Ellen Feldman, whose novel NEXT TO LOVE follows the lives of three women during the years of World War II and its aftermath, shares some of her favorite books about the World War II home front.July 18, 2011
Most World War II novels are tales of the actual fighting, but a few tell what life was like at home.
"The Lovely Leave," a short story by Dorothy Parker in the Viking Portable Dorothy Parker, brings home the pain of a young married couple's separation and the anguish of an all-too-brief leave with aching immediacy.
Guard of Honor, by James Gould Cozzens, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1949, is technically a military story, but it takes place on a base in Florida and is really about the military on the home front.
Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener, is, as the title implies, set in a war zone, but the battles that rage are not military, and the original Nellie Forbush in the story did not have nearly as good a time as she did in the smash musical.
Everyone knows the movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, but few have read the long narrative poem by MacKinley Kantor that it was based on. Though I have nothing on which to ground my speculation, I cannot help thinking Kantor was trying to do for World War II what Stephen Vincent Benet had done for the Civil War in John Brown's Body.
Collections of letters from men and women serving in the military, while not technically about the home front, provide vivid pictures of life during the war.
As Always, Jack: A World War II Love Story, by Emma Sweeney, which will be reissued in January, 2012, is a beautiful tale of the author's parents' courtship as told through her father's letters.
War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll, has a deeply moving section of World War II letters.
Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front, edited by Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, reveals what it was like for the women once the men went to war.
Don't You Know There's a War On, by Richard Lingeman, presents a bird's eye view of America in the throes of war, including such fascinating tidbits as the fifty-three girls who were sent home from the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft factory on "moral grounds" because they wore sweaters to work on the assembly line. For some reason, the women who wore sweaters to work in the office were not deemed immoral.
G.I. Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, by Deborah Dash Moore, examines what it was like for the roughly half million young Jewish men who served in the war.
Fighting in the Jim Crow Army: Black Men and Women Remember World War II, by Maggi M. Morehouse, does the same for the one million African-Americans who endured the same segregation and injustice in military life as they did in civilian.
Virtue Under Fire, by John Costello, is a study of changing sexual mores and morals during the war.
The most villainous grifters in Matt Taibbi's GRIFTOPIAOctober 27, 2010
A who's who of screwing you
Tea Party: "One of the key psychological characteristics of the Tea Party is its oxymoronic love of authority figures coupled with a narcissistic celebration of its own "revolutionary" defiance."
Sarah Palin: "Being in the building with Palin that night was a transformative and oddly unsettling experience. It's a little like having live cave-level access for the ripping-the-heart-out-with-the-bare-hands scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A scary-as-hell situation: thousands of pudgy Midwestern conservatives worshipping at the Altar of the Economic Producer, led by a charismatic arch-priestess letting loose a grade-A war cry."
Barack Obama: "proved to America is that his government couldn't even win back the right to truly regulate this massive industry, even with a historic mandate at his back and after giving away everything he had to trade, conceding even the power to tax."
Rahm Emanuel: "an overconfident and immensely unlikable neo-Svengali, who resembles Karl Rove, only more driven, and with better hair."
CNBC: "more or less openly a propaganda organ for rapacious
Rick Santelli: "basically a half-baked PR stooge shoveling propaganda coal for bloodsucking transnational behemoths like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs."
David Brooks: "the archpriest of American conventional wisdom."
Goldman Sachs: "No one ever just referenced "Goldman"; they would say, "those motherfuckers" or "those cocksuckers"or "those motherfucking cocksucking assholes at Goldman Sachs."
Geithner, Bernake, Paulson, Larry Summers, et al:
Sovereign Wealth funds: Imagine the biggest and most aggressive hedge fund on Wall Street, then imagine that that same fund is fifty or sixty times bigger and outside the reach of any major regulatory authority, and you've got a pretty good idea of what an SWF is.
Ben Nelson: One of the all- time leaders in insurance company largesse--no other industry has given him more money in his career, a total that currently stands at over $1.2 million.
Horizon Blue Cross: Operates like a Mafia gang that insists on its protection money.
Billy Tauzin: The principal author of the Bush-era prescription drug benefit bill of 2003--a massive giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry that barred the government from negotiating bulk rates for Medicare purchases of drugs.
Alan Greenspan: The biggest asshole in the universe.
AMERICAN BUFFALO author, Steven Rinella shares a few of his favorite books.October 6, 2009
I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal. My wife and I were talking about influential books of our college years and I mentioned Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being. She rolled her eyes a little and started urging me to read here favorite Czech writer, Hrabal. I quickly hammered through a couple of his novels and was blown away by this one. It's just so funny and alive.
