It's almost Small Business Saturday! Instead of spending all your hard-earned money at Amazon, why not show some love to your favorite DC-area independent bookstores, including Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks, Upshur Street Books, East City Bookshop, Capitol Hill Books, One More Page Books, the Ivy Bookshop, and Curious Iguana? We book nerds need to stick together, right?
It’s been a tough year since our last Thanksgiving, what with everything being terrible. To make things better, I put together a list of four books I’ve read recently that made me thankful.
But wait, there’s more!
Since it’s Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday, these are also books that, in some way or another, speak to the American experience.
I hope you enjoy these suggestions, and happy Thanksgiving! And if you eat so much that you end up nauseous, then you’re also doing something uniquely American. I salute you.
Bolt Action Remedy by J.J. Hensley. Perhaps nothing is more anti-American than praising a sport outside of football, baseball, or basketball, but that’s exactly what Hensley does in Bolt Action Remedy, the first mystery in a series featuring former cop Trevor Galloway. Galloway is brought to a small, godforsaken town in Pennsylvania to investigate the murder of a man who, seemingly, has been shot by someone versed in both skiing and marksmanship. Unfortunately for Galloway, the man was shot next to a camp dedicated to training biathletes. Hensley’s research into biathlons is effectively used here, and sprinkled in efficiently to match the story’s quick pace. But it’s Galloway’s experiences as a cop, and the resultant PTSD, that will resonate with American audiences. Galloway is both weary and wounded, and the author’s frequent use of wry humor doesn’t mask that. There is a tortured soul here, and it will speak to you.
Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett. Another debut in a mystery series, Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide finds Dayna Anderson, a poor, formerly famous actress trying to solve a hit-and-run for a $15,000 reward. Anderson needs the money to help her parents pay for a massive expense, and this desperation for money struck me as an American essential, particularly because Garrett doesn’t shy away from financial difficulties or cravings as her story continues. And for contemporary readers who find themselves distraught by the unsavory elements of Hollywood, it’s refreshing to know that there are smart, insightful writers like Garrett willing to act as our tour guide through those dark depths.
Are You Sleeping? by Kathleen Barber. A note on the jacket of Are You Sleeping? describes it as a book for the podcast generation, but I think that does it a disservice. It's true that Barber's book, inspired by the "Serial" podcast series, is a necessary glimpse into those affected by unwanted fame, and the social-media mores that come with it, but that description is limiting. Barber's thriller is an unsentimental look into the demands of family loyalty, the haunting pain of examining a tortured past, and a portrayal of the unapologetic and unembarrassed American chase for fame (that likely has its roots in reality television), and more. The protagonist of Barber's book, Josie Buhrman, finds herself immersed in a public spectacle after a podcast begins its investigation into the decade-old murder of her father; from that point on, the pace is unrelenting.
The Unfinished World: and Other Stories by Amber Sparks. At first glance, nothing about these short stories speaks to the American experience; at a second, more-sober look, everything does. The stories are always unafraid and occasionally angry; angry at societal trappings, angry at form, angry at God. And that passion stirs below the surface of Sparks' sentences and brings them to life. I read it and was reminded of Jen Conley, Tara Laskowski, and other women (Kelly Link is another obvious example) who are writing today's most urgent, most powerful short fiction. This is a collection meant to be read and re-read. In particular, and entirely subjectively, I’ve been haunted by “We Were Holy Once,” ever since I came across it. That haunting is relentless and lovely. I’m thankful for it.
In 1967, Chuck and Tom Hagel, 20 and 19 years old, respectively, volunteered for the draft. Chuck shipped to Vietnam in late 1967; Tom arrived in mid-January 1968. They chose to serve side-by-side in combat as enlisted men.
Both were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. They were the only American brothers to have served together in the same infantry squad in Vietnam. Both were wounded more than once, each saved the other’s life. Over time, Chuck favored the war; Tom opposed it.
At the end of January 1968, the Hagels faced the Vietnamese Communist Tet Offensive. That was only the beginning. Throughout the year, they patrolled through the bush, looking for “Charlie,” as the Viet Cong were called. They routinely displayed the everyday heroism of infantry soldiers and undertook acts of great courage which led to medals.
The other squad members preferred them as point men — the guys who went first, leading the others through the jungle. “Walking Point” meant taking the out-front and most exposed position as the squad advanced through enemy territory. Chuck and Tom alternated in assuming that most dangerous job.
In July 1968, Tom was on patrol without Chuck when his fellow soldiers were fired upon by a hidden enemy. As Tom later put it, “Somebody had to do something.” He took action. He came up behind the VC guerrilla, and, as Bolger tells it, “The VC turned, his powder-smudged AK barrel coming up. He looked right at Tom Hagel, ten feet away. The American squeezed the trigger once. ‘And I shot him right in the forehead.’”
Graphic stories like this notwithstanding, Our Year of War, ostensibly a narrative on the Hagel brothers, is really the story of the Vietnam War with the Hagels as the centerpiece. The author devotes half his text to the history of the war, along with parallel disruptions erupting back in the U.S. as protestors staged anti-war demonstrations (with race riots ensuing). The result is a thoroughgoing sculptured context for the Hagels’ experience.
Early in the text, General Bolger quotes Mao Tse-Tung’s formula for guerrilla war, which the North Vietnamese were following to the hilt:
Enemy advances, we retreat.
Enemy camps, we harass.
Enemy tires, we attack.
Enemy retreats, we pursue.
As Bolger makes clear, the U.S. military — and especially the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), General William Westmoreland — failed to understand the enemy’s modus operandi. Equally, they didn’t realize that the North Vietnamese were determined to fight to the last man to win the war, a level of commitment far beyond that of anyone in U.S. forces. General Creighton Abrams, who replaced Westmoreland in 1968, changed the military strategy to cope with the enemy’s tactics, but by then, the U.S. population was becoming more and more opposed to the war.
The end result was the withdrawal of American forces in 1973, followed by cutting financial support to the government of South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
Bolger does a masterful job of researching and referencing — the footnotes run to 47 pages. He also captures and explains GI slang from the war. He covers “hootch,” “grunt,” “hump,” “boonies,” and many other terms and phrases, including my favorite, “There it is,” meaning “That’s how things are. No use complaining.”
The author spends extended time exploring one of the names we used to refer to the enemy. “Viet Cong,” a Vietnamese term that means “Vietnamese Communist,” was shortened to “VC.” In voice-radio communications, and sometimes in face-to-face speech, “VC” was expanded using the military phonetic alphabet to “Victor Charlie.” Early on, the troops began to refer to the enemy as “Charlie.” When the enemy was especially fierce, the term became “Mr. Charlie.”
Bolger is a retired army lieutenant general with 35 years of distinguished military service. His writing style is casual and irreverent, with plenty of military slang and a few jarring instances of overwriting:
“For a soldier, especially a trainee at Fort Bliss, time could run as slowly as a limp Salvador Dalí clock or as quickly as a hummingbird’s heartbeat.” At times, the reader is given more background than needed, thus overwhelming the central narrative.
The repetition of a disproven assertion, that the Tet Offensive came as a surprise to the U.S. military, is another irritant. As was broadly alluded to in the Burns-Novick documentary, the National Security Agency forewarned that a country-wide offensive was coming. MACV apparently didn’t believe the warning because it took no action to prepare.
Both Hagel brothers went on to distinguished careers after completion of their military service. Tom became a professor of law, and Chuck was elected to the U.S. Senate and eventually became secretary of defense under Barack Obama. But neither forgot Vietnam.
Tom Glenn spent the better part of 13 years in Vietnam during the war providing covert intelligence support to Army and Marine combat units and escaped under fire when Saigon fell. He now has 17 short stories and four novels in print. His most recent novel, Last of the Annamese, called by a reviewer “fiction in name only,” tells of the fall of Saigon.
Kapka Kassabova — her name itself conjures the far-off regions where East and West, Asia and Europe meet in a coming together of cultures, which is the subject of her latest book.
Kassabova was born in Bulgaria and published, in 2009, Street Without a Name, (the first half of which was a charming, funny memoir of her childhood). When she was 16, she and her family emigrated to the West, just as the Berlin Wall was falling and communism was collapsing throughout Europe.
In Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kassabova returns to the southern Balkans 25 years after she left to meander around the boundaries of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Part of the lure was that the border areas were, during the communism of her girlhood, off-limits: "The closer you got to the border, the less your life was worth," she writes.
In ancient times, much of this territory was known as Thrace. Thracian cult sites and magnificent gilded tombs are still being discovered today, but the Thracians themselves are, Kassabova says, "perhaps the least known of the ancient peoples of Europe."
It’s fair to say that most contemporary Americans, including well-read ones, know as little about the history of the Balkans as they do about Thrace. As Kassabova deftly shows, it's complicated.
Vectors of human history have crunched and collided here in the manner of tectonic plates: The Ottoman Empire and Judeo/Christianity, paganism and Orthodoxy, Hellenes and Slavs and “Gypsies,” war and bloodshed, and maps that are, over a relatively short period of years, often being redrawn — sometimes by Western politicians who, like the 19th-century British Prime Minister Disraeli, Kassabova says, couldn't hold a map of the Balkans the right way up.
