Tag Archives: Author Days

Happy Birthday, William Steig!

Growing up,  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was one of my favorite books, so it is with enormous pleasure that we at the Free For All celebrate it’s author, William Steig, who was born this day in 1907.

Via ThingLink

Steig was the child of two Polish-Jewish immigrants from Austria; his father Joseph was a house painter, and his mother Laura was a seamstress.  Growing up, he loved art and literature, and his mother, especially, encouraged his own artistic endeavors.  He was also a talented athlete, and was a member of the collegiate All-American water polo team.  He graduated high school at 15, and though he attended three colleges: two years at City College of New York, three years at the National Academy of Design and five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts, but never graduated from any of them.  His siblings were also artistically talented: is brother Irwin was a journalist and painter, his brother Henry was a writer, painted, and saxophonist, and his brother Arthur was a writer and poet, who, according to Steig, read The Nation in the cradle, was telepathic and “drew as well as Picasso or Matisse”.

Because they were confirmed Socialists, Steig explained,  “My parents didn’t want their sons to become laborers, because we’d be exploited by businessmen, and they didn’t want us to become businessmen, because then we’d exploit the laborers.  Since we couldn’t afford to study professions, we were encouraged to be artists.”  Steig became the breadwinner of his family when his father lost his job in the Great Depression.  By selling his drawings, he remembered, “I earned $4,500 the first year, and it was more than our family, then four of us, needed.”

Steig published his first New Yorker cartoon in 1930.  It was the first of some 1,600 that he would publish in the magazine.  His humor was visual far more than it was linguistic–in other words, you could learn what you needed about the cartoon and the joke it told by looking at it far more than you could by reading the caption.  This style liberated a number of cartoonists who came after him to try to convey more with art than with words.

According to The New York TimesSteig was also credited with changing the nature of the greeting card industry. His symbolic drawings were licensed to appear on cocktail napkins, glasses and cards. “Greeting cards used to be all sweetness and love,” he explained in an interview with The Hartford Courant. “I started doing the complete reverse — almost a hate card — and it caught on.”  You can see an example of his card to above, taken from Fine Art America, and decide for yourself.

Steig was also a gifted children’s book writer and illustrator, publishing 25 in the course of his lifetime.  He especially liked using animals as the characters in the stories because he “could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things.”  Not only did Steig’s books embrace the slightly kooky logic, language, and morals of childhood, but his drawings were also simple, accessible, and, like so many of his drawings for grown-ups, packed with emotion.

So if you’re looking for a bit of an escape today, why not check out a few of William Steig’s books, listed below.  I guarantee you that you already know of at least one of them!

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble: A terrific, funny, and tense story about being careful what you wish for, as well as the power of parents to see you for who you really are.  Even if it’s a rock.  This book actually got Steig in a bit of hot water–in the course of the book, the police are summoned to help find our hero, Sylvester.  Steig made the policemen pigs, a choice that got the book banned in places because the International Conference of Police Associations thought Mr. Steig was calling policemen pigs.  Steig adamantly argued his intention was never negative.  The book won the National Book Award and the Caldecott Medal.

Doctor De Soto: Doctor De Soto, a mouse dentist, copes with the toothaches of various animals.  He and his wife, who serves as his assistant, work together to treat patients with as little pain as possible. Dr. De Soto uses different chairs, depending on the size of the animal, with Mrs. De Soto guiding her husband with a system of pulleys for treating extra-large animals. They refuse to treat any animal who likes to eat mice…until one day a fox comes to them in great pain.  This is a story that really highlights Steig’s love of language–to this day, it’s still fun to read the Fox’s dialog while he’s in Dr. De Soto’s chair with his mouth propped open (“Frank Oo Berry Mush!”).  This book was in my dentist’s office when I was a kid, and, as a result, I learned that dentists were nice, and would help you out, even if you said silly things to them.  And didn’t try to eat them.

Shrek!: Raise your hand if you knew that William Steig was the creator of everyone’s favorite green ogre.  The name “Shrek” is the romanization of the Yiddish word that equates to the German Schreck and meaning “fear” or “fright”.  It’s a common exclamation in Yiddish culture, and thus a natural choice for Steig to name his ogre who leaves his home and travels the world to find his princess.  Steven Spielberg acquired the rights for the book in 1991, and released the film Shrek in 2001.  Steig passed away shortly before the release of Shrek 2, and the film is dedicated to him.


