November 23rd, 2013
November 16th, 2013
November 8th, 2013
#FridayReads, Nov 8–While I’m sure I’ll be reading a proper book or two this weekend, my reading this week has been dominated by work-related materials–nonfiction book proposals, fiction manuscripts and lots of promising queries on submission to me in my work as a literary agent, part of my publishing work. Here’s a rundown on some of what I’m looking at, only in generalities out of deference to the writers whose work I’m considering: 1) a proposal for a book that will explore the motive behind one of the most infamous consequential political crimes of the 20th century, while also one of its least examined; 2) a hardboiled crime novel about the theft of an election in a battleground midwestern state; 3) several works by a British scholar with a rigorous approach to unexplained phenomena involving the super- or even the paranormal; and 4) an original manuscript that includes the original heretofore unpublished memoir of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic, even weird, movie-making mogul.
October 6th, 2013
It’s been a celebratory week in NYC and an active one on The Great Gray Bridge, so here is a summary of recent highlights for interested readers who may have missed any of them.
1) Celebrating Photojournalist & Author Ruth Gruber’s 102nd Birthday With Her
2) Word of an Important New Book on Bob Dylan By a ’60s Confidant
3) Celebrating Valerie Plame’s “Blowback”&Recalling Tumultous Events of a Decade Ago
4) #FridayReads, Oct. 4–Katie Hafner’s Exquisite Memoir “Mother Daughter Me”
October 5th, 2013
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) September 28, 2013
I began reading Katie Hafner’s journalism in the NY Times in the ’90s in what was known as “Circuits,” a section of the Thursday newspaper that covered the era of Web 1.0. Everything about tech was new, to me at least. Katie, and “Circuits,” helped make obscure things clear to me, then a not very tech-oriented book editor. Around 1999 I read a cover story Katie had written for Wired magazine and now I was really smitten by her work. Her story was a long one by magazine standards, about 40,000 words, on The Well, an early online community that emerged in the Bay Area starting around 1984. I was amazed–members of The Well had used a kind of proto-listserv and chat system that allowed them to share cyberspace together in a way no one had done before. But that historical first-ness wasn’t the only reason I wanted to make Katie’s article in to a book if I could. It was because of the extraordinary insight in to people that accompanied her reporting. In its early days, The Well had been a tight world where members supported each other like neighbors in a small town. They abided by founder Stewart Brand’s credo, “You own your own words.” Katie’s narrative, with used long threads of online conversations including multiple characters that the reader came to know and care about, was riveting.
In 2000–after a three-year stint for Random House, where the bulk of the time I worked at Times Books, with a big part of my job liasing with editors at the Times to make books with content from such departments as the Book Review, Real Estate, City, and Dining–I joined Carroll & Graf Publishers and contacted Katie with one of my first new book acquisition ideas. I asked if she’d be interested in turning the Wired article in to a book. I remember one day when she was in NYC from the Bay Area we met for coffee near Times Square. She was petite and had a great smile; I found her immediately likable. She talked like the voice of her journalism: a bit funny, and economical with her words that every so often sported a memorable phrase. Though she had not been trying to turn the Wired reporting in to a book, she was intrigued with my idea, and we made a deal to go ahead with it. I edited it with her revising and expanding the manuscript a bit and in 2001 we brought out The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in The Seminal Online Community. Among the many superb endorsements we printed on the back cover was this one from the proponent of communitarian philosophy Amitai Etzioni: “The best book ever written about communities and the Internet.” The book didn’t set any records, but it did well enough to justify C&G’s investment in it, and I was quite proud of it, as I believe Katie was, especially once the World Wide Web became such a big part of modern life that it was hard to remember a time before it existed. For anyone who wanted to know the prehistory of online interaction, it was right there in The Well.
After the book had run its course, Katie and I stayed in touch, but only occasionally. In 2002 I was startled and saddened when I read that her husband Matthew Lyon had died suddenly while on a visit to Seattle for his job with the University of California. He was 45. Katie and their young daughter survived him. I found something to say and wrote her a card with my condolences, grieving with her from a distance.