Tough Trip Through Paradise by Andrew Garcia. This is an account of a kid who gets a loan to buy equipment and supplies in Bozeman, Montana, and then takes it into the Musselshell Valley to trade with the Indians for furs. This during 1878 and 1879. Some historians accuse of Garcia of playing hard and fast with the truth, which is probably true, but his account provides an astonishing look at the culture and sex lives of Indian tribes that were edging toward the end of their free existence on the Great Plains.
Interior and Northern Alaska: A Natural History by Ronald L. Smith. Boring as hell title, yes, but this guy really knows his stuff. If you're at all interested in the finer, interconnected workings of the natural world, I suggest this book. And it doesn't just relate to Alaska. It's full of stuff that anyone who loves nature should know.
July 21, 2009
While most people look forward to summer as a time for a little light reading, those of us in publishing often find ourselves lugging heavy manuscripts through the sand with our coolers and sun block. Here's what we would be reading this summer, if only we could find the time.
Julie Grau, Publisher: On deck for my vacation is THE GREAT MAN by Kate Christensen, which comes emphatically recommended by my big sister--a great reader who turned me on to Edna O'Brien when I was thirteen and has been making great recommendations ever since. She says it's one of the best novels she's read in recent years.
To commemorate summer, we asked members of Spiegel & Grau Editorial, Marketing, and Publicity to share their most memorable summer reads.September 1, 2008
From Tina Pohlman, Editorial
When I think of "summer reads," I think of books I read when I was a kid, when summers seemed like magic and the thrill of a trip to the bookstore was on par with the race down the street to meet the ice-cream truck. Perhaps there's a theme here in my top three picks . . .
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi—I think I was about twelve when I read this super scary page-turner about Charles Manson and his notorious "family"--and was possibly scarred for life.
The Electric Kool-Acid Test by Tom Wolfe--From the Manson family to the Merry Pranksters. I'm not sure exactly how old I was when I came across this gloriously strange "nonfiction novel." But it doesn't really matter, now, does it? It was the eighties, and I was a teenager. But as far as I was concerned, it was 1964, and I was on the bus!
Papa John by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas--A juicy autobiography with an endlessly fascinating photo insert. It was the summer of '87, I was seventeen, and I had recently discovered "California Dreamin'" on the local classic rock station. I had the mass market edition, and it had a blue cover with pink type.
From Mike Mezzo, Editorial
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer--If summer is the time to indulge in guilty pleasures, well, then, I'm guilty. On a whim while killing time at Grand Central one recent summer Friday, I dropped ten bucks on the first installment of this bestselling young adult vampire saga, figuring if I found it too simple or too stupid, I wouldn't regret the cost so much. Forty-eight hours and five hundred pages later, I was hooked on the romance between mortal Bella and bloodsucking Edward--impossible love, vicious predators, gloomy weather, and teen angst mingle to make for a very addictive summer read.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber--On a weekend trip to Cape Cod with friends several summers ago, rain kept us all indoors with our noses in books. I had picked up Michel Faber's massively long saga, along with another friend, and within the first several pages we found ourselves in a race through the next thousand or so, riveted by the story of Sugar, a Victorian London prostitute who uses her wiles to rise from the gutter to the upper echelons of society. Sex, duplicity, obscene wealth and poverty, outrageous coincidence, and, most important, wicked humor, stitch together a novel with so many subplots and characters you'll wonder how it all came from the mind of one man.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates--I read Richard Yates's perfect novel of suburban despair maybe five or six summers ago, and it still rests comfortably at the top of my list of favorites. It's rare to read a book in which every single sentence is so expertly crafted, and it's rarer still when such beautiful prose is the vehicle for a genuinely harrowing story--a story so gripping that it makes a literary novel almost as page-turning as a mass-market thriller.
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta--I am reading this right now and it is vintage Perrotta--funny, smart, and sarcastic. Right up my alley.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn--Oh how I loved this book in all of its twisted glory. I could not wait to pick it up at the end of the day and hear more about the Binewski family. Please write another book, Katherine!
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving--I know, I know everyone loves this book but it remains, to this day, the most memorable summer book ever. I read it while backpacking through Europe in 1990 and would scream with laughter every time Owen Meany TALKED IN ALL CAPS.
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson--I didn't so much read this book as it provided me with a very memorable "summer reading" experience. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade and I was a very precocious (and young for my grade) nine-year-old. We were asked to select one book to read over the summer and submit a book report on it in September. When I alerted my teacher about my selection she insisted it was too hard for me and too scary. All you had to do was tell me I couldn't do something to make me want to do it ten times more. So I insisted. Lo and behold, she was right. It was both too hard and too scary. In a panicked moment in August, rather than admit defeat, I decided to crib from the jacket copy to write my "report." This didn't go over too well when school started up again as I knew nothing about the characters or plot and was immediately found out. I never did read this book, but I will never forget it all the same.
