Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 45)

Collecting First Editions: ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes

By Lisa Newman

Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam war, spent thirty years writing Matterhorn: A Novel. While writing the book was its own lonely struggle, getting it published was another beast. This story is about the power of independent presses and bookselling.

matterhorn EL LEONKarl Marlantes found a publisher in El Léon Literary Arts, a small press privately funded through donations. Led by author Thomas Farber, the operation is known to run on a $200 a year travel and entertainment budget and publishes literary works that might not seem commercially viable by mainstream publishers. By the time the 700-page Matterhorn was printed in softcover and review copies were sent out, a group of booksellers got the attention of El Léon by submitting Matterhorn to a first-novel contest. Soon Farber began getting calls from larger publishers. Eventually, a deal with the independent press Grove Atlantic was made and Matterhorn was released in hardback in 2010. Behind the scenes, Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin championed Matterhorn to booksellers across the country. The success of Matterhorn is due to the perseverance of its author, small presses, and the diligence of booksellers. It is a story of authenticity as opposed to overblown media hype.

matterhorn FESThis authenticity leads to a collectible book. The copies of Matterhorn printed in softcover at El Léon became advanced copies for Grove Atlantic’s hardcover edition. For collectors, that softcover is the true first edition. Matterhorn follows in the tradition of other great war novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line.

Sebastian Junger, noted author, filmmaker, and journalist, reviewed Matterhorn for The New York Times:

Karl Marlantes’s first novel, Matterhorn, is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes—a highly decorated Vietnam vet—spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does.

Karl Marlantes followed Matterhorn with a nonfiction book on Vietnam called What It Is Like to Go to War. His reflections on Vietnam are featured prominently in “The Vietnam War,” a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Marlantes is at work on his second novel.

Addicted to Her Words: ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

Hello, my name is Dorian. And I am addicted to literary fiction that delves into the complexity of the human experience.

little fires everywhereLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng continues my binge on all things well-conceived and thoughtfully written. Whether on my couch, in my bedroom, or sitting at the park, reading this book reminded me of the power of perspective, understanding the intersectionality of being, and how we weigh our own experiences against someone else’s. I’d love to give you some lame pun about smoke and fire, but I’m not Katniss Everdeen and this isn’t Dante’s Inferno. It’s a story of two disparate families bound by two scandals in late 90s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The novel opens with the Richardson family home destroyed by fire. Elena Richardson (mostly referred to in the book as Mrs. Richardson) considers how her “perfect” life has literally gone up in flames as she and her family watch firefighters extinguish the last of the little fires everywhere. Only someone is missing. Resident trouble maker Izzy, who is believed to have started the fire, can’t be found. Neither can the unwed artist Mia and her daughter Pearl, who have rented a small home from the Richardsons. The story continues to unfold with how the two shake up the comfortable life of a conventional family. When Mrs. Richardson interviews nomadic Mia for the rental, she is immediately beguiled by Mia and her daughter’s bond and simultaneously intrigued by people so unlike her. The Richardson teenagers, particularly Izzy, and Pearl practically swap families as these two units become engulfed in each other’s separate existences. Mrs. Richardson’s idyllic world is flipped on its head when a portrait of Mia is found in the local art museum and Mia isn’t too keen to share. Then, a young Chinese immigrant (and friend of Mia’s) fights to get her baby back from a white couple (Richardson family friends), which swallows the town in debate, and provides a grand opportunity for Mrs. Richardson to dig into Mia’s past. Whew! That’s a lot going on for a little hamlet in middle America.

The strength of Ng’s work is her ability to compose a kind of literary music out of the most ordinary things in ordinary life, from Mrs. Richardson’s first encounter with Mia and Pearl to the opening paragraph with Richardson home set ablaze. These aren’t just mere occurrences but intricately woven commentaries on the romanticization of motherhood and the false permanence of the American Dream. Ng presents all this with balanced weight of lyricism, wit, and a dash of melancholy, making for a recipe that is just right. While the differing perspectives were sometimes overcrowded, this gem is a compelling examination of mothers’ relationships with their children, their relationships with other mothers, and their vast cultural and class experiences.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go sit in a broom closet, think about my life, and contemplate my next fix.

Signed first editions of Little Fires Everywhere are still available in Lemuria’s online store.

Englander’s ‘Dinner’ is a ‘spy novel’ that defies convention

By Jim Ewing.

Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth is more than a spy mystery. Rather, it’s a puzzle that starts off fuzzy and indistinct and ends crystal clear, spinning off into the confounding greater madness that is the Middle East conflict.

It starts off with seven main characters:

  • Z, an American kept in secret prison;
  • The General, who, though not named, is presumably Ariel Sharon;
  • Ruthi, The General’s longtime aide, who is also the mother of Z’s prison guard:
  • The Guard, who becomes Z’s friend as much as captor, or exists somewhere in the gray zone of Stockholm Syndrome;
  • Joshua, a Canadian businessman;
  • The Waitress, who becomes Joshua’s lover; and:
  • Farid, a Palestinian businessman who funnels money to terrorists in his homeland.

dinner at the centerThe characters are built slowly, as the chapters flit between events in Germany, France, Italy, and Israel in 2002 and 2014. In the beginning, we don’t know the identity of Prisoner Z, or about the crime he committed to land him in prison.

The plot comes together like a Rorschach test: pieces of the puzzle becoming clear, almost as much from the reader’s memories and perceptions as the from deft touch of the author delineating the characters.

It slowly develops from specific events into a recognizable whole that, once realized, is complex and riveting as, midway through the novel, the deceptions and revelations become clear and the narrative picks up in real time.

We come to find that none of the characters we have come to know are truly who they say—or believe, or others believe—they are.

The “dinner” at the heart of the title is an event in the book, at its end, that may be seen as a metaphor for the muddle that is Midle Eastern politics, where right and wrong are often as blurred as the identities and possible motivations of the main characters.

And it may also be seen as a type of bizarre love story: where bitter rivals come to love each other, trust each other, need each other, even as they openly debate and sometimes wantonly deal death to the other.

Perhaps needless to say, Dinner is not your typical “spy” novel, as it begs more questions than it answers and spurs more honest soul searching than conventionally found in the genre. There are no “bad guys” here, no black and white hats, only shades of gray, tinged by unanswerable questions masking murderous norms.

Every character is flawed, vulnerable, in some ways endearing, and both a selfless hero and callous villain depending on one’s point of view.

All is relative. As Z tells the The Waitress when he confesses to her that he is a spy: “Some wrong things, in circumstances, are inherently right.”

But, as events unfold, the plot reveals that some possibly right things are inherently wrong.
Englander has put together a masterful spy novel that confounds conventions and will leave readers questioning the validity of their own convictions about right and wrong.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Author Q & A with Jennifer Egan

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 8)

manhattan beachPulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan’s newest release Manhattan Beach (Scribner) combines historical fiction with all the elements of a thriller-mystery and a touch of humor as she successfully tackles a World War II tale whose home base is Manhattan Beach in New York.

It’s a wide-spanning story of a family’s struggle to make ends meet as they attempt to make sense of the culture shift of a country at war and the realities of  the long-time disappearance of a husband and father who has vanished for reasons unknown. Well-researched and overflowing with a theme of water that runs throughout, Manhattan Beach is a satisfying and more traditional story from a writer whose trademark has become keeping readers wondering just what she can and will do next.

Along with her Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, she is the author of four other books of fiction. Her work has also appeared in The New YorkerHaper’s Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

Please tell me about your roots in Chicago, where you spent your earliest years.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

On my father’s side, my family is proudly Irish-American, and has been in Chicago for generations. My grandfather, Edward Egan, was a police commander on the South Side, and also President Truman’s bodyguard when he came to town. Edward Egan had three sons, the second of whom was my father. The eldest, Eddie Egan, was killed in a motorcycle accident as a teenager–a tragedy that, of course, marked the family thereafter.

As a little girl, I used to talk with my father a lot about lost Uncle Eddie. It was a great pleasure to use his name in this book, and to dig deeper into my Irish-American heritage–the closest thing I’ve ever felt to an ethnic identity.

Manhattan Beach portrays a father/daughter relationship that plays out against the backdrop of World War II. Does it reflect anything personally about your own family, or can you elaborate about what inspired this story?

My mother and father divorced when I was 2, and I don’t have any memories of them together. As a little girl, I spent every Sunday with my father, but at 7, I moved to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather. I saw him only in the summers after that, and I feel like I stopped knowing him, and he stopped knowing me.

