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April 2013

A Life on the Edge: An Interview with Jim Whittaker

Omni-CardNobody has a better business card than Jim Whittaker.

The business side is low-key: A simple, stylized mountain logo, his name, and the words “Adventurer, Author, Speaker.” But turn it over and you'll find a picture of Whittaker--or "Big Jim," as he was known then and ever since--standing astride the summit of the tallest mountain on the planet, ice axe raised over his head in what must have been a heady mix of triumph, joy, and disbelief (relief would have to wait until after the descent). He was--is--the first American to accomplish the feat, and either the 10th or 11th overall, depending on how you're counting. Nawang Gombu, who took that picture, was Whittaker's climbing partner that day--May 1, 1963, 50 years ago tomorrow--and as Big Jim tells it, they chose to summit as a team, together.

Whittaker's and Gombu's achievement wasn't the only highlight of the expedition. Three weeks later, on another spine of Everest’s three-sided pyramid, Thomas Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld drove a new route up the perilous West Ridge, over the summit, and down Whittaker's South Col route, pausing overnight to bivouac at 28 thousand feet. It was the first traverse of an eight-thousand meter peak, but they had no choice—their route up provided no way back down. As an incredible feat of daring and perserverance, mountaineers consider it to be one of the greatest accomplishments in Everest (and climbing) history. Even a half-century later, it has been rarely repeated.

Omni-LifeEdgeMay 1, 1963, was a life-changing moment for Whittaker: He suddenly found himself befriended by the Kennedys--vacationing with the family and hosting them in his own home--and later ran RFK’s campaign in Washington State; he became CEO of REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated--he was previously its first full-time employee); he led two expeditions to K2, the second of which put the first Americans atop the world’s second-highest peak; and he returned to Everest in 1990 to lead a team comprised of Cold War antagonists to the top. And those are just the highlights.

But the unassuming kid from West Seattle stayed the same. He simply feels amazed at his own fortune: lucky.

Omni-WestRidgeTo commemorate the 50th anniversary, Mountaineers Books has published extraordinary new editions of Whittaker’s autobiography, A Life on the Edge, and Hornbein’s account of his and Unsoeld’s epic climb, Everest: The West Ridge.  Both are oversized hardcovers, filled with incredible images (many by Whittaker’s wife, Dianne Roberts, who photographed their K2 expeditions and has an amazing business card of her own), with new forewords by climber/authors Ed Viesturs and Jon Krakauer. These are essential books for mountaineers, armchair or otherwise.

When you look at pictures of these men, they are almost always smiling (especially Unsoeld), even as some of them are ported down mountains without so many of the toes they started up with. Certainly there are grittier images available, and maybe those are just the pictures they selected for the books, but I'd like to think not. When asked why he was so determined to climb Everest, British climber George Mallory famously said, "Because it's there." Whittaker, Tom Hornbein, and the rest of the 1963 expedition didn't climb the mountain because it was there; they climbed it because they were here, present on what Big Jim calls “this magical planet.” They were living with purpose, and they knew it. Jim and Dianne still are.

Though he’s been busy with media and events to mark the date, Jim and Dianne made time to stop by the Brave Horse Tavern in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for a chat about Everest, the Kennedys, and more. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

(Click here to learn more about Everest, K2, and other classics of mountaineering—many of which are published by Mountaineers books--and visit Jim Whittaker’s web site for more information, including additional photographs from his personal collection. )

Jon Foro: You were specifically picked for the Everest team due to your Mt. Rainier experience. Did that prepare you the way you thought it might?

Jim Whittaker: I guided on Rainier through college, for three summers, and I climbed a lot, and I was on the ski patrol. So I'd done a lot of different things in the outdoors. (On McKinley, we had an accident--one of our team got a broken ankle and it took us a while to get down.  I meant to ask Norman [Dyhrenfurth, the expedition leader] whether that was what really drew his attention, because it was on nation-wide news that we were stranded on the summit of Mt. McKinley.)

Yeah, it did, it did. The thing is, the Northwest has got the glaciers. The East Coast, The middle states, even the Rockies don't have the glaciers. But here, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, they've got snow and ice--everything that Mount Everest has except that extra fourteen thousand feet. We have the crevasses, the seracs, we've got the weather--incredibly bad weather could hit.... So it was a great training ground. So I went over fairly confident--maybe overconfident--that we could knock off the mountain.

