No Comments »

March 30th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling; Urban Life & New York City

Vivian Maier Was The Real Deal, the Ultra Opposite of Joe Gould

I was stunned by the new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Kyle and I saw yesterday. Below is the trailer, if you haven’t seen it yet, or the film, which was directed by John Maloof, and two of her photographs. He bought a box of her negatives at an auction in 2007. At the time, neither he, nor anyone, yet knew who Maier was, or that she’d been making a photographic record in Chicago where she lived since around 1949.

vm_newsstandVM hands
I continued thinking about the movie all day after walking out of the noon screening. Today, I’m still mulling some major points that struck me. Below is an attempt to corral what I’ve been thinking about the film.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009) embarked on and then sustained over many decades the production of what we can now see as a truly monumental visual and documentary legacy. It’s a microcosmic yet vast history of modern urban America and many Americans, seen through the sensitive eye, lens, and mind of one person, a woman whose work as a nanny somehow allowed her the means and opportunity to conduct this personal journalistic enterprise. Until Maloof’s discovery, the enterprise was completely unknown, yet it was hiding in what amounted to (somewhat plain) sight, in auction houses, storage lockers, and in the records of the families she had worked for over the years. Some of them were still paying storage fees on her property. With impressive industry and inspired sensitivity to Maier’s mission, Maloof has excavated the extant physical record. I’m very thankful to him for doing this, for his open-heartedness and his willingness to plunge in to Maier’s work. In bidding at the fateful auction, he went all the way up to $380 for the box of negatives,* not small change. He said on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show last Friday that when he bid on and won the box he hoped to be able to harvest images from it for a photographic history of Chicago he was organizing for Arcadia Books (the publisher that does city histories). Turned out the pictures weren’t good for the book, and he put them in a closet. But sometime later, he posted more than 100 images on his Flickr page, essentially blogging with them. The reaction was a palpable “Wow” from street photography lovers and has led ultimately to this amazing documentary, which I want to see again.

Thinking more about Maier’s dedication, I’m amazed at how pure her motivation was in producing it all. She created this legacy, even though she never, so far as is known, sought an audience for her work, and had no child, relation, friend, or agent–not a single person–to whom she could leave her work; I wonder if she even had a will. Nor does it seem Maier solicited the interest of another photographer or an institution that might have taken an interest in her archive. Perhaps Maier knew best, not wanting to broach rejection. In the film, Maloof reports on what became a futile attempt to interest MOMA in the work. Even with their storied photographic collection, curated for many years by Peter Galassi, who didn’t retire until 2011, they perfunctorily declined. There ought to be some embarrassment at the museum over this and I think it would be a good thing if an arts journalist with a source at MOMA would seek on-the-record comment from them about their refusal. I concede that everybody makes mistakes–like editors who turned down On the Road and Catcher in the Rye–but it’s best to own up to them when they occur. So, instead of falling in to the hands of a responsible party at the time of Maier’s death in 2009, the hundred thousand negatives, many 8 mm and 16 mm film reels, and cassettes of audio recordings she made with people she interviewed–making her a veritable podcaster, decades before the term was coined–were basically put out to sea, cast adrift, and headed perhaps for a destructive crack-up on the rocky shores of time. That they didn’t suffer shipwreck–or submersion in a landfill–borders on a secular miracle.

I’m also thinking of Maier’s lack of an audience in a personal way, in relation to my own creative output, my two blogs (to be sure, humble by comparison). Here and on Honourary Canadian, I write and share about what interests me, what compels me, and hope that readers will care about these things, too, and appreciate the way I express and present them. I do like knowing that readers are finding items of interest and mutual relevance, though I wouldn’t change what I’m writing about just to gain more readers. It doesn’t matter greatly to me if some pieces aren’t widely read, because I’m also writing for myself, for the clarity of mind that I derive from the effort and experience. Fortunately, I do have readers, and what amounts to my own printing press, the Wordpress blogs themselves. Maier, in this regard, didn’t seek, or at any rate, didn’t have the opportunity to have her work seen by others. Yet, she seems to have hardly flagged or despaired over not having a speck of an audience or appreciation, and no way to get them. This makes what she did all the more singular and remarkable.