And the vectors still exist today. One Bulgarian border guard, old enough to know, tells Kassabova that, in the 1970s, "They ran the other way, south." (He meant East German fugitives and others seeking to escape the Iron Curtain, who tried to get to non-Communist Turkey via Bulgaria; now, Syrians and others seeking entry into the European Union are flooding north.)
Border is more than a travelogue, and good as Kassabova is at evoking history and geography, the best of her book highlights the civilizations which indeed clash, but just as often coalesce and meld.
This “coming together” happens in unexpected ways. Kassabova visits an Orthodox priest in Turkey who speaks what she calls "an endearing old-fashioned Bulgarian," and whose wife, born in Bulgaria, speaks "a careful Turkish."
Stranger still is Easter Mass, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, where more than half of the congregants — "who stood and patiently listened to Alexander and Maria recite the arcane, sorrowful descants of Eastern Orthodoxy" — are Muslim.
In another part of her travels, Kassabova watches a group of women who, in an age-old ritual, take their religious icons — expressive and haunting paintings of the saints — to the river for washing. Instead of a prayer afterward, the women perform a ritualistic circular dance and, as Kassabova puts it, "The whiff of paganism was unmistakable under the burning incense of Orthodoxy."
Indeed, a leitmotif of Border is Kassabova's belief in the uselessness of nationalism. As she writes, "It just won't let people be."
On their own, people can usually live in something like harmony and mutual trust, she seems to be saying. It is when sultans, tsars, commissars, and governments impose their wills that the blood flows. Her book is not a celebration of borders; Kassabova prefers "our bitter, beloved, borderless Balkans."
Border includes a handsome hand-drawn map with pointers to the places the author visits, using her names for them, and the stories that ensue, such as "Felix's Cliff" and the "Spring of the White-Legged Maiden" and "The Village Where You Lived for Ever." Still, this is the kind of book that is fun to read with a world atlas near at hand — one of those oversized ones, hard to hold in your lap, with a complete place-name index.
Kassabova has an acute eye and ear for detail, and this is a marvelous book of travel stories, including a harrowing one, which is the climax of the book. Border, written by an author in her 40s, covers some of the same ground as the second half of Kassabova's earlier book, Street with No Name, written in her 30s. But the difference in outlook and authorial tone is evident.
As a native, she always knew of "the undercurrent of mysticism that runs through the Bulgarian psyche," and that "miracles felt as inevitable here as disasters." Where, in the earlier book, these manifestations of the otherworldly were presented with amused, affectionate, sometimes snarky skepticism, now, after these border travels, she concludes, "I wasn't so sure about all the things I didn't believe in."
Mark Gamin is a Cleveland lawyer and writer.
The British excel as diarists, the most famous being Samuel Pepys, followed by James Boswell (the biographer of Dr. Johnson), and Virginia Woolf, the beacon of the Bloomsbury Group. Currently, Alan Bennett, 83, reigns supreme.
Now comes Tina Brown pawing at that pedestal with The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, which chronicles her glory days as the English editor who came to America to revive the magazine, and later to resuscitate the New Yorker. For this she deserves heaps of Yankee praise.
Once I got my mitts on her book, I did what everyone will do: I turned to the index. Back in 1989, I was lucky enough to be selected along with Ted Turner, Diane Sawyer, Steven Spielberg, and others (plus the tombstone of Andy Warhol) as part of “the Media Decade” in Vanity Fair’s Hall of Fame. Each of us was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, who signed and sent originals of the shots as Christmas presents. I was curious to see if the diaries mentioned that 40-page spread in the magazine.
Flipping to the back of the book, I see one entry on page 347 about “the biggest media influencers” of the era. Wowza. There I am. Whoops. “Trashy Biographer Kitty Kelley.” But I’m not alone. Similar smackdowns await others.
Brown zings Jerry Zipkin, “always in high malice mode” as “Nancy Reagan’s viperish portly walker.” She cuffs Charlotte Curtis, the New York Times editor, as “unbearable,” adding, “What a bogus grandee she is, a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism.”
She bashes Oscar de la Renta as a “conniving bastard,” but after a kiss-and-make-up lunch, she sees “a nicer side of Oscar at last.” Arnold Scaasi is “the dreaded frock miester,” and Richard Holbrooke “an egregious social climber.”
After inviting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to a dinner party in honor of Clark Clifford, Brown dings the former First Lady (“Jackie Yo!”) as “crazed,” writing: “I felt if you left her alone, she’d be in front of a mirror, screaming.” Then she zaps Onassis for “understated malice” in not “writing me a thank you note.”
Midway through these diaries, you might think that most of Brown’s roadkill has been gathered up and gone to the angels. Given the passage of time, some attrition among the grandees of Gecko greed is understandable, but one wonders if Brown would’ve disparaged Si Newhouse, her billionaire benefactor at Conde Nast, as “a hamster,” an insecure “gerbil” frequently in “chipmunk mode,” if he were still alive. Safely dead, he gets blasted for having “no balls at all” because he caved to Nancy Reagan’s request to see Vanity Fair’s profile of her and the president before publication.
Read on, though, and you’ll see that Brown’s slingshot takes equal aim at those not yet consigned to the cemetery. Kurt Vonnegut’s photographer wife, Jill Krementz, is zapped for “extreme pushiness”; Henry Kissinger “is a rumbling old Machiavelli”; Peter Duchin “name drop[s] at deafening volume”; Robert Gottlieb, Brown’s predecessor at the New Yorker, is “a preposterous snob”; and Clint Eastwood is an excruciating bore.
“How could one be bored after one course with the world’s biggest heartthrob?” she asks. “I was.”
She cuffs her former friend Sally Quinn for disinviting her to Ben Bradlee’s birthday party because of Vanity Fair’s book review by Christopher Buckley, who characterized Quinn’s first novel as “cliterature.” Sally was “wild with fury,” Brown writes, a bit puzzled that “the sharpshooter journalist,” who had once libeled Zbigniew Brzezinski, would be so sensitive.
(In a profile for the Washington Post, Quinn wrote that Brzezinski, then national security advisor to President Carter, had unzipped his fly during an interview with a female reporter from People, which Quinn claimed had been captured by a photographer. The next day, the Washington Post retracted her false story: “Brzezinski did not commit such an act, and there is no picture of him doing so.”)
Brown does not chop with a cleaver. She wields her scalpel with surgical precision, blood-letting with small, incisive cuts. She doesn’t linger over the corpse, either. In fact, in these diaries, she jumps from mourning the death of a friend one day to tra-la-la-ing the next as she sits with Vogue’s Anna Wintour, drawing up guest lists for yet another dinner party.
Brown makes intriguing entries about New York’s new-money barons, particularly Donald Trump, who keeps a collection of Hitler’s speeches in his office. On February 23, 1990, she writes that Trump, in between wife number one and two, is “having a fling with a well-known New York socialite. If true, this could give Trump what money can’t buy — the silver edge of class.”
Alas, she doesn’t reveal the name of the silver belle, but she does relate that Trump, enraged by Marie Brenner’s 1988 takedown of him in Vanity Fair, sneaks behind her at a black-tie gala and pours a glass of wine down her back.
One marvels at Brown’s indefatigable energy as she sprints from breakfast with Barry Diller to lunch with Norman Mailer to dinner with the Kissingers. Every day, every night: the parties, the premieres, the galas, the spas, the stylists, the hairdressers, the designers, the limousines. Even she admits exhaustion at her frantic drive to see and be seen — all in service to her role as editor, of course.
These diaries are a celebrity drive-by of the great and the good and, sprinkled with high and low culture, are written with style but little humor, save for the night the newly arrived London editor attended her first Manhattan cocktail party and met Shirley MacLaine.
“What do you do?” Brown asked the movie star. This is laugh-out-loud funny, except to someone who’s laughed in many previous lives. MacLaine was not amused. Upon meeting Lana Turner when the MGM siren was 62, Brown, then 29, decides to “get a piece done that uses her [Turner] as a prism for all the glamorous stars who age without pity.”
The British writer Graham Boynton, who applauds Brown’s high-octane journalism, wrote affectionately in the Telegraph about her early days editing Vanity Fair. Reading a submitted draft for the Christmas issue, she scribbled, “Beef it up, Singer.” Boynton recalled, “It had to be tactfully explained to her that Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Nobel Prize winner for literature.”
I’m knocked out by these diaries, marveling that they were written at the time in such perfect prose. Do all her sentences fall to the page like rose petals in a summer breeze? No editing? No rewriting? No tweaking? If so, this “trashy biographer” genuflects. (My own diaries read like the daily romps of an unhinged mind scrambling for cruise control.)
Diaries provide a psychological X-ray of the diarist, an unintentional autobiography of sorts, and these entries show a woman of immense talent consumed with her dazzling career. And as tough as she is (and must be) in a man’s world, her feminist self resents being dismissed.