Continue reading "A Life on the Edge: An Interview with Jim Whittaker" »

What They Were Reading: Sofia Samatar, Author of “A Stranger in Olondria”

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For our new “What Were They Reading” feature, we ask writers what they read while working on their latest book.

This time around, we asked Sofia Samatar, whose first novel A Stranger in Olondria was just published by Small Beer Press. Samatar is an American of Somali and Swiss German Mennonite background. Her writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Stone Telling, and Strange Horizons. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, South Sudan, where she worked as an English teacher.

Her novel, which recently received a starred review from Library Journal, follows Jevick, a pepper merchant's son, who has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl. And things get more complicated from there.

Here’s what she had to say when we asked her what she read while working on the book…

“I wrote the first draft of A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, South Sudan, where I taught high school English. I was there from 1998 to 2001, and while Yambio was fairly secure, the country was at war. There was a 6 p.m. curfew, and no internet or TV, so in the evenings you could either play cards, read, or listen to the BBC. My husband, Keith Miller, and I did a lot of reading, and both of us wrote novels.

“The only books we had were the ones we brought with us, so we read them over and over. I was used to reading The Lord of the Rings every year, but in Yambio I read other books multiple times: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Carole Maso’s AVA, Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain. I got really into big books, because I was always afraid of running out of things to read before we could get to Nairobi, where we went to stay with my in-laws during school breaks. The Nairobi bookshops were full of those Penguin Classics with the peach-colored spines, and these were perfect, because they were cheap and good and LARGE. I read Tolstoy and George Eliot and Jane Austen in those Penguins. I read Dracula for the first time that way, too, and it was like, where has this been all my life? And then there was Proust: so good, so verbose! By the time we left Sudan, I’d read all of Remembrance of Things Past—twice.

“Sometimes it seems odd to me that I wrote a fantasy novel while reading so little genre fantasy. Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, Mervyn Peake if you count him: that was it. But of course, if you desire the fantastic, you’ll find it everywhere. The Gothic atmosphere of Jane Eyre, the chilling music of "The Lady of Shalott,” the uncanny doublings of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. And then there was Frankenstein. I bought a little abridged edition of it in Nairobi, and read it out loud to a new group of students every year. Everyone loved it. There’s something so satisfying and real about that story, and it came through powerfully in the pared-down version I read. My students used to cheer and pound on their desks at the good parts—once the assistant headmaster came in to find out what was going on! It was not only one of the best reading experiences of my life, but an education in the power of narrative.

“Now, when I look at A Stranger in Olondria, I see the marks of my reading everywhere. My main character, Jevick, is haunted by a ghost, but he calls her an angel: that’s from Stephen Mitchell’s introduction to his translations of Rilke’s poetry. At one point Jevick lists his impressions of a new town in a sort of dreamlike way: that’s from Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. Also, my first draft was 200,000 words long—twice as long as the final version. That was Proust.”

 

Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Vaughn Talk True BBQ

Prophets-Smoked-MeatIf you keep your ear to the food-world ground, you may have heard that Anthony Bourdain--chef, storyteller, tastemaker, traveler, and fearless eater of Parts Unknown--is launching a line of books. Aside from rumblings of a Mark Miller kickboxing memoir, he's mostly (no surprise) focused on food. His inaugural offering, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, comes from Daniel “Barbecue Snob” Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog fame. It's aptly billed as a "rollicking journey through the heart of Texas Barbecue." You'll find the occasional recipe, but it's much more of a guidebook and tribute to the holy men of Texas meat than a traditional cookbook. It's also on my list of May picks for the Best Books of the Month in Cookbooks, Food & Wine.

Here, Bourdain gets the low-down from Vaughn on all things BBQ. Enjoy. --Mari Malcolm

Bourdain: Why Texas BBQ? Why not NC or KC or Memphis?

Vaughn: There is only one state where the barbecue culture holds the brisket up to the highest regard, and that is Texas. The brisket is the hardest of the smoked meats to master and the hardest to do well consistently. In Texas we celebrate great brisket by not messing with it. If it's done right then you slice it pencil thick and slap it on a piece of butcher paper. It's naked, quivering and vulnerable, so it has to stand on its own.

