ,

In Praise of the Day Job

Sure: making a living is a Good Thing, but in a piece for the Guardian blog, Robert McCrum posits that the bank account is not the only thing that benefits when a writer doesn’t give up his or her day job:
There is a lot to be said for writers who don't just write. The literary press is full of the life and work of professional writers, but the English literary tradition is sustained by men and women who did not give up the day job, and led double lives.
From this parish, George Orwell was writing regular book reviews for the Observer while completing Animal Farm. Philip Larkin, another fairly regular reviewer for the Observer, devoted much of his professional life to Hull University library, which gave him something to grumble about.
Another star reviewer Anthony Burgess squeezed his novel-writing into the moments when he was not teaching, or composing music, or drinking, or writing screenplays, or living the life of Riley.
McCrum taps Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Hemingway and even Vonnegut in support of his theories. They’re all interesting, and they’re here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

It’s Your Birthday, Charlie Brown!

Cartoonist Charles Schulz was born on this day in 1922.

The creator of Charlie Brown and the beloved Peanuts gang, Writer’s Almanac tells us that Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota where, in many ways, he was a real life Charlie Brown:
Every Sunday, Schulz and his father read the "funny pages" together, and the boy hoped to become a cartoonist someday. But he had a tough time in school -- he felt picked on by teachers and other students. He was smart enough to skip ahead a couple of grades, but that only made it worse. He wished someone would recognize his artistic talent, but his cartoons weren't even accepted by the high school yearbook. 
As Almanac tells us, “Peanuts was eventually syndicated in more than 2,500 newspapers worldwide, and there were more than 300 million Peanuts books sold, as well as 40 TV specials, four movies, and a Broadway play.

Canadian readers should note that today is also the birthday of long-time children’s television host, Mr. Dressup. Ernie Coombs, who died in 2001, would have turned 85 today.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Crime Fiction: The Bones and the Book
by Jane Isenberg

It’s not unusual for a historical mystery to be set within a contemporary one. But in The Bones and the Book (Oconee Spirit Press), Jane Isenberg puts a twist on this configuration.

There is indeed an inner story and an outer one here. But this time, both stories are set in the past, which demands rather more of the reader.

The inner -- that is, older -- story concerns Aliza Rudinsk, a young Orthodox Jewish immigrant who leaves the Russian Ukraine in 1890, hoping to find greater happiness in America. When her bones mysteriously turn up in Seattle’s underground streets in 1965, Rachel Mazursky, recently widowed and in need of money, agrees to translate Aliza’s Yiddish diary into English. Rachel winds up anchoring the outer, more recent, story.

As far as I can tell, the main reason for setting Rachel’s story in 1965 is that some people involved in Aliza’s life may be still be alive themselves. That’s necessary for the plot, but not so satisfying for the reader.

Aliza’s life turns out to have been full of toil and trouble -- not surprising, considering the era in which she lived and her particular circumstances. She finds that it’s hard to earn a decent wage during the Gilded Age, even for a talented seamstress like her. It’s hard to find a good man. And it’s hard to make your way in a new country when you are alone and miss your family.

In contrast, Rachel’s existence is much easier, though she has often felt marginalized as an Orthodox Jew in a city where anti-Semitism was once common. Her discoveries about her late husband leave her questioning a lot of what she thought she believed, and difficulties grow between her and her college-age daughter.

The parallel story of Aliza, who evolves into “Fanny,” is by far the more interesting, fleshing out the immigrant experience in a visceral way. Even though we know that she’ll end up dead in the darkness below the streets of Seattle, we root for her as she crosses the United States to try and improve her situation.

Rachel’s story is more ordinary. The arrival in town of an old friend precipitates a crisis; unfortunately, the reader sees it coming long before Rachel does.

But author Isenberg is also exploring a bigger issue here, that of assimilation. As each immigrant group finds its way into the cultural mainstream, the question remains: how long does it take and how much of what makes it unique gets lost in the process?

We are reminded that in every group there are outsiders. Sometimes the cruelest blows come from members of one’s own group who are well along in the assimilation process and no longer want the bother and embarrassment of coping with uneducated newbies with dirty nails.

We do learn at the end of The Bones and the Book just how Aliza/Fanny was killed, but the answer is contrived and less interesting than the journey we took to get there. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 19, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide: American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s edited by Gary K. Wolfe

When I pulled American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s (Library of America) out of the box, I gave a little “whoop” of delight. Beautifully presented in a boxed, two-volume set, the packaging instantly evokes the most tantalizing volumes of my childhood.

This anthology includes nine groundbreaking works from the infant age of novels of science fiction. The works included here defined a genre. Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, A Case of Conscience by James Blish, Who? by Algis Budrys, The Big Time by Fritz Leiber, The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett and The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson.

Read back to back in this way, one hears a naiveté and a very different tone and direction than one hears in contemporary science fiction. It is indeed arguable to say that today’s science fiction has a less self-conscious edge. And I would also hazard that the best contemporary works are more writerly and generally skilled. But there is a raw, exploratory tone to some of these novels. These writers were exploring territory as new as the worlds they were writing about, and just as uncharted. Where could these explorations possibly go? And yet, 50 and 60 years on, here they still are.

