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August 29th, 2014

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

Looking for a Laugh

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August 12th, 2014

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

The Unexpected Joys of Synchronous Reading

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.]

 

 

 

 

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May 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Honourary Canadian; Media, Blogging, Internet; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

Taking a Page from Honourary Canadian

As readers of this blog may have noticed, I started a second blog in 2013, called Honourary Canadian: Seeing Canada From Away. After starting this blog in 2011, I was often posting about Canada, and a couple years in, decided to start a second site devoted to Canadian topics, where I’d offer my views of Canada for Canadians and others interested in the country. I aspire to the perspective and the work of Alistair Cooke, who broadcast and wrote knowledgeably and sensitively about America, after moving to the US from England. Like this site, at the new blog I write about Canadian books, publishing, live music, media, and politics, with the cross-cultural perspective of a respectful outsider. I’ve been sharing HC links here from time to time and integrating the two sites one with another, for instance setting up a feed so the latest posts from each site are readily visible and linked to on the other. The two blogs are sort of like siblings, with this one the older brother.

I’m posting here today to let Great Gray Bridge readers know I recently published a new entry at Honourary Canadian called Why I Started This Blog and Call It Honourary Canadian, which explores my lifelong interest in the neighbor to the north. I invite you to read it. It’s a memoiristic piece that chronicles many trips I’ve made in Canada since childhood, beginning with Expo ’67 when I was just twelve years old; authors whose books I’ve read and published; bands I’ve seen live and become friendly with; and reflections on differences between the US and Canada, and the media in both countries. Along with the essay, I’ve included dozens of scenic photographs, book covers, band photos, and scans of letters I received from Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, with whom I had a lengthy correspondence when I ran Undercover Books in the 1980s.

At the top of this entry is a shot of that new post, which will give you a sense of what the new site looks like if you’ve not visited yet. Just as I found a visual touchstone for this blog from a scenic landmark—the George Washington Bridge, aka the Great Gray Bridge, and the little red lighthouse—I found visual inspiration for the new site in a true wonder of the world, the majestic Percé Rock (aka le rocher percé or ‘pierced rock’), a huge rock face on eastern Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, a veritable lobster tail jutting in to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Below is a pic of what that post looks like. If you enjoy awe-inspiring scenery, I recommend you check out the whole post, which includes many photos I took during a visit there in 1988. In fact, I invite you to visit Honourary Canadian, and have a look around. 

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April 26th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Philip Turner's Books & Writing

#FridayReads, April 25, Robert Palmer’s “Blues & Chaos”

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March 30th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Art, Film, TV, 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.”
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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.

 

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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:


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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.

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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:

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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.

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