Bourdain: Is enough ever enough BBQ for you?

Daniel-VaughnVaughn: I recently took a road trip to North Carolina just for barbecue. On the first day we ate at seven different barbecue joints across the eastern side of the state and came back to Raleigh where we were staying. We were stuffed, but wanted some pie at Poole's Diner. At the counter there we learned from another diner that a place down the street did North Carolina pulled pork empanadas. It was midnight and we were beyond the uncomfortable point, but we paid our bill and immediately went to order barbecue empanadas for our real nightcap. The short answer: No, I don't get sick of barbecue, especially good barbecue.

Bourdain: Define "the cookie"; also, "pink ring."

Vaughn: The sugar cookie is the intersection of fat, salt, smoke and time at the corners of a brisket slice. When the fat starts to render and contracts it concentrates the flavors of the rub and the smoke and the fat nugget even tastes a little sweet like a buttery sugar cookie. The smoke ring is the pink line just beneath the crust of smoked meat. It doesn't taste like smoke, but it does show that the meat has been cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time with good air (smoke) flow across the meat while it cooks. When those all come together a smoke ring forms and chances are the meat will taste good and smoky.

BourdainPhotoBourdain: Competition BBQ or stationary: what's the difference? What's better?

Vaughn: I prefer the discovery of barbecue joints around the state and the country rather than eating bite after bite of faceless barbecue at a competition. Learning the stories of who is cooking your meat and how it ended up on your plate the way it did is part of the fun, and that connection isn't possible in the blind tasting setting of a competition. I'm also a bit of a purist, so simple seasoning with salt, pepper and smoke is what I prefer on my smoked meat. Loads of brown sugar and squeezable margarine that are common on the competition are no way to treat a defenseless brisket in my opinion.

Bourdain: What are some warning signs which definitely indicate imminent arrival of sub-optimal BBQ?

Vaughn: If you don't see a stick of wood around the property, there's really no need to get out of the car. Barbecue joint signs that include 'catfish' or 'salad bar' are also dubious, but I still try to go most anywhere that serves smoked meat.  

Bourdain: Does anyone in NYC come close to "great" BBQ by Texas standards? Anywhere else up north?

Vaughn: I haven't eaten at a barbecue joint in New York that comes close to the greats in Texas, but I'm hopeful that something will come up in my search when I visit again in May. Smoque in Chicago is the furthest north that I've eaten great brisket.

Bourdain: Is wrapping brisket or ribs in foil EVER okay? Why not?

Vaughn: Foil is known as the "Texas crutch." Once the briskets are wrapped, it's hard for them to dry out because they steam inside the foil package. This might result in tender brisket, but it sacrifices a great crust and can easily lead to slightly smoky pot roast instead of well smoked brisket. It's hard to condone, but there are a few places out there that can still use it successfully. The best joints either don't wrap at all or wrap them in butcher paper.

Bourdain: Sauce or no sauce?

Vaughn: Good barbecue does not require sauce. Period.

Bourdain: When Australians refer to the “Barbie,” what the hell are they talking about?

Vaughn: I have no idea. I think I've only seen American actors with fake Australian accents refer to the "Barbie," but I think it has something to do with grilling, which isn't barbecue.

Bourdain: Which BBQ joint would you currently choose to die in?

Vaughn: Franklin Barbecue. When I die I want to be forever preserved in a brisket fat confit from Aaron Franklin's brisket.

Bourdain: What is the best beverage to enjoy with BBQ in an ideal situation?

Vaughn: I love beer, but I don't love it with barbecue. I'd rather have something sweet, so give me a Dr. Pepper or a half sweet, half unsweet iced tea.

Bourdain: What's the most egregious misconception about BBQ?

Vaughn: The most egregious misconception about barbecue is that every pitmaster has some sort of secret ingredient or sauce that makes their barbecue superlative. To a true pitmaster the rub is about as important as the brand of sandpaper is to a master wood carver. If you think knowing that "secret" will substitute for having the skill and experience of a master, then you're an idiot.