From Sonya Cheuse, Publicity
The Mother Knot by Kathryn Harrison's --A raw yet beautifully told memoir about her relationship with her mother. It's both haunting and healing.
Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes by T. Cooper--An engrossing story that includes a quirky Jewish immigrant mother, Charles Lindbergh, and an Eminem-impersonator, what could make for better summer reading!?
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez--I was completely and utterly swept away in mind and heart.
From Mya Spalter, Editorial
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler--While enduring the sweltering, stereo-less, nine-hour drive from Maine in fourth of July traffic, I read this hardboiled detective classic out loud (with voices!) to my travel companions to great effect. Chandler's dialogue is like poetry written in wet cement and Detective Phillip Marlowe's 1940's L.A. is a dizzying carnival of vice populated by cops, thugs, wannabe-starlets, and society matrons, whose lives depend on an alcoholic, smart-mouthed, private dick's ability to connect the dots.
From Laura van der Veer, Editorial
Straight Man by Richard Russo--A wonderfully witty and sweet book about academia. A joy to read.
The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hašek--Svejk is hopelessly endearing. A great antiwar novel cloaked in delightful humor. It's nothing if not long, but it's definitely worth the read.
Distortions by Anne Beattie--I love short stories in the summer; they provide such a satisfying sense of accomplishment. This collection is quiet but powerful, and a great introduction to her writing.
From Kelsey Nencheck, Marketing
Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes--My summer would not be complete without my chick-lit fix. Keyes is one of my favorite authors, and this book touches on a profoundly sad time in a woman's life yet still manages to make me laugh and smile--the best of the genre.
From Lauren Lavelle, Publicity
She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb--Wally Lamb's writing always impresses me (so true to life!). This is the first book of his that I read, and I picked it up one summer when I was at the beach on vacation. I was so hooked and impressed, I spent all day in the same position on my beach towel reading it--I didn't go inside to eat, go swimming, turn over to even out my tan lines, nothing. I finished all 500 plus pages in one day, and I regret nothing (except for the horrendous, blistering sunburn I got that day . . . shudder)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky--This book was published the summer before my freshman year of high school, and my friends and I were obsessed with it. It was our modern-day Catcher in the Rye--It's a coming-of-age tale of a high school boy who is troubled with all sorts of teenage angst, most of which I couldn't relate to. What did get me, though, were the great lines that summed up perfectly what my friends and I, and probably everyone else on the planet our age, felt about life and about each other. Reading it now, I would probably find those lines a little cheesy and obvious, but back then, in those times, at that age, with those friends . . . life-changing.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris--I love David Sedaris, but who doesn't? Even though this is an obvious choice, I had to add it to the list because it's been the perfect accessory to my lazy summer weekends spent lying in the sun in Riverside Park. It has thoroughly entertained me and has thoroughly annoyed my sister as I continuously force her to listen to me read sections out loud. Entertaining, funny, easy to put down and pick up....the perfect summer read.
Cindy Chen, Publicity
Atonement by Ian McEwan--This book always reminds me of summer, or at least what a summer would be like if I lived in an English manor in 1935. The languid but evocative first half of this book captures the perfect sinful summer: languishment in heat followed by guilty secrets and unexpected passion. Of course the climax of the first half sets the mood for the heartbreaking second half, but what's summer without a little heartbreak?
The Ghost Writer by John Harwood--The perfect antidote for a hot summer day, The Ghost Writer will provide just the right amount of thrill and chill. And what's more scandalous than reading a booked filled with disturbing family secrets, gothic ghost stories, and a very mysterious and--perhaps a little dangerous--femme fatale?
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks--For the science fiction guy or gal. If you're bored and waiting for Battlestar Galactica to come back, here's the perfect book to tide you over. For a book that has all the hi-tech gadgetry, space travel, and sarcastic AI to set a fanboy's heart aflutter, it's also incredibly intelligent and one of the most entertaining and interesting ruminations on war that I've ever read.
Janelle Brown gives us a list of her favorite books about suburban angst that informed her own suburban drama, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.June 23, 2008
When I was writing All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, I spent a lot of time reading books about suburban malaise and dysfunctional families. These were some of my favorites:
Little Children, Tom Perrotta
Such a minimal little book—like all of Tom Perrotta’s novels—but it manages to convey with so few words his characters’ feelings of entrapment. He draws, beautifully, the torpid quality of a suburban summer, the small-minded and insular community, the utter boredom of a life of confinement with only children for company. Perrotta is a wonderful satirist, probably because he has so much compassion for his subjects. And it’s funny, too.