Have someone mad for science fiction on your holiday list? American Science Fiction would be a good choice. ◊

Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area, where he works in the high-tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science-fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 17, 2012

King’s The Stand Will Be Feature Film

Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic 1978 novel, The Stand, is generally thought to be one of the author’s most accomplished works. It is sprawling, epic and, according to many people -- including the author -- pretty much unfilmable as a standard feature-length picture. As King told The Hollywood Reporter, when plans to make The Stand as a feature were first released early in 2011,
The author said it would be impossible to make it as a two-hour movie and suggested it would likely be better as a trilogy. 
"Historically speaking, movie studios blow the budget on things like this, so maybe it’ll be fun to look at," King said. "The dough certainly isn’t going to me, although if it is a trilogy, and if it makes a lot of money, I might be able to buy a chicken dinner at Popeye’s. Great slaw!"
Fast-forward almost two years and we find that Ben Affleck -- “Filmmaker of the Year” -- has been tapped as the director for this project. He talked about it in a recent GQ interview.
Affleck is also working on an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, struggling to condense its epic nature into a manageable form. “Right now we’re having a very hard time,” he says. “But I like the idea -- it’s like The Lord of the Rings in America. And it’s about how we would reinvent ourselves as a society. If we started all over again, what would we do?”
According to The Huffington Post, The Stand isn’t Affleck’s only book-to-film project right now:
While he waits for “The Stand” to get into shape, Affleck is certainly keeping himself busy. He signed up to direct an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Live By Night” in October; that film will probably be his next feature. He’s also still working on a script with Matt Damon about mobster Whitey Bulger.
Meanwhile, it seems likely that King isn’t holding his breath on seeing the movie version of his book.
King referenced a quote that Stand readers will recognize: “M-O-O-N, that spells ‘you probably won’t see this anytime soon.’ And when you do, Woody Allen won’t be directing it. Or Molly Ringwald.”

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crime Fiction: Lehrter Station by David Downing

A classic cat-and-mouse game -- except it’s no game. David Downing’s latest novel, Lehrter Station (Soho Crime), chronicles days full of promise, punctuated by nights full of peril, in a nation emerging from war and pulled in many directions at once.

November 1945. World War II has ended, and people on both sides of the conflict struggle to put the events of the previous five years behind them and rebuild their lives. In London, journalist and freelance spy John Russell is on the move again, trying to piece together the remains of his own life with his German girlfriend, the actress Effi Koenen. But his plans take an unexpected turn when he is tracked down by Yevgeny Shchepkin, a Soviet NKVD agent he has worked with in the past, and who lays claim once more to his clandestine services. Russell had made a Faustian bargain to secure his family’s safety, based on his promise to work for Moscow again sometime in the future, and now that bill has come due.

So Russell returns to Germany with Effi, but not before striking a deal with the Americans to work as a double agent. Aware of his previous dealings with the Russians, the Americans are skeptical: where do Russell’s real loyalties -- if he has any -- lie?

For her part, Effi hopes to revive her stalled acting career in post-war Germany, but like her partner, her wartime past dogs her, and she must wrestle with the occupation powers to prove she was not a Nazi collaborator. Neither of these characters, though, is prepared for the tensions that are emerging between the occupying powers, or for the shadowy culture of post-war Germany on the street level, where deceit and treachery are the order of the day. Russell will weave his way between black-marketers and refugees on the run, European Jews headed for a new homeland and ex-Nazis also scurrying for the safety of a new life. It is a rich storytelling mixture, and reveals the full measure of the turmoil of war.

Lehrter Station effectively captures the trauma of a defeated and dislocated people, some of them good, some bad, all trying to make their way in an uncertain world. Relying heavily on the back story of Downing’s four previous novels in this series, Lehrter Station is an evocative, penetrating account, impeccably researched, revealing the author’s trademark meticulous attention to detail. It will appeal to fans of serious fiction about the chaotic days following the end of the Second World War, as well as to those simply in search of a cracking good read. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Knowing Our Place

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome back Matthew Fleagle, who works as a technical writer at a small software company in Seattle, Washington. Fleagle wrote recently and quite eloquently on this page about longtime New Yorker contributor Joseph Mitchell. Below, he offers us the results of his interview with another New York author [and occasional blogger], Robert Sullivan.)

Author Robert Sullivan (photo © Myrna Copaleen)

Manhattan-born Robert Sullivan is well known as the author of several non-fiction books, including 1998’s The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and 2004’s best-selling Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

Reading those works made me certain that Sullivan must be a fan of Joseph Mitchell, a favorite New York writer of mine. So when, not long ago, I was putting together a two-part article about Mitchell for January Magazine, I sought out Sullivan for some insight -- in the process discovering that he himself had a new book being readied for release: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In this latest offering, Sullivan laces up his history boots and seeks out some less-remembered landscapes of the American Revolution, places in New York and New Jersey where General George Washington and his ragtag Continental Army waged a long and mostly losing war against the British.