When Ad Age demeans her as a “starlet wanting to play Juliet,” she punches back. It’s “fucking sexist crap,” she writes. “Women get stuck with being trivialized and just have to smile.”
Flicking off such criticism like a fuzzball from cashmere, Tina Brown smiles all the way to the bank and then rockets upward, leaving the rest of us in her high-heeled wake.
Kitty Kelley has written several number-one New York Times bestsellers, including Jackie Oh!, Nancy Reagan, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty.
In the last week, I discovered that my gay fantasy romance novel, By Fairy Means or Foul, is now on several pirate sites. I can’t tell you how much this aggravates me. In the past, I’ve taken the approach to mostly ignore those sites because I assumed that anyone who didn’t have a problem stealing my work probably wouldn’t buy it anyway. Also, sending cease-and-desist letters is time-consuming and often futile.
Recently, I’ve begun to rethink this idea. A column by Alison Flood, the Guardian’s book reporter and the former news editor of the Bookseller, argues that with 17 percent of e-books being pirated, it puts writers’ futures in jeopardy.
And while it may not much affect the bottom line of Nora Roberts, Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, it can very much affect the lives of what were once termed “mid-list” authors. Maggie Stiefvater is one such author. She blogs about the piracy of one of her books and how it almost meant her publisher pulling her popular series.
I’ll be honest: As a short-story mystery writer, I rarely thought about piracy. I did have one short story pirated, but a much more seasoned colleague said, “Welcome to the club, kid. You made it.”
And though the idea of piracy irked me then, it didn’t affect my bottom line because usually my short stories are bought by publishers for a one-time payment. I also naïvely assumed it was a fairly rare occurrence. So, I grumbled but let it go. Barely.
This is not the case with my e-books. Every time a book is uploaded to a pirate site, that’s countless sales lost. It hits me in my wallet. Moreover, after all the blood, sweat, and tears I’ve put into these pieces, it steams me up that someone steals them from me. Makes me gnash my teeth and stomp my feet, like some creature straight out of Where the Wild Things Are.
It also, unfortunately, means I may not be able to keep writing these books. Writing is a business, and as much as I do it because I love it and need the creative outlet, I’m not doing it for free. I need to not only recoup the money I invest in my work, but ideally make something for my effort.
There seems to be this popular misconception that writers are just rolling in dough. I assure you: for 99 percent of us, this simply isn’t true. So every theft of an author’s work makes it that much more likely that we’ll have less time to spend on that beloved book or series because we’re off doing other things in order to pay the bills.
In the last week, in addition to finding my book on pirate sites, I also watched a conversation unfold from a romance blogger’s Facebook group claiming they had no ethical dilemma reading, and then selling off, the e-book advanced reader copies authors entrusted them with. You want to see authors foam at the mouth? Talk about selling their e-book ARCs.
ARCs are given to a reader or blogger with the explicit understanding that they are not to sell or share the book with anyone. They’re obligated to then review it and to NOT share it. If they sell it, they are making money off the author’s hard work, while the author doesn’t receive a dime. That’s called stealing.
The excuses for why someone feels free to steal from authors range from, “I just don’t care,” to “authors should feel grateful anyone’s reading their work,” to “one book won’t make a difference,” to my personal favorite, “it’s just writing. Anyone can do it.”
It’s a telling statement that some readers don’t seem to care if their favorite authors can actually afford to keep writing, much less make a living at it. It’s also a bellwether for how we treat the arts more generally. That, more than anything, concerns me. I hope it concerns you, too.
Ron Chernow has dedicated his latest book, Grant, “to my loyal readers, who have soldiered on through my lengthy sagas.” This new work will not disappoint them.
As in his previous biographies, Chernow once again offers a close-up and personal look at his subject. Through sterling and hard-driving prose, backed by a stunning depth of research, Grant the man emerges on these pages. Chernow has those great gifts of a writer and scholar, and knows how to combine them to resurrect a life of someone readers thought they knew.
Grant is not by any means a hagiographic study of the Civil War’s greatest soldier and 18th president of the United States. For one, Chernow puts to rest all debate about Grant’s penchant for liquor. The general was a binge drinker. Hence, believes the author, Grant’s greatest accomplishment was not his victory in the Civil War, nor his allegiance to African Americans during and after Reconstruction. Rather, it was his ability to conquer his addiction through sheer will, well before the age of Alcoholics Anonymous.
(At times, Grant needed help to avoid the bottle; two of his steadfast supporters were his wife, Julia Dent Grant, and his longtime friend and aide-de-camp, John Rawlins. They knew to keep an eye on Grant and intervened when necessary.)
Chernow rightfully lauds Grant for his solid understanding of the political and military stakes of the Civil War era. Chernow’s Grant simply outgenerals his principal foil of the war, Robert E. Lee, pushing aside the “lost cause” notion that has elevated Lee to mythic status.
It was not the Union’s advantages in manpower, resources, and technology that defeated the Confederacy, says the author. Rather, it was that Grant understood how to manage those resources where others before him had failed. Nor was Grant a butcher, as some histories have suggested. He simply saw the map much more broadly and knew the value of coordinating Union armies in the field.
When the war broke out in 1861, Grant was a nobody, a down-on-his-luck Midwesterner overshadowed by a petulant, self-promoting, and craven father, and a father-in-law suspicious of his son-in-law’s political alignments. By all accounts, Grant’s track record by 1861 made him a failure. What rescued him was the Civil War, where he could finally demonstrate his military genius.
Grant brims both with stories of the carnage of the Civil War and of Grant’s ability to prevail in the face of it. From his snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat at Shiloh, to his stranglehold on the Confederate bastion at Vicksburg, to his final crushing of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Overland Campaign, Grant’s triumphs were legion.
Of particular interest to Chernow is the bond that grows between the general and President Abraham Lincoln. They often seemed like a pair of like-minded individuals who trusted each other even when separated by hundreds of miles.
Also of note is the relationship between Grant and his favorite subordinate, General William T. Sherman, who proved solid and sure on the battlefield. Following the war, however, the men’s kinship collapsed as now-President Grant sided with the Republican Reconstruction policies that irritated Sherman.
For all of Grant’s ability to lead men in battle, his biggest liability was his naivete and inability to judge non-military people around him. He was a soft touch — too soft probably — as, during his presidency, some of his closest aides took advantage of his position for personal gain. Grant just never seemed to “get it” when picking people as confidants and doling out political patronage.
While Grant was not personally tainted with the whiff of scandal during his presidency, many around him, like Orville Babcock and financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, reaped great financial rewards while pushing the country into the worst economic depression of the 19th century. Even when confronted with damning evidence, Grant chose not to believe that the people close to him had used him.
This would be a recurring theme throughout Grant’s political life and would cast him, in the annals of history, as a bumbler and incompetent commander-in-chief. But Chernow rehabilitates Grant’s political reputation, defending his record on race and demonstrating his belief that the war had been fought principally to free the slaves and then protect their newfound liberties from those who sought to overturn the political ramifications of the South’s defeat.
(Grant supported emancipation long before it was popular among the ranks of Union officers. His record of standing up to the Ku Klux Klan is impressive, and he regretted not being able to do more to help those blacks being terrorized in the South once he was no longer president.)
For Chernow, one of the greatest chroniclers of Grant’s life was Grant himself. Despite rumors that Mark Twain helped the retired general pen his memoirs, Chernow argues that the recollections are solely the work of Grant’s hand. In Grant, the author lauds the general’s rich, compelling writings.
A sweeping drama with a lush cast of characters comes to life in Chernow’s masterful biography, as does the Civil War and Gilded Age America. While, at times, the story is sad, readers will be buoyed by recognizing just how good and decent a man was Ulysses S. Grant.
James A. Percoco is the Teacher-in-Residence at the Civil War Trust and is author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments. He is a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, Class of 2011.
A Busboys and Poetry event! For two hours, audiences can expect a diverse chorus of voices, and a vast array of professional spoken-word performers, open-mic rookies, musicians, and a different host every week.
At Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Click here for details.
Fans of the 1950s musical “South Pacific” will remember Bali Ha’i, which was the name of a mystical tropical island that called to sailors from across the sea. “In your heart, you’ll hear it call you,” went the song, “come away, come away.”
In the 18th century, Bali Ha’i called to England.
Sailing in the vast and uncharted South Seas in 1767, the English ship Dolphin stumbled upon “a floating island” which filled the mariners with “wonder and fear.” When they went ashore, the English were amazed to discover a garden paradise where there was “no other god but love” and where beautiful women freely offered themselves to the sailors. The island was called Otaheite (Tahiti).
News of Tahiti caused a sensation among the English press and public. Could this be “the true utopia” where men and women lived free from the artificial constraints of modern society? The legend peaked in 1789, when the crew of the HMS Bounty mutinied and refused to return home after seeing Tahiti.
More than two centuries later, the story of the mutiny on the Bounty continues to attract talented writers and new readers, particularly now that the ship’s archives have been posted online. And old myths and stereotypes keep falling under the weight of modern scholarship.