Amazon Asks: Matthew Hussey

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Matthew Hussey has got it all going in the right direction these days. He was a "matchmaker" on NBC's Ready For Love, he's embarking on a speaking tour, and he's just published a best-selling book. The title says it all: Get the Guy: Learn Secrets of the Male Mind to Find the Man You Want and the Love You Deserve. The Amazon Editors reached out to Matthew to learn a little more about him.

 

Describe your book in 10 words or less?

A practical guide to understanding men and finding love.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Favorite books of all time? 

A Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, How to Win Friends and Influence People – I discovered them all when I was a teenager and have all had a huge impact on my life ever since.

Pen Envy - Book you wish you'd written?

Hundreds, but probably The Great Gatsby. In little over 100 pages it tells you everything about life, America, striving for something better, dreams and expectations, and the tragedy that can come with getting exactly what you want (or think you want).

Book that made you want to become a writer? 

The Road Less Travelled – It’s one of the most honest and down-to-earth books about life and love ever written, and it bravely dispels a lot of the bad myths about romantic love and relationships that people hold onto for years.

Most memorable author moment?

Feeling and smelling my own book in a bookstore! I think for anyone who loves books you fall in love with the object itself. Especially when it’s your own.

What are you obsessed with now?

Boxing – It’s my escape and outlet. It’s where I get to leave all the talking and words behind and just relieve stress.

What are you stressed about now?

My speaking tour of the US. I’m constantly hopping between states over the next month, and I finally understand how comedians feel when they take a show on the road and all the madness that comes with that. It’s mainly the instability of it all that becomes stressful, but having moved to LA from London over the last year I’ve had to get used to change quickly.

What are you psyched about now?

In the next couple of months I’m releasing a programme to turn people into masters of human dynamics in both their personal and professional lives. It’s exciting because it’s about your entire lifestyle and people skills in work, health, friendship, family, and relationships.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Damn, you stole my two favourites! Top of the list after that has to be the ability to stop time – you could have an unbelievable amount of fun. If not, then breathing underwater or being omnilingual (the ability to speak any language).

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

A watch my Dad gave me just before I left for Los Angeles. My Dad has always loved watches and him giving his to me at a key moment in my life was a touching moment.

What's next for you?  

I’m on Eva Longoria’s NBC TV show Ready for Love as one of the expert matchmakers. I’m also touring the US giving my ‘Get the Guy’ seminars, and plan to release a lifestyle course called ‘IMPACT’, which is something I’m really excited about.

Favorite line?

I love the line: “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around”

It’s from the movie Vanilla Sky, and the sentiment reflects my absolute core belief in the power individuals have in every tiny moment. It’s the same with dating. It only takes one tiny decision to take that risk, to be sexy in a way you’ve never tried before, to flash a cheeky smile that puts you on someone’s radar, or to speak to that person who can’t take their eyes off you, and suddenly the world opens up. People’s lives can change in a single minute in those precious everyday moments, which is something I’ve always strived to demonstrate with Get the Guy.

Favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?  

I’m not a big TV viewer, but I am one of those people who can burn through an HBO boxset in about three days. But I’ve somehow convinced myself that ‘Mad Men’ is a form of research so I’ve reached a comfortable place with it now.

What do you collect?

Movie soundtracks – I’m addicted to great music from films and love collecting my favourite composers – Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard to name a few.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

It’s one I mention in the book. It’s an email from my oldest client, who simply sent me this:

“I want you to pass on a message to everyone you coach. I’m 83 years old and I’m retired. Through your coaching I’ve met the man of my dreams. We’re spending our days right now building a boat, and when it’s done, we’re going to sail away in it together. If it can happen to me at my age, with everything I’ve been through in my life, it can happen to anyone.”

My heart swells every time I read that. And her message that it can happen at any age, no matter what you think is holding you back, is the most important lesson I’ve ever learnt about love.

Michael Pollan's Favorite Cookbooks

Cooked After transforming the way we think about our  relationship with plants and the world-altering impact of what we eat, Michael Pollan invites us to rediscover the elemental pleasure of transforming raw ingredients into meals--through grilling (fire), braising (water), baking (air), and fermenting (earth)--in his fantastic latest, Cooked.