On America’s most prolific diarist, Edward Robb Ellis; ”Joe Gould’s Secret” by The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell; and Vivian Maier

Readers who follow the books I’ve edited and published over the years may recall my author Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), whose A Diary of the Century was quite a popular book for me, published in 1995, republished in 2008, still easy to find, still highly recommended. I mention it here because Eddie, as friends knew him, is the writer in my experience with an enterprise most closely analogous to that of Vivian Maier, though interesting distinctions exist between them. He kept a diary longer than anyone in the history of American letters, beginning his enterprise at age 16 during the Christmas vacation of 1927, when he dared a few pals, and himself, to start keeping a diary, and then they’d see who among them could keep it the longest. In his 20s, he also became a newspaper reporter. Basically, Eddie never stopped writing until the year he died. As Pete Hamill observed in his Introduction, Eddie wrote in print for the public, yet also for himself in the diary, which years later he wrote helped him become a more mature, an even happier, person. But even with the diary’s private reflections on intensely personal matters, Eddie also showed an interest in writing for the sake of the future, for posterity; he ultimately wanted the diary to be read by others, in hopes it might enrich the future with useful knowledge and pertinent information on his times–his entries cover the quotidian; the cost of things; which songs were on the hit parade; what movies were shown on a weekend when he worked his part-time job as an usher at the local cinema; along with current events and historic incidents that shook the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which certified Ellis’s achievement in the early 1990s, his diary comprised more than 22,000,000 words, nearly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a work with hundreds of contributors, while like Vivian Maier, Eddie created his work entirely on his own.

Ellis’s prodigious achievement was so well known among his fellow journalists that when Diary was published the week after Labor Day in ’95, Eddie scored a rare publicity hat trick: He was invited to appear, and went on all three network morning chat shows all within that week, interviewed by Cokie Roberts, Matt Lauer, and Harry Smith (on ABC, NBC, and CBS respectively) each network overlooking the usual policy they had against booking a guest who’s just been on a competing show. In the last decades of his life, the diary by then grown to many bound leather volumes and associated boxes, Eddie spent much anxious energy contemplating where his magnum opus might end up–he tried deeding it to a number of institutions, but even with the Guinness stamp of approval, there were few willing takers. Fortunately, as I wrote in a Preface to the 2008 paperback reissue of Diary, Eddie’s life work found “a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus.” I added that I hope to publish another volume of the Ellis Diary someday, for it had been “my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the diary…and I promise the reader that I found no dross there.” A Diary of the Century

While working with Eddie Ellis from 1993-98, bringing out three other books of his, including The Epic of New York City, I came upon Joseph Mitchell’s classic New Yorker profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” In it, Mitchell chronicles for the reader his lamentable discovery that a longtime legendary denizen of lower Manhattan, Joe Gould, who for years had purported to be writing a magnum opus/History of the World was ultimately a bluffer, a failure, and a fraud. (In the pretty good movie version Ian Holm plays a grizzled Gould while Stanley Tucci takes on the role of Mitchell, a North Carolina writer working for the magazine.) Working with Eddie, I used to think how lucky I was to be working with a real-life Joe Gould-type, only Eddie was the real McCoy.

But now, thinking once more about Vivian Maier, I can see that unlike the others, she created her magnificent magnum opus without an audience, nor hope for one. By contrast, Gould hoped for adulation from others, though he did little to earn it, while Eddie Ellis, though not creating his work primarily for others, did enjoy praise, and came to see how his diary could be useful to others, and so arranged to share it with the world. But not only did Maier disclaim an audience for herself, she didn’t even claim posthumous credit for her achievement, like say with a “To Be Opened on the Occasion of My Death” letter, with information on where her affects could be found. She just died, and fortunately John Maloof was there to connect with her work. This is all a striking contrast to her male predecessors Gould and Ellis, the former phony, the latter authentic. It leaves me in greater awe of what she accomplished, and all the more appreciative of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.”

*I objected to the penultimate paragraph in Manohla Dargis’s NY Times review of the documentary, where she quibbles with the fact that Maloof stands to gain financially as Vivian Maier’s star rises higher. The guy has unearthed this magnificent work, and devoted several years of his life to it, at much expense I’m sure–I hope he does well from it all. Glad to see that art critic Jerry Saltz and I are in agreement on this point, as he wrote this in his New York magazine review of “Finding Vivian Maier”:  ”The Times’ otherwise excellent Manohla Dargis churlishly labeled this documentary ‘a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work.’ This sort of cynical snappishness is cropping up a lot in many critics’ work of late—the idea that if there’s any profit involved, the work must be less pure, less good, more suspect. Whatever: I love this advertisement. Besides: Maloof tried to get MoMA interested in Maier’s work. In the film, he shows us and reads the perfunctory rejection letter he got from the museum. He was on his own. No one else wanted to take on the responsibility of unearthing and bringing to light this truly great artist. History will be grateful to him, and no one should look back cynically at his commitment to Vivian Maier.”
Tags: , , , , ,

No Comments »

March 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, March 21–Jan Wong’s Engrossing Memoir of Surviving Depression, “Out of the Blue”

WongBeginning last week when I made Out of the Blue my #FridayReads for March 14, I spent much of the past week reading and being enthralled by Jan Wong’s scalding memoir of surviving a severe depression that was triggered when an article she’d reported and written became controversial. Her employer at the time, the Toronto Globe & Mail, completely failed to support her as as the story, about a mass shooting in Montreal, blew up over several weeks and months, even though her editor had praised the approach Wong took to the story, which while reporting on the tragic incident also considered ethnic politics in the francophone province. Wong’s editor had even asked her to carry this part of it further. As she began getting death threats and vile messages, the Globe & Mail hung her out to dry, implicitly criticizing her and pandering to the haters arrayed against her. Wong tells her story in first person, a compelling narrative that follows the course of her struggle for fair treatment by her employer, and the torturous path of her illness, with records she later got from the insurance company that tried to deny her disability claims for what was basically an injury that occurred on the job.

