August 17th, 2014
August 12th, 2014
I love it when I find unexpected correlations and thematic continuities among the books I’m reading, especially when there are really no circumstantial connections among the authors and the books.
I’m traveling these twelve days (August 7-19) from NYC to St. Louis to Chicago to Cleveland and back to NY, and so have a number of good books with me. First book I finished during the trip was Emily St. John Mandel’s wistful Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future that might be not too distant from our own, when a deadly flu has driven the world’s inhabitants in to a tenuous existence, with familiar communities splintered and new ones reconstituted around survival, with safety from brigands and cults their paramount goal. Grim as that may sound, it’s really a sweet book as Mandel uses flashbacks to skillful oscillate between the pre- and post-disease worlds, devoting much of the narrative to memorializing things we’d miss from today if the world suddenly fell in to chaos. Amplified music, electric guitars, buying gas at the pump, surfing the Internet, ordering a meal in a restaurant—these are a handful of the quotidian details suddenly subtracted from the lives of her characters. She imagines that surivivors have retrofitted automobiles and trucks so that, in the absence of petrol, they can be pulled by horses. In fact, the symphony/theater troupe at the center of the story moves itself in the Lake Michigan region this way, with musicians and players in tow, and young or vulnerable members stowed in the back, in what I imagine as modified Conestoga wagons supplying cover.
Prior to Mandel’s novel, which will be published next month, I was reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a post-nuclear event novel published in 1957. I met Mandel in July, at a Fall Book preview sponsored by NAIBA, and mentioned Shute’s book, which she told me she hadn’t heard of was. It’s set in Australia, after the Cold War nations have traded atomic bomb attacks, leaving the world above the equatorial line a death zone. An Australian submarine crew is tasked with traveling, submerged beneath the ocean, to assess the radioactivity of the post-incident world and determine if there might be habitable zones elsewhere. Shute’s novel is told in a measured, even laconic style, a bit less literary than Mandel’s. Like her though, he imagined that the inhabitants of his wrecked world would need some mode of land transport, and so they’ve retrofitted their cars and farm vehicle so they can be pulled by horses.
Now it’s not surprising that the authors of two post-apocalyptic novels would each employ common elements, like the retrofitted vehicles. What’s more surprising is when the author of two entirely unrelated books—one historical nonfiction, the other a thriller—share a thematic unity.
While reading Mandel’s novel I’d also been enjoying Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of American’s First Spy Ring, a history of espionage during the Revolutionary War published in 2006 that’s the basis of the current AMC TV series, “Turn,” which I had made one of my #FridayReads last month. It’s fascinating, and using the letters that General Washington’s spies sent to him, covers aspects of American’s war with Britain that are entirely new to me. One of these side stories is how the British army flooded Boston, NY, and Philadelphia with “hundreds of thousands of fake dollars,” counterfeit money they hoped would undermine confidence in Colonial currency, reduce its value, and motivate local populations to avoid using it.
According to Rose, British generals arranged for prolific counterfeiters from English prisons to be released, who were then pressed in to service printing bogus dollars, some of them with their engraving tools and printing presses aboard ships floating in New York harbor. Rose writes that disinformation efforts were undertaken with “Royalist papers like…New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury print[ing] public ‘editorials’ noting, by the by, that ‘there has lately…been a large distribution in the country of counterfeited Continental bills, so admirably executed, as not easily to be discerned from those issued by order of the Congress. This has contributed not a little to lower their value, and will be one effectual bar to their repayment or liquidation.’” Rose even discovered that classified ads were run in some papers, seeking people who would be willing to pass the currency in Colonial cities.
While still reading and enjoying Washington’s Spies I was ready for another novel to read, and so browsing in Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s well-known indie bookstore, last weekend, I was delighted to discover that the very first Jack Reacher suspense novel, by Lee Child had been reissued. I love the Reacher novels, an enjoyment that only grew after meeting him at a book party for Valerie Plame’s first novel in October 2013. The only reason I sometimes hesitate in picking up a Reacher novel is that I often can’t recall which ones I’ve already read. But I knew I hadn’t read Child’s inaugural entry, from 1997, so was happy to buy it that day, especially as it included a new preface by Child, explaining how he came to create the character of Jack Reacher, a former MP in the US Army who since leaving the service has lived a rootless life, rambling from town to town, and inevitably, encountering bad guys in his path, harming innocents whom he chooses to protect. It’s called Killing Floor and with lots of leisure time the past week, I’m deep in to it now. The plot centers around Margrave, Georgia, a small town that Reacher drifts in to, idly, in search of the legacy of a bluesman named Blink Blake who his brother Joe, his only living relative, once told him had spent time in Margrave. After only a few hours in town, Reacher is arrested on suspicion of murder, and even though he’s quickly cleared in the case, his sense of moral indignation is aroused when he glimpses all the corrupt things going on in the town, so he sticks around to try and straighten things out.
