Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 46)

Tom Hanks’ collection ‘Uncommon Type’ are my type of stories

Let it be known that I am a big Tom Hanks fan. Like HUGE. You’ve Got Mail is my favorite movie, and Hanks is my favorite actor. So when I learned that he had a book of short stories coming out, I just had to get my hands on it.

And guess what? America’s dad can actually write.

hanks gif

Uncommon Type is a collection of short stories and Tom Hanks’ first book of fiction. These 17 stories are simple in nature, diverse snapshots of lives from past to future. From a man who decides to date his friend and gets a lifestyle overhaul to a man who keeps bowling the perfect game, these stories are sentimental and sweet, just like Tom.  

There’s a strong sense of nostalgia in this collection, which can best be seen in a four-part series of stories called “Our Town Today with Hank Fiset,” in which a writer comments on the shift from print to digital newspapers and other “good ole days” discussions, via his typewriter (of course). This theme is also strong in “The Past is Important to Us,” a Midnight in Paris-esque story about a man who keeps going back in time (literally) to the World’s Fair 1939.

uncommon typeThere is also, of course, the underlying presence of typewriters. For those of you who don’t know, Hanks has a slight obsession with the machine. He even typed up this collection on one. So he made sure that one crops up in each of his stories in some way, just another element of the “yearning for older times” theme that’s present throughout the book. In particular, “These are the Meditations of My Heart” is all about a woman who falls in love with typewriters.

As I read this collection, I couldn’t help but compare the stories to Hanks’ movies. That WWII veteran reflecting on the friends he lost in “Christmas Eve 1953” gave me images of Saving Private Ryan. The immigrant from a war-torn country in “Go See Costas” reminded me of The Terminal. And “Alan Bean Plus Four” definitely had Apollo 13 vibes. Even minor characters in other stories had me pondering one of the star’s many roles. There’s one story, “Junket in the City of Lights,” about a debut actor’s packed touring schedule that I assume Hanks drew upon personal experiences to write. He even said in an interview that he wrote many of these stories while traveling for films or on press tours.

What I love about this collection the most is how diverse it is. Hanks definitely played around with character, style, and setting to tell a larger story about humanity and how things change over time. The most powerful story in the book is “Go See Costas,” a heartfelt depiction of immigration. But there are also light-hearted, comedic moments in the book to balance out the more emotional ones.

Unlike a lot of stars-turned-author, Hanks actually holds his own as a strong writer. While I think he played it safe and could have done a little more risk-taking with this debut, he is a good storyteller, and I look forward to any more pieces of fiction he comes out with next.

Thankful for Jeffery Eugendies’ ‘Fresh Complaint’

I recently told someone that Fresh Complaint, Jeffery Eugenides’ new collection of short stories, is so well-written I could cry.fresh complaint I lied. I had already cried, specifically while sitting by my apartment’s swimming pool and reading the story “Early Music.” I don’t think anyone saw, but if they had, I would have told them the truth–that one of my favorite authors has reminded me how much I love books, and that I am not sure I will ever be so passionate about anything else.

It all began three Christmases ago when I did something completely out of character: I went home to California without a book. The going home part is normal enough, but I am the type of person who always has a book. Work, coffee with a friend, shopping? There’s probably a book on the front seat of my car or hiding in my purse. My plan was to find something random to read at home, some literary junk food to pass the time. I distinctly remember looking through my shelves one night, thinking, “I should probably start reading more adult fiction,” and picking up The Marriage Plot. That was when I fell in love.

There is something about the way Jeffery Eugenides tells a story. Instead of focusing on plot points or crazy adventures–although his works contain both–he draws the reader towards the characters themselves. He begins by introducing us to a character and her current life. Then he steps into a short flashback, and then another with more details, until we are caught in a whirlwind of the past and the present. When we know the characters as intimately as we know ourselves, Eugenides allows them to progress, or regress, and we proceed with them. In his story “Complainers,” two women become friends despite unlikely circumstances. As they grow older, one moves away and eventually develops dementia. Her friend’s attempts to help are both painful and relatable, set against the backdrop of a snowstorm. “Timeshare” is about a man whose aging parents throw themselves into renovating a motel in Florida. Each person’s feelings towards the property are unique, and it comes to symbolize dreams for reliving life. My favorite story, “Early Music,” is about a man who based his entire higher education on learning to play an early form of the piano. Now, years later, he is called daily by debt collectors asking for his remaining payments on this instrument. Despite having a wife and children to support, he cannot bring himself to give up his dreams in the form of the clavichord.