But this is not an account of the American Revolution; it’s a personal re-enactment of parts of the story as they reveal themselves in the folds of the land. Sniffing out rivers and mountains that are almost invisible in the urban topography of today, Sullivan connects the stations of his journey of rediscovery by means of several different narrative tools -- crossing a river and crossing time, signaling from hilltops, and re-entering the past through today’s local weather -- and comes home to his writing desk with a rucksack full of the kind of historical treasures that made me a fan of his books in the first place. To me, My American Revolution is about how we as a culture remember events that are sacred to us, and how the land remembers, and about how our memory succeeds and fails in connecting us with the past.

Sullivan is a contributing editor to Vogue, but his writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ and Rolling Stone, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. I consider Sullivan a kind of kindred spirit, the way he sees historical layers beneath current landscapes, and I wanted to find out ... well, how he got to be that way and how he views his writing processes. What follows are the results of our recent conversation.

Matthew Fleagle: In My American Revolution, you quote the 19th-century author Thomas F. DeVoe as saying that his fascination with history is a “dreadful disease” and you refer to his “history problem.” When did you realize that you, too, had a history problem? Was history your thing as a kid, or did the love of it dawn on you gradually?

Robert Sullivan: I always remember liking history, or what I thought of as history, as a kid. Specifically, I liked watching old World War II movies with my pop. He was in the army; I got to hear a little critique of how things were in the army in the movies versus in real life. I think asking about history and politics was a way to sit at the table, to talk with older relatives. When I was a newspaper reporter, after college, I got to cover small towns and then big cities in New Jersey, and the history of these places was not just interesting but important, crucial to understanding what was going on at the moment.

I would hate to think how many dozens of bad “Talk of the Town” pieces I submitted to The New Yorker before having my first one accepted a little over 20 years ago, but I know that most of them were obsessive looks at the history of people and places in the city, things that seemed to be fading away -- and now of course are gone. I remember a guy from North Carolina who raised chickens in an automotive garage in Hell’s Kitchen, all the birds sleeping in the rafters, as protection against roving bands of rats. He was a wonderful guy, gentrified away -- even the name Hell’s Kitchen is gone -- and the garage is gone, replaced by a mania for locally harvested eggs.

MF: I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of your previous books, The Meadowlands and Rats. The former book found you digging for Jimmy Hoffa’s body in a garbage dump, while Rats had you spying on rodents in a Lower Manhattan alley for a year of nights. Before this new book is over, you’ve retraced a 30-mile rebel march from Princeton to Morristown, New Jersey, in freezing weather, aggravating your back in the process. You do history with your boots on. What pushes you outside?

RS: Probably typing pushes me outside. I would rather be out walking than trying to come up with a paragraph -- until that is, I have a paragraph, and I begin to rework it, an act that causes me to lose track of time. I guess I feel as if the land is charged, as if street corners are filled with ghosts -- that you can hear things and see things and get help imagining things in the landscape. If I stand on a chair in our apartment, I can just see one patch of New York Harbor, one little dollop of blue or gray or gray-blue or steel-blue, depending on the sky. I can see far-off hills in New Jersey, I can see the shape of the city through the tops of buildings. It seems as if the physical shape of the city has made us who we are, causes us to go where we go in the ways that we do. There are stories outside, in other words. I’m sure this sounds crazy, but to me it seems as if the world is always talking.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze.

MF: My American Revolution seems to be less about the events of the American Revolution than about how we remember or misremember -- or even fail to remember -- those events, how we carry them forward through time. And you seem at least as interested in the ways we get it wrong -- such as Emanuel Leutze’s painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River -- as in how we get it right. Why is this so interesting to you? Is there really any hope of getting history right? At least in any way that’s meaningful to you?

RS: I don’t know if people get things wrong, when it comes to history, or if all of human history is like a giant game of telephone. How can you transmit an idea without tainting it? On the flipside, what are the essential elements of stories that are passed on despite our deficiencies and failures, and misunderstandings or varied perspectives? I think the book is about the history of histories, a history of various remembrances, and styles and methods of remembering. Or maybe the book is an art project -- something I’m hoping will cause people to consider or reconsider their engagements with the past.

A [historical] re-enactment is a way of engaging with the past that, once you examine one in depth, begins to seem a lot like a ritual, and when I took apart the annual re-enactment of the Crossing of the Delaware in New Jersey, I realized it began with having a lot to do with the Leutze painting, and ended up having even more to do with the river. The river makes the call every year as to whether the re-enactment will go on or not go on. So an important player, to look at it from the river’s point of view, is the Delaware watershed, which is to say rain in the Catskill Mountains.

Which brings me to the idea of the seasons being re-enactments. I can look at the winter stars and see the stars that Washington saw. (In fact, the stars on the U.S. flag are rooted in the sighting of a comet at around the time of the Boston Massacre, a comet that was perceived as a good omen for Americans.) The revolution I am referring to in the title is not the one that people think of as the war, but the revolution of the planet that causes a year, that brings us remembrances and understandings. The revolution is everywhere, all the time.