I have two sons, now teenagers, whom I’ve been very reluctant to let go of as they begin to move more deeply into their own lives. A lot of that personal experience–dealing with loss, as a child and as a parent–is in here, somehow. In my books, the personal is always scrambled.; it’s only as  finish a book that I begin to sense its connections to my real life.

How closely do the lives of characters in Manhattan Beach mirror that of the correspondence you found between the couple who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war?

The young couple whose correspondence I read, Lucille and Alfred Kolkin, had many things in common with my characters int eh context of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lucy was a shipfitter, meaning that she helped to create the metal parts of ships; my character, Anna, becomes a civilian diver. Jobs like those would have been unthinkable for women before the war. Lucy and Al’s social world would have been somewhat different from Anna’s, though; Lucy and Al were Jewish, for one thing, whereas Anna’s family is Catholic. Anna’s father’s involvement with the Irish waterfront gave him a proximity to organized crime that would likely have alienated Lucy and Al, although they were strongly involved in union organizing.

And finally, Lucy seems to have been what was known as a “good girl”–she quipped in a letter to Al that the story their courtship could have been summarized: “From Maidenhood to Marriage in Three Easy Months.” Even at 19, Anna’s sexuality is more developed, and therefore a secret.

Anna, a main character in Manhattan Beach, fought the male-dominated era in which she lived, and became a diver helping repair ships from underneath. What does that show about her, and was there a message there for readers?

I’m not a big fan of messages in fiction. As a reader, I dislike being preached to, but I suppose one could probably take away from the novel what much of America learned during World War II: women can do just about anything, and do it well. That is a threatening notion to some.

Manhattan Beach is one of two October selections for Lemuria’s First Editions Club. Jennifer Egan will be appearing at the Eudora Welty House to sign books at 5:00 p.m., on Tuesday, October 10. The reading will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Author Q & A with Nathan Englander

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1).

Brooklyn resident and Long Island native Nathan Englander packs love, violence, allegory, and political intrigue into his second novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf), as he presents readers with a plot-driven literary tale that examines the current state of of the peace process-or lack thereof–between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A thought-provoking read to say the least, the book reveals Englander’s own take on the ongoing political battle–and it’s a personal one. Growing up Jewish in New York, his angst over the lack of progress between the two camps led to his own five-year retreat to Israel, which he spent examining first-hand the seeming futility of any effort to bring the two sides together.

Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander

His previous works include What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies.

Englander is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at New York University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

In the ackowledgements at the end of your book, you thanked the city of Zomba, Malowi, where some of the writing process of Dinner at the Center of the Earth took place. Please explain why that was important to you.

Zomba played a part in the rewriting of this book. I lived there last year with my family, and I found that composing in a place so radically different from the one in which I live helped me to see my own life–my reality–with fresh eyes, which, I deeply believe, helped me to do the same inside the book’s world, where I was spending most of my time.

In what ways did your four–or what it five?–years living in Jerusalem before the intifada in 2000 prepare you to write Dinner at the Center of the Earth?

It was five years. And a year of college long before that, and some stretches here and there in between. That time was less what prepared me to write the book, and more what drove me to do it. I’ve really wanted to tell this story for near 20 years.

But, I hear the question (why?), and I have an answer. And that is, when I was living in Israel, I came to understand that solving the conflict between Israel and Palestine wasn’t just about bridging the gap between two peoples who hold two different positions of some argument. A real solution would mean bridging the space between two different worlds. That is, I was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem, and my Palestinian neighbors in the exact same place were living in al-Quds. We’re dealing with multiple realities, not differing opinions.

I read that you wanted to write a book that “weaved time and threads.” Describe how the complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and its seemingly unsolvable issues, prompted you to bring that approach to life through this book.

Central to that conflict, and central to my heartbreak over the failure of the peace process, are the endless cycles of violence, the buildup, the warring, the truces and quiet times–which both sides then use to build up and ready themselves for when the fighting starts all over again. I really wanted to write a novel whose structure captured that spiral, and reflected those rhythms.

This seems to be a book that would be good to read over again in order to understand the timeline and grasp its full meaning. Was that your intention?

dinner at the centerIt’s nice of you to ask. And, I promise you, I’m truly thankful for the people who invest in reading this novel once–that’s already a gift for a writer, and I ask no more. I can tell you that I worked hard to build a book you could just sit down and read, a linear novel that also happens to wrestle with age-old conflict and has many different plot lines, all running concurrently.

