Archive for May, 2009


Michael Dirda on N.C. Writers

May 28, 2009

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda seems to have taken a shine to a couple of North Carolina’s finest writers in recent weeks. In today’s column, for example, he sings high praises for Michael Malone‘s new novel, The Four Corners of the Sky. Early in the review, Dirda writes

Malone’s prose — as smooth as a con man’s patter — hooks you on the first page, and you’re not going anywhere after that, except to your favorite reading chair or backyard hammock or vacation beach blanket. Malone possesses the only gift — according to Vladimir Nabokov — that a writer really need: Shamantsvo, the ability to cast a spell, to enchant.

And then he concludes his column by calling the book “a dream of a summer novel.” Read the full review here; check out my own interview with Malone here; and if you’re in D.C., don’t miss Malone’s reading tonight (Thursday, May 28) at Politics and Prose.

In addition to his rave take on Malone’s book, Dirda also gave a more than satisfied nod toward Reynolds Price‘s new memoir a couple of weeks back, calling Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back both “engaging” and “very enjoyable.” Read that review here, and if you’re in N.C., be sure and mark your calendar for Price’s reading early next week — Tuesday evening, June 2 — at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh (a ticketed event, I should add).

And remember to check out the MetroBooks Calendar to your right for a full list of literary events in the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina.

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Iran’s Nuclear Threat: Two Timely New Thrillers

May 26, 2009

My review in today’s Washington Post (Tuesday, May 26) could hardly have been timed better — a testament to the books’ timeliness, I should add, not my own. The review weighs in on two new thrillers about the Iranian nuclear threat — Rich Lowry and Keith Korman’s Banquo’s Ghosts and David Ignatius’ The Increment — and it appears on the front page of the Style section while an article on North Korea’s recent nuclear testing commands page A1, accompanied by a front-page analysis of Obama’s policies and resonant editorials here, here, and here. The books also come on the heels of all the recent revelations about the U.S. use of torture and all the back-and-forth between the current and previous administrations about the efficiency and effectiveness of various tactics in the post-9/11 world — topics which are discussed in one or both of the two titles under evaluation here.

Both books are provocative and interesting in their own ways, but The Increment seems aesthetically the stronger novel; despite its name, the book wins that race not by an inch but by a mile, in my opinion. But apart from evaluating the books individually, I think it says something important about the urgency of the subject matter that these novels have appeared at the same time and something about the heated debate surrounding this topic that the two books could be so aesthetically and ideologically different. Check it out for yourself.

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Revenge Of The Plant Kingdom: An Interview With Amy Stewart, Author of Wicked Plants

May 25, 2009

A couple of years back, I needed a poisonous plant to spike a drink and kill a man.

This was not, I should hasten to add, for my personal use, but for a piece of fiction I was writing: a mystery story, a rivalry between two men for a young woman’s hand — one of them a botanist who didn’t plan to let anything or anyone stand in his way. Trying to speed my research, I approached a real-life botanist at the university where I teach and asked her advice, and soon enough she was leading me through the process of taking a handful of castor beans and a kitchen blender and… well, I won’t go further except to say that throughout the instructions, this botanist seemed particularly uneasy, even emphasizing to me that any google searches I might do on the specific topic at hand were likely being monitored by those involved in protecting national security. The story I was working on never came together, and so my botanist source is now probably doubly uneasy, wondering if our conversation really was a ruse and if there’s some poor cocktail party guest out there who simply didn’t make it to the main course.

All this is by way of prefacing how fascinated I’ve been by Amy Stewart’s latest book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. I’ll admit it: While I own a couple of reference books on gardening, I’ve never actually read a book about plants straight through, and yet Stewart’s latest proved irresistible and a browser’s delight — a compendium of the plant world’s most notorious characters, from the socially unpleasant to the downright criminal, categorized under headings including “Dangerous,” “Deadly,” “Destructive,” “Illegal,” “Intoxicating,” “Offensive,” and just plain “Painful” (chiles rank high in that latter listing). From the potentially fatal allure of belladonna to the risk associated with the common cashew (who knew?), Stewart covers it all, balancing detailed scientific knowledge with richly entertaining anecdotes spanning the full course of human history. As I read along, I couldn’t help but think of the fascination that people have always had with the odd and awful, and I remembered fairly recent articles about people crowding botanical gardens on the promise of plants that smell repulsive, emitting odors like rotting meat — and no sooner did those articles cross my mind than I came across Stewart’s section on “Social Misfits,” discussing just such plants. And as an allergy sufferer myself, I couldn’t help but laugh — bitterly, between tissues — about the “Lawn of Death” essay, which included Kentucky Bluegrass (“suburban allergies”) alongside Johnson Grass, whose “young shoots contain enough cyanide to kill a horse.” (And it’s worth emphasizing that the artwork — etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and illustrations by Jonathon Rosen — is dreadfully delicious in its own right.)