All-Hallows Read: Have You Met Shirley Jackson?

…If you have not, please allow me to introduce you to her, and her fantastical genius now.

From shirleyjackson.org

Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1916.  When she was seventeen (and had already been writing for several years), her family moved east, and Shirley enrolled in the University of Rochester.  She withdrew after a year, however, and focused exclusively on her writing, producing no less than 1,000 words a day.

In 1937, she entered Syracuse University, and published her first short story (titled “Janice”), and was appointed editor of the campus humor magazine.  She also met the man who would become her future husband, aspiring literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.  They both graduated in 1940, and moved to Greenwich Village.  Though she and Edgar worked odd jobs, Shirley kept writing every day, and her stories were published in the New Yorker, among other elite literary outlets.  In 1944 Jackson’s story “Come Dance With Me in Ireland” was chosen forBest American Short Stories.

The next year, Stanley was offered a job at Bennington College, and the family moved to North Bennington.  It was here, in this old house, in this insular community, that Jackson produced what is generally considered the greatest short story of the twentieth century: “The Lottery”.  Published in The New Yorker  in 1948, this story generated the largest volume of mail ever received by the magazine–a record that remains unbroken to this day–and nearly all of it hateful.

This story cemented Jackson in the public eye…not as an stunningly subversive, keenly insightful, and unsettlingly funny writer, but as “Virginia Werewoolf”.  To be fair, the fact that her described herself as an “amateur practicing witch”, who put hexes on prominent publishers, didn’t necessarily help.  But the tragic fact remains that Jackson’s glory still hasn’t been thoroughly recognized.

And that is a genuine shame.  First and foremost, Jackson is a mightily talented writer in so many forms.  As we can see with the infamous “The Lottery”, she had the art of the short story mastered.  And though “The Lottery” is probably the most well-known of her stories, the thing is that all of her stories are rich in atmosphere, full of indescribably realistic characters, and all of them have that wrenching, world-tilting twist that up-end everything you thought you knew about everything you just read.

That unsettling magic is on full display in her novels, as well.  The Haunting of Hill House is more than a haunted house novel…it’s a masterpiece of bewildering, terrifying confusion.  The walls and the floors of this story just don’t meet at right angles, and it’s that unbalancing that makes this story so flipping scary.  We Have Always Lived in a Castle twists the entire premise of the story–showing you the beating heart inside of a haunted house…and the twisted, wild, unapologetic women who live inside it.

And that, I think, is what I adore most about Shirley Jackson.  She doesn’t go for the cheap thrills, or the empty scares–the literary equivalent of the jump-cut.  Her stories force us to confront the evils and ills of society, of suburbia, and of our beliefs in each other.  She deals with the insidiousness of racism, the pervasive evils of small-towns, the poison of prejudice.  And she does it all in a such straightforward manner, with uncomplicated prose and gentle humor, that the savage twist comes without the reader even being aware of it.  She writes about women who aren’t strong and put-together and beautiful.  She writes about women who are lost.  About women who know rage.  About women who simply refuse to take it anymore, and who do the unexpected and the unthinkable.  And I love her for that.

Shirley Jackson lived something of a double-life.  She was a renowned, celebrated, and reviled author whose work was translated and published around the world, and whose books were adapted into critically acclaimed films, in the course of her short lifetime.  She was also a neighbor and a  home-maker, a mother, and lived almost as a shut-in in the final years of her life.  But a single glance at her headshot, posted above, convinces me that those two parts of her life were not disparate halves.  Her insight–into human nature, into her own numerous selves, and into the world around her (and us)–starts in the minutiae and the mundane details of the everyday, and spiral up and out from there, and her talent produced tales that still have the power to teach, tickle, and unnerve to this very day.

So this Halloween season, if you’re looking for some stories to make you shiver, I cannot recommend Shirley Jackson’s work more highly.


Happy Birthday, Stephen King!

There are any number of Happy Birthday celebrations going on today for National Book Award honoree, National Medal of Arts winner, and general all-around good neighbor, Stephen King!

via Buzzfeed

As the Bangor Daily News notes in their sensational article about Stephen King’s impact on his local community, “Many people have some sort of a Stephen King story.”  And, because you only turn seventy once (most of the time), I thought I’d share mine.