Diana Preston is the author of several popular histories, including Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy and A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. Now, in Paradise in Chains, she provides a fresh perspective by comparing the Bounty mutiny with the nearly simultaneous founding of Australia.
Both events grew out of the celebrated voyages of explorer James Cook in the 1770s, and both were prompted, oddly enough, by England’s loss of its American colonies. In Tahiti, the sailors of the Bounty found paradise, but in Australia, convicts starved in chains. In both places, the English lived in a virtual state of nature that pitted men (and women) against each other, the sea, and, ultimately, English law.
The founding of Britain’s penal colony in Australia in 1788 is a tale of hardship and woe. Preston profiles individual convicts, their crimes, and their punishing eight-month voyage to Botany Bay in darkness and chains. When male and female convicts met for the first time in Port Jackson (modern Sydney), the result was a night-long orgy of rape. To prevent anarchy and starvation in the hot, dry climate, Governor Arthur Phillip ruled the colony with “rigid discipline.”
The Bounty’s voyage to gather breadfruit in Tahiti seemed like a pleasure cruise in comparison. Readers who recall the 1935 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, may be surprised to learn that Lieutenant Bligh was no tyrant and Fletcher Christian was no hero.
Rather than flog and starve his men, Bligh hovered over them like a modern helicopter mom, nagging and bullying them to eat their vegetables and exercise properly; he even made them dance in the evenings to keep fit! Floggings were few, and there were no marines on board to keep order. Christian was a popular but somewhat spoiled friend of Bligh’s.
The Bounty lingered for five months in Tahiti, where Bali Ha’i worked its magic on the crew. “Left too much to their own devices,” discipline flagged and several men, including Christian, went native. Three deserted but were captured, flogged, and forgiven. Leaving Tahiti was painful for many, especially men with pregnant Tahitian “wives.”
Three weeks later, Christian snapped and instigated a chaotic mutiny, leaving Bligh and 18 others abandoned at sea in the ship’s launch. Why?
We know that Bligh became angry with his lax crew and that his wrath fell on Christian. Did Christian buckle under the harsh criticism? Or did Bligh cross a line by using personal insults such as “thief” and “liar”? Perhaps the two men fell out for personal reasons. Each theory has its advocates, and Preston borrows from all three.
Behind it all lay Tahiti. Tahiti eroded discipline, prompted Bligh’s tirades, and triggered Christian’s revolt. Most of the mutineers returned to Tahiti, and the others took Tahitians to Pitcairn Island (by effectively kidnapping them). But Preston strangely discounts the influence of Tahiti because it “remove[s] all blame from Bligh.”
Those who joined Bligh in the overcrowded launch struggled to survive a legendary 3,600-mile voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies. They fought the sea as well as the Great Barrier Reef which, like a fierce dragon, guarded the road from paradise.
Two years later, the frigate Pandora, carrying the mutineers captured on Tahiti, sank on the reef. And William and Mary Bryant battled the reef when they escaped from Port Jackson in a small boat. But the Bryants miraculously reached Timor, where they met survivors from the Pandora. Together they were shipped back to England; some were hanged, but others became celebrities. This exciting story lacks only a detailed map.
Later, Bligh returned to Tahiti (this time backed by marines), but failed as governor of Australia. Christian’s defenders portrayed Bligh as a tyrant, while Christian became a folk hero to the Romantic-era poets. Only years later was it discovered that the community Christian created on Pitcairn Island was a frightening dystopia where white men cast lots for Tahitian women until the Polynesian men and women revolted and killed their tormentors. Meanwhile, the era of paradise and chains gradually ended in the Pacific as Tahiti adopted Christianity and Australia grew toward nationhood.
Paradise in Chains is a lively introduction to England’s early adventures in the South Pacific. Comparing the English experiences in Tahiti and Australia is instructive, but the focus is on Tahiti. Diana Preston is a fine writer, and her trademark use of the participants’ own words brings the era to life.
Featuring exotic lands, struggles against the sea, and the abuses of 18th-century English justice, this book skillfully combines elements of Margaret Meade, Patrick O’Brian, and Charles Dickens.
Bob Clark is a retired lawyer and teacher in Washington, DC.
For every cast or crew member in a theater production, for every ingenue or hoofer who wants to delve into the glittery backstage intimacies of a Broadway production, Amy Rose Capetta has a novel for you. Echo After Echo captures an actress’ big break and first big love, plus a bit of improbable (but entertaining) murder mystery at a Broadway show.
The story opens on the audition. Small-town student Zara Evans, 18, attends an audition at the famed (and fictional) Aurelia Theater in New York City for the new production of "Echo and Aristan," a cross between Romeo and Juliet and a Greek tragedy.
“Being an actor is all about finding keys from the real world that open imaginary locks,” Zara muses at the onset, offering us a clue to the story that will unfold.
In short order: Zara astounds at the audition and secures the role of a lifetime, quits high school, and moves to Manhattan to pursue her dream. Soon after joining the company and going into rehearsals that stretch into the night, Zara discovers the dead body of the lighting designer. This untimely death puts Eliza “Eli” Vasquez, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican assistant lighting director, into the forefront of the production. Soon, Zara and Eli fall slowly and sweetly in love, even as more nefarious warnings swirl about the theater.
But the show must go on.
Throughout the novel, there are gossipy, delicious insider details about theater life in New York. Capetta, the novelist, has a theater background, including studying at the renowned Stella Adler Studio.
From the opening description of the audition: “The greenroom is delightfully shabby. Ancient couches have been pushed aside to make room for the actresses. A cornered snack machine hums resentfully. No one’s buying. These girls in their stylish dresses, with their stylish bodies, do not look like they have ever snacked.” Capetta places the reader on stage, in the footlights, ready for the curtain to rise.
Divided into three acts, the novel unfolds through the eyes of those who work at the theater. The cast of characters, however, in some cases reads like a stock list, including the manipulative, harassing theater director, Leopold, and his poisonous, pill-pushing assistant, aging actress Meg. The depictions of danger and malfeasance afoot seem like asides — action in the wings rather than centerstage — and, at points, threaten to make the story more farce than drama.
Industry-specific terms radiate throughout the novel and function on many levels, as in this scene with Zara and her male lead, directed by Leopold: “Kiss/kill is the distance we use to show intensity. Leopold prods Zara in the back again, forcing her closer to Adrian. So close, the character seems to have only two courses of action. They might kiss, or they might kill each other.”
The lack of tension onstage between Adrian and Zara is contrasted with the aching tension between Zara and Eli offstage.
Anyone who has ever worked in the theater will recognize Zara’s insights into the all-consuming nature of production: “Plays are usually filled with people who come close for weeks and months… they confide, reveal, peel back fears and secrets to see what’s underneath. They dream together. They wrestle and fight and laugh too loud and kiss for no reason.”
One can believe that the true drama of this novel, the love story between Zara and Eli, will continue far after the curtain falls. As the novel notes: “This is their story.”
Echo After Echo is a young-adult novel deserving of the reader’s applause, even a standing ovation.
Caroline Bock is author of the critically acclaimed young-adult novels LIE and Before My Eyes. She is a 2017 recipient of a Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council F18 Artist and Scholar Award for her writing. She is at work on a new novel.
If someone had asked me before now what I had in common with Wolf Blitzer, Michael Hayden, David Petraeus, and Leon Panetta, I’d have scratched my head. After reading The Quantum Spy, I now realize that we all enjoyed David Ignatius’ new novel. Like in his other books (read my earlier thoughts on his work here), Ignatius combines deft storytelling with insider information about spycraft honed over decades as a respected journalist specializing in explaining that complicated world.
The Quantum Spy deals with the United States’ and China’s national-security agencies fighting to develop the first quantum computer, the ultimate code-breaking machine and digital equivalent of a paradigm shift similar to the race to build the atom bomb in WWII. Ignatius helps hapless non-techies understand the power of the computer enough to move the story forward. Along the way, his characters debate about the intellectual war between openness and secrecy.
The story, like most good thrillers, takes readers on a journey — in this case, from Old Town Alexandria and Amsterdam to Vancouver and Singapore and Mexico City, and to seedy safehouses hidden along the way. The Quantum Spy has a bit too much jargon and too many acronyms to suit my taste but, as the great storyteller Elmore Leonard listed in his rules for good writing, readers can skip over these passages without losing the mood.
One quality Ignatius masters is absorbing the literature and philosophy of the cultures he writes about; the Middle East and Islam in earlier books, and China here. Some examples:
On realpolitik all over the world, one character observes, “The line between criminal activity and radical politics is a funny one…when people are scared of a movement, they say it’s an illegal gang, or a terrorist group.”
Ignatius also uses examples of spycraft that lend themselves to good storytelling:
And, as a reader of Trollope’s Phineas Redux, one of his characters offers worldly literary insights:
And even the profundity of quantum technology had an impact on his chief character, who:
Ignatius remarks in his afterword that he’s happy he didn’t have to choose between being a journalist and a novelist. Readers will be, too. He is so good at both.