Stewart was gracious enough to indulge my further curiosity about Wicked Plants and to entertain a few questions here about the research for the book and the joy she took in writing it.

Art Taylor: As soon as I saw Wicked Plants, I was immediately pulled in — and immediately began reflecting on my attraction to this subject, an attraction that I anticipate will be shared by many. What do you think is the root (pun unintentional) of people’s fascination with disgusting, dangerous, and even deadly plants? And in writing the book, how did you balance the scientific, on the one hand, with the scary and sometimes scandalous on the other?

Amy Stewart

Amy Stewart

Amy Stewart: I’m glad it drew you in — that’s exactly what I wanted to do, to attract people who otherwise have no particular interest in plants or gardening. I see this as a book that’s as much about people and poisons as it is about plants. I mean, a plant alone in a jungle or a forest is not terribly interesting to most people all by itself. But when a person comes along and figures out how to commit a crime using that plant — now you’ve got a story!

I think the fascination for people comes from the fact that we all love a good story, and we really do like to be frightened, don’t we? Haunted houses, detective stories, thrillers — we love to be kept on the edge of our seats. So for me, the villains and the crimes and the disasters came first. I chose plants that had good backstories. I tried to include just enough scientific information about the precise mechanism at work — how the poison works, how the thorn can get embedded in the skin — to help flesh out these plants as characters. I also wanted to give just enough horticultural information to give a sense of what the plant looks like — it’s a 50 foot-tall tree that grows in the tropics or it’s a lovely little flower that blooms in spring — without making people feel like they were reading a reference book.

You have your own “poison garden.” At what point does a plant go from being a curiosity worth cultivating to an abomination that should be eradicated?

Well, of course we’re doing our best to eradicate invasive plants like kudzu, but apart from that, it’s important to remember that these plants develop these crazy, elaborate poisons and painful barbs for a reason. The fact that plants can’t move around means that they really have to get very creative about protecting themselves and about spreading their seed. If we get harmed along the way — well, that’s our own carelessness!

Throughout the book, you offer a broad historical and geographical perspective, from the nepenthe of Homer’s Odyssey in the section on “Opium Poppy” to the ordeal poisons of 19th-century West Africa to the 1978 assassination of a KGB agent with an umbrella laced with ricin. How did you go about your research into stories and anecdotes? And which of the stories that you found and shared here was the most interesting or surprising to you?

The research was great fun. I spent a lot of time with newspaper archives looking for obscure and odd tales of plant poisonings, like the 1856 dinner party in Scotland in which some of the guests were killed by a monkshood used in the roast. That was a newspaper report. I also searched medical journals and case studies, and of course I just read a lot of history. The story about killer algae escaping from an aquarium in Monaco was really fascinating; I highly recommend Alexandre Meinesz’s book Killer Algae about the process by which that plant escaped into the oceans and what was — or wasn’t — done to stop it.

Oh, and the story of milksickness — wow. This is how Abraham Lincoln’s mother died. Cows grazed on white snakeroot, which sickened the cows and poisoned their milk. People knew that there would be these outbreaks of poisoned milk, but they didn’t know why. So I’d read news accounts in, say, Chicago, of someone figuring out that white snakeroot was the culprit. Then, twenty years later in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there were still reports of milksickness outbreaks. News traveled so slowly. It’s really heartbreaking. Lincoln lost his mother to milksickness when he was only nine.

Throughout the book, what guidelines did you set yourself about which plants to feature and which ones wouldn’t make the grade as awful enough to be included? And any plant that didn’t make the book that you now wish you’d included?

Every plant had to have a specific story to accompany it. I needed victims! And I wanted a balance between old and new—so sometimes it was Socrates being sentenced to death by hemlock, and sometimes it was something more recent, like a woman on California’s death row right now who tried to kill her husband with oleander.