While I was a resident of the U.K., my parents and I met up in Florida for a spring break getaway, and part of that trip included a trip to a Red Sox Spring Training Game.  It was a gorgeous day, with plenty of sun, surprisingly low humidity, and a breeze that carried the smell of growing flowers, hot dogs, and an incoming tide.  And, if memory serves me well, the Red Sox were winning.

May 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; American author Stephen King takes in the game between the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

So, in between innings, my dad and I went to get some lemonade (they have the fresh-squeezed stuff there, dear readers.  It’s worth the air fare), and as we passed one of the many food vending places, my father nudged my shoulder: “That’s Stephen King!”  He whispered, with the fervor that is most commonly heard from kids at the mall who see Santa.  My dad is the reason that I became a Stephen King fan.  There were so many Stephen King books around our house when I was growing up that I thought he was a family friend.  I saw the first episode of the 1990 version of IT when it aired. Don’t worry…I was too young to be actually afraid of clowns…I was afraid of storm drains, and was therefore convinced that this poor person had fallen into one on his way to the circus.  I had started reading his books, like many people around New England, when I was too young, but I loved them nevertheless.

And now, here was The Man Himself.  In a Red Sox hat.  Putting mustard on his hotdog.

Now, I am not a good talker.  I get nervous leaving voice messages.  I clam up making small talk with people I have known for years.  But this time, I was convinced I was going to Say Something To Stephen King.  To thank him for the years of reading joy he had given both me and my dad.  To thank him for loving libraries.  For writing about libraries, both real and fictional.  For helping me to be a better writer. 

But by the time we were in speaking distance, I didn’t have any actual words that were ready to come out.  And because my feet were moving faster than my brain–I bumped into Stephen King.  So, instead of pouring out years of gratitude and profuse praise, I instead ended up apologizing for walking smack into a stranger–and assuring him I was ok when he apologized to me.

Dear Stephen King: I know you probably don’t remember that interaction, but I want to apologize for getting mustard on you all those years ago.  And to thank you, however belatedly it might be, for all the stories.  For starting so many discussions between me and my dad.  For the years and years and years of writing, of helping, and of generally being a very cool human being.  The passages about New England in ‘Salem’s Lot are some of my favorite words ever put together on paper.

Here’s to many more.

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday to Jamaican-American poet and author Claude McKay!

McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889, and educated by his older brother, who had a considerable collection of English literature and scientific texts.  In 1912, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica, recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. That same year, he traveled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.

During the 1920’s, McKay became a devoted Communist, and was invited to Russia by Lenin to aid in the rebuilding of the country after the Revolution.  From Russia, McKay went to France, returning to the US, and Harlem, in 1934. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.  McKay’s viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. His remarkable range of work run the gamut from sonnets to modernist novels, making McKay a true original in the history of American and African American literature.  Today, we share one of his poems with you in honor of his special day.

The White House

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.

And now, on to the books!

Sing, Unburied, SingNational Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, has returned to grace us with a book that echoes Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and Homer in this tribute to Southern literature.  Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.  This is a timeless story, and yet one that is startlingly immediate, dealing with identity, race, loss, and the opioid epidemic, in remarkable ways.  Buzzfeed wrote a glorious review of this book, which reads, in part, “The heart of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is story — the yearning for a narrative to help us understand ourselves, the pain of the gaps we’ll never fill, the truths that are failed by words and must be translated through ritual and song …. Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love, and this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it.”


The Cooking Gene : a journey through African-American culinary history in the Old SouthMichael W. Twitty is a highly respected culinary historian, and in this wonderful book, he tackles the incredible divisive issue of race in a new, intriguing, and beautifully insightful way–through food!  Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who “owns” it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race.  Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.  From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty not only tells his family’s story, but suggests that there is a hope for healing in Southern food, and embracing the discomforts of the past.  Positive reviews have been pouring in for this book, including a starred review from Kirkus, who said “Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way… An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.”

Are You Sleeping?: Were you a loyal listener of Serial?  Did you adore the twists and turns that podcast presented?  If so, then Kathleen Barber’s new psychological thriller is for you.  Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s best friend, betrayed her. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, and is desperate to make a life with her partner Caleb.  But when investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.  This is a novel that will keep you guessing, re-thinking, and doubting everything you think you knew about each of these characters and their motivations.  Publisher’s Weekly loved this book, giving it a starred review and calling it an “inventive debut…The intense plot and character studies are enhanced by the emotional look at the dynamics of a family forever scarred by violence.”