The setting is mostly Toronto and Montreal, where Wong’s father had long owned a Chinese restaurant whose business fails when Wong’s reputation suffers amid the controversy. She travels a lot in the course of her narrative, even while she’s ill, for what she and her medical providers hope will be a “geography cure.” She goes to Finland with her son for a hockey tournament, and travels with her sturdy sister to Paris. As an alum of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she visits New York City and the Columbia campus, near where I live. The Globe & Mail tries to make an issue of her ability to travel, while not working, failing to recognize that it was their careless treatment of her in the newsroom that had triggered her illness, and was continually re-injuring here.

She pays sincere homage to her predecessors in the field of depression memoirs–William Styron, Andrew Solomon, and Kay Redfield Jamison–quoting strategically from their books. She also laments something I’ve written about on this blog, in the context of my own departure from Sterling Publishing in 2009, “the baleful influence that today’s HR mindset casts on our culture, full of its own hermetic vocabulary, with bland euphemisms, opaque acronyms, and inhumane doublespeak. Shunning and banishment are two of the signature modes of behavior in this modern HR culture.” Wong experienced this far worse than I ever did. And yet, it would be wrong to paint the book too bleakly. Despite unable to write for most of the two years, and suffering huge losses in cognition and her social comfortability, I was conscious while reading the book that she’s writing it from some post-depression standpoint. Amazingly, she also manages to inject mordant humor in to the tale, as she portrays some of her managers and the contortions they took to deny how sick she was.

To top it all off, there’s also a triumphant backstory to the publication of the book, which came out in 2012. Out of the Blue has done well, with many recognitions and healthy sales, and yet she was forced to publish it herself after Doubleday Canada canceled it shortly before the manuscript was due to go in to copyediting. They evidently became uneasy over the legal climate around the book, since Wong, the Globe & Mail, and their insurer had had so many legal battles during the course of her ordeal. I read a lot of first-person literature, and this is one of the best examples of it I’ve read in a long time.

 

Tags: , , ,

No Comments »

March 14th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Night II of the NBCCs–Book Prizes Awarded

Monday March 17 update, video of the NBCC Awards ceremony:


—–
NBCC finalThe concluding evening of the National Book Critics Circle annual awards last night at the New School auditorium was a jubilant celebration of the book with generous recognitions given to critics and authors alike. Having enjoyed the author readings on Wednesday night I was eager to hear who the winners would be. The program began with remarks by NBCC president Laurie Muchnick, reminding the audience that members of the organization spend months each year reading and keenly debating the merits of all the books in the six categories. With the housekeeping taken care of, the procession of awards began.NBCC final ii

First up it was time for a new award, the John Leonard Prize, named in memory of the longtime NBCC member and ebullient NY Times reviewer.  Each year it will be given to an author for a first book, in any genre. It had earlier been announced that Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth Press at Crown Publishing) was the inaugural recipient. His novel is set amid the war in Chechnya. Then, Katherine A. Powers, who has a regular books column in the BN Review, received the NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. She gave a congenial talk setting forth her own principles of reviewing. Among these was that she tries to avoid lordly pronouncements of approval or condemnation, as if she were representing some “cohort of worthies.” She declared herself in service to the reader and the author, and quoted a memorable line from H.L. Mencken: “Criticism is prejudice made plausible.” Next, pioneering man of Hispanic letters Rolando Hinojosa-Smith received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the literature of Mexican-Americans.

After naming all five poet finalists, chair of the Poetry committee David Biespiel began the presentation of awards that, unlike the three above, were not decided until yesterday afternoon, only a few hours before this ceremony. After naming all the poet finalists while their four book jackets flashed across the on-stage screen, David announced that Frank Bidart was the recipient of the NBCC for his book Metaphysical Dog (FSG). Bidart brought some papers to the lectern, and joked that each time he’s nominated for something, he prepares remarks and when he doesn’t win, files them away, continually adding to them each time he’s on a shortlist. This got a laugh from the audience, especially, after he said, “It’s true.” In fact, his acceptance speech was an elegant one. He described himself as a neo-modernist, not a post-modernist, saying he didn’t feel the need to be in conflict with his poetic predecessors. As to his own work, citing the words of a critic who upon hearing Maria Callas for the first time had written that the experience was like “biting in to a lemon,” he offered a hope that his own poems offer readers a similarly astringent quality. Quoting a great sentence from King Lear, “Ripeness is all. Come on.” Bidart pointed out that profound as it is, it’s not actually the last line of the scene. Instead, Gloucester points playgoers to the plurality of existence, uttering, “That’s true, too.”