If you crave intimacy with a character the way I do, you will not get enough of his Eugenides’ writing. On the other hand, the amount of detail is intimidating. People shy away from his novels because they think they are too long, or too detailed, or too boring (none of which are true). I was a bit apprehensive that his short stories wouldn’t incorporate the trademark detail and introspection. But this is exactly why his short stories work so well. In just a few pages, Eugenides is able to capture a person, their entire life, and boil it down to the important scenarios. If you have been intimidated by the sheer length of Middlesex, or bored by the idea of the Marriage Plot, or put-off by the subject of The Virgin Suicides, this is the collection for you. It’s time to stop being afraid and pick up Fresh Complaint.

Author Q & A with Mark Helprin

“Mark Helprin’s Lifetime of Writing” 

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 12)

Bestselling author Mark Helprin’s fluid, lyrical writing spills forth again in his newest novel, “Paris in the Present Tense,” a grand tale of music, regret, passion, and family love that finds its writer once again borrowing from the people, places and circumstances of his own experiences to flesh out a solid and relatable plot that, in essence, draws the reader into his own world.

A New York City native who grew up in a nearby suburb of the city, Helprin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, and completed post-graduate work at Princeton University and Magdalen College, Oxford. A prolific writer, he has authored five novels, three children’s books, three short story collections, and many essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, the National Review and many other periodicals.

mark helprinYou’ve enjoyed a full life — world traveler, family man, would-be farm hand and at times you’ve turned your attention to politics (mostly through your deep interest in policy), journalism, the military, and your own formal education, not to mention an amazing career as a writer. How have you managed to fit so many interests into your seven decades?

Seven decades is a long time, and I started early. My first job was manufacturing sealing-wax-and-ribbon medallions for a women’s clothing store. It was an assembly-line process to which I devoted part of my weekends, piece work at 25 cents per medallion. I would earn about $500 per annum then, or, in today’s dollars, $5,000. I was eight. I used to dictate stories to my third-grade teacher, and Simon & Schuster wanted to publish them, but my father didn’t allow it, because my mother had been a child star and he thought that it had near ruined her.

Also, if you keep busy, you can do several things at once. When I was in college I wrote my first stories for the New Yorker, continuing to do so in graduate school and during military service. If you live on a farm, the farm tells you what to do, not vice versa.

The irony is that I hate to be busy, and have been too busy all my life in the hope that it would enable me not to be busy. And please don’t call me a world traveler. I hate to travel, and it reminds me of the magnificent line of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, when she says to Vinny, “So whata you, a _____ world travelah?”

Your fiction is known for its robust, adventurous plots and its lyrical syntax, always with a bit of romanticism, fantasy and autobiographical hints. Reading your work, it’s obvious that you not only enjoy writing, but you love your characters and your storylines. Tell me how you developed your literary writing style – and what drove you to become a writer in the first place.

This question requires a book-length answer, but I’ll be brief. I do love my characters, most of them. What’s the point otherwise? From my very first book, my motto has been taken from Dante, “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare, (Love moved me, and made me speak)”. If I may paint with a very broad brush, what ails so much of modern fiction is its detachment from and hostility toward that which it depicts. If a writer wants to be a prosecutor, he should go to law school and apply to the Bronx DA.

paris in the present tenseYour newest book, “Paris in the Present Tense,” is another fictional work presented on a grand scale. In this story of an aging man consumed with worry about his grandson’s serious illness, main character Jules Lacour is keenly aware of his own inability to offer much in the way of financial support. A deep thinker with strong convictions, he looks back on his own life with his share of regrets and fears. In many ways, most of us have a lot in common with Lacour. Can you share your reflections on him? 

Ah! My reflection on him runs to 400 pages, and I can share all of it with your readers if they buy the book, or get it from the library. So many contemporary novels are politicized, sexualized, and sensationalized. And although this tends to result in narrow treatments of one subject – kind of like an expanded magazine article – as a means to deliver a single message, I think a novel should be about many things, with many themes running along and across many strata, so that in the end the book becomes more than just the sum of its parts, as are a man or a woman, as is Jules Lacour. Like all of us, he is so complex that I hesitate to dwell on one or another of his characteristics. The object is to portray as much in full what God has made not fully portrayable.

As usual, your characters are intensely developed, tying their perspectives together in the end. You’ve spent your career creating these “people” and their far-reaching (and often far-flung) circumstances. How do you stumble upon these characters and their situations?

Though they may think they do, writers and painters don’t create anything, they rearrange elements of the creation of which they are part. That’s why Leonardo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and even the French Impressionists had models, whether people or nature. The entire structure of Western – indeed, universal – art, is based on observation and interpretation of reality, and even the most abstract painters can only use colors that are a gift of creation. ‘So with writers, who must use models as a basis of their characters. As a newborn, even Shakespeare, had he magically been able to write, could not have written before he had observed the world.