A Legacy of Spies: There are plenty of us who are mourning the Cold War, if only for the dearth of high-tension, intellectual spy novels.  But weep no more, dear readers, for John Le Carré has returned to his immortal Smiley, bringing us his first novel from the Circus in a quarter century.  Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, including George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.  By interweaving past and present, Le Carré reminds fans just why they fell in love with his work–and presents a whole new generation of readers with the deliciously gray world of espionage.  This book is making headlines all over the place, and The Atlantic raved “Le Carré is such a gifted storyteller that he interlaces the cards in his deck so they fit not simply with this book, but with the earlier ones as well.”

The Clockwork Dynasty Another thriller that blends the past and present, but Daniel H. Wilson’s tale is one where automatons are hidden amongst humanity, biding their time…In the present, June Stefanov, a young anthropologist specializing in ancient technology, uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll.  With her career and her life at stake, June will ally with a remarkable traveler on an around-the-world adventure and discover breathtaking secrets of the past.  Meanwhile, in 1725, in the depths of the Kremlin, the tsar’s loyal mechanician brings to life two astonishingly mechanical beings;  a brother and sister fallen out of time, possessed with uncanny power. Struggling to blend into pre-Victorian society, they are pulled into a legendary war that has raged for centuries.  This is a story that will have fans of steampunk and gothic, as well as techno-fans, and readers in need of a great female lead, singing with delight.  Kirkus loved this book too, noting “It may wear its influences on its sleeve but it’s also a welcome treat for steampunk and fantasy fans. A thrilling mix of influences, much like Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants and HBO’s Westworld, that creates a captivating scenario begging for many sequels.”


Until next week, beloved patrons….happy reading!


Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday wish to one of my favorite poets, Siegfried Sassoon.

Sassoon was born in 1886 to a wealthy Jewish family who had made their fortune as traders within the British Empire.  He enlisted in the British Army in advance of European War, and was serving with the Sussex Yeomanry when Great Britain declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914.  For three years, Sassoon threw himself into soldiering.  He earned the nickname “Mad Jack” for his willingness to accept and carry out acts that seemed near-suicidal.  Not only did Sassoon enjoy the excitement, but it also prevented any of the men under his command, or around him, from taking on such a task themselves.  According to his friend Robert Graves, “He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupant…instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him.”  On July 27, 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross “For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded”.

But Sassoon’s unswerving loyalty to the men with whom he served almost brought him into an infamous confrontation with military authorities.  Following the death of a dear friend in battle, Sassoon published a letter (an image of which appears at left) he had already sent to his commanding officer entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, which read, in part “I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”, stating that he refused to fight.  Thanks to the intervention of several friends (including Graves) and the unwillingness of the war office to condemn a decorated soldiers as a traitor, Sassoon was declared to be suffering shell-shock, and was sent to Criaglockhart, a mental hospital for officers run by Dr. William Rivers.  In the interest of brevity, let us say that the friendship that emerged from Rivers’ treatment of Sassoon changed both their lives.  While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon also met and worked with Wilfred Owen, who is perhaps the most celebrated of the so-called “War Poets”.

Sassoon survived the war, and his poems and memoirs of his service remain among the most well-known and cited to come out of the postwar period.  He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1951  continued writing until his death from stomach cancer one week before his 81st birthday.

Sassoon’s poems appear consistently in anthologies of First World War literature–you can hear a recording of him reading one here.  But those poems represent only a very small percentage of his incredible output, so today, I wanted to share with you one of his lesser-known war poems, written in 1919 while he was waiting to embark for Egypt:


When I was young my heart and head were light,
And I was gay and feckless as a colt
Out in the fields, with morning in the may,
Wind on the grass, wings in the orchard bloom.
O thrilling sweet, my joy, when life was free
And all the paths led on from hawthorn-time
Across the carolling meadows into June.

But now my heart is heavy-laden. I sit
Burning my dreams away beside the fire:
For death has made me wise and bitter and strong;
And I am rich in all that I have lost.
O starshine on the fields of long-ago,
Bring me the darkness and the nightingale;
Dim wealds of vanished summer, peace of home,
And silence; and the faces of my friends.