Imagine my surprise when in my reading I discovered that the rotten underside at the heart of the story is a counterfeiting ring that his brother, a federal agent, had been investigating. At one point, Reacher meets an elderly professor who tells him of his own countefeitiung exploits, though more of the wartime Washington’s Spies sort than the typical criminal kind, bearing more than a passing resemblance to that done by the British against the Colonies: “During the Second World War, young men like…me ended up with strange occupations….Considered more useful in an intelligence role than in combat….We were handed the job of attacking the enemy with economics. We derived a scheme for shattering the Nazi economy with an assault on the value of its paper currency. Our project manufactured hundreds of billions of counterfeit reichsmarks. Spare bombers littered Germany with them. They came down out of the sky like confetti.”
The congruities among historical events described in Alexander Rose’s history of Revolutionary War espionage and Lee Child’s contemporary thriller are pretty striking, aren’t they?
[NB: This post was written in the excellent Blogsy app on my iPad on an Amtrak train traveling from St. Louis to Chicago.]
August 10th, 2014
Luxuriant color in Rothko at St Louis Art Museum followed by Joseph Beuys' artist in a gray flannel suit. pic.twitter.com/yHFmvHuTl5
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) August 8, 2014
Waiting for the tram to go back down the STL Arch pic.twitter.com/0RSCIjNQz5
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) August 10, 2014
I enjoyed riding to the top of the Gateway Arch today with my son’s best pal Nolan Marsh.
July 30th, 2014
I’ve been engrossed with AMC’s Revolutionary War historical/spy drama TURN since it began airing last winter. After a few months watching it every Sunday night at 9pm I learned that the historical source material for the show’s writers is WASHINGTON’S SPIES: The Story of American’s First Spy Ring, a 2006 Simon & Schuster book I just got a copy of at my NYPL branch. It’s by Alexander Rose, a writer educated at Cambridge now living in NYC. His well-paced narrative centers around the key espionage ring of the Colonial Army, the Culper Ring, for which American officers recruited civilian agents to operate undercover, in New York City, and behind enemy lines, to gain valuable information on Tory movements and their forces in NY, CT, and NJ. One seaside town, Setauket, on Long Island, is a strategic spot, where many British troops were billeted in the homes of uneasy locals, and where Abraham Woodhull lived, one of the ring’s most important members.
The thing I appreciate about the book and the program is how they both make clear that—given the advantages of training, manpower, and firepower enjoyed by the Redcoats—espionage was one of the few ways for the Americans to neutralize those advantages, and capitalize on the greater knowledge they had of local geography, nearby villages, and the residents of those towns. Having seen all ten episodes aired so far, and now reading the book, I’m amazed how close to history the program is tracking—with many of the scenarios and most of the main characters present in both. After a full season of 10 episodes, AMC renewed it for a second season, and I expect the show will resume early in 2015. Meantime, AMC is re-airing all Season I episodes beginning this Saturday night, August 2 at 10pm, right after another AMC historical series, Hell on Wheels, about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Here’s AMC’s own description of TURN and below that three more show photos with cast.
“A character-driven drama set during the Revolutionary War, TURN: Washington’s Spies takes us behind the battlefront to a shadow war fought by everyday heroes who vowed to keep their heroics a secret. Based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies, TURN: Washington’s Spies centers on Abe Woodhull, a farmer living in British-occupied Long Island who bands together with a disparate group of childhood friends to form the Culper Ring. Together they risked their lives and honor and turned against family and king for a fight they believed in passionately, ultimately helping George Washington turn the tide of the Revolutionary War in favor of the rebels. Their daring efforts also revolutionized the art of espionage, giving birth to modern spycraft as we know it today, along with all of the moral complexity that entails.”