Last year, I read that Katie would be publishing a memoir with Random House. I was excited because I had never read anything by Katie about her own world. Mother Daughter Me came out in July and I was thrilled when I got a copy two weeks ago. After making it my #FridayReads last week, when I was only a little ways in to it, I now can say that it is gripping throughout, and likable, like Katie, even while it chronicles some pretty difficult and sad but ultimately transcendent Hafner family business. It begins with her mother’s move from San Diego to be with Katie and her now-teenaged daughter in San Francisco. I finished it the other day during a break while on a bike ride, and scrawled these words on a piece of scrap paper, anticipating I would use my first impressions in this #FridayReads essay:
“Exquisite, in many senses. Exquisitely painful, as it recounts the failures of her drink-addled mother to provide parental stability for Katie and her older sister when they were young. Exquisitely produced and edited with nary a typo or broken letter in the volume. Exquisitely truthful and unflinching in the way Katie examines her own behavior, no less than that of her mother and her daughter. As good a reporter as Katie is when writing about other people, she is somehow even more insightful and penetrating when the subject is herself, her widowhood, and her own family. I walked with her every step of the way on the difficult journey that she takes with her mother and daughter and am very glad I did. An amazingly honest book.”
I recommend Mother Daughter Me to anyone who’s still trying to riddle out truths about their family; to anyone who’s ever argued with a sibling, child or parent; to anyone with an aging parent who ponders future options for them, from living with you to “aging in place,” a term you will encounter here. I will add that like a particular Vaughan Williams symphony that I love–I believe it’s his 6th–this book winds up with a beautifully orchestrated cascade of multiple endings that transit from tragic to reconciled to fulfilled. If you’re like me, your eyes will be very moist as you finish reading Mother Daughter Me. This is a great book.
September 20th, 2013
#FridayReads Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, among 1st spy novels. Also, The Collaboration-Hollywood’s Pact W/Hitler by Ben Urwand.
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) September 14, 2013
As noted in the above tweet for my #FridayReads a week ago, I was then enjoying the two excellent books named above. The first–The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903–is arguably the first espionage thriller of the 20th century, though it’s written nothing like spy fiction is written today. It’s a heady and languorous narrative full of maritime adventuring set in the waters of the North Sea and its tidal rivers. The characters tumble in to some intrigue involving Britain and Germany, and the book fascinatingly anticipates many geopolitical issues that became even more pertinent to international relations in the following decades, during WWI and WWII. I used to stock and sell Childers’ book when I ran Undercover Books from 1978-85 as it was frequently assigned to high school students in the local school systems. This in itself is kind of amazing, because it is a complex, sophisticated book and I have a hard time imagining many high school students nowadays reading it, and getting through it. I think it’s also read often by sailors, mariners, and merchant seamen, for as the title suggests the characters are able to develop keen intuition for navigating the waters and the intrigue in to which they are plunged. Recently, Michael Dirda, one of the best book critics around, wrote a fascinating review of ‘Riddle’ in the BN Review which reminded me I had always meant to read the book. I found the second-hand Penguin edition pictured here, and have been relishing every new turn in the unfolding plot. I recommend you read Dirda’s review, even if you don’t have time right now for the book itself.
The other book, my nonfiction this week, is The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by a young Australian scholar named Ben Urwand, a revelatory and controversial investigation into what he believes–based on documents and correspondence he found–was the close relationship, even alliance from the 1930s, and in at least one instance stretching in to the 1940s, between several US movie production companies and the Third Reich. I learned about the book in the summer, when the New York Times previewed the book, and I wrote about it then in a post titled Still More to Learn about Corporations’ Complicity with the Third Reich. I wrote then,
In 2000, while an editor at Crown Publishing, I acquired a book that later became an international sensation and a bestseller in the US. It was IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black. I believed it was imperative that the book be published because it documented hitherto unknown revelations such as the fact that IBM’s punch card tabulation system was licensed to the Third Reich which then used the technology to catalog and keep track of Jews and others under its rule they deemed undesirables. Turned out that corporate complicity with Hitler was as American as cherry pie.