Pollan contends that learning to cook elevated our ancient ancestors from lone animals into increasingly intelligent, civilized groups--and gave us the fuel for expanding brains--it's one of the essential acts that made us human. Now, we spend scant time doing real cooking, but we've become obsessed with watching people cook, a paradox that signals longing for that lost experience.

In his own quest to close the seed-to-table loop, he spent three years learning to cook with great pit masters, chefs, bakers, and “fermentos,” making Cooked a lively, passionate exploration of the elemental appeal of making a meal.

In the spirit of diving back into our own kitchens with renewed gusto, we asked Pollan to send us his favorite cookbooks.

The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler: As much a philosophy of everyday cooking as a cookbook (though the recipes are terrific), Adler's book shows us how to cook beautifully with the most modest of ingredients and skills.

A Platter of Figs by David Tanis: A former head chef at Chez Panisse (and now a columnist for the Dining section at the New York Times), Tanis offers a gorgeous cookbook with perfect, elegant menus to suit the season. A mainstay of our dinner parties.

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters: All of Alice Waters’ cookbooks are wonderful, but this once is the most readily approachable and offers the essential recipes for everything from a great vinaigrette to salsa verde, roast chicken and polenta. Reminds me of The Elements of Style, and just as necessary.

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson: An inspiring book for the bread baker--my favorite primer on bread.

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz: The definitive volume on all the arts of fermentation, from yogurt to kvass, sauerkraut to pickled anything you can imagine.

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman: If it’s not already in your collection, you’re either already a great cook or in deep trouble. The basics on everything, and indispensable.

The Everlasting Meal A Platter of Figs The Art of Simple Food

Tartine Bread The Art of Fermentation How to Cook Everything

How I Wrote It: Mitchell Zuckoff, on "Frozen In Time"

ZuckoffComing two years after his bestselling Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff's Frozen in Time again tells the dramatic story of a World War II plane crash. In fact, this time there are three of them.

In 1942, a U.S. cargo plane slams into an ice cap in Greenland, then a B-17 crashes during its search and rescue mission, then a Grumman Duck amphibious plane disappears after rescuing one of the B-17 survivors. "Talk about bad luck," Amazon senior editor Jon Foro points out in his review, describing the story as "part Alive, part Shackleton." 

Zuckoff told us that the similarities between Frozen In Time and Lost in Shangri-La (both Amazon Best of the Month picks) were consistent with his passion for stories about human endurance. "I'm drawn to people pulled to extremes, pulled beyond expected limit," he said.

FrozenYet, he didn't want to straight-up replicate Shangri-La with another WWII rescue story. What appealed to him was the modern-day piece of Frozen In Time. In 2011, Zuckoff met with a photographer and explorer named Lou Sapienza, a "tireless dreamer" who had been searching for the Grumman Duck and the men who disappeared. Zuckoff loved the idea of telling alternating stories, present and past. "I was excited about the challenge of writing a modern day story and a historic story," he said.

The key was getting Sapienza to cooperate. When they first met, Zuckoff felt like he was being auditioned. In fact, at one point Sapienza asked, Why shouldn't I be working with Jon Krakauer? Zuckoff told him, "You should. But he's not here. I am." Sapienza seemed to like that, and the two men hit it off, which led to Zuckoff's participation in the risky 2012 expedition to find the Duck.

"The participatory part was fantastic," Zuckoff said. "It was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had."

When it came time to sit and write, however, the journalist found it difficult to make himself part of the story. "That was the harder part: I've never written in the first person," Zuckoff said. "That writing is some of the hardest writing I've ever done."

The result, as Amazon reviewer Foro put it, is "a thrilling story of courage, perseverance, and loyalty that spans decades." We asked Zuckoff to describe a few details of his writing life.

Space

Shangri-laI write exclusively in a book-filled, 12-foot-square office in my house, at a three-level desk crammed into a corner. On the first level is my keyboard and, to my left, a stack of documents for a book I'm either working on or should be working on. On the second level is the computer monitor, flanked on either side by more stacks of papers and high-tech tools such as scissors and a box of index cards. On the top level, to the left, is a printer, and on the right is an old-fashioned lamp with a green glass shade. From it hangs a boar's tooth necklace I was given in New Guinea. Next to the lamp is a model of the World War II plane I wrote about in Lost in Shangri-La, given to me by a friend, and metal box with an orca tooth and a dollar bill signed by everyone on the Greenland expedition I wrote about in Frozen in Time. The walls are covered with award plaques won by my wife, a photographer with The Boston Globe, along with a few I've won, which reassure me on difficult writing days. The window is on the other side of the room, which is far enough away that I can't throw myself through it on those same tough writing days.