And now…on to the books!

Letters to his Neighbor: Marcel Proust wrote some of the most profound philosophical works of the 20th century.  He also wrote a number of letters to his noisy neighbor, Dr. Williams, who plagued his existence with his noise, which Proust could hear in detail thanks to the cork walls that divided their rooms.   Things only got worse when Williams married and had children.  Recently discovered among Proust’s correspondence, these ever-polite letters, written mainly to Mrs. Williams, which were often accompanied by flowers, compliments, books, even pheasants are frequently hilarious, especially when Proust couches his fury in a gracious tone.  But they are also genuinely engaging–for Proust found an odd affinity with Mrs. Williams, and while we are lacking her responses, making this correspondence incomplete, there is still an enormous amount to enjoy here.  Additionally, Lydia Davis’ translation is delightful, making Proust’s life accessible to those of us who are not devotees, and penning a wonderful afterward that helps put these letters into context of his life and his writings.  The Village Voice loved this little volume, noting that it is “brilliantly translated by Lydia Davis, is inadvertently hilarious in hyper-genteel poise; we see Proust at his most desperate, charming to the extreme, an effect no doubt amplified by Davis’s elegant prose.”

The Ways of WolfeJames Carlos Blake’s Wolfe series brings readers right into the dusty, dangerous, morally dubious, and ruthlessly compelling world of the Wolfe clan, whose roots run deep on both sides of the United States-Mexico border, and whose prevailing interests straddle both sides of the law.  Twenty years ago, college student Axel Prince Wolfe―heir apparent to his Texas family’s esteemed law firm and its “shade trade” criminal enterprises―teamed up with his best friend, Billy, and a Mexican stranger in a high-end robbery that went wrong, and where Axel was left along to shoulder the blame and the fall-out among his family.  Now, Axel has exhausted thoughts of revenge.  His own goal is to survive his remaining sentence and find the daughter who continues to ignore him.  When the chance comes to escape in the company of Cacho, a young Mexican inmate with ties to a major cartel, Axel takes it, provoking a massive manhunt along the Rio Grande, and sending Axel on an unintended journey of discovery and reckoning many, many years overdue.  This award-winning series has been hailed by critics across the country for its brutal, fast-paced noir style and his insightful character development that elevate these books into something unique.  Publisher’s Weekly gave this series installment a starred review, saying “Blood loyalty, forgiveness, and the consequences of violence all figure in Blake’s outstanding fourth Border Noir featuring the Wolfes . . . Tough, muscular prose complements Blake’s powerful storytelling.”

Black Rock White CityThe winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary award), A.S. Patric’s debut novel is one of those stories that brilliantly shifts focus, telling a huge, epic tale of dispossession and displacement among a whole people, and yet, a beautifully wrought tale of one family’s struggles in an unfamiliar suburbia.  Jovan and Suzana have fled war-torn Sarajevo, having lost their children, their standing as public intellectuals, and their connection to each other. Now working as cleaners in a suburb of Melbourne, they struggle to rebuild their lives under the painful hardships of immigrant life.  During a hot Melbourne summer Jovan’s janitorial work at a hospital is disrupted by mysterious acts of vandalism. But as the attacks become more violent and racially charged, he feels increasingly targeted, and taunted to interpret their meaning. Under tremendous pressure the couple struggle to keep their marriage together, but fear that they may never find peace from the ravages of war.   Dark and devastating at times, this book is also the story of those who continually chose to carry on, and find ways to endure, making it also a story of resilience–and one that is wholly unforgettable.  The Miles Franklin Literary Award Citation reads:  “A fresh and powerful exploration of the immigrant experience and Australian life, Black Rock White City explores the damages of war, the constraints of choice, the possibility of redemptive love and social isolation amid suburbia.”