I think of your question in terms of a certain kind of reader–of which, in asking, I assume you are one–and I think, if this book has a certain life, and some nice graduate student somewhere wants to take it apart with a screwdriver and see how it ticks, I hope he or she will find something in the mechanics of it. I sure spent a lot of my time trying to make the thriller-historical-love-story-allegorical elements all jibe.

I loved what you did with the dream sequences of the General, whom we assume to be Ariel Sharon. Were there actual events for his life that led you to imagine these dream events? The endless falling with his radio operator after the explosion was especially intriguing.

Am I allowed to say that I love your questions? I love your questions! For one, it was imperative to me that my character, the General, be read as the General, not Ariel Sharon. As for parallels to Israeli-Palestinians history, I drew off many events for the reality the general is living in his mind. But you’re asking about the radio operator and the flying. This novel, unlike my last, is set in places I’ve lived, and addresses parts of history that are woven into my own memory, and central to my education, and have shaped my worldview.

What I’m trying to stress is that I bought a lot of books to study, but ended up doing very little research, and never opened most. I’d read a paragraph, and my mind would start spinning, and I’d start typing. Anyway, a doctor friend I’d called to ask about comas and minimally conscious state either shared this fact with me, or it appeared in the first couple of paragraphs of some scientific paper somewhere that I clicked on, but I fell in love with the idea that people who come out of comas often remember that they had dreams of flying. It just changed me, as soon as I learned that.

Were prisoner Z and the guard based on actual people, or were they fictional characters to move the plot and tell the story?

The guard popped into my head in the same way that Ruthi did–which is, out of nowhere. Speaking of consciousness, I literally have no awareness of how they suddenly came to be.

Prisoner Z is a character I can trace through my imagination. I was in Israel on a book tour, and on the last day, I picked up the morning paper and there was this story of an Israeli prisoner called, only, X. He was found dead in his cell. The extremely complicating factor was that he was a secret prisoner so, prior to his death, he had not existed. And prior to there being a cell with a ceiling from which to hang himself, there was no cell at all. That is, it was only with his death that he’d lived, only with his hanging that there was a cell to hang himself from.

When I read that X was a Mossad spy who’d become a traitor, I began thinking of all the reasons that spies become traitors: blackmail, failures of character, hunger for power, etc., etc. And I thought, what about a spy who becomes a traitor through empathy? Someone who flips because of his feelings for the other side. And that’s how, in that moment, a character is born. How, for me, an X becomes a Z.

Prisoner Z states in one his letters to the General that the only way for Israel to end the conflict was to lose and cede ground to the Palestinians. Is this an actual idea shared by some in Israel?

I’m sure, if folks think it, they don’t use the term “losing,” and it’s not about a notion of surrender. A novel delivers a pressurized form of reality–a world as real as the one we’re in, that manifests in a heightened way. Even as far off as it seems today, I bet there are plenty of people who still believe that pulling out of enough territory for there to be viable states, side by side, is the best way to achieve peace.

Tell me about the title of the book. Did it come to you as the story unfolded, or did you have it from the start?

Firstly, I’d like to note that the titles of my books are always extraordinarily long. And maybe I should pick shorter ones, since I’m so shy when folks ask me what the names of my books are called. I think, in every case, I’ve found the title of the book inside the story itself.

Do you have plans in the works yet that you can share about your next writing project?

Sure. Yes. I think the early part of one’s writing life is extra stressful because you haven’t yet fallen permanently behind. Once you’re drowning in projects you’re dying to pursue, what-comes-next is always right there.

So, as much as Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that took me far from the imagined worlds where I started, the next novel swings me back to where I began. I wanted to return to that space, where I explore the boundary between sacred and profane, religious and secular. Also, I’ve got another play in the works, and a non-fiction book, and some other things cooking.

Be Hair Now: ‘Norma’ by Sofi Oksanen

normaYou might think that having magic hair that’s attuned to your emotions would be a blessing, but the titular character in Norma (by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen) would disagree. Norma is an ordinary woman whose hair corkscrews and kinks when she feels strong emotions, such as danger or guilt. It also happens to grow about a meter a day, causing Norma to have to constantly cut it off so that no one notices. The only person that knows Norma’s secret is her mother, Anita.