Speaking of death row… and that Scottish dinner party you mentioned earlier…. You take special care to offer caution and advice about accidental poisonings, from including the toll-free number to the poison control center in your introduction to closing the book with an “Antidote” page in your end notes. Beyond accidental troubles, have you at any point been worried that the book might fall into more nefarious hands?

The book definitely has this diabolical sense of fun—I make no secret of the fact that I love villains and bad boys—but I really do think that by talking about the plant kingdom’s dark side in a way that is a little more playful will get people engaged and cause them to really take notice and think about the natural world in a new way. Nature’s powerful, and I think we need to respect that power.

Will it inspire somebody to commit a botanical murder? I guess you could ask the same question about any murder mystery or, for that matter, every episode of Law & Order. The fact is that there’s already plenty of information out there about poisonous plants. Any library will have several great reference books that detail hundreds of poisonous plants and give much more information about their toxic effects than I do. And of course there’s an overwhelming amount of information on the Internet, some of it dangerously inaccurate. I hope I’m raising awareness and getting people to really stop and think about that shrub by the front door or that berry they’re tempted to eat on a hike.

For more on Stewart, check out this feature in the May 20 New York Times and don’t miss the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s summer show, inspired by the book. 

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Bonnie & Clyde: 75 Years Later

May 22, 2009

This weekend — Saturday, May 23, to be precise — marks the 75th anniversary of the day Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in a police ambush. But even if they met a violent end, it’s clear that they gained even greater immortality because of it, with the media today seemingly as entranced with the crime couple as were the newspapers back then. Dan Zak’s article “My, They Hold Up” in the Washington Post earlier this month began to explore our enduring fascination with their story, and two recently published books are capitalizing on theanniversary year: Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde and Paul Schneider’s Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend, both reviewed here by the Post.

I’m planning to teach Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde in one of my courses at George Mason next year (and that film, along with several similar ones, is featured in my next article for Mystery Scene), so I’ve been exploring the story myself recently, and while I haven’t had a chance to check out Guinn’s book, I’ve already delved into Schneider’s and found it thrilling — not just because of the story itself but because of Schneider’s dramatic approach. While he emphasizes, for example, that any quoted dialogue is verifiable, he admits and even indulges the fact that this story is “rife with rumor and lacquered with legend” and he uses some of the techniques of the best creative nonfiction to bring the story to life: lyrical passages that attempt to plumb Bonnie’s thoughts, for example, and a second person narration to put us directly in Clyde’s shoes. Here’s the final shoot-out scene, for example — and I don’t feel badly quoting from so late in the book, since almost everyone knows how the story ends: 

Bullets sound a lot louder when you’re not pulling the trigger yourself, did you ever notice that? It’s strange, too, how the sound seems to get to you later than the actual shove of the lead against and then through your body. If you haven’t been shot you might not know how bullets kind of hit you like a fist and push you, knock you around. It’s only later that you realize they’ve gone through you and out the other side. That’s if you live; you realize there is a hold in you that is leaking like a rusted-out bucket.

It’s like an echo, the way the sound gets there after the bullet, until one of them has gone through your brain and you don’t hardly hear them normally at all. That’s a good thing about bullets, you guess. Rata rata…”

I’m still browsing through the book at this point — haven’t read it cover to cover yet — but I have very little hesitation in recommending it to others here on this milestone weekend. And while Clyde wasn’t much of a drinker — Ray Hamilton claims he “never saw him take a drink of whiskey in my life” — I’ll raise a quick toast to the pair myself on Saturday evening to honor their passing.

And for another tribute, take a moment to reread Bonnie Parker’s own poem “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” reprinted at History Matters, a website co-hosted by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media.

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A Quick Recommendation — With An Eye Toward Literary Journals And Translations

May 21, 2009

Given all the recent talk about the potential closing of literary journals (including both the New England Review and the Southern Reviewand about the lack of interest by Americans in fiction from beyond our borders, here’s a quick recommendation. My friend and fellow writer Kyle Semmel (interviewed here earlier this year) has not just one but two translations of stories by Danish author Simon Freuland  in the current issue of Redivider, and he gets prime placement for them, since the stories essentially bookend the rest of the issue’s contents. One of the stories — “What Is It?” — is available online, but I’d encourage readers to pick up the full copy, not just for the other story, but also for works by a fine list of other authors, including Chris Abani and Dan Beachy-Quick, the latter’s poem online as well.

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