Ronald Goldfarb is an attorney, author, and literary agent. His column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Independent.
The memoir rivals the novel in elasticity. Varied in matter and manner, memoirs by the notable and not so notable issue from every field of human endeavor. Generals have favored the genre — Mémoires du Général Baron de Marbot (1892), to cite a distinguished example — as have popular artists — one instance being Billie Holiday’s elegant Lady Sings the Blues (1956). Literary memoirs, not surprisingly, tend to be subtly conceived and executed — Henry James’ A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) being exceedingly refined examples.
Literary memoirs often share another trait: They focus not only on “what is remembered” (to echo the title of Alice B. Toklas’ memoirs), but also on how and why it is remembered and on how and why remembering is constitutive of what is remembered.
In sophisticated cases, the inquiry extends to how and why representing the process of remembering also affects what is remembered. Inherently deconstructive, put differently, such memoirs affirm the difficulty — really, the impossibility — of recovering the “real thing” (in James’ phrase), or of finding the “there there” (in Gertrude Stein’s), or of writing about it.
In the opening chapter of her engrossing new memoir, Amy Tan defines “the process of writing [as] the painful recovery of things that are lost.” The unmistakable allusion to Proust may remind us that Scott Moncrieff’s early and poetic translation of “à la recherche du temps perdu” as “remembrance of things past” eventually gave way to the more prosaic, but also more accurate, “in search of lost time.”
If all writing is recovery, as Tan suggests, then it wants to recover the distance between things and us, not things themselves. All writing, in this sense, aspires to the condition of memoir.
Tan signals these nuances of the genre in the obliquity of her title: Where the Past Begins. She implies that her past begins in space (where, as opposed to when): in the physical space of local cultures (Shanghai, Oakland); in the intangible — but not incorporeal — space of familial relationships (mother, father, brother, spouse); and in the incorporeal space of memory as it becomes incarnate in writing. The “things that are lost,” however, as Proust knew and Tan affirms, ultimately lie neither in space nor time, but in the searching for them through space and time.
Tan’s deft subtitle, A Writer’s Memoir, equally oblique, in effect promises two memoirs: one of a writer qua writer, the other of a young girl and woman who eventually becomes that writer.
Tan believes, obviously, that the two memoirs are one, because the professional and personal are fused in artistry. If the distinction is ipso facto moot in conceptual terms, however, it is not moot in either operational or experiential terms: Tan selects the content of what she will write and directs what her reader, as a result, reads. Focal choice matters.
Tan had described her earlier book of nonfiction, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life (2003), as “musings on my life,” its pieces called “musings because the writings are mostly casual pieces rather than formal essays.”
Their pattern — “questions of fate and its alternatives”— became clear to her only after the fact, as did the insight “that these permutations of changing fate [she catalogues 17] are really one all-encompassing thing: hope.” A reader who infers from “musings” that The Opposite of Fate will be a “loose, baggy monster” (to invoke James again) will be wrong: Its pattern and theme make for a tightly focused work.
More heterogeneous in form, Where the Past Begins comprises a lengthy introduction (superfluous and distracting, since the book shows itself brilliantly and needs no telling); six main sections that together include 13 chapters interleaved with 10 elliptical “quirks” and four more rounded “interludes”; and a hypnotic epilogue.
Tan offers cogent, even compelling, reasons for the types of content she has chosen, but at least one choice — a long series of emails between her editor and herself, largely shoptalk — does not make captivating reading.
Minor quirks aside, however, Where the Past Begins wields fierce aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional force. Its opening section, Imagination, and closing section, Language — respectively centered on Tan’s absorption in music and her study of linguistics — define the antipodes of her art.
What unfolds between them, too rich and tight for summary, finds signal emotional centers of gravity where Tan plumbs her struggle to recover an “original experience” in a story that “resonates as true. It is the feeling of what it felt like when it happened,” or where she puts that struggle in the service of recovering “the father I did not know.”
Only deceptively loose, in short, this highly crafted book reflects Tan’s comment that, “as a fiction writer, I love inconsistencies, gaps in information, contradictions, false leads, and changing details.” A master of such feints, she can write that “long after [my father] died, my mother told me about the terrible guilt he felt for having fallen in love with a married woman,” fewer than 40 pages after she has written, “We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to speaking for the dead.”
And in a book that cherishes memory, she can quote her mother, raped by an abusive first husband: “‘Depress because cannot forget,’ she said.”
Just as alternatives to fate focused The Opposite of Fate, the counterforce to death — imagination — focuses Where the Past Begins. The dead roam this book: Tan’s grandmother, who died by her own hand; Tan’s father and brother, who both died of brain tumors (and both in the same year, Tan’s 15th); and, ubiquitously, Tan’s mother, who died decades later from Alzheimer’s disease. Even Tan’s dogs, recently deceased “companions in the house,” haunt the book’s epilogue, neither diminishing nor diminished by the human deaths that they simply extend.
What, then, of imagination, the counterforce? Hemingway wrote that “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” Amy Tan, at once a true-story teller and a true storyteller, conjures her dead in this extraordinary memoir and meets them not with judgment nor sentimentality, but with a feat of imagination that avoids and transcends both.
Charles Caramello is professor of English at the University of Maryland and current John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, VA.
Plenty of Capitals fans have taken in a game at the Verizon Center and cheered the team on during thrilling recent playoff runs. But only real fans know the full history of the "Save the Caps" campaign or have rocked the red in enemy territory. 100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die is the ultimate resource for true fans of the Caps. Whether you were there through the early dark days of the franchise, or you're a more recent supporter of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, these are the 100 things every fan needs to know and do in their lifetime.
Sportswriter Ben Raby has collected every essential piece of Caps knowledge and trivia, as well as must-do activities, and ranks them all from 1 to 100, providing an entertaining and easy-to-follow checklist as you progress on your way to fan superstardom.
At One More Page Books, 2200 N. Westmoreland St., Arlington, VA. Click here for info.
Jesmyn Ward was named the recipient of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction during a ceremony in New York City last night. In honor of Ward’s accomplishment, we invite you to read our review of her winning novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. As you’ll see, our reviewer was as smitten with it as the awards committee clearly was.
For a list of all the 2017 winners, click here.
Two of my favorite topics converge in November, which commemorates both National Adoption Month and National Novel Writing Month.
Fiction has always felt like a home to me. I know I’m not unique, and there are legions of readers like me who live parallel lives through books, but I can’t help but think that my own deep affinity for fiction is partly attributable to the fact that I’m adopted.
After all, adoption is a form of fiction, an alternate reality. It asks the world to accept something that is not true.
The dominant paradigm of the nuclear family unit is that a child has one set of parents from whom she is the direct genetic issue. By introducing a genetic stranger into a traditional family, adoption subverts the paradigm, and literature loves a subverted paradigm. Adoption appears in our earliest stories: the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus, the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the Old Testament story of Moses. (It could even be said that Jesus was the adopted child of Joseph.)
Children’s stories are heavily populated with orphans and foundlings, and so early on I recognized myself in fiction, even though the orphans and foundlings were usually in dark, scary situations that were nothing like mine. The contrast between the dramatic circumstances of the storybook orphans and fairy-tale foundlings and my comfortable and happy life made clear the enormous influence of chance in the life of the abandoned child.
While children who are raised by their biological parents tend to regard their life story as immutable, adopted children perceive that life is like those books where the reader can choose between different outcomes: If Baby is adopted by humble weaver Silas Marner, turn to page 25; by Polybus and Merope, king and queen of Corinth, turn to page 27; by the Earnshaw family of the Yorkshire moors, turn to page 29.
I always knew that my life was just a plot twist away from an entirely different story. If I’d stayed in my birth country of Korea, I would have been discriminated against and marginalized for being mixed race, and likely led a life of misery and shame. Or I could have been a lot less fortunate in the parent lottery, subjected to a childhood marked by neglect, abuse, and other hardships. Or I could have grown up in an evangelical family; in a small Midwestern town where everyone looks alike but me; under the hot klieg lights of Hollywood. The variations are endless, and the imaginative adoptee spends a lot of time exploring them.
I don’t know if any studies have been done on adoptees and imagination, but in my case, my ability to construct elaborate stories in my head is largely attributable to a lifetime of imagining myself into the true child of Caucasian parents and the actual sister to three sandy-haired, hazel-eyed siblings.
Because I am adopted, I have learned not to judge a book by its cover, as I have so often been judged by mine. Being an adoptee has made me more adept at reading peripheral clues, considering context, and paying close attention to details, as I know that it is only the fool who takes things at face value. These skills are also invaluable in critical reading, and it is the observant reader who makes a good writer.
I don’t know if I would have wanted to be a writer if I had been consigned a different life narrative. My family raised me to be a reader, provided me with an abundance of books, and guided me toward sophisticated literary tastes. Throughout my childhood, my grandmother, who cherished the notion that I would become a librarian, gave me diaries, the first step in cultivating writing. My parents always encouraged my ambition to be a novelist.