Next, the award in Criticism was given to Franco Moretti for his book Distant Reading (Verso Press), with essays that use data, charts and other apparatus to consider reading in new ways. With Moretti’s arrival at the lectern he made a confession that held true the rest of the night: he had not expected to win and didn’t prepare remarks. He had a lovely Italian accent and the audience found him charming.

With a new precedent oddly established by Moretti, each of of the four recipients who followed uttered a version of the same thing, accepting the award graciously, and briefly. As it happened, four times in a row, the audience laughed a little more at it, as the recipient would sheepishly cop to his or her forgivably mild dereliction. Mild because audiences always expect to be held for a long time, and this was a veritable vacation from standard awards palaver.

Autobiography committee chair Eric Banks announced Amy Wilentz and her book on Haiti, Farewell, Fred Voodoo (Simon & Schuster), as the recipient of the NBCC. Once behind the lectern Wilentz explained that she’d written earlier books on Haiti–a country she called her “muse”–and this one was the most autobiographical of them, but she implied that because it wasn’t a proper autobiography she had really expected a different winner to be called up to the stage. And her category was very strong, filled with great writers of first-person narrative, a favored genre of mine. Next up, Leo Damrosch, winner in Biography for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press), said that he’d always written for academics and so doubted his book would be selected. He was off before I could take a picture, so the one with this post is the one I took the night before, at the readings. Sheri Fink, whose Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown Publishing) I first heard about when her editor Vanessa Mobley presented it at last year’s BEA Buzz panel. Fink seemed truly taken aback at this recognition given to her book. For the last award, in fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of Nigeria allowed as how she had been so tickled to be on the same shortlist as her former professor, Alice McDermott, she just hadn’t thought her novel Americanah would win. As she walked to the stage, she shouted in jubilation, a celebration the audience audibly shared with her.

With that the ceremony–in a tidy 90 minutes–was over. Most of the audience repaired to another New School building one block away for the gala reception. A hungry and thirsty crowd met there and partied for a much greater stretch of time than the ceremony’s duration. During the party I met and spoke with many of the finalists: critic Katherine A. Powers; poet Denise Duhamel; essayist Franco Moretti; Marianne Moore biographer Linda Leavell; Whitey Bulger chroniclers Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, and their editor at W.W. Norton, Tom Mayer; observer of New Orleans’ tragic triage, Sheri Fink; novelist Ruth Ozeki; and one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright, whose reading from Going Clear I had found so chilling the night before. I also enjoyed talking with NBCCers Walton Mayumba, Karen Long, Anne Trubek, Tom Beer, Eric Liebetrau and his writer wife, Signe; Ron Charles; and Marcela Valdes. Also enjoyed meeting for the first time one of my favorite tech writers, Andrew Leonard, there celebrating the memory of his father John Leonard; book agent, Andrew Blauner; editor Philip Marino of Liveright; journalist Casey Schwartz, Riverhead Books publicist Katie Freeman; and indie publicist Michelle Blankenship. Below are my pictures from last night. If you enjoyed this post, don’t miss its counterpart on the readings.

Tags: ,

1 Comment »

March 13th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Finalists’ Readings at Last Night’s NBCCs

Monday March 17 update, video of the NBCC Readings night:

—–
NBCC readingsAs I try to do every March when the calendar comes round to the annual awards week of the National Book Critics Circle, I attended last night’s program of readings given by many of the nominated finalists. To the left is the evening’s program. Highlights were numerous, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s humorous narrator’s observations about blogging, of all things, from her novel, Americanah; Alice McDermott, with a carefully paced reading from Someone; Ruth Ozeki’s rendering of the book-within-a-book in A Tale for the Time Being; I later had a nice conversation with Ozeki about a favorite novel of mine that also has a book-within; Denise Duhamel read a narrative poem that cleverly portrayed a bickering couple observing a bickering couple from a distance, from her collection Blowout; Hilton Als, with a personal essay about Malcolm X and his mother, from White Girls; Rebecca Solnit read a passage from The Faraway Nearby about a basket of fragrant apricots; Amy Wilentz’s evocation of a chaotic street scene in Haiti from Farewell, Fred Voodo; Scott Anderson with T.E. Lawrence’s surprising refusal of a knighthood from the British monarch; Leo Damrosch’s bawdy portrait Jonathan Swift in His Life and His World; Sheri Fink’s shocking chronicle of doctors and nurses in Katrina-stricken New Orleans resorting to euthanasia in Five Days at Memorial; George Packer’s grim rendering of societal decline, typified by a Rust-belt denizen in The Unwinding; and Lawrence Wright’s chilling account of brow-beating and mistreatment among scientologists in Going Clear.