Soundtrack

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious git, I never listen to music when I write because I'm trying to hear the rhythm of the words. I once tried listening to jazz and found myself eyeing the window on the other side of the room.

Fuel

Pretentious git, Part II: When I've reached the point in my research where I"m ready to write at length--weeks on end, usually without missing a day--I make sure I'm downing a lot of protein. Years ago, I read a great piece by Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post about writing and playing high-level sports, and one of the takeaway messages was that my natural tendency to seek a sugar high when sitting at the keyboard was about as useful as eating a bag of M&Ms to run a marathon. Having said that, when I've finished writing for the day (usually very late at night) I reward myself with something sweet, occasionally followed by a glass of port.

Words

When I'm working intensely on a book, I read books that are almost always directly related to what I'm writing--histories, biographies, sometimes technical manuals. To escape my own writing, I read The New Yorker because it cleanses some of the bad writing I'm forced to read and replaces it with beautiful voices in 5,000- to 15,000-word sonatas.

Inspiration

I'm a huge believer in the exercise-nap combo platter. I'm serious. If I exercise early in the day and take a nap, I've got the energy I need to write deep into the night.

Temptation

I mostly try to avoid questions about my writing process. No, really, I try to avoid everything. I tend to write at night, when the house is quiet, everyone including my dog is asleep, and emails aren't popping into my inbox every minute.

~

> See all of Mitchell Zuckoff's books.

Damn – sorry I couldn’t stop by, Liz. My day got swallowed up. That’ll teach me to take off for a week.

Omni Exclusive: China Miéville on Dial H and the Superhero B-List

A winner of the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Arthur C. Clarke awards (to name a few), China Miéville specializes in the fantastical and the weird. His literary approach to genre themes earned him a legion of fans (most recently with his novel Railsea in 2012), but Miéville remains a fan as well--of comics. The personal and professional interests collided in the best of ways during DC’s New 52 initiative, when the publisher announced a new Dial H series with Miéville at the helm with artist Mateus Santolouco. In the following exclusive essay, Miéville reveals his long history with the series and how that history led to a fresh, successful start for the book while remaining true to its core weirdness.

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I wasn't very good at canon. Oh, I got better as I got older, but as a kid, I pieced together my comics knowledge like a mudlark, scobbing together whatever titles I could find in local shops and libraries – new copies, second-hand ones, beaten-up and ripped-to-shreds remnants - without any understanding of publisher or continuity. I’d cross-fertilize them with the various exciting bits and pieces I'd picked up, all the rumours and half-truths regarding superheroes.

This led to an idiosyncratic version of the DCU. Once, many years ago, as a very young child, I was delighted to discover a pile of comics in an attic. They featured a blond, orange-shirted superhero who could speak to fish. “Ah,” I thought, settling down to read. “This must be this ‘Superman’ of whom I've heard so much.” I was intrigued that so many of his adventures were maritime.

As the years passed, I got a bit more systematic, but I never lost the excitement at the sheer chaotic variety of costumes, monikers and powers I might find fighting for justice, every time I opened a comic. It was always a surprise. This addiction to the proliferation of the superheroic is something many of us never grow out of.

In fact, inventing superheroes is one of the basic games of childhood. Tie a towel around your neck and come up with a powerset, all the abilities you think you’ll need. Justify that hot mess as coherent by some ingenious, tendentious argument. Finally, give your wonder a name. (Electrical blast and tiger stripes? Electrotiger!) This is what we do. Like countless kids around the world, I was a martyr to superherogenesis.

Continue reading "Omni Exclusive: China Miéville on Dial H and the Superhero B-List" »

Helene Wecker: Four Surprising Things I Learned While Researching The Golem and the Jinni

My novel The Golem and the Jinni took me seven years to write, and I'd estimate that at least two of those years were spent just on research. As it turns out, if you're writing a historical fantasy set in late 19th-century New York City and centered around two different cultures, you might end up sitting in the library for a while.