July 29th, 2014
A day after Amazon released its anonymous statement below, helpful analyses of it are appearing, including this one on PublishersMarketplace.com (subscription req.) and these annotations by Mike Shatzkin.
A new gambit from Amazon announced on their Kindle forum at about 1:30 PM (PDT) today strikes at the weakest part of the Big 5′s stance, with those companies still stuck on their overly parsimonious 25% royalty on ebooks, five + years into the digital transition. It’s a longtime bone of contention with authors and agents, and organizations like the Authors Guild, a position with which I agree. In their post Amazon says what they think the digital ecosystem ought to look like, and what most ebooks ought to cost: They say divide digital revenue 35% authors/35% Hachette/30% Amazon; and price most ebooks at $9.95. Gotta figure out now how that compares with the status quo. I’m sure it’s safe to assume that Amazon—though it wants to sound like it cares most about authors—wouldn’t propose anything that doesn’t give them much more than what they get currently. You may read it all at their link, or click on the full screenshot below.
July 23rd, 2014
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) July 23, 2014
Harvey Wang is a photographer I admire, whose 2011 exhibit at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum I covered for this blog.
Wang had told me about a book he’s writing that chronicles the transition in photography from the darkroom era to the digital age we’re in now, and today I was glad to learn of a Kickstarter campaign he’s running to support publication of the book, which I tweeted about after contributing. Below, you can view a video about the book, and contribute to the Kickstarter via this link. The campaign is running one more week, until July 30.
July 18th, 2014
In completing my coverage of NXNE, the Toronto music festival I attended June 17-24 as accredited press, I’ve used Storify, the platform that lets bloggers incorporate social media posts in with their own writing. Once a piece is published on Storify, you can grab a handy embed code and paste it in at your websites, where it populates precisely as you assembled it. The piece is titled “Great Music & Great Times in Toronto for NXNE 2014,” “a collection of illustrated social sharing culled from my timelines 6/17-6/24, w/commentary; links to bands & venues; plus content I’m borrowing with acknowledgement of & appreciation for other music fans who shared about NXNE, creating a visual diary of the festival.” Please click here to read it on Storify, or here on Honourary Canadian. I hope you enjoy reading the piece which includes travel and tourism info about Toronto, offering some notes on restaurants, bookstores, shopping, and architecture, along with my music coverage.
July 15th, 2014
Had a great time last night at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho, where a preview of two important Fall titles was put on by the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA). As soon as I arrived I saw Eileen Dengler, Executive Director of NAIBA, whom I’ve known since my days with Undercover Books in Cleveland. Among many booksellers on hand, I met Heidi Shira Tannenbaum, manager of the Housing Works store; Margot Sage-El, Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ*; two female staff members from Word Bookstore‘s Jersey City location; Todd Dickinson, of Aaron’s Books in Lititz, PA; Ezra Goldstein of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn; Roy Solomon of Village Bookstore in Pleasantville, NY; and Bill Reilly of River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, NY, site of the US Army camp where during WWII nearly 1,000 refugees were brought for sanctuary by Ruth Gruber, then a member of the FDR administration. She chronicled this in her book HAVEN: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 WWII Refugees and How They Came to America (out first in 1985), which I republished in trade paper in 1999, when I was with Crown Publishing. Bill told me that HAVEN—which along with four other books by Gruber is now available from Open Road Media—is his store’s top-selling book of local history; indeed I found the Open Road edition featured on the left-hand rail of the store’s website. Though Bill’s store is in upstate NY, near Lake Ontario, he hadn’t even traveled the farthest to be at this gathering: that recognition went to a bookseller from Buffalo. I was also delighted to see longtime Random House sales rep Ruth Liebmann in the audience. A nicely stocked bar with appetizers was generously provided by book distributor Baker & Taylor.
The first writer to speak was Robert W. Snyder, Director of the American Studies Program at Rutgers. His forthcoming book is CROSSING BROADWAY: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City, to be published in December by Cornell University Press. My first five years in NYC I lived in Washington Heights, on Bennett Avenue at 186th Street, on the west side of Broadway—still the defining artery of the neighborhood—so I very much enjoyed meeting Snyder, then hearing his presentation on the book. It chronicles the evolution of this northern Manhattan neighborhood over the past century, and how it stands todayas quite a stellar example of diverse urban populations living successfully side-by-side, even while it more and more faces the price of its own success, with gentrification, rising home prices, and distortions to the social weave that may already be diminishing its richness. I recall that when I lived up there my NY State Assemblyman was J. Brian Murtagh, a voluble Irish pol who was proud of saying that his constituents spoke some astonishing number of languages among themselves—more than fifty, I recall. The dominant groups had long been Irish, German-Jewish, and Dominican, but with many other nationalities, too. Separately, we spoke about upper Manhattan, which has been important in NY history since the Revolutionary War. I told him I cover it often here writing about the Little Red Lighthouse, underneath the eastern arch of the George Washington Bridge, aka the Great Gray Bridge, and High Bridge, where an original foot-bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx is being restored.