All day today, NBCC board members will be making their final selections from the shortlists. I look forward to going back tonight to The New School auditorium in Greenwich Village for the ceremony, and for the festive reception that follows. The NBCC is a great organization of dedicated readers and writers. You can follow them on Twitter, @BookCritics, and check them out on the web, NBCC. Writing students at The New School interview each of the finalists, so you can also look for those videotaped conversations on the NBCC site. If you live in New York City, I recommend you attend the readings and/or the awards night, for  these are two of the best literary nights of the year. Both events are free of charge, with only the fund-raiser/reception having an admission fee. If you want to support the work of the NBCC and their awards–the only book prizes given by full-time critics and reviewers–you can sign up to become an associate, non-voting member. I renew my membership each year. Here are the best pictures I took from my seat last night.

Tags: , ,

No Comments »

February 22nd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Edward Robb Ellis, Our Most Prolific Diarist, Born Feb 22, 1911, Remembered Today

Tags: ,

5 Comments »

February 19th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Spurred by a 1928 Walker Evans Photo, Barbara Scheiber Publishes Her 1st Novel at Age 92

Amazing Washington Post story by Richard Leiby on 1st-time novelist Barbara Scheiber, 92 years old, who in a 1928 Walker Evans photograph saw what she and other family members believe is her father, with his mistress. From this, and much more, she’s written a novel, We’ll Go To Coney Island, published last month by Sowilo Press. Evans was from what I’ve read unabashed about photographing unsuspecting people. he famously did it on NYC subways, with a camera secreted in the folds of his coat. He noted on the print, “Couple at Coney Island, N.Y., 1928.”Walker Evans

Congratulations to my friend and longtime author of mine Dave Scheiber, and his mother Barbara. Dave, a veteran journalist, co-authored former NBA referee Bob Delaney‘s two books, the memoir Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob (2008) and Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post-Traumatic Stress (2011). I edited and published the former and co-agented the latter.

In Barbara Schieber’s bio I was interested to learn she grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, “where one of her joys was writing and putting on plays with neighborhood friends. She graduated from Vassar shortly after Pearl Harbor, joining two classmates in a plan to organize local community support for the war effort. Their work led them to Clarion, Iowa, where her writing about the success of their innovative project came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited the young women to dinner at the White House to describe their experience to President Roosevelt. She went on to write news reports and radio plays on the war’s progress for United Press Radio, and later, produced a prize-winning series of radio plays for the Jewish Theological Seminary, broadcast on NBC.”

Scheiber’s intrepidity reminds me of the same trait exhibited that decade by my author and friend Ruth Gruber, who in 1940 was working as FDR’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes ‘special representative in Alaska. For Gruber–who had become the world’s youngest Ph. D. in 1931 at age 20 after writing the first doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf, and who had traveled to the Soviet Arctic in the late 1930s–one of her assignments in Alaska was to study the feasibility of the territory as a haven for American homesteaders. Later, when the FDR administration began promoting homesteading in the vast space as a serious option for Americans, Ruth was the person who answered the large volume of mail addressed to Eleanor Roosevelt about Alaska. Later, after Ickes selected Gruber to escort 1,000 WWII refugees and Holocaust survivors from Italy to the US by ship–history that Ruth covered in her book Haven, which was dramatized in a CBS miniseries in 2000, with a tie-in edition I brought out the same year–she hosted Eleanor at Fort Ontario in Oswego, NY, where the refugees were housed until the war ended. Ruth lives in New York City today. At 102, I suspect she is probably the oldest surviving member of the FDR administration.

Reading Leiby’s story I was also reminded of another book about an inconstant father, The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff. Geoffrey’s brother Tobias Wolff wrote his own memoir of the same family, from his perspective, This Boy’s Life. Leiby’s story makes We’ll Go To Coney Island seem fascinating and I’m eager to read it.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

February 9th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, Photography, Fine Printing & Design; Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Always Glad to See Novelist Walter Tevis Remembered and Appreciated

Monday February 10 Update: In a pleasant coincidence, this morning’s email brings more affirmation of the talents of the late Walter Tevis, whose novels I praised in yesterday in the post below. It was announced in the daily deal memo of Publishermarketplace.com that another his novels has been optioned for film:

Walter Tevis’s MOCKINGBIRD, to Robert Schwartz at Seismic Pictures, by Susan Schulman at Susan Schulman Literary Agency.*

Walter Tevis, gone 26 years and still having his books optioned. Pretty amazing, huh? Here’s a shot of an old galley I have of the novel. Mockingbird
Sunday, February 9
Good essay by Malcolm Jones in the Daily Beast on how Walter Tevis’s novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, published in 1963, differs from the 1976 film version directed by Nicholas Roeg, starring David Bowie. I still love all Walter Tevis’s books, especially his chess novel, Queen’s Gambit. I met him when he was touring for that book in 1983. He came to visit Undercover Books despite a blizzard in Cleveland that day, because his editor at Random House had urged him to come see our bookstore. Though he had limited time between flights, he was genial and met several of our customers while signing copies of the new novel.