Music for Torching, A. M. Homes
This book is the antithesis of Tom Perrotta. A. M. Homes’s unhappy married couple that burns down their suburban home in an act of petulant childishness are repulsive, unpleasant, selfish people, and she seems to find them as distateful as we do. And yet I found this book impossible to put down—both times that I read it. It’s horrifying, surprising, and deeply disturbing.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Franzen’s portrait of the self-destructive Lambert clan is about as brilliant a portrait of contemporary family dysfunction as I’ve read. I love the sprawl, the humor, the surprise, the poignancy, and ultimately, the hopefulness of this book—which seems to be a rare quality among suburban novels. I never get bored with this book, no matter how many times I read it.
The Ice Storm, Rick Moody
I saw the movie before I read this book, and was surprised by how busy and raucous the novel was, especially compared to the serenely clinical hush of Ang Lee’s interpretation of the material. This book is dark, dark, dark, and sad, sad, sad. It makes me so very glad that I didn’t come of age in the 1970s, which truly has to be one of the most confusing eras in our recent history.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
One of my favorite books of all time. Yates carefully dismantles “the great sentimental lie of the suburbs”—that Leave it to Beaver world that never really existed—and sends his unhappily married couple off to their dooms. In postwar America, Mom is trapped at home, Dad can’t live up to work expectation, and their inspired plans to escape it all by running off to France are brought to an abrupt halt by an unwanted pregnancy. Their relationship is beautifully, subtly rendered and incredibly depressing.
The Complete New Yorker
Not a book, exactly—it’s the entire archive of The New Yorker on CD, and I came back to it again and again when I was writing. Here you’ve got all your classic Cheever (including “The Swimmer” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”) and nearly two hundred stories by John Updike—not to mention thousands of other pieces of short fiction by the greatest writers of the last century. When I need inspiration, I like just to browse through randomly and pick out stories I’ve never heard of.
Spiegel & Grau’s Tina Pohlman chooses her favorite opening lines and tests our literary prowess.March 1, 2008
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.*
April is the cruellest month.†
April, come she will.‡
It’s April! Month of great opening lines. See if you can correctly match the first line with the book below . . .
2. “It should be sufficient to say that I am Juan Pablo Castel, the painter who killed María Iribarne.”
3. “At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick our leaking pipes.”
4. “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.”
5. “For a long time, I went to bed early.”
6. “He’d cut His throat with the knife.”
7. “To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.”
8. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
9. “When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl’s satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name.”
10. “I exaggerate.”
Adam Mansbach presents a listening list that parallels his new novel, The End of the Jews.February 1, 2008
Letting me talk about music is a dangerous thing—I’ve got an office full of LPs, and every one of them has a story behind it. I don’t know if the ten songs listed below could be mixed into any kind of coherent set—the DJ would have to have some serious skills, and even then a few of them might clear the dance floor—but each one has some kind of relationship to my novel The End of the Jews.
1. “Why Is That,” Boogie Down Productions, from Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, 1989
In The End of the Jews, this song is hugely important to Tris Freedman, aka RISK, a Jewish hip-hop kid who finds himself DJing Bar Mitzvahs in 1989—which is not what he was hoping would happen when he bought his turntables. “Why Is That” showcases BDP frontman KRS-One at the height of his lyrical power and political relevance. His importance in 1989 is impossible to overstate; hip-hoppers of my generation all thought he would be a senator and/or able to levitate by now. KRS was one of the first MCs to use songs as forums for sophisticated argumentation, and here he uses Biblical quotes and references in service of the assertion that Moses was black: “Moses had to be of the black race / because he spent forty years at Pharoah’s place.” Tris plays this song to kick off each Bar Mitzvah he DJs, as a form of protest and a statement of allegiance. Being in a Jewish space, even one as compromised as the rich suburban Bar Mitzvah party, makes him uncomfortable, and this song becomes his response (along with stealing liquor from the bar). Nobody but him listens to the lyrics, of course; the challenge goes unreceived.
I love it when hip-hoppers use samples to indicate their artistic lineage, as KRS does here. The voice on the chorus—“the government you have elected is inoperative”—is that of Gil Scott-Heron, perhaps the greatest and most underacknowledged political musician in American history. The depth and breadth of his engagement is unparalleled; he makes Bob Dylan look like Kevin Federline and if there was any justice he’d have a MacArthur grant and be chilling. Instead, he’s in prison on drug charges.
I was a roadie for Elvin from 1997 through 2002, and he was a close friend and a mentor until his death in 2004. (I was also with him for what turned out to be his final week of performances; here’s the piece I wrote about it for JazzTimes: adammansbach.com/other/elvin.html. This is a song I saw him play countless times, in clubs all over the world; it’s a traditional Japanese tune that his wife and manager, Keiko Jones, arranged. Elvin’s commitment to his art, and his belief in the transformative and healing power of music, were profound and humbling. I wish everyone had the opportunity to spend some time with someone so connected to his calling, so centered by it.