MF: You point out that while more of the Revolutionary War action happened in New York and New Jersey than anywhere else, this history has been neglected in favor of places where the rebels didn’t get their butts kicked so much. Why is that? Do you think that this points to an immaturity in Americans as history-keepers? How much of a barrier is “defeat” to Americans’ willingness to explore Revolutionary history where it really took place, or are there other things keeping them ignorant of it? By contrast, you’ve said you like reflecting on defeat and loss. Can you elaborate on the value of such reflection?

RS: Butts kicked is right, and butt-kicking is always something that people would just rather move beyond. I would argue that there are good reasons, as far as personal emotional maintenance, to look at losses and defeats, but those are hopefully pretty clear to most people. I know that if you go to a military college you are taught to examine, closely, losses as a matter of prevention -- officers-to-be go on site visits to look for lessons in the landscape.

New York is where the Continental Army faced off with the British for the first time after the signing of the Declaration of Independence; Washington lost. After that he avoided facing off with them. The evacuation -- or retreat -- of the American army from Brooklyn to Manhattan is a somewhat storied logistical feat that impressed even the British, a whole lot of local boats orchestrated by a bunch of seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, in a difficult tidal stretch that is difficult to maneuver at certain points in the tidal cycle to this day. (I’ve done it!) After being chased out of New York, through the New Jersey Meadowlands (with Tom Paine embedded), he made it to the other side of the Delaware, until the famed Christmas 1776 crossing. After that, the troops encamp in the Watchung Mountains.

From this ridge of the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey, General Washington could keep tabs on British troop movements back in 1777. Through the haze, you can see today’s New York City skyline. (Source: W2LG’s Blog)

The Watchungs are little known, and yet military strategists and American history-interested geologists will tell you that they were the strategic key to the war, the mountains that allowed Washington to win by not losing. What I got to see in my modern-day excursions is that the strategy of the landscape still matters and is surprisingly relevant. The New York landscape is a good place to think about these things, because we don’t have preconceived notions about what happened here during the Revolution. Or as many. Also, it is less cluttered with valiant biography. The war was won by the hills on a golf course in the Bronx that allowed a few riflemen to hold back the British army. The war was won by local boats and the typical late-summer winds and the tides. The war was crowd-sourced, by many Americans familiar with their places.

I was in Boston the other day talking about the Revolution, and someone thought I was going to say that New York’s landscape is somehow more important than Boston’s or Philadelphia’s landscape. This is not my point. I am one of a small number of New Yorkers who are touting their second place-ness, their non-center on the world. My point is that every place is very important, a point I take from a lot of people, especially Thoreau, who said that you ought to know the piece of land you are standing on. He was quoted by Emerson as saying, “I think nothing is to be hoped from you, if this bit of mould under your feet is not sweeter to you to eat than any other in this world, or in any world.”

MF: How do you feel about the timing of a book on the Revolutionary War? I’m thinking that the United States has recently been at war longer than at any other time in its history. How do you understand Americans’ view of American wars?

RS: I guess I see the Revolutionary War as a struggle against an empire. I see that there were British generals who seem to have understood the American reasoning, but that the system itself -- the empire -- could not negotiate in subtleties. I see that, logistically speaking, a faraway country had to work against a small local force that eventually gained more and more support from local militias. I see that General Washington complained about the British prison ships in Brooklyn throughout the war -- 11,000 people died there, more than died in all the battles of the Revolution, their bones in a crypt in a now-trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn. I think that Americans think that wars did not happen here. But of course they did. They always have -- long before the Revolution, of course.

MF: I want to pause to ask about you and the writing craft. Your publisher called the Meadowlands book “a grunge north Jersey version of John McPhee’s classic The Pine Barrens [1968].” And in fact the books have some obvious parallels -- an infertile woodland within sight of the Empire State Building, a toxic swamp within sight of the Empire State Building -- as well as some less-obvious parallels, such as how you encountered and hung out with the old canoeist the way McPhee tagged along with the old Piney in his book. How much have McPhee and other literary journalists informed your passion for searching out and writing about the strange corners of your world? Besides McPhee, if he is one, who do you see as your influences, and what is it about their work that has stuck with you the most? How much do you let your literary heroes guide your hand?

RS: As is the case for many people, I imagine, John McPhee is a huge influence on me. I had been a newspaper reporter when I read his books. I wanted to try and write about things that I could not write about as a reporter, whole landscapes, regions. I was driving around the country a lot with my girlfriend, who became my wife, and just getting blown away by the country -- by everywhere, basically. I still feel that way, which is perhaps a sign of lasting immaturity. But when I sat down to write a book on the Meadowlands, I went and re-read a bunch of books that I loved that I thought applied to a book about a place. I was looking to quantify what exactly it was that I loved about these books. I had been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, after seeing his boyhood home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I read somewhere that before he sat down to write his first book, he outlined a bunch that he liked. I did the same, with a whole bunch of books by my favorite writers -- Graham Greene, John McGahern and Colm Tóibín. In the case of McGahern and Tóibín, I was especially interested in how they used dialogue in a spare and resonant way -- I was on the lookout for exchanges such as these in the world, life being like art, I suppose.