Tevis, who died in 1988, is way under-appreciated. He never wrote a mediocre book. His others include his pool novels The Hustler and The Color of Money (also both adapted for memorable films) and his other science fiction novel, The Steps of the Sun, which I brought out in paperback in 1988 when I was an editor at Collier Macmillan. Tevis’s characters were often in the midst of existential crises, certainly true for Bowie’s alien character in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”; Beth, the struggling teenaged chess prodigy in Queen’s Gambit; and Eddie Felson, the hard-drinking pool-player in “The Hustler,” played by Paul Newman opposite Jackie Gleason. For years there have been rumors of someone making a film of Queen’s Gambit but no one’s done it yet. Guess it’s in the same category as Jack Finney’s Time & Again, also much loved as a novel, and much discussed as a film, but not made, at least not yet.

Steps of the SunSteps of the Sun back cover
* Coincidentally, some years after I published Steps of the Sun, Tevis’s agent Susan Schulman introduced me to Eleanora Tevis, the late author’s widow, a Scotswoman. She in turn introduced me to friends of hers in Scotland, who then became good friends to me and my whole family, lodging us numerous times at their comfortable home in Glasgow. This was the Metzstein family, whose patriarch Isi was a notable architect, whom I eulogized after his death in 2012.

Tags: , ,

No Comments »

January 19th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Celebrating Publishing Friend Jane Isay’s Success as An Author & Reflecting on My Own Career

Leaving Cleveland and Finding My First Job in New York City

Secrets & LiesWhen I moved to New York City in 1985–after working the seven years following Franconia College for the Turner family’s 3-store book chain Undercover Books–my first job in Gotham was not in publishing. The job that enabled me to pack up my life in Cleveland and exit a family business and a city which my siblings and parents didn’t want me to leave was Membership Coordinator of a Jewish educational organization, the National Havurah Committee (NHC). I wasn’t staying in books, I thought, but starting work in what at Franconia–an institution that was born and thrived in the educational ferment of the 1960s-70s–I’d hoped I would be doing: working against bigotry and anti-semitism, maybe in inter-faith dialogue, applying my double major in History of Religion and Philosophy of Education, trying to mend the broken world.

Right after graduating, people working in communal service and career counselors with whom I met told me I’d need an advanced degree, like an MSW, to get anywhere in the field. Yet as an alum of an alternative high school and an experimental college, I had no interest in grad school. I sometimes wonder, if my family hadn’t opened the first bookstore in 1978–affording me a place to park myself right after college–what I would have done in my life. It might not have been in books, as it’s turned out. When I enlisted in the family business, I didn’t know my work in the stores would last seven years, that’s for sure. At about the five year point I began seriously mulling what I would do next. When I turned thirty, in the fall of 1984, I was ready to leave Cleveland and move on from my hometown and the family business.

I might’ve tried moving in to publishing right away then, but for two reasons: First, I was still eager to work on mending the world and wondered if fostering dialogue among groups that too often regarded opponents as an alien “other” might be as important and fulfilling as bookselling. The second reason was more complex, and gets to the heart of secrets and truth, very much in the vein of Jane Isay’s new book, SECRETS AND LIES: Surviving the Truths that Change Our Lives, the occasion for this post covering my collegial friendship with her; the relationship books she’s written since leaving publishing, and ineluctably, my own family and personal history. The nub then was that my siblings and parents viewed me as indispensable to the stores, and felt betrayed or abandoned or hurt that I really was going to leave them. I viewed it that I had never signed on for more than temporary–if extended–duty in the family enterprise, and besides, who could be expected to stay in one’s birthplace, if you had the urge to pull up stakes and explore putting down roots elsewhere? We had some hard words when I told everyone my decision–it came right around my 30th birthday that September of ’84, when I was feeling impatient, sensing the acceleration of my own years, and not amenable to being hemmed in by an obligation to my birth family, no matter how much I respected them and cared about them. Resisting their appeals that I stay, and disregarding doubts they expressed about whether I could really find a job in another city, my resolve was solid as I began my quest for new work and a new home. Given the still-raw feelings, I felt some constraint about not looking for new work in publishing, which could’ve felt to my siblings almost like I was using the bookstore years purely as a personal springboard in to publishing, something they could’ve perhaps chosen to do, too.