I want to add that later, in 2006, I edited and published another book in this area, Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich, in which scholar Steven F. Sage put forth a startling thesis, that long before the Final Solution, Adolf Hitler’s crimes included a kind of theft of intellectual property. The author marshaled lots of evidence to to show that a trio of plays by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) had provided Hitler with the script for his hegemonic career. With egotism and braggadocio, he saw himself as the star of a historical drama that mimicked Ibsen’s works. Sage showed that baffling incidents, including poor strategic choices, became understandable as part of a connected plot. He also traces ties between Hitler and a literary cult that warped Ibsen’s humanistic vision to suit their fascist designs, elevating Hitler as their anointed instrument. Sage’s book, and now Urwand’s, point to Hitler’s obsession with narrative drama, whether on the stage or on the silver screen. Both authors document Hitler’s propensity to repeatedly view the same theatrical and cinematic presentations. Sage writes that Hitler would see the same play over and over again, until he reached a point where he felt like he had in some sense become the drama’s hero. It’s striking that the two authors have, in this respect, developed similar theses. If you’re interested, I’ve pasted in the flap copy to Ibsen and Hitler at the bottom of this post which you may click on to read in full.
There’s already been a fair amount of criticism of Urwand, who is something of an unconventional scholar–he holds no teaching position, is a Junior Fellow of of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and has a background that includes being part of a successful rock n’ roll band, The Attachments. You can learn more about Urwand and his book here. The critics of the book have included David Denby in the New Yorker, who seems to take personal offense at the thesis, and claims there’s not much in the book we didn’t know already. I don’t share his jaded response and am eager to continue reading how and why executives likes Louis B. Mayer produced movies that they hoped would please the Third Reich and be shown to audiences in Germany.
September 6th, 2013
#FridayReads, Sept. 6–The many books of Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, which I have had the pleasure of reading and enjoying over the past 30 years.
August 28, 2013, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist and all around man of letters. The Canadian postal service is marking the anniversary by issuing the stamp below. When I ran Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio, which opened in 1978, we introduced thousands of U.S. readers to books by Canadian authors, particularly including Davies.* We were doing so much business in his books at one point in the early ’80s that I wrote Davies a letter c/o of his publisher Viking Penguin to let him know. He responded from ivied Massey College in Toronto, where he was a Don of Letters, and a pleasant correspondence between us ensued over a couple of years. Later, organizers of a writing conference at Case Western Reserve University asked me to invite Davies to a big meeting of theirs, but he declined, explaining he was averse to travel. The organizers asked me if I would instead speak on the combined experience of reading and selling Davies’ books, an invitation I accepted. In my files somewhere is a transcript of the talk I gave and the letters I exchanged with Davies. I will dig them out someday soon and scan them for this site and my newly renamed tumblr, Hono(u)rary Canadian, where I’ve also covered the new Davies stamp.
If you haven’t yet read Davies’ work, I still recommend his books highly. Most readers start with his Deptford Trilogy, and its opening book, Fifth Business, which was first published in 1970, followed in the trilogy by The Manticore and World of Wonders. Their motifs are indelible painted in my mind, though I haven’t re-read the books in more than 20 years: saints, snowballs, magicians, and freakish beauty. His earlier books–Tempest-Tost, Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties–collectively known as the Salterton Trilogy, are also very enjoyable. His first break-out book, as a hardcover bestseller, was Rebel Angels, thanks in good part to the enlarged audience that my store, and other indie booksellers, brought to his books.
I’m really glad Robertson Davies is being remembered with this special stamp, which was announced at the Canada Post website and covered at Quill & Quire magazine. Below the stamp are photos of my copies of Davies’ books. Please click here to see all photos.
August 30th, 2013
Weekend Update: I’m glad to see that Andrew Sullivan’s site The Dish also eulogized Seamus Heaney in a post sharing the same video I posted below, with the reading of “Digging.” Author of the guest post, poetry editor Alice Quinn, has lovely things to say about Heaney’s affection for other poets–George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, etc.
#FridayReads, Aug. 30, Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, his debut poetry collection published in 1966, a copy of which I bought at a reading he gave in New York in the late 1980s, and which I’m dipping in to tonight. Heaney was a warm and personable reader who embodied his poems with great solidity and clear voice. The news of his death at age 74 was announced earlier today, with eulogies and obituaries appearing in many publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Irish Times, and the Boston Globe, where I found the youtube clip I’ve posted below of Heaney reading his poem “Digging,” which I recall he read at the event almost 25 years ago.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
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