There are obvious parallels between The Meadowlands and The Pine Barrens, because when I was looking for a form to put my Meadowlands thinking and reporting into I tried to find the form of an intimate exploration of a place, such as The Pine Barrens. Additionally, my wife had given me a copy of Great Plains, by Ian Frazier, which I loved. I thought I could see influences between the two books, and then influences back to Joseph Mitchell, who had written similarly interesting and intimate profiles before them at The New Yorker. I was worried about being too close to their styles, except that, as opposed to exploring places that were pristine and faraway, I was exploring a landscape that was disgusting and close.

I am jealous of both McPhee’s and Frazier’s exacting and careful styles -- they both have a patience that I will never manage. I can’t seem to stay on one point. Then again, I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about a writer who seems to have fascinated Mitchell, at least -- James Joyce. Joyce, I would argue, uses a lot of tangents and gorgeously spiraling narrative trajectories to arrive at a few simple points. My wife gave me a bunch of her favorite books when we were married -- Edward Abbey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Wallace Stegner -- and she sat and listened to The Meadowlands read aloud after I wrote it and just before I handed it in. I guess I am always hoping I will somehow impress her.

MF: How’s that going? Is it working yet?

RS: We are still married, is all I will say. She is a tough editor, and listens to way too much material that is, as a result of being aired, discarded, and we are still married. For this book we worked together, as seen here and here.

MF: Bruce Barcott called you “the rare non-fiction writer who maintains a catholic curiosity,” and I don’t know another writer who can pack so many diverse subjects into one narrative so seamlessly. Do you see yourself as part of any particular tradition as a writer, or as a trailblazer of a new writing ethos?

RS: I am always working on “seamless,” because I have a hard time seeing how things do not relate to each other. One of my theme songs is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, containing the line, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God ...” And you can take God or leave Him, but either way the big point is that the world is charged. It matters. It hears us and we hear it. Likewise, I see that individuals are defined by their community, by their associations. A place is us and we are a place. I also think a lot of things are sad and hard, as in difficult. I can’t imagine any tradition that would have me, and I am not so much trailblazing as trailing, always behind. I would like to have worked on anonymous texts in a Medieval Europe, maybe, where people didn’t know the author’s name, like the old “Talk of the Town” section. I could have been a copyist on a little island off Ireland or Scotland, if I was born a few centuries ago and had better handwriting.

MF: Is there any particular idea about “writing and history and place” that is trying to get out of you that you can identify? Does My American Revolution continue any kind of rational path in your publishing history? Or could any of your books have been your first book?

RS: My American Revolution is for me the end of a progression. It’s a little bit of a do-over, covering actual ground I covered in The Meadowlands. But this time I am going farther back in the story of the region, and this time I feel as if I have even better proof that places are important to us. You might not believe it, but when I am reading back pages, I really don’t want to hear too much about myself, except as a foil; but in this book I tried to link my own concerns about history and the past (and fatherhood, frankly, and what comes after) into the places that we all pass through in the world. That person in Boston said, “Oh, you are trying to say that New York is the center of the universe.” But no! As I say, I am trying to say the opposite -- that nowhere is the center of the universe, and thus everywhere becomes the center. Thus, the question becomes, “Can you see the universe, or any piece of it?”

MF: OK, back to our story. I found myself seeing this book in several ways that I’d like you to comment on. Maybe I’m all wet, but the first thing that struck me was that this book was like traveling a long river with many tributaries feeding into it, some of which you pursue a long way upstream and some not. The modern re-enactor St. John Terrell is a tributary we follow quite a ways, as is your patriotic friend Duke, who builds and launches an unlicensed, working replica of a Revolutionary War-era military submarine. By contrast, Anna Strong’s laundry, which signaled rebels about secret meetings, is a small creek that we merely wave at in passing. Your book is full of these historic and present-day characters whose stories feed the main story. How did you choose which streams to explore in the book? Did you withhold some of the more interesting tributaries for later books?

RS: I withheld many tributaries for sanity, for the sake of keeping the reader awake. I wish the book were shorter. I always hope to write short, and don’t -- a bad sign. The book starts with a river; crossing a river is crossing time, literally. There are things I missed: George Washington’s surveyor, a genius. I found out about him when it was time to shut the typing down. Books will kill you, and they will kill your family. If you are smart at all, you end them.

MF: How is crossing a river “literally” crossing time?

RS: A river is literally time, in my mind. In the Hudson, here in New York City, the river is yesterday’s rain in the Catskill Mountains upstate, and tomorrow’s Atlantic Ocean. The river is by definition change. Like time, it never stands still.

MF: I get it. Another way I saw My American Revolution was as the telling of a dream of loss or longing. You spend much of this book alone. A few friends and neighbors helped out or tagged along a few times, but this felt very much like a personal odyssey. The part where you run in circles in the snow until you are exhausted, trying to connect in some physical way with the not-very-good poet Philip Freneau, who froze to death nearby, I found particularly moving. It is one of the most beautiful moments in your book, I think, but it’s so far from the library, from the paths of scholarship. Do you see history as a lonely enterprise? There seems to be a kind of implicit sorrow in your tale that more people don’t appreciate the traces of history that are still present, just off the beaten path.