Eastman Was Here: Alex Gilvarry’s book is a war story set during the Vietnam War, but unlike so many war stories, this one isn’t about a combatant.  Instead, it’s about Alan Eastman, a public intellectual, critic, philanderer, whose wife has taken their children and left, and who is facing an ever-deepening existential crisis.  So when he receives a call from an old professional rival offering him the chance to go to Vietnam to write the definitive account of the end of America’s longest war, Eastman leaps on the opportunity, seeing it as his chance to earn back his wife’s love and his flagging career in one fell swoop.   But instead of the return to form as a pioneering war correspondent that he had hoped for, he finds himself in Saigon, grappling with the same problems he thought he’d left back in New York.  Gilvarry writes with enormous compassion and insight, but he is also always ready to see the humor, both the dark and the absurdly funny, in his characters and his stories, defying the conventional trappings whatever genre into which he writes, and instead presenting a character who is both repellent and fascinating, and providing a story as heartbreaking as it is funny.  The Boston Globe agrees, saying in its review “Gilvarry has given us a portrait of toxic masculinity—one that feels as if it both belongs to a certain time and is still familiar. His Eastman is a riveting, loathsome presence who demands to be loved and remembered.”

Reincarnation Blues: As soon as I read Kirkus Reviewblurb for this book, I was hooked–and plenty of readers and critics alike have been coming up with wonderful praise for Michael Poore’s second novel of life…death…and whatever comes after.  Because in this world, we get a few more tries to get it right.  10,000 more tries, to be exact.  But Milo has been having some trouble, and is now left with only 5 chances left  to earn a place in the cosmic soul. If he doesn’t make the cut, oblivion awaits. But all Milo really wants is to fall forever into the arms of Death. Or Suzie, as he calls her.  More than just Milo’s lover throughout his countless layovers in the Afterlife, Suzie is literally his reason for living—as he dives into one new existence after another, praying for the day he’ll never have to leave her side again.  Every journey from cradle to grave offers Milo more pieces of the great cosmic puzzle—if only he can piece them together in time to finally understand what it means to be part of something bigger than infinity.  Kirkus Reviews is not alone in making the comparison it did when it described this book as “Tales of gods and men akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as penned by a kindred spirit of Douglas Adams”, and the more comparisons are made to those two greats, the more eager I am to dive into Poore’s work!


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday wish to Hans Fallada!

Via Melville House Press

You might not have heard of Hans Fallada.  That’s ok.  His work fell into general obscurity over the second half of the twentieth century.  However, the grand and glorious people at the Melville House Press (whose blog is very nearly almost as terrific as ours), have gone a long way to bringing him back into the literary fold, so to speak, and to put his work in front of the eyeballs of a new generation.

Fallada (whose given name was Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) was born on this day in 1893 in Greifswald, Germany. Though he always seems to have had trouble fitting in with his peers, his real struggles began in 1909, when he was run-over by a horse cart, and kicked in the face by the horse, and 1910, when he contracted typhus.  The pain and isolation of these events marked Fallada for life,–as the drug addiction he developed from the pain killers he was given.  His battle with depression was a life-long one, as well, meaning he spent a good deal of time between the wars in asylums and prison as a result of his drug addictions, even as he grew in prominence as an author.

Fallada was very much a writer of the moment, and his books dealt with contemporary scenarios and politics.  As a result, it wasn’t long before some of his most popular works were banned from German libraries, and Fallada himself was declared an “undesirable author”.  Fearing for his well-being, Fallada’s British publisher, George Putnam, send his personal yacht to Berlin to pick up Fallada and his wife.  Though their bags were packed, Fallada declared at the very last minute that he couldn’t leave (he had confided to a friend years before “I could never write in another language, nor live in any other place than Germany.”)  He wrote children’s books and other non-political pieces in order to remain under the radar, until he was called upon by Goebbels to write a specifically anti-Semitic novel that would be backed by the Nazi party.

As the result of an altercation with his (now ex-) wife, Fallada was incarcerated in an insane asylum in 1944.  In order to protect himself, Fallada told officials he had an assignment to fulfill for Goebbels’s office, which protected him from the inhuman treatment to which asylum patients were typically subjected. But rather than writing the anti-Jewish novel, Fallada used his ration of paper to write a novel called The Drinker (Der Trinker), a deeply critical autobiographical account of life under the Nazis, and a short diary In meinem fremden Land (A Stranger in My Own Country).  He wrote in a dense, overlapping hand that obscured most of his words, allowing the manuscript, and Fallada himself, to be saved until he was released in December 1944 as the Nazi government began to crumble.