Elvin was a titan; as John Coltrane’s percussionist throughout the sixties, he revolutionized the way the drums were played—not just in jazz, but in every form of American music. This is the kind of song—by turns beautiful, haunting and forceful—that I imagine Albert Van Horn, the musician in The End of the Jews, playing. Elvin and Keiko were certainly partial inspirations for Albert and Mariko in the book. Long before Elvin passed away, I remember contemplating what Keiko would do without him—without this man whose music was like their child, their mutual reason for being—and that led me to write the chapter in which Mariko finds herself alone for the first time in forty years.
3. “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Public Enemy, from Fear of a Black Planet, 1990
Boy, did this song set off some shit! This was the middle of the end for Public Enemy, who at the time were the most important and controversial group in the world. Professor Griff, their “Minster of Information” (a job that seemed to mostly involve standing around—he was never on their records, really) had said some stuff in an interview about the Jews being “responsible for the majority of the wickedness” in the world, and all of a sudden there was chaos. The media, who were scared of PE’s militance to begin with, jumped on it. Chuck D, the group’s leader, had to decide whether to fire Griff. At the time “Fight the Power” was out as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and Chuck didn’t want the controversy to derail this important film, so he kind of stood by Griff, then fired him, then unfired him—all under incredible scrutiny.
Then “Terrordome” came out in the fall. Chuck said “apology made to whoever pleases / still they got me like Jesus,” a line about the media that got misinterpreted as being a line about Jews. Whew. This is another song that, in ’89, mattered a lot to Tris. Even at the tail end of the eighties, black-Jewish tension was still crazy, especially in New York—the Crown Heights riots, Minister Farrakan and Reverend Jackson’s comments—and, if you were a Jewish hip-hop fan like Tris, you were rolling your eyes and wondering when the manufactured hysteria would die down and people would actually listen to what groups like PE were really saying. This music meant more to you than being Jewish did, and you inherently grasped the fact that there was no actual threat involved, that PE or whoever was not invested in hurting Jews—hell, you read their liner notes and knew they were down with Bill Adler and Lyor Cohen!
4. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Rashaan Roland Kirk, from Return of the 5000 Lb. Man, 1976
This is a Charles Mingus tune, an elegy to Lester Young. Rashaan Roland Kirk wrote these beautiful lyrics to it and recorded his own version. Lester Young appears briefly in The End of the Jews; Tristan Brodsky (Tris’s grandfather) sees him play at a club in 1935, shortly before Prez becomes famous. It’s Tristan’s introduction to jazz—he’s introduced to a lot of things that night.
Lester was a real character, renowned for inventing all kinds of slang, for ushering in a whole sartorial style with the rumpled three-piece suits, the porkpies, the casual way he held his horn. That photograph of him sitting with his sax, smoke rising from the cigarette between his fingers, might still be the most iconic image in all of jazz. I think this song makes this list, rather than an actual Lester Young tune, because my jazz education really began with the music of the sixties, and I had to go backward to pick up Lester Young. So in some way, I connect more with the Kirk/Mingus elegy for him than I do with the actual music he made, as great as it is.
3rd Bass was the first credible white hip-hop group, and this song was their take on race and racism—very much a behind-enemy-lines piece that cosigns and validates the kinds of statements their black peers were making at the time. MC Serch, who delivers the last (and strongest) verse here, is a Jewish cat from Far Rockaway, Queens, whose story is kind of the hip-hop version of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer—he was planning on becoming a rabbi or a cantor until a racist rabbi turned him away from the religion. He found his way back to it years and years later. He’s now the host of The White Rapper Show on VH1, and a friend of mine; I recently interviewed him for the magazine Guilt & Pleasure: "Soul Serching."
This song, alongside the BDP and PE cuts, forms a kind of tryptich detailing how race, hip-hop and Jewishness came together in 1989, when Tris was coming of age. Incidentally, the first white rapper ever—also Jewish—is another friend of mine, Vanilla B aka Lord Scotch, aka Keo, aka Blake Lethem. He actually designed the cover of my previous novel, Angry Black White Boy. And yes, he and Jonathan are brothers.
6. “Misterioso,” J.J. Johnson, from J.J. in Person, 1958
Devon Marbury, the other important musician in The End of the Jews, is a trombonist—outside of that one Paul Newman/Sidney Poitier movie, Paris Blues, trombonists never get to be leading men, romantic figures, so I figured I should give the instrument a little shine. Delfeayo Marsalis—who prefers to call his instrument a “trambone,”—was one of the people who educated me about jazz, and he introduced me to the work of J.J., the greatest trambonist of all time and the guy Devon gets compared to in the novel. J.J. was also the first person to take Elvin Jones out on the road, so I heard a lot of stories about him—how he and Tommy Flanagan and Wilbur Little and the rest of that band took Elvin out to eat all the time when he could barely afford better than hot dogs. This is J.J.’s take on the great Thelonious Monk tune, and it features an explosive, killer opening solo by Nat Adderley on cornet. I remember listening to this song with Delfeayo, and rewinding that solo again and again because Adderley just came at it so hard.