As it happens, Norma opens up on the day of Anita’s funeral. Anita has committed suicide by throwing herself in front of train, or so we’re led to believe. The first inkling Norma has that something is off is when her hair starts to corkscrew when meeting a stranger at the funeral.

While it is Norma’s name who’s on the cover, I think it’s safe to say that this book actually has three main characters. Norma, obviously, is the focus of book, but alternating chapters are in a woman named Marion’s point of view. Marion is the daughter of Anita’s best friend. Marion works for her father in the seedy underworld of the hair extension business. The third main character is Anita herself. Through video diaries that Anita has left for Norma to find, Norma finds out the history of why her hair is the way it is.

There are lots of little kinks and turns in that lead you down paths you hadn’t fathomed would happen. The sub-chapters are short so it feels as if you’re flying through; I read the first half of the book in a span of about two and a half hours. Normally, I don’t like alternating points of view, but I think it’s masterfully done in Norma. I’m invested in both Norma and Marion, so I didn’t feel impatient while reading through one or the other. On the surface this may seem like a book about hair, but it’s so much more. It’s an artful look into what would happen if your best asset was also your worst, if your blessing was also your curse.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough: ‘Resurrection of Joan Ashby’

A couple of months ago the store got advanced copies of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, this new novel from Flatiron Books that was touted to be a HUGE debut. Upon first seeing the book, I decided it certainly appeared to be huge in size, but whether or not it was a great debut was yet to be seen. I will be the first to tell you that I tend to steer away from physically large books, because I think they will take a lifetime to read (even though they never actually do). So, my first thought was that I would never actually read this book.

But then Kelly, our manager, said that she had started the book, and it was absolutely amazing. This was a large vote in the positive, because Kelly is a tough critic, guys, and if she says something is amazing I am quick to take notice. I lugged this tome home and vowed to start that night. To say the next week and a half of my life was just me trying to plot out when I could get back to reading this book is an accurate assessment. I became devoted to Joan Ashby and the story of her life, and I have yet to stop talking about this book. So let’s get down to me actually telling you about this story:

Joan Ashby became a wildly successful and award-winning author as a young woman. This could be attributed to the fact that she has been dedicated to her craft all of her life. An article in Literature magazine (Fall Issue)) at the start of the book prints something from her journal that she wrote when she was just 13 years old. It is a list of commitments to herself and requirements to becoming a great author. The list goes like this:

1) Do not waste time
2) Ignore Eleanor when she tells me I need friends [she is referring to her mother]
3) Read great literature every day
4) Write every day
5) Rewrite every day
6) Avoid crushes and love
7) Do not entertain any offer of marriage
8) Never ever have children

9) Never allow anyone to get in my way

As you can see, Joan was a very intense and dedicated little girl. She knew what she wanted, come hell or high water! But of course love will find a way, won’t it? And it certainly does for Joan when she meets Martin. Joan is upfront with Martin from the very start when she tells him that her writing will always come first and children are completely off the table. No exceptions. Clear enough, right?

Haha, wrong again

Before long, Joan will end up unexpectedly pregnant. When Martin is visibly delighted by this development, Joan can’t help but feel betrayed by his quickness to break their vow. So a child is born…and then another child. All during this time, Joan is trying to complete her highly anticipated first novel. Being a wife and a mother comes with many demands, as many of you women out there know. Just reading a book in its entirety is a struggle, much less actually writing one. All through this telling of Joan’s life, snippets of her own incredible short story are sprinkled throughout the book. It is easy to see how she became such an acclaimed short story writer so early in her career.

I don’t want to give too much about the story away, but I will tell you that she does complete her novel and there is a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions. I was reading this book on a plane and when the big event occurred, the woman sitting beside me must surely have been worried about my mental stability. I was breathing heavily and grinding my teeth. I feel sure I made her very uncomfortable, but oh well!

I truly cannot say enough about how much I loved this book. I found Joan incredibly relatable, aside from her obvious genius. She is a woman who says the thing you are not supposed to say about motherhood and being a wife: it is not enough for her. She is not completely fulfilled by the triumphs of her family; she needs something of her own. Of course she loves her family, but she has creative goals and needs. Being creative also, I relate to this. I loved Joan Ashby and I found myself cheering for her this entire book. I literally could have read this forever and been completely satisfied.

Signed first editions of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas are still available.