Fallada died in February 1947, aged 53, from a weakened heart due to years of addiction to morphine, alcohol and other drugs, leaving behind the recently completed novel Every Man Dies Alone, an anti-fascist novel based on the true story of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed for producing and distributing anti-Nazi material in Berlin during the war.  Though many German writers who had escaped Nazi German disparaged him (and his work) because he chose to remain, we thankfully now have the chance to meet Fallada anew, and to realize just how brave a survivor he was, and to encounter his words anew–when we may need them more than ever.

Via http://www.fallada.de

And speaking of books, let’s take a look at some of the other books that traipsed onto our shelves this week…

Vexed with Devils: In a week that saw the dedication of the Salem Witch Trials memorial, it seems fitting to showcase Erika Gasser’s new book, which focuses on the cultural history of witchcraft, witchcraft-possession phenomena and the role of men and patriarchal power.  As she discusses in this fascinating work, witchcraft trials had as much to do with who had power in the community, to impose judgement or to subvert order, as they did with religious belief.  Essentially, witchcraft was used as a form of social policing.  She argues that the gendered dynamics and power-plays inherent in stories of possession and witchcraft show how men asserted their power in society and over each other (and the women around them). While all men were not capable of accessing power in the same ways, many of the people involved—those who acted as if they were possessed, men accused of being witches, and men who wrote possession propaganda—invoked manhood as they struggled to advocate for themselves during these perilous times.  This is a wonderfully researched and insightful book, and, as Publisher’s Weekly noted,  “Anyone seeking a fresh perspective on, and deeper understanding of, such possession accounts will not be disappointed.”

Like a Fading Shadow: Using recently declassified FBI files, Antonio Muñoz Molina has reconstructed a fiction look into James Earl Ray’s final steps through the Lisbon, where he hid for two months following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But Molina has also wrapped his own story up in this tale of self-identity and deception, alternating between Ray in 1968 at the center of an international manhunt; a thirty-year-old Muñoz Molina in 1987 struggling to find his literary voice; and the author in the present, reflecting on his life and the form of the novel as an instrument for imagining the world through another person’s eyes.   The result is a deep, complex, and enlightening work that Kirkus Reviews noted, “delicately oscillates between an author’s quest for truth and a criminal’s search for safety . . . A tragically poetic study of the calamity that set back the civil rights movement.”

At the Table of Wolves: Kay Kenyon is a science fiction writer beloved by reviewers and readers alike, and the opening of her new series–described as a mix of espionage and X-Men is sure to win her even more followers. In 1936, there are paranormal abilities that have slowly seeped into the world, brought to the surface by the suffering of the Great War.  The British haven’t managed to outpace Germany in weaponizing these new powers, until the ultra-secret site called Monkton Hall is established.  Kim Tavistock, whose power allowers her to draw out truths that people most wish to hide, is among the test subjects at the facility. When she wins the confidence of caseworker Owen Cherwell, she is recruited to a mission to expose the head of Monkton Hall—who is believed to be a German spy.  As she infiltrates the upper-crust circles of some of England’s fascist sympathizers, she encounters dangerous opponents, including the charismatic Nazi officer Erich von Ritter, and discovers a plan to invade England.  Though no one believes her story, Kim is determined to expose the plan and save England–even if she has to do it single-handedly.  With deft characterization and quick pacing, Kenyon has created a book that earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who called it  “A superb adventure, worthy to launch a distinguished historical fantasy series.”

Less: Picture it: You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.  What do you do?  Well, if you’re Arthur Less, you accept every single one of those invitations, and embark on a marvelous, unexpectedly touching, madcap journey around the world, through surprise encounters and unanticipated birthdays and into love.  This sharp satire on Americans abroad is also a lovely look into our shared humanity, and a book that encouraged The Washington Post to declare, “Greer is an exceptionally lovely writer, capable of mingling humor with sharp poignancy…. [His] narration, so elegantly laced with wit, cradles the story of a man who loses everything: his lover, his suitcase, his beard, his dignity.”