7. “Cocaine,” Sly & Robbie, from Black Ash Dub, 1980
I listen to more dub than anything when I’m writing: it’s mellow, it keeps you locked into a zone, and there are no vocals or changes to distract you: just these incredibly thick, funky basslines and hard-ass drum patterns, and snippets of other instruments coming in and out of the mix with crazy reverb and effects on them. Dub is really the first producer-based music; the Jamaican studio bands would lay the instrumentals, and then cats like King Tubby and Scientist and Lee “Scratch” Perry would come in and do these dub mixes to put on the b-sides of singles and have deejays chat over. So this is reflective of the kind of stuff I often bump when I’m writing, and also of the music I imagine would be playing at Talking Blues, the coffee shop (i.e., herb shop) Mariko sends Tris to in Amsterdam at the beginning of Book 2.
8. “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band,” Collins & Harlan, 1906 (from the complilation Jewface, 2006)
First of all, yes—those six notes are indeed the melody to “God Bless America,” and yes, Irving Berlin jacked this bit of turn-of-the-century silliness about a conductor with a schnozz so big he doesn’t need a baton, and turned it into a baseball park anthem. This is from a fascinating compilation some friends of mine over at Reboot Stereophonic put together, and it’s an example of the kind of now-forgotten tune you might have heard at the Yiddish theater during the first quarter of the last century. Tristan references this song in the book, during a speech he delivers at Harvard University in 1953. He’s defending himself against charges that it was wrong of him to write Manacles—a novel about a Jewish-owned slaveship making middle passage—in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. He says that to understand evil, we must first understand it in ourselves, and brings up these songs to argue that Jews are comfortable being reduced to caricature but refuse to reckon with the reality that they, too, have been the hunters rather than the prey.
Long after I wrote this scene, I read Arnold Rampersand’s new biography of Ralph Ellison (whose name also comes up in this scene—Tristan responds to a student who quotes a vicious review of Manacles by Irving Howe by saying he’s in good company, since Howe didn’t like Invisible Man, either) and came across a scene in which Ellison, in 1967, is shouted down at a college gig by black power advocates in a strikingly similar manner. It’s funny; I didn’t intend for Tristan to evoke anybody, but I continue to find small commonalities between him and different writers of his generation: Ellison, Malamud, Mailer, Bellow, and so on.
9. “The Legend of Buddy Bolden,” Wynton Marsalis Septet, from Citi Movement, 1993
Devon Marbury’s band is an octet, and I imagine their music—improvisational but orchestrated, jubilant, historically inclined, New Orleansy—to be much like that of Wynton’s early nineties band, which I got to see play a lot, and which was one of my favorites. This tune has been a favorite of mine forever; I remember trying to write a poem to correspond to the notes of Wynton’s solo when I was in high school, and using the last few phrases of it—up until the part when Herlin Riley comes in with the cymbal—on my answering machine back when that type of thing was acceptable.
10. “Cold Crush Brothers at the Dixie,” Cold Crush Brothers, from the Wild Style soundtrack, 1982
My novel begins in the Bronx, and the Bronx contines to make its presence felt, in different ways, throughout. So I thought it would be appropriate to have something on here that gave a nod to the early days of hip-hop, which also started in the BX. There weren’t too many Jews left there (some, though) by the time Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa started spinning records in school yards and local cats started grabbing the mics and the spray cans and busting headspins, but it’s the same terrain, the same few square miles. This song is as faithful and accurate a recording as there is in terms of capturing the early Bronx sound. The Cold Crush Brothers are one of the original crews, and one of the best. Grandmaster Caz, their leader, made the mistake of lending his book of rhymes to a nonrapper named Big Bank Hank. His slapped-together crew, The Sugarhill Gang, usurped Cold Crush and ended up being the one to blow hip-hop up worldwide with “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 (and no, Caz didn’t get a credit, or a check), but this is what the real shit sounded like.
Spiegel & Grau asked Lee Siegel to choose his favorite against-the-grain books.January 1, 2008
The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
From its immortal first sentence—“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—to its final words, Malcolm’s paradigm-shifting book is a guileful polemic, wrapped in a thrilling investigative story, hidden in the form of a scathing parable. Every word falls on the page with a fatality of felt experience—and every word runs counter to the received wisdom about journalism, writing, and even the human personality. Having read the book several times, I now pick up this scathingly honest book and read a passage at random whenever I need to be replenished and refreshed.
Don Juan, Lord Byron
The natural man, in all his shades and moods, against “civilized” society’s cruelty and hypocrisy. Written in strict ottava rima, the poem’s very meter is like a reproach against the stifling custom and convention it assails—as if to say that art’s rigor and discipline, conferred on honest expression, is the strongest proof of character and decency.
Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer
A culture obsessed by fame and celebrity, as ours is, might turn to this book as an antidote to the general fame-sickness. An account of Mailer’s involvement in the march on the Pentagon in October 1967, the book portrays Mailer at his most self-detached, mocking his own renown, deflating himself at every turn, and yet somehow amplifying his dignity the more he punctures the incurable side of his nature. Written in the first person, Armies is an object lesson in how to write about your life without writing about yourself.
Parodies, Dwight Macdonald
Macdonald put together this once-celebrated book of parodies to, as he wryly wrote, put his children through college. Everything is here, from Max Beerbohm’s parody of Henry James, to an absolutely wicked and hilarious send-up of existentialism in the form of “resistentialism,” a philosophy that deals with objects that resist being moved, or that won’t get out of your way as you walk unwittingly toward them in the dark on your way to the bathroom. Nothing cuts a clear soundless path through all the daily din as effectively as parody and satire. This volume should be placed next to the Gideon Bible in every hotel and motel room in the country.
Rilke once wrote that music picked him up and dropped him into the unfinished. (That unsettled him, he said.) The Bible picks you up and drops you into completion, into fullness of being, into astringent and yet calming first and last things. We see as through a glass darkly, and so the most “contrarian” line ever written is “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” And though inaccurate, the language of the King James Version is English at its peak of perfection, a creation of ontological translucency. Words are—to paraphrase James Joyce—the beleaguered, noise-ridden, mentally cluttered and distracted contemporary person’s arsenal. Words exist in the Bible (as well as in the plays of Shakespeare, written at the same time as the King James Version was produced) in their original freshness of being. They keep your perceptions green.
Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, writes about some of her favorite booksDecember 1, 2007
Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
A brilliantly cut diamond of a novel about two Americans who go to live in an isolated village in Mexico. A complex story told in a simple and affecting way, with profound emotion and simply lovely prose.
An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
This is a nonfiction history of how human beings could have done, and sometimes are doing, things differently. Not a history of wars, but a history of individuals and opportunities written in exuberant, probing, and always intelligent prose.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
A masterpiece of Russian literature, this is the story of what happens when the Devil comes to Moscow accompanied by a naked red-haired girl and a giant black cat. It is also a wonderful retelling of the life of Christ.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
I first read this beautiful extended essay on nature and the meaning of life when I was fourteen. It was one of the books that helped me to become a writer.
Poems by George Seferis, translated by Rex Warner
The Rex Warner translations of Seferis are the great translations of this Nobel Prize–winning Greek writer. I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece and these poems helped me to understand both the past and the present of the country. Gorgeous, surprising, lovely writing.
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
A powerful, intelligent book by a man who, as a journalist, was dangerously enamoured of war and its danger. But this isn’t only a “personal” book—it is a meditation on the terrible cost of war for all of us.
The Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo
An amazing novel about the brutal military takeover—and the ensuing guerilla insurgency—of an island close to Indonesia—which can only be Timor. The characters in this book are simply incredible, as is the story itself. I still wish this novel had won the Booker Prize, instead of only being nominated for it. And I still think about the meaning of the title . . .
Loitering with Intent by Muriel Sparks
Like candy for adults! A delightful, slightly creepy novel about a young woman novelist who is hired to be the secretary for the Autobiographical Association, with unexpected results. Sparks manages to do something very complicated—write a novel within a novel—in under two hundred pages, while showing the reader a very good time. It’s also a wonderful affirmation of the lives of women artists.
The Untouchable by John Banville
More candy! This novel is about the lives of Cambridge spies, one in particular, who leads not a double life but a quadruple one. The mystery of who reveals him as a double agent for Russia powers the book, but the real delight here is Banville’s delicious prose.
The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore
A humorous, inventive, often mesmerizing novel about a man who is a synesthete: his memory is unrelentingly exact, and he sees spoken words as explosions of color that often leave him bewildered. Adding to his frustration is his mother’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s. A man who remembers too much tries to help a woman who remembers too little, and the result is unexpected and surprisingly hopeful.
Rebecca Stott, author of the national bestseller Ghostwalk, writes about what she's been reading between semestersNovember 1, 2007
This summer I have been re-reading books I first read in my twenties. As I get older I re-read books more often because there is a mysterious way that you get to meet up with younger versions of yourself in books you’ve read several times before, like bumping into yourself in a dark corridor.