Lovers Defying Doubt in ‘White Fur’ by Jardine Libaire

white furWhite Fur by Jardine Libaire is a gritty, uncommon love story set in New York in the 80s between two very uncommon people.

Elise Perez is a girl from a broken home, a bad situation, a girl from the wrong side of town, whatever you want to say….she didn’t grow up easy. Her life has been filled with taking care of siblings when no one else was around to feed them, working dead end jobs just to pay the rent, and dropping out of high school to get away from it all. She’s made some bad decisions, cleaned herself up, fallen back down, but ultimately knows what she wants out of life.

Jamey Hyde is a junior at Yale, who grew up in a privileged family. He’s the heir to a family fortune, drives a fancy car, and has all intentions to graduate and follow in his father’s footsteps as an investment banker. Although it seems like it, he doesn’t have the “perfect” life everyone thinks.

The two come from very different worlds, yet you immediately feel the raw, desperate love between them when they meet one another. They’ve both been let down by so many others throughout their lives that when they’re together there’s a connection that’s hard to break. But, oh…others definitely try to break it. Jamey’s family desperately want things to end, while Elise has no family to really turn to. Relationships are ruined, bridges are burned, and love is pushed to its limits…several times.

I couldn’t stop reading about each character that Libaire introduced. Every time she established a new detail of Jamey or Elise, I could see it so clearly in my mind. She’s a great writer, and the attention that she shows with her characters and their personal relationships really shines through.

Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” Still Relevant

dharma bums 1962Jack Kerouac is synonymous with The Beat Generation which included Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gary Synder, Herbet Edwin Huncke, and others. This generation of storytellers and poets explored the post-World War II culture, questioning America’s mainstream values, spirituality, religion, sexuality, and drug culture.

In a “Playboy” article Jack Kerouac explained the meaning of Beat:

“When I first saw the hipsters creeping around Times Square in 1944 I didn’t like them either. One of them, Huncke, came up to me and said, ‘Man, I’m beat.’ I knew right away what he meant somehow. Anyway those hipsters, whose music was bop, they looked like criminals but they kept talking about the same things I liked, long outlines of personal experience and vision, night-long confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by War, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul (that same old human soul). And so Huncke appeared to us and said ‘I’m beat’ with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes . . .”

dharma bumsIn 1958 for “Pageant” magazine Kerouac would define Beat further as one who is in “a state of beatitude . . . trying to love all of life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness, cultivating a joy of heart” despite our mainstream world of consuming and meaningless distraction.

Kerouac was a writer, but more than anything he was a storyteller. His works were not exactly fiction but tales of life on the road. He recorded the Beat generation and gave their stories to the hippie generation, showing them an alternative to suburban life. In “The Dharma Bums,” Kerouac described something different for Americans “all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I saw a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier . . .”

Jack Kerouac by Tom PalumboJack Kerouac became an icon frozen in the early 1950s helped by his withdrawal from the public eye and his early death at the age of 47 in 1969. After his death, Allen Ginsberg promoted his work to a new generation. Generations since have redefined his work for their place and time. Kerouac is still relevant today not because he or his writing was flawless but for the simple reasons that he was a keen observer of human interaction—he was nicknamed “Memory babe” as a child, his work encourages an alertness to and questioning of the world around him, his writing showed people being brutally honest with each other—people who were comfortable “letting it all hang out,” and he was a writer who was real—“a writer who has been there” as Allen Ginsberg described in Kerouac’s obituary.

Kerouac’s loose, spontaneous writing style inspired writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe and Michael Herr’s record of the Vietnam war “Dispatches.” Even though his fast style revealed good and bad writing, Kerouac is a reminder that serious writing can be about anything in any style of writing.

dharma bums FESince a resurgence of interest in his work in the seventies, all of Jack Kerouac’s books have remained in print. First editions of his books are scarce and valuable among collectors. “The Dharma Bums,” largely considered to be his most accessible work, will sell for upwards of a $1000. His literary and personal archive were secured at the New York Public Library in 2001, and in 2007 Penguin published the original 120-foot scroll of “On the Road,” energizing Kerouac’s work for the next generation.

Written by Lisa Newman. Original to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 20)

Read, Lead, and Succeed: ‘The Talented Ribkins’ by Ladee Hubbard

talented ribkinsThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”).  Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.

Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.

His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.

The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.

The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.

But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.

Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:

My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.

Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

ms book fest

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