Jane IsayAs Jane observed in her talk at Manhattan’s Corner Bookstore last week, given time, the breaches among family members often will heal. This was certainly true for the five of us, as the hurt did not persist. The rest of the family carried on in to some of Undercover’s best years, maintaing active store locations until around ’92, before going mail order and then online, utilizing the new Internet, beginning in 1993, before Amazon began selling books. My brother Joel and sister Pamela, and our parents Earl and Sylvia were quicker past the post than Jeff Bezos, confirmed by my recent reading of Brad Stone’s excellent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

Looking past publishing as a possibility, I focused my search from Cleveland on Jewish communal service organizations in Chicago and New York, and got an offer from the NHC, which generously included help with my moving expenses. However, after nine months with them, the executive director who’d hired me announced his resignation. It looked like the NHC was going to enter a rocky period, and I hadn’t fallen in love with the field, anyway. I decided to re-chart my course and now try to work in publishing, closer than in retail to where the books begin. Undercover Books had been a prominent indie store with a good reputation, so I was hopeful I could effectively network my way in to some kind of a publishing job. As it turned out, I was able to seek advice and find encouragement from lots of helpful bookpeople, publishing veterans I already knew, and others I met for the first time. All were generous with their time and eager to share their experiences in the business, along with views of the job prospects at many different companies. Among this group of friends and well-meaning contacts, three women I met in New York for the first time were particularly helpful to me.

The Three Publishing Women Who Helped Me Find My Path

In 1986, Mildred Marmur, the first female chief executive of Scribner’s, would give me my first job in publishing, a part-time stint as the first reader and judge of the Maxwell Perkins First Novel Award. Milly had earlier worked in subsidiary rights at Simon & Schuster and Random House where she famously made lucrative mass market paperback deals for such big books as All the President’s Men and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Later,  I met Ruth Nathan, a literary agent who earlier in her career was a story editor for Paramount Studios, working in NY. Ruth’s husband was Paul Nathan, longtime Rights&Permissions columnist for Publishers Weekly. After my stint at Scribner’s ended, Ruth recommended me to Beth Walker for an open position at Walker & Company, demonstrably helping me land my first full-time job as a full-fledged editor.

But before I was even in a position to be helped by Marmur and Nathan, I had to first decide if I wanted to become an editor, or explore some other role in publishing, like working as a traveling sales representative. Also essential to this process was meeting Jane Isay, already a longtime editorial professional, who I recall having been at Basic Books before I knew her, and at S&S when we met. A great listener, Jane took me to lunch, and heard my tale of a bookseller recently arrived in NYC who was looking for a berth on the publishing side of the business. I told her I thought I wanted to become an editor, but wanted to be sure about what the role would entail.

Jane outlined the editorial enterprise to me–reading constantly, scanning newspapers and magazines for new book ideas, cultivating agents with talented author clients, taking work home on weekends, and line-editing, always line-editing. She explained the latter involved engaging authors in a focused effort on the page and in vigorous conversation to help them make their work as good as it could become, including of course taking pencil to their manuscripts and working through them line by line. I was a bit daunted by the prospect, but thrilled at the same time. Our lunch, and subsequent conversations we had, made me more hopeful that this was going to be the right field for me. We agreed that I was in an unusual spot, since the career path for most editors was to start in publishing soon after college as an editorial assistant, assistant editor; and associate editor, until finally being named editor. Such a path could take 5-6 years, or longer. Yet, I had already been out of college seven years and had learned the book business as a retail buyer, ordering most of the adult books for three stores, while recommending books to customers every day and observing how real readers responded to my suggestions. The bookstore had been like graduate school for me, and I wasn’t interested in a lengthy editorial apprenticeship. Jane understood my situation and advised me how I might conduct my job search. She, more than anyone I met during those early years in New York City, helped put me on the career path I pursued.

Our Rabbi’s Friendship 

My friendship with Jane soon expanded beyond books and publishing to embrace our spiritual sides. We were fortunate to both become members of Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun, a Manhattan synagogue whose lead rabbi, until his untimely death in 1993, was Marshall T. Meyer. I met Marshall one summer day in 1985 while at work in the NHC office in a building on W. 89th Street. A tall man with a big but elegant frame and a booming voice came waltzing over from an adjacent office on the same floor where I’d heard hammering and someone new moving in. “May I borrow your stapler, and some tape, and do you have any paperclips?” I instantly liked this big man with a big personality. He was unflinchingly vulnerable, giving and receiving lots of hugs. One of the things to love about Marshall was the mix of influences that combined in him, including a manner of speech and elocution that made him sound like and seem to me a latter-day Emerson or Thoreau, a sturdy New Englander to his core, a Jewish Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Walter Huston could’ve played Marshall in a movie, a model of rectitude and upright bearing. He grew up in Norwich, CT, near the Connecticut River, went to Dartmouth farther north along the Connecticut, and after completing studies in NY moved with his wife and growing family to Argentina where he served a lengthy sojourn as a rabbi. In the latter years of his time there, a military junta took power leading to the imprisonment, torture, and ‘disappearing’ of thousands of people the regime deemed opponents in their ‘dirty war.’ Marshall became an outspoken critic of the generals, while continuing to serve his pastoral function as a counselor for families and individuals caught up in the crackdown. He told me that he endured death threats, adding that his best defense against them had been to remain a highly visible and public person, never retiring or hidden. The dedication of the searing 1981 prison memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, by Argentine activist Jacobo Timerman, which we had sold at Undercover Books reads,

To Marshall Meyer
A rabbi who brought comfort
to Jewish, Christian, and atheist prisoners in
Argentine jails.