All the characters to which you refer are based, even if loosely, on real people. For example, in “Paris in the Present Tense,” Louis Mignon, the French baker in Rheims, his wife, and son, and what they did during the war, are based on Louis Mignon, a French baker in Rheims, and his wife Marie, who did in the war exactly that, and with whom I lived (their son Jacques had grown up and left) for four years. In (my book), Winter’s Tale,” Peter Lake was based on Peter Lake, aka Grand Central Pete, a thief who lived in New York at the turn of the 19th century. Of course, one is wonderfully free to exaggerate, play down, add, subtract, and imagine characteristics and situations per need.

You’ve also written several children’s books. Is it difficult to switch to a different mindset and writing style to create authentic stories for children?

Not at all, in that one should never talk down to children. In fact, if any adjustment need be made, it is in simplifying language and thus purifying it rather than making it cute-sy. The best children’s books are just as attractive, meaningful, and beautiful to adults as they are to children. If you can reach the soul of a child, you will also reach the soul of an adult. As Wordsworth wrote, “the child is father of the man.” If one cannot, even in the darkest hours, retrieve or at least remember the innocence and goodness of childhood, then, really, what’s the point?

Making another shift, you’ve long filled a role as being somewhat of a statesman, and have advised politicians at the highest level on matters of policy. Tell me about your experience in that role, and how it came to be.

Quite simply, I knew from the second grade that I was a writer, but being a practical sort – and having a very practical sort of father – I understood that I’d have to have another way to support a family. So, I studied what might be called war and diplomacy. This led to many adventures, and, somehow, to being a newspaper columnist, a defense analyst, and occasionally – when the muckamucks I was advising realized I could put a sentence together – an always unpaid speech writer. That’s mostly frustrating, and I try not to do that whenever I can, which these days I hope is forever.

Being a person of your many talents, is there anything you want to accomplish in life that you haven’t attempted yet? And what did you do before writing became your job title?)

I was a kid. I had a dog, a 22., skates, and a hockey stick. There were a thousand acres around my house on the Hudson, and when I wasn’t doing homework I disappeared in them and was perfectly content. At 70, what I want to accomplish most is to remain alive, write some more books, and sit in the garden. I have no more ambition. Nor at my age would it be seemly. That’s astoundingly liberating and the cause of great happiness.

Can you share any info about your next book or other writing projects?

I’ve been thinking about it, making notes, and studying the milieu in which it takes place, for about a year. When this book tour is over I’ll have to spend about two weeks repairing fences, cutting up fallen trees, hogging down fields, and fixing stuff. Then, with winter, I’ll enter the paradise of writing every day in – I hope – wonderful tranquility.

Mark Helprin will sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

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‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is an ode to love, remorse, and hope

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5).

If you love language, as most book readers do, and thrill at the precise delineation of thought, emotion, and the paradoxes and challenges of the human condition as expressed in the saga of a single life, you’ll love Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense.

paris in the present tenseIt helps if you’re a hopeless romantic who thrives on the razor’s edge of hope and despair, not caring if ultimately successful in the target of your desires, for having experienced the compounding joys of the attempt, even if it’s dashed.

A tall order, yes. But Helprin has produced a symphony of a novel that provides any sensitive, thoughtful reader great joy and sorrow, often in the same page.

The plot revolves around Jules Lacour, 74, a cellist who teaches music at the Sorbonne. A Jew, he survived the Nazis in World War II as a child, but his parents did not. That epochal event rules his life, with grief, survivor’s guilt, and an appreciation of the small miracles of daily life.

Jules falls in love easily and with virtually every attractive woman he sees. Pages are devoted to their walk, perfume, the line of neck and jaw, the easy, carefree way they comport themselves on the streets of Paris—the city of love.

But his one true love, Jacqueline, whom he met immediately after the war, has left him a widower in the beginning of Paris. The world is different, and all too much the same. Angry crowds march the streets chanting “Death to Jews,” oblivious to the city’s past.

In this strange world, he becomes party to a crime, then hatches another of his own devising in hopes of saving his young grandson from a life-threatening disease.

But, then, he meets Elodi de Challant, a beautiful, young student, and they fall in love—immediately, longingly, through the touch of a hand and the meeting of eyes.

The fear, desire, anticipation, hesitation and forthrightness between them is delicious, enthralling, ticklish and agonizing—like the initial unfolding of love itself. For a man of many summers, it offers hope, remembrance and remorse

Doomed, he believes, by the separation of their ages, she offers him a question that is searing in its simplicity: “What if you’re loved in such a way that it doesn’t matter how old you are, or if or when you die?”