Is my compulsion to write due to nature or nurture? None of my siblings have writerly ambitions. Are any of my genetic half-siblings in Korea laboring away at a novel now, as I am doing? Is my American biological father cranking out all-caps manuscripts on alien abductions and life on Mars? Does my birth mother write elegant poems of loss and regret?
These are questions that I may never know the answers to. The mind abhors a vacuum, and where there are unanswered questions, the imagination takes over, and vivid imagination is the first step of writing a novel.
Every month is write-a-novel month for me, and adoption is always on my mind. I read it as a sign from Fate — that hoary old storytelling device that is featured so prominently in foundling stories — that they are celebrated together.
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Independent.
Ten years after Abby Williams left her Indiana home and a past defined by her mother’s death, she’s an attorney hired by the Center for Environmental Advocacy Work. Abby is focused on one company: Optimal Plastics, the savior that brought back jobs to her dying hometown.
But Optimal also polluted the local waters and covered up its corruption. Abby, a contemporary Erin Brockovich, tries hard to move beyond her memories of growing up and being bullied by the popular kids. Those memories are dominated by the most popular girl from high school, Kaycee Mitchell, who was once Abby’s best friend.
In school, Kaycee contracted a mysterious illness and ended up disappearing. This mystery becomes a major line of suspense in the novel: Why was Kaycee vomiting blood in the school bathroom and then denying that anything might be wrong?
There were rumors that Kaycee and a few other girls were faking their symptoms: “And it was like the whole town got sick, too, like Barrens spiraled down into the darkness with them. And all of it? A joke. A prank. All just because they felt like it. Because they wanted attention. Because they could.”
Still, Abby isn’t entirely convinced. What happened to Kaycee? Why did she disappear?
Ten years later, the puzzle remains unsolved, and Abby has never been able to let go of her suspicion that Optimal Plastics played some role in Kaycee’s disappearance.
A local farmer opens a new complaint against Optimal, and that’s the clue Abby needs to return home with the power of her law agency to root out the corruption. She’s met by the resistance of the town populated by the same people who attended high school with her but never left.
They benefit from the good-paying jobs provided by the corporation. As an adult, Abby must confront the mean girls who, “at fifteen…organized a campaign to raise money for the treatment of [her] acne.”
At the head of the group that stayed behind is Brent, the heartthrob and unrequited love of Abby’s school days. Brent works for Optimal now, and he’s invested in making sure the company maintains a clean reputation.
The more time Abby spends with Brent, the more she indulges her romantic past and loses perspective on why she returned home in the first place. She must confront her dying father, a corrupt corporation, and a complicit town while trying to figure out what happened to her ex-best friend.
When Abby discovers a dark ritual called “the Game” that connects these experiences, her life is forever changed. The past she revisits turns out to be much more sinister than she suspected. Unfortunately, this reveal is where the novel begins to unravel under the pressure of competing plotlines. A scandal of this kind is a familiar one in novels and films, as is the journey home to reckon with an unkind past that, as a wound, hasn’t fully healed.
Add to these storylines an absentee father and loyal daughter, plus a romantic fling with a single father who was the overlooked outcast in high school. Under the weight of these narratives, the structure of the book unspools. Ultimately, it would’ve benefited from a more nuanced development of the primary plot.
Author/actress Krysten Ritter, of “Jessica Jones” and “Breaking Bad” fame, succeeds, though, in providing a fast-paced suspense novel with a pithy narrator who mostly sees the world for what it is. Luckily for the reader, the narrator is a reflective one, so even when the pacing feels rushed, there are moments when Abby stops and considers her personal journey:
“Maybe all along this is what my future held — what I tried so hard to escape, and what, ultimately, is inescapable. Time isn’t a line, but a corkscrew, and the harder I’ve pushed, the more I’ve drilled back into the past.”
Pauses like this one invite the reader to care about a protagonist who finds herself in a deluge of extraordinary circumstances. Despite the novel’s tendency toward predictability, in the world of books written by celebrities, Bonfire is an engaging and edgy debut.
Sarah Creech is the author of two novels, Season of the Dragonflies and The Whole Way Home (William Morrow). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Lit Hub, Writer's Digest, the Cortland Review, and StorySouth. She’s an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte.
Mike Maggio is an accomplished writer and poet in the Mid-Atlantic Region. His Cloudism and Springtime in Winter are ekphrastic projects; Maggio describes these collaboratives as “project[s] where artists and poets work together, feeding off each other’s creative processes and learning from each other in order to produce something new.”
Maggio has been published in the Potomac Review, Pig Iron, Phoebe, Atticus Review, and elsewhere, and he’s the author of two novels: The Wizard and the White House (2014) and The Appointment (2017). He has also penned several collections of poetry, the most recent being Garden of Rain. I spoke with him last week.
Talk about your new novella, The Appointment, as well as Garden of Rain.
The Appointment is a story that I started quite some time ago, prior to writing my novel. I started working on it while participating in a workshop at the Writer’s Center [in Bethesda, MD]. I put it away and then, some years later, after completing the novel, I took it out and began revising it, so the finished product is quite different from the original. It’s a story of an aging professor who gets attacked by a youth gang on the subway one morning and is left for dead. Death is the major metaphor of the story, for [the professor] is, ultimately, dead to the world. He is at the end of his life, a life in which he has not really accomplished anything. So, in the story, the literal informs the figurative, though the literal itself is quite dreamlike. Hence, the reference to Kafka on the cover.
Garden of Rain is a collection of poetry I put together as a retrospective. It contains newer poems written in the last couple of years, as well as much older ones going back to the 1980s. It contains some personal poems, as well as what I like to refer to as my spiritual poems: “Clouds,” for example, or “The Birds Begin at Four,” my feeble attempt at writing Sufi or mystical poetry. Regardless of the subject matter, however, my main focus in poetry is image and rhythm. These are, I believe, what make poetry come alive for the reader.
Discuss your mindset when approaching a poem versus a piece of fiction.
Writing poetry is very different from writing fiction, and I find it difficult to switch from one to the other during the same writing session. For poetry, I often start with an idea much as I do with fiction. But with poetry, that idea is often abstract. It could be as simple as a rhythm that comes to mind: one which has no words, which I then must fill in. At other times, it could be a line that comes to me while I’m driving, for example, or doing something other than writing.
Fiction, on the other hand, often begins with a more concrete concept: a scene, perhaps, which contains conflict, or a character that appears in my head. The Appointment began that way: a character who suddenly finds that he is going through life without living it. In fact, it was originally called Diary of a Dead Man.
But for both fiction and poetry, it seems that, while writing, one is connected to something other than self. It is a sort of channeling because things come to you almost effortlessly: lines of poetry, dialogue, entire scenes. As I often tell people, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “I hear voices.” But then the hard work comes: the editing, the forging of these elements into something viable and cohesive.
Considering your collection of poetry deMockracy, where you are unabashedly critical of the Bush administration during the Iraq War, how do you think a writer should approach politics? Is it a balancing act?
This is an interesting question, one I have thought about often since deMockracy was published. One needs, I think, to make the distinction between poetics and polemics. One needs to try to balance those two things. Unfortunately, this is not the case for deMockracy, much of which is pure polemics. Pure anger. Justified anger, but anger nonetheless.
Now, in the Age of Trump, with all the rage that that phrase conjures, we are tempted to write polemic poetry, but I have very consciously tried not to. In fact, I recently wrote a poem called “Sharks” which tells the story of a village that refuses to believe that there are sharks on their shores even though everyone is falling victim to them. And, so, with this little parable, if one may call it that, comes an exploration of fake news vs. real news and belief in other than the truth — that which stares us straight in the face but which many people are simply blind to. This is done without once referring to the current situation. And without anger or any emotion.
How do you feel that collaboration with others deepens your work?
Collaboration is something that I think every artist should do at least once. It broadens your perspective. When you truly collaborate — bouncing ideas off of each other, letting the work flow naturally, allowing yourself to be influenced in ways you never imagined — then the end product can be truly spectacular.
Talk about your journey as a writer.
It’s been a long one, starting at about age 9. As you go along, you learn and then you specialize — take classes, meet other artists and writers, and grow. I think the key is to open yourself to each and every possibility. I believe my most memorable endeavor so far has been Cloudism because it allowed me to express myself in ways I never thought possible. And it led immediately to a creative streak of other performance possibilities; some, like Music for Mummies, which have been realized, and others which are waiting to be done.
I think I am going more and more towards collaboration and, somehow, I want to include other disciplines — engineers and physicists, for example — in the mix. I have no idea how that would be done or what would come of it. But the idea excites me. Leonardo Da Vinci, after all, intersected both art and science. Shouldn’t we follow his lead?
What are your future projects?
Currently, I am working on a gothic novel. I hope to finish that up within the next year. Then, I have ideas for three other novels. I have two unpublished poetry manuscripts I am looking to place. And I want to do more collaboration — more performance with both actors and audience and with other disciplines. I’m always looking for others to work with.