Think about that–Marshall went behind high prison walls, visiting political prisoners in whom hope for justice was dimmed. It makes me think of Bob Dylan’s, “I Shall Be Released.” Marshall dealt with the jailers, pleading for the people. After the brutal regime fell, he was appointed to the national tribunal that investigated the junta’s crimes and violations of human rights, the only non-Argentine to so serve. He told me later that one of the reasons he felt he finally had to leave Argentina was because, in serving on that commission, he learned horrific details of torture and abuse inflicted on people, many who didn’t survive. Holding this knowledge–terribly weighty secrets and truths–he found he could no longer serve the pastoral role with, say, the parents of ‘disappeared’ children. They understood Marshal knew details about the end of their loved one’s life; it would be no kindness and bring no cessation of pain for him to tell them what he knew. Yet, how he could withhold this from them, if they insisted he tell them?

The brave work Marshall did in Argentina was prefigured by his time as a rabbinical student in the 1950s, when he studied with a spiritual giant of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a transcendent and activist rabbi who later marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and opposed the Vietnam War with MLK. Marshall worked as Heschel’s assistant and typed several of his manuscripts prior to publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In Hothouse, Boris Kachka’s recent history of FSG, he chronicles how Roger Straus, a very non-observant Jew, nonetheless greatly valued Rabbi Heschel’s place on their list. Marshall was very conscious of upholding Rabbi Heschel’s legacy and living by his example.

Soon after returning to the States, just before we met, Marshall was named rabbi of B’Nai Jeshurun, until then a rather moribund congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and within a brief span made it one of the most vital synagogues in the city. Marshall taught an evening class devoted to the writings of Rabbi Heschel. Jane and I were among the students who regularly attended these one night per week sessions. Each class began with Marshall reading from Heschel’s The Prophets, one of the books he had prepared for publication. With Marshall reading verbatim passages, we wrestled with Heschel’s text and the biblical sources, also discussing social justice, metaphysics, the homeless on NY streets, and our personal life missions. During Marshall’s tenure at BJ he recruited two younger rabbis to serve alongside him, Roly Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein–from Argentina and Chile, respectively–who fully took the helm after his wrenching death, at age 63. Though I’m not much involved with B’Nai Jeshurun these days, I still consider myself a kind of lay disciple of Marshall’s, and a friend to the congregation. I supported Roly and Marcelo when in December 2012 they came out in favor of Palestinian statehood in a letter that was discussed in the New York Times. Marshall-Meyer-obit-

Jane Isay–Making her Mark as an Author

In the 2000s Jane and I saw less of each other, though I kept an eye out for word of her in the business, and the superb books she was publishing, like Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock, a heroic and true civil rights story. As has happened for many senior people in the business over the past decade, Jane left corporate publishing. In 2004 I saw that she had edited a volume of Marshall Meyer’s writings and sermons, called You Are My Witness. I was delighted to see her name on the cover, under Marshall’s name.You Are My Witness

In 2007, I saw that she published a book of her own, Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents. I was glad to see Jane had successfully turned the tables on her old career, coming out from behind the editorial desk to be an author in her own right. Like I discovered for myself a few years later–prior to leaving big-house publishing in 2009, I did little writing of my own, and then found I suddenly had the psychic elbow room to write and maintain this blog–Jane has continued to write and publish, with Mom Still Likes You Best: Overcoming the Past and Reconnecting With Your Siblings in 2011, and now her new book on living with the secrets we keep from each other and navigating the tough terrain of truth.

In her spirited and upbeat presentation at Corner Bookstore, Jane began by discussing the human capacity for shame, our ability to keep secrets hidden from the people to whom we’re closest, and our propensity to rationalize all our behaviors. She suggested that in a real way, we are the being that rationalizes, almost like a cartesian proof of existence: “We rationalize, therefore we are.” She pointed out that while the disclosure or discovery of some secrets can rupture a relationship permanently, in other instances, once anger has receded, there can be a resulting diminishment of anxiety, a new breath taken, so great that mutual forgiveness and reconciliation can follow, in time. After Jane’s talk and a few questions from the full house at the bookstore, there was a reception and I had a chance to give Jane a hug and congratulate her. If you are still pondering the mysteries of your family and other longterm relationships, I urge you to look at her books–she’s such a good listener that people she interviews really trust her. She’s really able to glean from them important examples and valuable truths that–with her own hard-won wisdom in life–make her books so wise, helpful, and healing. You’ll find more information on Jane’s books at her website.

 

Tags: , , , , ,