Along the way I came across quite a few items that surprised me -- whether they should've or not -- and that proved that no matter how much I researched, I always had more to learn.

Here are a few of the more interesting tidbits I found:

 

1. Most of the Syrians who first immigrated to the United States were Christian, not Muslim.

Back in the late 19th century, what's now Lebanon was still part of Greater Syria, and ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Times were tough for Christian families in the Lebanon Valley. Because of the inheritance laws, many had only a small patch of land to farm on, not nearly enough to support themselves. Plus, a lot of young men were looking for ways to avoid conscription into the Imperial army. (You could buy your way out, but the price tag was usually prohibitive.) An Arab delegation came to the U.S. for the 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, saw for themselves the business opportunities to be had, went home and spread the word. Soon the emigration was underway. Many got an extra push from American missionaries in Syria, who gave them letters of introduction written in English to their parishes back in the States.

2. Some Jewish bakers sell their bakeries during Passover, and then buy them back again.

This one kind of delighted me. I realized I had a problem: one of my main characters worked in a Jewish bakery. What would happen when Passover rolled around, the eight days a year when it's forbidden to eat leavened bread? I did a little research, and discovered this excellent solution. It seems that some Jewish bakery owners, rather than shut the business down and get rid of all their flour -- a very expensive prospect -- choose to "sell" the bakery to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. A contract is drawn up (overseen by a rabbi), a nominal sum is exchanged, and voila! The bakery is now exempt from the strictures of Jewish law. Then, at the end of Passover, the money is returned, and ownership reverts to the original owner. It's the sort of work-around that some folks like to look down on, but I think it's a great example of practicing one's faith as part of the wider world. Unfortunately, I couldn't use it in the book. I tried to work it in, but the explanation was far too bulky and complicated. Plus, a few of my test readers thought I'd made it up, and told me it sounded unrealistic!

3. It used to be you couldn't walk on the grass in Central Park.

Back when Central Park first opened in the late 1850s, the rules of conduct were much more stringent than today. Central Park had been built so that New Yorkers could get more fresh air and exercise, but to the park commissioners that meant genteel and well-behaved exercise, the kind that kept to clearly marked walkways and carriage paths. The park's expanses of meadow were meant to be looked at, not run upon. Boys could only play baseball if they brought a note from their principal. Large picnics were not allowed, which left out groups of more than a few people -- and in those days, that meant the Irish and Italians and other immigrant families who might've appreciated a nice picnic in the grass. For a while, the result was that the park's visitors were mostly upper-crust New Yorkers, with their nannies and expensive carriages. But then the middle class began to petition the Park commissioners for more access, and by the end of the 19th century, the rules had relaxed quite a bit.

4. Blatant racism, sexism, and classism used to be the norm in respected newspapers.

I kind of knew about this one, but it still caught me off guard, every single time. As a society we still have a very long ways to go, but if you want an object lesson in how far we've come -- at least in what's acceptable to say in print -- just check out any New York Times article from the late 1800s that has anything to do with women, immigrants, or the poor. For a good example, there's "New York's Syrian Quarter," an 1899 article profiling the then-new neighborhood of Little Syria. The writer spends an entire paragraph comparing the relative attractiveness of the Syrian women: first to those of other nationalities ("[T]here are, indeed, a number of amazingly pretty girls, prettier, one is tempted to assert, than those of any other foreign colony of New York"), and then to each other (the poorer women "have no beauty of either face or form," but the more prosperous merchants' wives "are attractive, and markedly.") Of the neighborhood newspapers he says, "Three newspapers thrive in the quarter, more remarkable even to the eye with their Arabic fonts of type that look like schoolboy pothooks than are the strange Yiddish news sheets of the Ghetto." You mean there are alphabets that don't look like English? How quaint! But how does anyone read them? A few paragraphs later, he's back to the ladies again, lamenting that the "better class" of women are forced to stay in at night, so that they can't "be viewed by every Syrian Tom and Dick." Maybe they're just trying to avoid the creepy Times reporter!