Paris is a book of paradoxes, like the city, like life itself, as the title suggests, of past and present tense. “Half of humanity’s troubles arise from the inability to see that contradictory propositions can be valid simultaneously,” Jules notes. It’s a fact that makes him not afraid or bitter over the killing of his parents and the Holocaust.

“We have what was denied to them,” he explains. “We would betray them were we not happy to be alive.”

Age itself has beauty, he notes, for “you learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason,” even if you can’t find your reading glasses.

Each page of Paris is a philosophy lesson on how to live, see, love, from someone who lives “in the present tense.” It is a world where capricious fate causes hopes to rise, which may turn to naught, creating new realities.

Enjoy this article? Let the Clarion-Ledger know by sending them an email, so we can keep providing you great locally-written content.

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.

Mark Helprin will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 16, at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from Paris in the Present Tense.

Reel to Real: ‘Our Souls at Night’ is a tender elegy about love

Kent Haruf passed away of cancer in November of 2014, shortly thereafter his final novel Our Souls at Night was published.our souls at night pb Our Souls at Night is now a film on Netflix starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. But, I encourage you to read this great author’s last novel before seeing it. It’s beautifully written and it will only take you an afternoon.

Haruf wrote this novel during the time in his life that he knew he was dying. He chose to write about finding love in the last chapters of these characters’ lives in spite of his reality.

Louis and Addie are neighbors, they’ve know each other for awhile…but just as friends. Louis lost his wife about a year earlier and Addie has been widowed for some time now. Both are in their seventies and are a bit lonely, but getting by just fine on their own. Addie, who has trouble sleeping at night, makes a suggestion that they begin sleeping together. Just sleeping in the same bed, talking, staying with each other through the night…companionship.

As the nights go by, they learn about each of their histories; their past spouses, their children, their fears and what they both still want out of life at their age. They help one another in different ways: emotionally, mentally, and physically.  Addie’s son is having some issues with his own son, so her grandson Jamie comes to stay with her for the summer. Addie and Louis help Jamie through a tough time and we learn that love is needed during all stages of life.

They start to have outings together, and people begin to notice their fondness of one another. They deal with rumors about the two of them that run through their small town, but even still…grow closer.

It’s about love, and it’s about loneliness and loss; friendships young and old, family and non-family. This is a book for literally anyone that wants a few hours of pure joy. I laughed and I cried, all in one sitting. The love and friendship between Addie and Louis is so real, I could feel it. This is a short read, but oh….it is so perfect. Haruf knew what he wanted out of this book and it’s superb.

Jennifer Egan’s ‘Manhattan Beach’ oceanic in its mysteries, allure

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

manhattan beachThe plot of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel Manhattan Beach is straightforward enough: Anna Kerrigan, an adolescent girl in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, struggles with a dysfunctional family to find her place in the world.

The characters are sufficiently intriguing: the father, Ed Kerrigan, is a union bagman, once relatively wealthy, who lost it all during the stock market crash; her mother, Agnes, transfers her love, loyalty and care to Anna’s sister, Lydia, who suffers from a catastrophic birth defect that leaves her unable to talk, sit up, or care for herself.

But the characters all knowingly or unwittingly revolve around the mysterious Dexter Styles, a wealthy, high-society gangster and nightclub owner. Once Anna’s father crosses paths with him, he disappears, leaving the family in disarray, spiraling into dissolution. And Anna becomes fixated with Styles as the plot jumps to the World War II years.

Anna takes a job at the Naval Yard in Brooklyn, frequenting Styles’ nightclub. The plot transforms into a growing-of-age novel, with the mystery of her father’s death lurking ever present. She finds love, she finds happiness, she finds loss.

Anna is endearing as a resourceful individual who is strong-willed but vulnerable to her own self-doubts and the formidable barriers of living in a paternalistic man’s world.

Egan’s art is her ability to capture complex emotions, leading toward mysteries and unexpected turns, like life itself, that at the end leave us ravenous for more.

The underlying power of Beach is its ability to relate on a subconscious level. Anna’s sister Lydia, for example, is a cipher for incomprehensible beauty, of wishes and dreams that are too beautiful—and flawed—for this world.

Her mother, Agnes, fawns on her; Anna holds her as close as a talisman. “A vibration seemed to emanate from inside Lydia, as if she were a radio tuned to a distant frequency. She knew all of Anna’s secrets; Anna had dropped them in her ears like coins in a well.”

Indeed, she is a goddess as well as a curse. All who come into contact with Lydia either adore her or despise her, not seeing her as she is, but as their own best or worst reflections.

But Lydia is only one of many beguiling characters that constantly raise questions, potential problems, solutions, or disappointments, like those we find in our daily lives.

Egan is a highly accomplished author of four previous novels and has won a Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. Beach doesn’t disappoint.

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.

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.

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