I appreciated that in introducing Snyder my longtime book biz friend, Christopher Kerr, who reps Cornell University Press, voiced a brief shout-out to me, evoking the years I lived in Washington Heights, when amid the ravages of the crack epidemic, the nabe was too often known most for its high crime rate. Actually, my part of the Heights had little crime, and I was able to pay less than $600 per month rent, in 1985, for a comfortable 2nd floor apartment in a 6-story building. I also had the good fortune to buy furniture and bookcases from the daughter of the German-Jewish woman who’d brought them from Germany decades earlier. I still have the bookcases today, though I moved to the upper west side of Manhattan in 1990.
The second author last night was Emily St. John Mandel, a novelist with Canadian roots, having grown up in western BC, who then lived in Montreal. I met her briefly during BEA in 2013, at a Greenwich Village reception sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). I recalled last night that she said then she was finishing a manuscript, now completed, titled Station Eleven. Each of her three previous novels has received great reviews, like this comment about her debut book, from an erudite bookseller/reader at Rainy Day Books, a top indie bookstore in Kansas City, KS.
“Last Night in Montreal took me by surprise in the most wonderful ways….From the very first chapter, I was drawn in to her provocative, delicately grim world full of wanderlust, betrayal, and the quest for answers. Each of [Mandel's] deliciously real characters are searching for answers to the questions of their lives, compelled to hunt them out no matter how shocking or painful those answers may be. Mandel’s novel, though relatively short, amazed me with its intricacies and complexities. As days go by, I find myself thinking of more and more reasons I so loved [it].”—Elizabeth Lewis, Rainy Day Books
St. John Mandel’s new novel will be published September 9 by Knopf in the US, then separately in North America by Harper Canada, and Picador in the UK. I’d expect there will also be foreign language editions. It’s a very impressive book, and she spoke about it beautifully. St. John Mandel began by explaining that she’s always loved reading post-apocalyptic fiction, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and she wrote her new novel as a kind of love letter to the present, a meditation on what we would miss most if all that we’re used to went away, and what we would long for most keenly. In literature, she imagined that the sudden subtraction from our midst of the works of Shakespeare would be one of our greatest losses, so she conceived a traveling theater troupe who continue performing Shakespeare’s plays, even while the world around them is withering away. She had me at theatre troupe, as I quickly remembered novels I’ve enjoyed, like Robertson Davies’ early book Tempest-Tost, about a community group putting on “The Tempest,” and the funny, ribald, and wrenching Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows, which features recurring characters in a theater company staging “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “King Lear” over three seasons. For the apocalyptic part, on the subway downtown, I’d been reading a battered copy of Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear classic, On the Beach, so you can imagine I was immediately eager to begin Emily’s book, leaving Shute’s book in my knapsack on the ride home. Station Eleven was a Buzz Book at BEA in May but I had missed the presentation given about it then by her Knopf editor, Jennifer Jackson, who introduced her author last night and has written an eloquent ode to the book for booksellers that’s printed in the ARC. On the subway I found myself immediately captured by the wistful voice and St. John Mandel’s exquisite sentence-making, where prop snowflakes stand in for the creeping coldness falling all around us.
Here are pictures from last night’s enjoyable reception, with thanks to all the booksellers, publishers, reps, sponsors, hosts, and authors.
* I was excited to discover on the Wachtung Booksellers’ website that NY Times reporter Harvey Araton—whose novel Cold Type I picked up at BEA, and which I loved reading, making it my #FridayReads on June 14—will be at the store in Montclair for a signing on July 23. I hear Montclair is a great town for books and reading.
Publishing Consultant, Curator & Writer at The Great Gray Bridge & Honourary CanadianCurator, writer, editor, blogger—amplifying my enthusiasms for many audiences.
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