-- Helene Wecker

Graphic Novel Friday: All Now! and All-New X-Men

As part of Marvel Comics’ new Marvel Now! initiative, long-running superhero teams sport new rosters, costumes, and motives. After the events of Avengers vs. X-Men, both teams were left reeling, but it was the X-Men who suffered the biggest loss: Professor X at the hands of team leader Cyclops. No one felt this loss more than Henry McCoy (a.k.a. “Beast”), who was also a founding member with Scott Summers.

Additionally, Beast keeps a secret close to his furry blue chest: he is dying. And as a super-scientist, if he cannot find a cure no one can. Except. What if there was a way for Henry McCoy to consult with the only person who could match his brains? What if Henry McCoy were to enlist the help of Henry McCoy, and what if the only person who could talk Scott Summers out of his murderous funk is Scott Summers? This mind-bending hypothetical kicks of All-New X-Men Vol. 1 (subtitled Yesterday’s X-Men—everything old is all-new again),written by superstar hit-maker Brian Michael Bendis, who left a mountain of Avengers stories and influence to freshen up Marvel’s mighty mutants. With this first volume, Bendis has already crafted what feels like a classic run, where the pages cannot turn quickly enough and the revelations compound.

In order to consult with himself, Beast does what X-Men do: he time travels. In the past, Beast finds the original X-Men and pleads with them to travel to their future to help the X-Men of present day. Plus, two Henry McCoys have a better chance at saving his/their life/lives than one. It’s heady stuff and Bendis wisely skips over the finer details of paradoxes in favor of character moments, where he excels. Beast sees a young Jean Grey, as yet untouched by the Dark Phoenix and her ultimate fate, and marvels at her youth, attitude, and beauty. Of course, yesterday’s X-Men hop aboard with Beast to the present day, where they encounter the all-new X-Men, a team weary from decades of inner mutant battles and a public who hates and fears them now more than ever.

Continue reading "Graphic Novel Friday: All Now! and All-New X-Men" »

Lauren Groff on "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner

Every so often, you'll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it'll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book's imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book's tones, and you will glimpse the book's characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you'd escaped a close call.

This is how I felt after I read Rachel Kushner's brilliant The Flamethrowers. The night I finished it, I dreamt of racing motorcycles across sunshot salt-flats and of floating in glimmering Italian swimming pools. In the morning, I tried to describe the book to a friend but I eventually faltered into silence.

"This is a beautiful book," I finally said, "a book full of truth, a book about art and motorcycle racing and radicalism, about innocence and speed and stepping up to a dangerous brink, a book very deeply about the late seventies in New York City and its powerful blend of grittiness and philosophical purity."

"Oh," said my friend. "So. What is it about?"

I tried again. I said, "It's a love story, about a young artist under the sway of an older, established artist, scion of a motorcycle family, who betrays her, and she joins up with an underground group in Italy."

"It feels like a contemporary European novel, philosophical and intelligent, with an American heart and narrative drive," I said.

"Oh," said my friend.

"Just read the book," I said, and my friend did, and loved it to speechlessness, as well. "Wow," is all he could say when he returned the book to me.

I don't blame him. The truth is, this is a strange and mysterious novel, a subtle novel. Much of its power comes from the precision of Kushner's language and how carefully she allows the flashes of perception to drive the narrative forward. See Reno, the offbeat narrator, describing ski racing to her lover, Sandro, saying, "Ski racing was drawing in time." Suddenly you can see what she means, a body's crisp slaloming down the white slope, the way the skier draws a perfect serpent down the clock.

Or see Reno, racing her motorcycle: "Far ahead of me, the salt flats and mountains conspired into one puddled vortex. I began to feel the size of this place. Or perhaps I did not feel it, but the cycle, whose tires marked its size with each turn, did. I felt a tenderness for them, speeding along under me."

There is something deeply eerie happening under the words, something on the verge of tipping over and spilling out; and, at the same time, a gentleness and innocence at the core of all that noise and speed.

Rachel Kushner is an unbelievably exciting writer, a writer of urgent and beautiful sentences and novels that are vast in their ambition and achievement. I finished it months ago, but The Flamethrowers -- startling, radiant -- still haunts me.

-- Lauren Groff

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August 2014

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