[Editor’s note: Mike Maggio hosts a new reading series the first Friday of each month at ArtSpace in Herndon, VA. “We have features and an open mic, and we want musicians, poets, and performers of all stripes to come and share their work,” he says. Click here for more info.]
Franco Tartaglia is the Independent’s reader-relations intern.
Stand with the Caribbean islands experiencing devastation from recent hurricanes. Hear readings from five DC-area Caribbean authors: Donna Hemans, author of River Woman; Merle Collins, author of Angel, The Colour of Forgetting, Rain Darling, Because the Dawn Breaks, and Rotten Pomerack; Katia Ulysse, author of Drifting; Lauren Francis-Sharma, author of Till the Well Runs Dry; and Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning and How to Escape From a Leper Colony. At the event, donations will be taken for Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), a regional inter-governmental agency for disaster management in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
At East City Bookshop, 645 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC. Click here for info.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. has had his finger on the pulse of African Americana in print and the media for decades, and he has done it again in his fascinating new book, 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro.
Gates, a literary critic and the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, got the idea for this book from Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966), a Jamaican-born American journalist.
“Mr. Rogers,” a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, delivered “enlightenment and pride, steeped in historical research, to a people [black Americans] too long starved on the lie that they were worth nothing because their ancestors had contributed nothing to world civilization.”
Rogers, therefore, was one of America’s first black-studies teachers to use historical facts to undermine theories of white supremacy and black inferiority, and he did it virtually alone, says Gates, because the mainstream press did not publish his work. It’s fitting, then, that Rogers is the first entry in this book of remarkable facts.
Rarely do Americans discuss the Atlantic slave trade; it’s too painful a subject for people of any background. Gates raises the question in the second essay: How many Africans did European slave trades take to the United States (including the British Colonial Period) during the entire history of slavery?
We have good estimates, thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. David Eltis and Martin Halbert, the project leaders, establish that slavers took approximately 12.5 million Africans from the continent, but only 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage (the journey from Africa to the Americas). Of these, the slavers shipped 450,00 to the United States. They carried the vast majority of African captives to South America and the Caribbean, with the bulk (4.86 million) going to Brazil.
“Most of the 42 million members of the current African-American community,” Gates notes, “descend from this tiny group of less than a half million Africans.”
Juan Garrido, born in West Africa in 1480, then captured and taken to Spain, joined the conquistadors to become the first black man to arrive in the Americas, circa 1503. From there, Africans ended up everywhere and in every imaginable vocation and field of intellectual inquiry.
An African named Maurice emerged as the first black saint in the Catholic Church (c. 1240). In politics, New World blacks, some of them with European ancestry due to hidden crimes against black women, led nation-states or served as governors and senators in the United States. Vicente Guerrero was a black president of Mexico in 1829. “Disparagingly nicknamed ‘El Negro Guerrero’ by his political enemies,” he lost two elections in Mexico, once in 1824 and again in 1828.
“Claiming foul play, he and his supporters rebelled and toppled the new government,” writes Gates. The coup d’etat resulted in his presidency.
In the United States, Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce were the first black Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate. Reconstruction politics, inaugurated by a Republican Congress, disenfranchised disloyal whites and gave the ballot to blacks and loyal whites. The Mississippi legislature had the votes to send Revels to Congress to serve out the shortened term of Jefferson Davis, whom Congress disqualified due to his leadership of the Confederacy.
The next black man, Bruce, served a full term in the Senate. Pinckney Benton Steward (“PBS”) Pinchback served as lieutenant governor of Louisiana when Oliver Dunn died, and acting governor for a year when the state legislature impeached Henry C. Warmouth. Surprisingly, given the fact that the United States did not abolish slavery until 1865, these men entered government only five years after the emancipation of enslaved blacks.
Black Americans have served in the armed forces in North America since colonial times, and in the United States Army since the American Revolution. In World War I, many blacks saw the crisis as a chance to defend their country and win greater freedom for themselves at home.
To that end, and with the urging of black leaders including W.E.B. Du Bois, 2.3 million black Americans registered for the military; approximately 370,000 served. Of the 200,000 who went overseas to fight the enemy, only 42,000 saw combat. The military assigned the remainder to support details. The military commissioned only 639 black officers to lead African-American troops.
The tide changed when “the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe assigned the Ninety-third Combat Division to the French Army,” which included the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They spent 191 days in combat at the Battle of Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood and fought valiantly. The French government honored them, awarding two soldiers the Croix de Guerre. Back home, black Americans understood the significance of their heroism and gave them a fitting welcome when they returned to New York City.
This book is an easy read and an excellent conversation piece; it’s also useful for games and competitive intellectual exercises. For example, who was the black press secretary in the Kennedy administration? Which civil rights leader talked most with the U.S. president over the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Who is reportedly the first black female millionaire in the United States? Who was the first black federal judge or the first black boxing champion? Who were the key black scholars to pioneer the discipline of black history?
Unquestionably, 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro will get people talking about the global contributions of people of African descent and black Americans. It is much more than a work of trivia; it is a storehouse of important historical data that illuminates the role of black people in the world beyond slavery. Joel Rogers led the way decades ago; now, Henry Louis Gates Jr. brings additional astonishing facts to the attention of people in the 21st century.
Stephen Middleton is a professor of history at Mississippi State University and the lead editor of and contributor to The Construction of Whiteness: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Race Formation and the Meaning of a White Identity (2016).
The Safe House gives voice — and vividly so — to the echoes of shared memories, artfully reconstituting them before they fade. Part memoir/part novel, the book evokes the uniquely circumscribed, almost tribal, coexistence of three generations of a family clustered in a sprawling mansion on the upscale Rue de Grenelle in 20th-century Paris.
Christophe Boltanski is at once author, narrator, and character in this impressionistic saga spanning nearly a century. Today a professional journalist, the adult Boltanski brilliantly achieves a felt sense of his own dual role as observer of and participant in his family saga.
Early on, the language of this hybrid novel unfolds in sensuous fragments, disjunct visceral impressions, visual catalogs, and dawning shreds of memory. As the Boltanski tribe’s mythos — reflected in the child Christophe’s recollections and received memories — flows onward past to present, the language of The Safe House gives way to the ordered reportage of its adult narrator. Still, Christophe’s finely tuned awareness governs throughout.
Witness his description of an aunt’s dialysis sessions:
“Four whole hours for her blood to be pumped out of her dilated vein, blue and quivering, then passed through one of two needles in her arm into a nest of tubes and valves, of sphincters, of filters, a whole plumbing system that beats at her rhythm, hydrating, cleaning, getting rid of waste, and replenishing missing vitamins.”
The book’s narrative premise — call it architectural — proceeds room-by-room through the sprawling house at the core of the story. Each chapter corresponds to a room or significant space in the mansion and is devoted to an aspect of the Boltanski family’s life, often centering on a key character or two exemplified by the nature of the space.
For example, the kitchen is the setting for toddler Christophe’s recollections of his grandmother in her nurturing aspects, qualities we rarely experience as she — the dominant presence known to them as Mère-Grand — appears in subsequent chapters.
This architectural premise leads to the most memorable of episodes in The Safe House: grandfather Ētienne’s disappearance during the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. Born Jewish, Ētienne is summoned by the authorities, who are seemingly intent on dispatching him to an internment camp. To dodge this fate, Mère-Grand and Ētienne stage his disappearance, fitting out a space in the underfloor (called the “In-Between” in the English translation) that’s been modified into a cramped and undetectable hiding place by a complicit uncle.
None of the other family members have a clue about this. Like the authorities, they believe their grandfather has fled. Only Mère-Grand and the uncle know the truth. To support their cover story, Mère-Grand divorces Ētienne, claiming desertion. For 20 months, he hides by day in his narrow space, emerging only at night to share Mère-Grand’s bed (and ultimately impregnate her), until the Germans withdrawn from the city and he resumes his previous life as a prominent physician.
The “In-Between” is both basis and inspiration for the cover story Mère-Grand devises for the outside world and the family itself. It is the narrative touchstone of The Safe House, the creative engine of the novel in miniature, underscoring the human impulse to layer artifice over actuality and, ultimately, shape and form over received memory.
Similarly, the distinction between inside and outside, private and public, is central throughout. The Boltanski children are held close, discouraged from playing with other kids on the street. In Christophe’s recollection, they all prefer — or are coaxed to prefer — the inside to the outside. To the world out there, grandfather Ētienne is a distinguished physician, Mère-Grand a successful novelist, and Uncle Christian an artist of growing repute. In the private realm of the house (and in the view of Christophe the narrator), they are each something far more.
More than a “safe house” that shelters Ētienne from the Nazis, this mansion also protects and insulates the Boltanski clan from the world beyond its walls, fortifying each as he or she ventures out, often to great success.
That’s the animating irony in The Safe House: Beyond all the hurly-burley of the public realm past the walls, the tribe persists.
Former academic Bob Duffy is a Maryland writer and consultant in advertising and branding.