The Epiphany Machine: “Everyone else knows the truth about you, now you can know it, too”–that’s the slogan for an odd, junky contraption that tattoos personalized revelations on its users’ forearms. A number of city dwellers buy into the epiphany machine, including Venter Lowood’s parents, and even though they move away, Victor can’t ignore the stigma of those tattoos–or their accuracy.  So when Venter’s grandmother finally asks him to confront the epiphany machine, he’s only too happy to oblige.  But when he meets the machine’s surprisingly charming (if slightly off-putting) operator, Adam Lyons, Venter finds himself falling for the machine, as well…until Venter gets close enough to recognize the undeniable pattern between specific epiphanies and violent crimes.  A pattern that’s gone unreported.  A pattern that proves the machine may be right, after all.  This big, imaginative, tragicomedy of a book earned another starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who cheered that “This is a wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman with the rare potential to change the way readers think.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Today, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Hery David Thoreau–pencil maker, nap taker, revolutionary, intellectual lover of long walks.

Henry David Thoreau was born into a family of pencil makers on this day in 1817.  Though it was assumed he, too, would get involved in the family business, he found getting up early in the morning to get to work, and spending long hours engaged in a single activity (that he wasn’t terribly fond of to begin with) inexplicable, tedious, and….no pun intended, rather pointless.  Things only got worse as the graphite dust from the pencils got in his lungs, causing long, no doubt frightening bouts of night-time coughing.  He developed insomnia that persisted even when he gave up pencil-making, and tried private tutoring to earn a living.

Now, let’s, for just a moment, be honest here.  Who hasn’t felt like the young Henry, staring out the window, fantasizing about giving it all up and just going for a walk in the sunshine because it was a nice day out?   Or taking a nap because you were tired and unproductive otherwise?

Walden Pond

We learn a lot about Thoreau’s revolutionary sensibilities–his refusal to pay his poll tax to a government that held a sixth of its population in slavery, because it made him, in a small way, complicit with the institution of slavery.  In his own words:

I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.

We learn about his “hermit” lifestyle at Walden Pond, a house which he built with his own, two, pencil-making hands.  The quote my high-school teacher always threw around was:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

But I don’t think either of these views actually tell us much about what a unique individual Thoreau was.  Because he was far, far more human than any quick portrait of him portrays.

When he was living at Walden, Thoreau brought his laundry home to his mother.  He had dinner with his friends in Concord, most especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, not only because he wasn’t really big on cooking, but because he enjoyed the company.  He invited Louisa May Alcott and her sisters to Walden Pond, gave them lessons on nature,  and told them fairy stories about the creatures that lived under the ferns around his house.  He planted a garden for Nathaniel Hawthorne as a wedding present, not only because wedding presents were expensive, but because he wanted to give Hawthorne a place where he could think freely (check out a photo of Thoreau’s garden from this photo, courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations).  And, according to Hawthorne, Thoreau had a really good sense of humor.

Just an aside, but seriously, the friendship between Hawthorne and Thoreau is one that really deserves far more attention.  They were the most mis-matched buddies you could imagine, but they both genuinely appreciate each other, as you can see from this quote by Hawthorne on the first dinner that he and Thoreau shared.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

But, to get back to my point, what I really think made Thoreau unique and, in his own way, revolutionary, was his ability and determination to keep asking WHY: Why he was getting up early and going to work if he hated it, and what benefit it was serving him, or the greater world to keep doing it.  Why he was paying taxes to an institution that he hated.  Why he wasn’t living the life he believed would make him thoroughly content.  And why other people weren’t living their own life, either:

Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

He believed, above all, in honesty, and confronted the problems of his life with his eyes wide open.  He recognized that nature, by itself, was beautiful and balanced, and that, if humans could just get out of their own way and recognize the lessons of nature, they probably would be better off. He recognized the beauty and the joy around him, without turning a blind eye to the terrible stuff.  He wasn’t afraid to be unique–and to call out a society that tried to enforce conformity:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things…As if there were safety in stupidity alone.

Now, it is very, very true that Thoreau was in a  unique and privileged position.  He had friends who were willing to support him , he didn’t have dependents who needed his labor or financial support.  He was provided an education (at Harvard, no less).  Ultimately, he had time, and used it to create the space he needed to live the life he wanted.  Few of us today are in a position, financial, familial, or otherwise, to do what Thoreau did.  But that doesn’t mean that his choices are impossible to emulate.  For all the awful going on around us, there is still beauty around us, and, like Thoreau, we deserve to enjoy it,  and the people who make us better and happy, as well.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.

If you’re interested in learning more about Thoreau, check out this new, sensational biography by Laura Dassow Walls!