Archive for April, 2009


Wells Tower in Raleigh and Durham

April 29, 2009

The big news on this weekend’s literary calendar in North Carolina is an appearance by North Carolina native Wells Tower, a skilled journalist and masterful short story craftsman whose debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, has been earning prime placement in major newspapers and magazines. A profile of Tower, who recently moved to Brooklyn, appeared in the New York Times earlier this month, just on the heels of a cover-page review in the Times‘ book review supplement, praising the author’s “masterly conjuring of his people’s daily existence, his understanding of their emotional dilemmas, his controlled but dazzling language and his effortless ability to turn snapshots of misfits and malcontents into a panoramic cavalcade of American life.” 

Sounds intriguing? Catch him Thursday, April 30, at 7 p.m. at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, or on Tuesday, May 5, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. 

And for a complete list of N.C. readings from the Triangle to the coast, bookmark the MetroBooks calendar

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“More and Better Psychopaths”

April 29, 2009

A recent Facebook conversation with a friend in North Carolina touched on the Black Dahlia story — the  1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short — and several of the books and films either based explicitly on the killing or just inspired by it. James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia is probably the best known and one of my favorite novels (though I literally walked out of the theater while watching the film, completely insulted by Brian De Palma’s adaptation), but there have been others of note. Jack Webb, of Dragnet fame, explored the case in his book The Badge; John Gregory Dunne’s novel True Confessions (and the Robert De Niro/Robert Duvall film based on the book) drew on the killing; and there’s even a jazz album by Bob Belden — a great one, I might add! — that charts Short’s life and death with its own narrative drive and passion. (It has the feel of a terrific soundtrack, though it was never attached to a movie.)

Thinking about the Black Dahlia sent me to examine a new book from The Library of America: True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter and covering “350 years of brilliant writing about dark deeds.” The anthology features both Jack Webb’s account of the Short slaying and Ellroy’s essay “My Mother’s Killer,” first published in GQ and then expanded the memoir My Dark Places — both of which (essay and book) help to reveal connections between the 1958 slaying of Ellroy’s mother and his interest in the Short case, which he first read about in Webb’s account.

But beyond those two entries, I also found a wealth of great material, beginning with Schechter’s fascinating introduction, which quotes both Plato and Freud to delve into some of the sociological and psychological reasons behind man’s eternal fascination with such stories and then traces the historical development of the genre: Puritan execution sermons; Hawthorne, Melville and Poe’s fascination with crime stories; the emphasis on lurid tales to move papers during the height of yellow journalism; the rise of pulp magazines and books capitalizing on sensational stories; and then New Journalism and the arrival of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and ushering in if not a new genre of what Schechter calls “serious book-length studies of particular crimes, written by major authors and published by prestigious presses.” He particularly notes Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, and Joe McGinnis’s Fatal Vision among those books, though none of them nor In Cold Blood is excerpted here because of the anthology’s focus on self-contained works.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing a 14-year-old boy in 1924

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, during their trial for killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924

Still, even without those classics, there’s plenty here to savor: from one of those execution sermons (from no less than Cotton Mather) through a series of murder ballads to Meyer Berger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a Camden, NJ shooting spree  (a case recently reflected on by critic Sarah Weinman) and straight through to Dominick Dunne’s account of the Lyle and Erik Melendez trial. Along the way, we get some of the most famous criminals in our nation’s history —  Leopold and Loeb, Charles Manson, Ed Gein, Son of Sam — and some of the best writers, many of them familiar but others perhaps unexpected by readers here: Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Susan Glaspell, Damon Runyon, Joseph Mitchell, H.L. Mencken (from whom the title to this blog post is taken), Edna Ferber, Jim Thompson, James Thurber (wait, James Thurber!?), Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Bloch, Calvin Trillin, Gay Talese, and Jimmy Breslin, among many others. 

I’ve hardly had time to do more than sample a few of these, but I can assure you that it’s a collection to which I’ll return, not only for reading but also as a valuable resource. 

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John Kessel Wins Nebula Award

April 27, 2009

Congratulations to John Kessel, co-director of the creative writing program at North Carolina State University (and one of my former professors), for earning this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novelette. His prize-winning story, “Pride and Prometheus,” was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in January 2008 and was featured in his collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories. A full list of winners is available here, and my interview with Kessel about his latest book is available here

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Most Influential Southern Novel?

April 27, 2009

South Carolina Educational TV and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies are in the midst of a series of eight one-hour programs collectively titled Take On The South. The last show aired back in October 2008, asking the question “Does the road  to the White House run through the South?” (video of that episode is online, along with other information). On Wednesday, May 13, ETV will broadcast another episode, with scholars Trudier Harris, professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Noel Polk, professor emeritus at Mississippi State University, tackling the question “What was the most influential 20th-century Southern novel?”

As soon as I heard that question, two books popped into my own mind — William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men — and I was pleased to see those very two titles at the top of the list of 20 contenders for the prize, followed closely by Toni Morrison’s Beloved, another favorite of mine (though is it really a Southern novel?). The list was compiled by Harris, Polk, and faculty members from USC’s Institute for Southern Studies — and I should point out that it’s just coincidence that the first two books I considered were the first presented, since the nominees are simply listed in alphabetical order. The list is below, and the site features an online poll, where readers are invited to root for their favorites. 

  • Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines 
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. 
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Deliverance by James Dickey
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 
  • The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • Roots by Alex Haley
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

If you’re not able to get Southern Carolina ETV yourself, don’t worry about missing the show; they’ll post it online after the broadcast. And even if you don’t catch the talk at all, this is still a great list for those interested in Southern literature, and it’s reminded me of some gaps in my own reading; I’ve finished only 12 of the 20 books and need to get started on the rest. How many have you read? What are your favorites from the list? And which titles did they miss?

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Washington Post Review: Peter Schechter’s Pipeline

April 25, 2009

Today’s Washington Post (Saturday, April 25) features my review of Peter Schechter’s new novel, Pipeline. I enjoyed reading the book and thought its insight into the world of international energy brokering was fascinating — the U.S. and Russia in high-stakes negotiations while murderous forces are afoot behind the scenes — but Schechter’s attentions seemed divided between developing his characters and pushing the plot ahead — something I mention in the published review and would like to elaborate on here a little.

Just a couple of quick examples first. In the novel, presidential advisor Tony Ruiz stands out as our first major protagonist — our psychological and emotional focal point in D.C. — but after being introduced in a series of scenes, he’s dropped for more than a hundred pages, nearly a third of the book, and though Schechter takes the time to survey Tony’s early career path, the author ultimately doesn’t provide enough depth or background to prepare readers for some of the moral missteps Tony makes abroad during his negotiations with the Russians (or for the decisions he makes in the wake of those mistakes). In another main storyline, a Russian couple’s marital troubles begin to reveal how a household’s domestic differences can impact a country’s international standing, but there too, this personal drama is relegated abruptly to the sidelines.

Orchestrating a multi-layered plot pitting nations against nations is a tall order; evaluating complex political and economic issues adds to the task; and suspense novelists by definition need to keep the action brisk and unencumbered. Such ambitions and expectations don’t always leave room to examine the push and pull of modern marital relations or to plumb the depths of one man’s tragic flaw, and faulting a book for such omissions might generally seem unfair. But Schechter has striven here to measure political morality, gauge the strengths of idealism and the pitfalls of patriotism, and even consider the consequences of basic human frailty, and his characterizations simply can’t bear the weight of those ambitions.

So does that mean I wouldn’t recommend it? As I said above, I enjoyed reading it and no hesitation in encouraging others to do so as well. But I do think the book falls short of its own ambitions — which in many ways are the terms we should use to judge its success.    

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Bloom & Choi Close PEN/Faulkner Reading Series

April 25, 2009
Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom

Last night, Tara and I went to the last reading of the 2008-2009 PEN/Faulkner reading series, featuring Amy Bloom and Susan Choi at the Folger Theatre in D.C. I’m a fan of Bloom’s short stories, but didn’t know Choi’s work; we were meeting friends from Baltimore who are fans of and friends with Susan Choi but didn’t know Amy Bloom’s writing; and Tara knew neither woman’s work.  So in each case, we were getting new experiences. 

The readings themselves were quite good. Bloom read the opening of her new novel Away, a confident, compelling excerpt that shuttled between the young protagonist’s experiences trying to become a seamstress in 1924 New York and her memories of having lost her family in a Russian pogrom. Choi then sampled several sections of her new novel, A Person of Interest: a hospital scene in which her professor protagonist reflects on the bomb that killed a neighboring colleague; a mowing scene (literally, with a lawnmower) where he reflects on his daughter’s childhood and the neighboring family; and a tense scene in which the media discusses how and why he’s become a “person of interest” in the investigation.

Our take? Though Tara and I enjoyed the evening overall, we ended up buying neither author’s latest book. Choi’s plot sounds more like our kind of story, but the reading didn’t draw us in fully — in part because neither Tara nor I are very fond of readings that jump around, trying to summarize long stretches of plot to catch us up to the next excerpt.  Bloom’s style — in the novel excerpt as in her short stories — is mesmerizing; you just want more of it; but still we didn’t pick up her novel either. Too much to read already right now, and frankly, historical fiction sometimes lags a little low on our lists anyway.

And we both decided that the post-reading q&a is almost always a nightmare; last night’s first question asked Bloom to explain the last paragraph of her new novel, which most readers in the woman’s book club thought had been put there to confuse the reader  — a question that simultaneously seemed to insult the author and sought an answer that might ruin the book for anyone who hadn’t read the novel and, unlike us, might have planned to read it! Bloom handled the question deftly… and then the questioner pressed more: No, really, just tell me what happens at the end….

Despite such pitfalls, the authors were charming and often funny during that last part of the program — especially Choi, whose wit simply sparkled.

For a sample of what you might have missed, check out Amy Bloom’s recent “Writing Life” column for the Washington Post Book World, and the sidebar video of a short interview with Bloom by Marie Arana.

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A Long Week… A List of Links….

April 24, 2009

I’m sorry I’ve been such a slacker this week — well, here at least. It’s because it’s been such a busy week in other areas (end-of-semester crunch) that I’ve been AWOL on the blog.

Until I can get back on track, here are a quick few links worth checking out.

A nice interview with David A. Taylor, who’d also been interviewed here on my site.

Interviews with Laura Lippman: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

And a great letter from James Ellroy about his highly anticipated new book Blood’s A Rover — and hey, terrific news for Ellroy’s fans in the D.C. area, he’s tentatively signed up for the next Fall for the Book! (I’ll update on that as soon as it’s official….)

And finally, look for my review of Peter Schechter’s Pipeline in tomorrow’s Washington Post (Saturday, April 25).

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