Perhaps you’re an avid reader who itches to pick up the pen and take your imagination out for a little spin. Or you’re a writer in a rut who needs a change of subject or genre. There are plenty of reasons new or established writers might want to take advantage of a mini writing lesson now and then.
For those who can’t commit to (or afford) a paid, multi-week writing course, here are a few options for free writing classes in the DC area. The following courses accommodate beginners as well as experienced writers. You can jump in once or attend regularly, and best yet: They are judgment-free creativity zones.
Once you’ve written that new poem, or started that book you’ve always been wanting to write, there will be plenty of opportunities to stay on track. See my previous column on how to find a writing group to hone your creative work. And feel free to use the comments section below to share any free classes I’ve left out!
We’re saving a seat at the table for you!
Join us on the second Tuesday of every other month at 7 p.m. for Supper & Stories at Nido’s Italian restaurant in Downtown Frederick. For $40* per person, you receive a paperback copy of the featured title and a delicious meal served family-style and flavored with engaging conversation about the book.
Now in its second year, Supper & Stories is “going places” in 2017, with fabulous reads that will transport you from 20th-century Turkey to war-ravaged Liberia, a North Carolina plantation, present-day New York City, and a retirement home in Los Angeles. Get to know your world, and get to know your neighbors, at these unique gatherings, sponsored by Nido’s and Curious Iguana.
*Price includes meal, beverage, gratuity, and copy of book. Fee is non-refundable, and space is limited. Register in person at Nido’s, 111 East Patrick Street, Downtown Frederick, or online, then bring receipt to Curious Iguana, 12 North Market Street, to pick up your book. Questions? Call Nido’s at 301-624-1052 or Curious Iguana at 301-695-2500.
At Nido's Restaurant, 111 East Patrick Street, Frederick, MD. Click here for details.
Thomas Fleming, who died last July after celebrating his 90th birthday, was the kind of writer who made other writers feel lazy and shiftless. His first book of history appeared in 1963. Since then, he published 24 novels, 25 history books for adults, and nine history books for children, and edited four more. That’s 62 books, and let’s not even start on his magazine articles.
The Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution, seems likely to be Fleming’s last book, though we should probably be cautious about such a pronouncement about a writer so prolific. This volume, composed near the end of his ninth decade, is a fitting capstone to a remarkable career.
Fired by Fleming’s passion for the soldiers who struggled to an unlikely victory in the Revolutionary War, it is an idiosyncratic treatment which celebrates certain key events while passing over others with a quick wave of the pen. Yet it offers great pleasures.
The book proclaims the thesis that General Washington developed the essential strategy to win the war (i) by holding the Continental Army together, fighting only enough to goad the British into errors, and (ii) by developing that Continental Army into a core professional fighting force that could cover for unreliable state militias, who never could be counted on to “look the enemy in the face.”
Fleming doesn’t develop the thesis with particular care, and it’s slightly odd that the general who seemed to follow the strategy best was not Washington (who always ached for a slam-bang final battle with the British), but his protégé, Nathanael Greene, who utterly thwarted the enemy in the key Southern campaign in 1780 and 1781 while never winning even a skirmish. It was Greene’s work that drove the British into the mistakes that resulted in the capitulation at Yorktown in September 1781. In fact, Washington disappears from the narrative for significant portions of the story.
But it’s no matter. Fleming’s prose shines when he’s got a tale to tell about fighting and sacrifice by men in frayed and tattered clothes who were rarely paid and usually hungry. He summons us to gather round while he spins his yarns with verve. We join him to cringe over the Continental Army’s blunders at the Battle of New York in 1776 and boil with frustration over the missed opportunities at Monmouth in 1778.
With a sense of wonder, we ride a rollercoaster of emotions through the British invasion of New Jersey in June 1780, with bloody battles at Springfield and Connecticut Farms, where unsung regulars and militia staved off a powerful offensive that could have ended both the war and American dreams of independence. Why, you may ask yourself while reading this section, haven’t I heard of this pivotal episode before? Thank Mr. Fleming.
But there’s no time to linger in New Jersey. We’re off to South Carolina, where Fleming shows us the American camp on the eve of the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. General Daniel Morgan, who liked to be called “the Old Wagoner,” drags his arthritic body from campfire to campfire, explaining his battle strategy to mismatched groups of amateur soldiers to be sure they will do their part when they face British guns and bayonets in the morning. That they do and defeat the most aggressive and effective British general, Banastre Tarleton, makes Fleming proud.
Indeed, Fleming expresses his feelings about his story through a quotation he features from Colonel John Laurens of the Continental Army: “I cherish those dear ragged Continentals, whose patience will be the admiration of future ages.”
Readers of The Strategy of Victory will, too.
David O. Stewart is author of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution and Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America. He is working on a study of George Washington’s political mastery.
This slim novel by Gaute Heivoll presents the life of a couple we know only as Papa and Mama, who built a home in southern Norway for themselves, their two children, and several “boobies,” the term used by the children’s mentally deficient uncle, Josef, to describe the five deranged siblings who come to live with them at the end of World War II.
The siblings — two sisters and three brothers — barely able to function, are taken from an apartment heaped with garbage, mouse-eaten mattresses, and piles of human waste after their parents are declared unfit.
They are saved from being institutionalized when Papa and Mama sign a contract to provide for their care in exchange for a small stipend from the state. The children arrive on a cold snowy evening in February 1945. Watching them get out of the car, Uncle Josef says, “So these are the new crazies.”
Telling the family’s story 50 years later, after Papa and Mama have died, is the surviving son, who knows that working with the mentally disabled was what gave meaning to his parents’ lives, particularly to his father, who had worked for 11 years at a psychiatric hospital.
“That was when I felt alive,” Papa said about the time he spent caring for youngsters, who howled like wolves, and adults could not sit up or feed themselves. It was also where he met Mama, a nurse working in the women’s unit. After they married, they dedicated their lives, according to their son, to caring for the mentally incapacitated “in a Christlike spirit of love.”
At that time, Norway was considered a Christian country, even though statistics show that regular church attendance was, and still is, as low as five percent. Although no longer formally designated as Christian, the Viking kingdom is progressive on issues of morality, and this novel, translated from Norwegian, is a powerful testament to humanity — a tribute to those unique individuals who care for the most fragile among us.
That noble grace of charity is rarely found, even among princes of the church, as the novel underscores when a new minister visits Papa and Mama at home. The pastor is so shaken by “the madhouse” he sees that when he stands at the pulpit the following Sunday, he tells his congregation, which includes Papa and Uncle Josef, about his visit, and suggests that the drooling, incoherent people he met were sub-human-like animals:
“The incident made Papa furious…After that he often spoke about [it]. Still indignant, yet lenient, as if the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Of course, they were human. They were happy children. God wanted them to be happy children.”
Stipend or no stipend, how many people of modest means living in a harsh climate with no amenities would open their homes to the deranged and fold them into their family? Answering that question for yourself will draw you into the heart of this story, with its small joys and immense tragedy.
Soon, you begin to care about the characters, including the man-child who sits in the yard under an ash tree in the same spot on the same stool staring into space every day for more than 20 years. “No one took his spot, and no one knew what he had seen. The shimmering light from imprisoned souls. Or only clouds and sky, wind and nothing.”
At times, I caught my breath in sadness over the mentally impaired in this story who grow old but never grow up, especially a young girl named Ingrid, one of the five siblings, who cannot speak but listens intently and seems to comprehend on a visceral level.
She howls when she feels psychic pain like she does when told her older brother and sister are being taken to be sterilized. “We understood that an important event was going to occur, but once the word was mentioned, it wasn’t explained or discussed further.” Neither to the children nor to the reader.
For those unfamiliar with Norway, the places mentioned — Tordenskjoldsgata, Brandsvoll, Naerlandsheimen, etc. — might require a map, but the atmospheric descriptions of majestic glaciers, deep fjords, and dense, snow-laden forests suggest a country of wondrous nature which author Heivoll obviously loves. He tells his story with unadorned prose that sometimes shimmers. When Uncle Josef sees snow falling from the sky, he says, “The angels are dancing until their feathers fly.”
The title of the book comes from a crate filled with oranges that came across the China Sea and ended up in the attic of Norway’s psychiatric hospital, where Papa finds it and decides to use it as a bed for the children he has with Mama. Perhaps that sturdy crate is a metaphor for the patchwork family that manages to endure one of life’s greatest tragedies and find a patch of blue sky.
When I came to the poignant end of the novel, I thought of William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address in which he spoke of “a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something that did not exist before.”
Kitty Kelley has written several number-one New York Times bestsellers, including Jackie Oh!, Nancy Reagan, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty.
It’s a given that judges should be above merely political concerns. The more realistic view, however, is that the judicial decision-making of both legal realists and originalists is entirely political. In this radical discussion of the relationship between judges and political power, Collins, Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law, takes Machiavelli as his model, rewriting The Prince for judges. In 26 lessons, many drawing on real cases, Collins identifies ways that judges can be more effective in using the judiciary to further their political goals. Collins will be in conversation with Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times. This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.
At Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Click here for info.