My copy of this book is full of little dog-eared coloured pieces of card, faded by the sun at the top, where they have stuck out of the book, and each of them covered in the tiny, rather intense, handwriting I had in my twenties. Just looking at the front cover takes me straight back to the first excitement of reading it – a sense of breathlessness and wonder. The scores of little coloured cards show just how breathless I was, how much that first encounter with magical realism made me want to write. It’s quite difficult to re-read it now as the little cards flutter out, like leaves.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a family saga, an epic. A band of adventurers establish a town in the heart of the South American jungle and Márquez tells us what happens to them over a century or more. It’s written in opulent prose that reads like poetry. It’s like a dream. The strangest things happen – Spanish galleons are found marooned in the middle of the jungle, a woman ascends to heaven wrapped in a still-wet white sheet which she had been hanging out on her washing line. In one part of the story a boy and a girl from feuding families fall in love with each other and while they keep their love secret, they are described as being accompanied by a cloud of yellow butterflies wherever they go. When I read the book for the first time I was newly in love and the yellow butterflies were mine. The air was thick with them. One of the cards I wrote on (not a yellow card but blue) says: “Love isn’t LIKE being surrounded by yellow butterflies, it IS being surrounded by yellow butterflies.” That’s me bumping into myself in that corridor again.
I read this novel for the first time a year ago and re-read it a few weeks ago after seeing the film which has just come out in cinemas here. What baffled me was that in a year I had forgotten the terrible twist at the end of the novel. I had forgotten it because, I realise now, I badly needed to remember the relief and peace of the atonement that the book gives and then so cruelly takes back (I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it).
McEwan asks questions in this novel not just about redemption but also about the ethics of writing. Writing fiction is a kind of power he seems to say. The protagonist in Atonement tries to atone for her mistake, her crime, by self-sacrificing actions, but when she fails to do that she writes an atonement story for herself, to give herself a fictional sense of redemption. I have drawn on my own life in my writing and that means using experience that also belongs to lovers, friends, and family. I could see for the first time in reading Atonement that I too have used my writing as a way not of atoning for actions I have regretted, but instead perhaps of giving myself endings or outcomes that I wanted. You don’t always see that at the time. Later sometimes, though, you look back on a book you have written and realise that in it you have given yourself something you really wanted. I’m still not sure I know what I think about the ethics of that.
Hermann Melville, Moby Dick
This is another book of mine that has little scribblings in it – this time not coloured pieces of card, but post-it notes. It’s one of the strangest books I have ever read, a tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the obsessive, vengeful quest of its captain, Ahab, to kill the white whale Moby-Dick. It’s also full of all sorts of “stuff”: lists, musings, natural history, anything and everything connected with whales.
I notice that one of my first post-it notes reads with exasperation: “what is this book?” reflecting the bafflement of my first reading. Then later, possibly three or four years later, on my second reading I answered that question on the same post-it note with the rather pompous words: “It’s a library contained within the belly of a whale, a key to all mythologies, a joke, a quest, a parable, a water eclogue.”
This summer, some ten years later, I added another line to the post-it note question: “it’s a warning against the dangers of fundamentalism,” I wrote. I’d been reading a Salman Rushdie essay about the novel and about American Puritanism and so it was Rushdie who made me see fundamentalism in Ahab’s quest. But the revelation was an important personal one too because I was raised in an extreme Protestant sect that taught that Satan was working his way out there in the world and had to be constantly ‘smoked out’ (my memories of that upbringing were revived recently by watching a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is a zealous fundamentalist, blinkered and obsessive. He sees only the dark of the world and he very nearly sacrifices his whole crew in his quest for vengeance. It seemed to me this summer, strangely, as I read about the continuing fallout from 9-11, that Melville was writing not just about whales and sea adventures but that he also had something to say to world leaders driven by zeal and the desire for revenge.
Elizabeth Bishop, Collected Poems
I love this volume. It has been like a family friend for as long as I remember. Particular favourites are “The Moose” and “The Man-Moth” but I like other poems too with titles that don’t begin with the letter M. Bishop has the most seductive voice, drawing you in to her intimate observations and thoughts without giving anything away about her life. Exquisite. My father, who died this year, gave me my passion for poetry. He had a particular love for collections of poetry, like his own battered copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems. He used to talk about refraction – the way that when you get to know a collection of poetry really well you get to see new lights in it because the poems refract light off and from each other. That’s certainly true of the Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems – you come to certain poems through the light of others and everything is constantly shifting and drifting. Nothing stays the same.
Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia
I have often wondered what happened to the two beautiful boys during the violence of the 90s when Yugoslavia erupted into civil war. Did they survive? What wounds did their families suffer or inflict on each other? When I spent this summer travelling down the coast of Croatia with a friend and our teenage daughters, the two boys seemed to be everywhere in my imagination. So when I came back to England I was determined that I was now going to try to understand what the boys had tried to explain to us about their country on the end of the pier that day. The Fall of Yugoslavia is written by a wonderful journalist with great political acumen and compassion. Glenny explains why this country has been so fought over for so long. What he can’t tell me, sadly, is what happened to the beautiful Brenco and his friend.