RS: I guess history is lonely sometimes. More often I find it inspiring to look back to see people struggling and even triumphing over the things we all struggle with. I see little happinesses, in letters, in pictures of the winter evening that, say, the Continental Army danced in the mountains of New Jersey, General Washington present -- a great dancer, apparently. Sorrow is not completely sorrowful for me. The heart is some kind of instrument, and as I see it you have to use all the notes in order to know the instrument’s full range. I feel bad for the kids who don’t grow up hearing sad old songs, who are sheltered entirely from disappointment. When things get bad in their adult lives, they will have a lot of catching up to do.

To answer more concisely, I find Freneau’s story to be incredibly sad, and at the same time beautiful, and I almost like his last poems.

MF: Finally, I saw your story as a hero’s journey, with a final redemption through reconnection -- specifically, a connection with the next generation (i.e., the future). I won’t spoil the ending, but I have to admit I got choked up there in the final pages where time is running out for the man who has become unstuck in time, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, and who is desperately trying to re-tether himself by signaling home. When you started your research, did you know that the hilltops and the signals would play the role they did?

RS: I wrote the first chapters over and over, screwing them up each time, but I kept plotting out my advance after each failure. Finally, I put the introduction aside and started marching ahead, crossing the Delaware and then marching through the mountains, at which point I knew that the signals on the mountains were my goal. I was so happy when I got to the end and was able to write the story of our signaling. I knew exactly what I was going to say. My editor helped me work the book over a couple more times -- I have always had amazing editors -- but the ending we kept as it was.

MF: At the end of the book you gripped the attention of a whole school full of kids. How has your recent book tour compared to that?

RS: I was not at the school -- I was 18 miles away, in the hills -- so I can’t really say. (I face the same situation vis-à-vis most history.) But the book tour is sort of sporadic -- little forays out into New England, and now the South and Texas. Sometimes I feel as if I am peddling false goods. Oh, you thought I was talking about the Revolutionary War. No, I was talking about the revolution of the earth around the sun, a calendar, a year! But people get it. In fact, people I read to make me feel not so crazy after all. It’s not just me. Places matter to everyone.

I’ll say it again, I don’t want people to think I am saying New York is better than any place else. I have been all over the country and I know that we are full of great places. I want people to explore their own places, to celebrate -- wherever they live -- the past, and thus more thoroughly the present. Huzzah!

Labels: ,

Monday, November 12, 2012

Don’t Boink the Biographer

You’ve already heard the story: last Friday, four-star U.S. general and Central Intelligence Agency chief David Petraeus resigned when it was revealed he’d had an affair with Paula Broadwell. Broadwell is the author of All In (Penguin), a biography of Petraeus published early this year.

Looking back on The Washington Post’s January 2012 review of All In makes one think reviewer Thomas J. Barfield had either a crystal ball or some inside knowledge:
Embedded in Petraeus’s Kabul headquarters, Broadwell was uniquely positioned to describe its byzantine political and military environment. While her book is long on detail, it is short on unexpected insights or unvarnished opinions. It is as if Petraeus could instantly visualize how whatever he said would appear in print and self-censor accordingly. Personal interviews run in lock step with the general’s public policy statements, congressional testimony and news releases, which are also quoted at length. 
Ten months later, it’s easy to read that review and say, “Of course.” But, really, there’s more to this story. A lot more. Some of it, I predict, yet to come out. But read even the story as it exists too closely and you end up wanting a shower.

At present, the coverage is deep and it’s everywhere. We won’t add to it here: there’s no need. Except to contribute one obvious (book-related) observation: Don’t boink the biographer. It’s just never a good idea.

If, somehow, you have missed the story, there’s more here and here and here.

Rushdie and Le Carré End War of Words

Fifteen years ago Salman Rushdie publicly described John le Carré as a “pompous ass.” Things went downhill from there. But now, according to The Guardian the two lions of literature have called off their feud.
Last month, Rushdie told an audience at the Cheltenham literature festival that he "really" admired Le Carré as a writer. "I wish we hadn't done it," he said of the 15-year-old feud which played out in the letters pages of the Guardian in 1997. "I think of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as one of the great novels of postwar Britain."
Of course, there’s a lot more to this story, and it’s here.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide: Jack Kerouac Collected Poems

Looking over our shoulders, it’s easy to underestimate the poetic art of Jack Kerouac. We remember little beyond On the Road, one of the defining works of the Beat Generation. The book celebrated a life of drugs and jazz on the road in an elegant stream of consciousness screed. Helping the idea that there was little to the writer beyond The Road is the fact that Kerouac himself died too young. He was just 47 and died of an internal hemorrhage attributed both to a lifetime of heavy drinking and a bar fight a few weeks before. Life fast, die hard: this is not the epithet of a master. And yet.
I used to sit under trees and meditate
On the diamond bright silence of darkness
and the bright look of diamonds in space
and space that was stiff with lights
and diamonds shot through, and silence
(from Buddha)

Or this:
Someday you’ll be lying
there in a nice trance
and suddenly a hot
soapy brush will be
applied to your face
--it’ll be unwelcome
--someday the
undertaker’ll shave you
(from 2nd Chorus)

It’s been reported that Kerouac loved poetry and loved making poems and said that his novels were a direct outgrowth of the diverse poems that filled his notebooks throughout his life. Poetry was important to Kerouac, personally and to and for his art. A new book from The Library of America illustrates this as well as anything I’ve seen.

Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems is edited by poet, painter and short story writer Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell. “Jack Kerouac was like a man observing his river,” Phipps-Kettlewell writes, “sitting in the rain, letting it soak through his clothes, his skin, his being; a man weighed down, feeling the cold, his tears as opaque as his heart.”

The book brings together all of Kerouac’s major collected works along with many uncollected poems, some of which have been published here for the first time. ◊

Jones Atwater is a contributing editor to January Magazine.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Before Vampires Sparkled

Abraham “Bram” Stoker, the Irish writer who created Dracula in 1897, was born 165 years ago today. Though we try to keep our eyes on birthdays, this one was particularly difficult to miss as it’s been commemorated by Google doodle.

Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847 and though he wrote a dozen novels and armloads of short stories, it is his fifth novel, Dracula, for which he is most remembered.

Since everyone knows that Google is actively engaged in taking over the world, it’s no wonder at all that clicking on the doodle takes visitors directly to Google Books where you can surf all of Stoker’s novels or learn a bit more about this very interesting author.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide: Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Fanny Merkin

The title warns you not to expect high art and, in case you were ever in doubt, the cover confirms it. Yes, this is a parody of Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course it is. But there is a surprise or two left in store: in a market that seems clotted with mashups and parodies, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey (Da Capo) actually exceeds all expectations.

This is due entirely to the rapier wit of author, Andrew Shaffer. Though he writes this one as Fanny Merkin (and not everyone will get the double chuckle in that pen name, it’s there, though Americans may have to use Google for a bit to work it out) he's proven his mettle in other works.  The author of Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, Shaffer is better known by his Twitter alter egos: EvilWylie, who comments on the publishing industry, and EmperorFranzen, a satirical send up of author Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, The Corrections). (“Chicks dig me,” EmperorFranzen’s Twitter bio proclaims, “I was on the cover of TIME. That's TIME magazine, bitches. ALSO: NO I AM NOT THE REAL J. FRANZEN. HE DOESN'T EVEN OWN A CLOAK.”

So clearly, Shaffer does funny for fun. Not only that, though everyone knows writing humor that is actually funny is difficult, Shaffer makes it look simple. The author has said that Fifty Shames of Earl Grey took him about 10 days to write and yet the writing is sharp and seemingly effortless.

The plot here seems immaterial. We have an arrogant rich dude named Earl Grey who seduces sweet young thing Anna Steal. Though the heroine -- if one can call her that -- of Fifty Shades of Grey is called Anastasia Steele, the two women couldn’t be less alike. Where Anastasia is -- let’s face it -- a bit of a milquetoast, Anna has been around the block a few times… and rather liked it.
Earl is only six years older than me, but sometimes the gulf between our ages seems like something I can’t bridge. It’s like he’s a 104-year-old vampire in a twenty-seven-year-old’s body.
“So you’re into some kinky shit,” I say. “That’s your biggest secret?”
“You don’t know the depths of my perversion,” he says.
I’ve already seen him at what I figured was the depth of his shame: buying a Nickleback CD. Do I want to know how deep his perversions go? Does he want me to follow him down that rabbit hole, into the dark recesses of his kinky mind?
Does she? Well, of course she does. But those who read the original books will already have been able to tell from that tiny snippet that the writing here is sharper, at least.

Shaffer has done a splendid job here. It’s like he went over Fifty Shades of Grey with a microscope and inflated and/or distorted everything in it that held the potential for humor. ◊

Aron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

Labels: , ,

Holiday Gift Guide: Florence: Art and Architecture and Venice: The Golden Centuries

If various reports are to be believed, the recession is drawing to a close. Even so, money is tight, gifts are precious and travel is dear. That might mean a lot of the things, but to me it means that gorgeous, elegant and rich books about wonderful places are going to be among the top holiday time gifts this year. How could they not be? Even an expensive book is a tiny fraction of the cost of a trip… and it can last ever so much longer.

Two great gift giving candidates come to us this season from H.F. Ullman. Florence: Art and Architecture and Venice: The Golden Centuries are both massive, impressive, filled with wonderful information and both books are relative bargains: pound for pound, these two might just be the best book bargains out there!

Neither of these books are contemporary travel guides which, in many ways, make them much better gifts. The information contained herein is not time sensitive or dependent. These are art books and, considering the topic at hand, both deal with the artistic history of the city under discussion. Noted scholars and historians contribute chapters to do with their own areas of expertise, while hundreds of images in each book complete the full illustration of two of the most artistically important cities in history. ◊

David Middleton is art director and art and culture editor of January Magazine.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 05, 2012

Don’t Forget to Vote!

By this point, few people need reminding that tomorrow, November 6, is Election Day in the United States. Billions of dollars have been spent, advertising on behalf of Democratic and Republican candidates around the country--including $1 billion on the presidential race alone. And TV news and opinion programs have been crowded for months with pundits and partisans of all sorts, trying to analyze who’s ahead in the races and what the fallout of projected wins might be. Despite efforts by Republican officeholders in Ohio and Florida, as well as by right-wing tea party activists, to hold down early voting efforts (which favor Democrats), voters seem highly engaged in this election, and the Pew Research Center is expecting a “big turnout.”

Yet there are still people who don’t think it’s important to vote. They may be frustrated that their views aren’t represented by the candidates, or they don’t care to be part of the political process and don’t see the issues at stake as important to their lives.

Since this isn’t a politics-oriented blog, I won’t go on about the specifics of what is at stake in this election. (If you’d like to read more on that, click here.) The bottom line is that your vote decides your future, in concrete ways, as well as the futures of your community and your nation. It is not a right to waste. If you haven’t already cast a ballot, please remember to do so tomorrow.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Writing Out the Storm

Over the last few days I've been so inspired by my encounters with writers whose lives have been upended by Hurricane Sandy and are writing through it. Some are still without power and Internet. Others are dealing with water and other damage brought on by the storm. And they are writing. Through adversity and for their own pleasure and escape, they are moving their own books forward.

Earlier Sunday on Facebook, Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You, Girls in Trouble) wrote that she still had “no real internet, no TV, no landline, but heat and light still on…. Going to try and write today and thinking of changing the name of new novel from She’s Not There to Cruel Beautiful World -- which sort of fits with today.”

MJ Rose (The Book of Lost Fragrances, The Hypnotist) was another author who checked in, saying, “It’s a small victory, but I wrote for the third day in a row despite Sandy and this miserable cold. This book is sneeze-proof and writing is not the only the best revenge but the best escape.”

On Twitter, YA author Susane Colasanti (Keep Holding On, So Much Closer) wrote, “I can’t tell you how good it feels to have a solid day of writing after all the #Sandy drama. #amwriting #amalive #amsafe #amthankful”

This excites me. I’m thinking about the books we’ll see in a few years, these children of Sandy. Not books about the storm (though I’m sure we’ll see those, as well), but books brought to fruition inside a passion born of adrenaline and the sheer will not to give in as well as a desire just to get on.

I imagine that they will be brave and thoughtful, these storm-born tomes, no matter their topics. They will speak to us about resilience and human spirit and survival. They will teach us about compassion and understanding and love.

We’ll wait for these stories, for the literary alumna of Frankenstorm 2012. And we’ll read them fondly, sometimes with tears standing in our eyes.

And we’ll remember. ◊

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

Friday, November 02, 2012

SF/F: The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois

The 29th publication of The Year’s Best Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press) edited by Gardner Dozois annual needs little announcement, yet not discussing it at least a bit would seem like an oversight. Every year, Dozois rounds up the very best of SF/F from the previous year, offering readers the chance to see what genre masters are up to plus giving us a glimpse of where things are headed with the best of the best from the brightest of young things.

As usual, the anthology begins with a summation of the previous year by the editor. This time Dorzois puts emphasis on the importance of the e-book on various trends in SF/F, but also the importance of magazines that publish fiction, regardless of format. “If you’d like to see lots of good SF and Fantasy published every year,” the editor admonishes, “the survival of these magazines is essential, and one important way that you can help them survive is by subscribing to them.”

It’s a good point, too. Especially in this context, since almost all of the fiction in this anthology was initially published in a periodical of some description. This time out, the more than 300,000 words in the anthology includes short stories by Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Maureen F. McHugh, Pat Cadigan, Elizabeth Bear and others. Gardner has a demonstrated talent for finding the best of the best and this year’s offering is no exception. ◊

Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area, where he works in the high-tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science-fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide: 100 Grey Cups: This Is Our Game by Stephen Brunt

100 Grey Cups (McClelland & Stewart) strikes me as the very portrait of a gift book. It’s good. Sure it is. But, more than that, it’s embracing. You get that even non-readers would love this book, provided they love the topic. 100 Grey Cups is gorgeous, well-designed, but also comprehensive, a balanced, interesting and maybe even a perfect look at that most esoteric of topics: the 100 times the top honor for football has been awarded in Canada.

The book begins with a bit of cheerleading from CFL commissioner, Mark Cohon. “We Canadians are proud of our heritage,” Cohon begins, “and the Grey Cup is one of our country’s most enduring icons.”

While I’m not sure I would agree with the sentiment, I will grant that whoever gets this book as a gift likely will, and maybe that’s all that counts, making the reader proud that, in Cohon’s words, the Cup is “bigger and better and stronger than ever,” a claim that the balance of the book makes you realize is something worth stating.

Author Brunt (Gretzky’s Tears, Searching for Bobby Orr) knows sports inside and out and is the perfect tour guide for this intense look at the Grey Cup’s first 100 years. We see the broad strokes of a game that has often played second fiddle to its big American cousin south of the border as well as the fine details of important players, moves and games over the years.

Make no mistake, 100 Grey Cups is the football book in Canada this year. If you’re buying a gift for someone who loves Canadian sports, you won’t go far wrong with Brunt’s latest. ◊

David Middleton is art director and art and culture editor of January Magazine.

Labels: , ,