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"Like a Mix of Don Draper and Rasputin": Moving & Shaking in 21st-Century Russia

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New RussiaWhen the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the West rejoiced with the relief that came with the end of the Cold War and the possibility of an era of peace and cooperation. At the same time, its corporations and conglomerates trained a beady eye toward its newly opened markets, and a seemingly virgin economic landscape soon became home to icons such as Coke and McDonalds and Levi’s. But the door was open wide, and tagging along with big business were some seedier characters: organized crime, a youth-and-glamour-obsessed oligarchy, and an entertainment complex hungry for the new concepts of its Western counterparts. That’s where Peter Pomerantsev comes in. Born in Kiev but raised in Great Britain, Pomerantsev returned to Russia as a consultant to its burgeoning film and television—especially “reality” television—industries. What he found was a capitalist’s wet dream: an unfettered cash and service economy with no apparent limits on cash or available services--one where Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, if you can pay for it. At the top of it all sits Vlad Putin, infusing the old TASS tactics with Hollywood flair to create a vision of a bare-chested (bear-chested?) virility and power, of both self and state. Pomerantsev finds himself gazing deeper into this looking-glass world—willingly and otherwise—and he finds it impossible to look away, as will his readers. This is not your father’s Russia, and yet it kind of is.

All that sounds hyberbolic, right? But it's all there. And to demonstrate, Pomerantsev has provided short biographies of some of the book's most interesting players. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


Peter Pomerantsev (photo by Natasha Belauskine) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: A Cast of Characters

By Peter Pomerantsev

 

Vladislav Surkov: The Kremlin "Vizier"
"Egor could see to the heights of creation...."

The hidden author of the Putin system, Surkov trained as a theater director, made his name as a PR guru before going on to become one of Putin's right hand men, running Russian politics like a mix of Don Draper and Rasputin. In his spare time he pens satirical, self-referential novels about cynical political operators who have sold their souls, writes rock lyrics and essays on modern art. When asked for his reaction to being sanctioned by US and EU for playing a key role in the annexation of Crimea Surkov answered: "I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Oliona: A Moscow Holly Golightly
"It's all true, you can really have the life; it's not just in the movies!"

Oliona has come to Moscow from a bankrupt mafia-run mining town to make it as a gold-digger in the city's decadent clubs. She's quite open, even proud of her bag of tricks, and attends a gold-digger school where she's taught how to seduce and keep an oligarch: never wear jewelry on a first date, she learns, dress down- so that he wants to buy you presents. But she's hitting her mid-twenties and that might spell the end of her career. She worries her sugar daddy is going off her, while her generation dream of Putin as the ultimate sugar daddy of them all.

Vitaly: Gangster Turned Film Director
"Usually you’d be one of my victims. But in this case we'll be partners."

Vitaly used to be a gangster in Siberia. Then he took all his all-gotten gains and ploughed them into the movie business. But they're no ordinary movies. He makes films about his own life, with himself in the main role, and his gangster buddies playing themselves. He spent years behind bars watching gangster movies and thought they were all fake: only a real gangster can make a real gangster movie.

Jambik Hatohov: The Fattest Boy in the World

Jambik Hatohov is 7 years old and weighs over a hundred kilograms (220 pounds), making him the biggest boy in the world. He lives in the North Caucascus, in a part of the country where the choice growing up is between being a wrestler or a Jihadi. His single mum thinks she can use Jambik's weight as a way out of the squalor, and hopes he can become a TV star. Meanwhile more and more "black widows," the name given to suicide bombers form the North Caucascus, make their way to Moscow to blow themselves up in the name of Allah.

Yana Yakovelva: Imprisoned Business Woman
"You think prison is something bad that happens to other people. And then you wake up and my God you’re a convict."

Yana was a poster girl for the new, capitalist Russia, running her own petro-chemicals business and living what seemed like a perfectly successful, Western-style life. But in Putin's Russia, normality is only ever an illusion. When some high-level bureaucrats want a piece of her company they throw her in prison on trumped up charges--and Yana is plunged into another Russia of convicts and corrupt courts. As she fights to get out, she finds her own case leads right to the top of the Kremlin.

Alexander Mozhaev: The Guardian Spirit of Old Moscow
"The drama of human lives is written in the buildings. We will be gone; only places remain."

The city is destroyed to make way for neo-Stalinist skyscrapers, and Mozhaev tries to save the last vestiges of the old town. This is more than about just buildings, in a system which is misusing history in the name of tyranny the fight for the city becomes a fight for a different sort of Russia. Mozhaev is the last romantic in a city of corruption.

Ruslana Korshunova: Supermodel
"I'm so lost, will I ever find myself?"

A Russian supermodel, star of a Nina Ricci ad, who killed herself by jumping from a NY skyscraper. She seemed perfectly happy, wasn't into drugs, was preparing to go to university. What lead to her death? Was it a tragic love story? Could it have been murder? And is her death connected to that of another top model who also died by jumping from a high-rise, this time in Kiev?

The Night Wolves
"We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia."

As Moscow plunges into a messianic fervor sects bubble to the surface. None is more striking than the Night Wolves, a Russian Hells Angels biker gang who have found God and see themselves on a mission to save the Russian soul from the decadent, Satanic West. Their faith combines Orthodox Christianity with a worship of Stalin and heavy metal. Surkov, as ever, is in the background, making the Night Wolves national stars as the Kremlin toys with a dangerous, and surreal, religious nationalist ideology.

Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich
"This is a very Russian story, with lots of killers, where the president himself is almost a killer."

Two Russian oligarchs--now based in London--who are fighting the largest private litigation in history. Berezovsky, the older mentor known as the "Godfather of the Kremlin," accuses his protégé, Abramovich, known as the "Stealth Oligarch," of "acting like a gangster" and extorting a five-billion-dollar company from him. The trial opens up the insides of the Putin system, showing how it is increasingly growing to influence the West as the Russian super-rich descend onto London, Monaco and New York.

Vladik Mamyshev Monroe
"I want to try on every persona the world has ever known."

A performance artist, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. In a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin and Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints and where "performance" is the buzz-word Vladik is a mascot and prankster philosopher. But as the new Russia tumbles from decadence to madness, from glamour to dictatorship, he finds himself appalled at the very cult of performance he celebrates: "Putin will eat up our country," he writes. "One day we will reach into the cupboard and reach for our clothes and they will turn to dust in our hands because they have been eaten by maggots."

 

Author photo by Natasha Belauskine

Best of the Year: Celebrity Authors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2014

It's becoming a thing: Each of the past few years, when we announce our editors' picks for Best Books of the Year, we also share a list of our favorite writers' favorite books.

This year we asked some of the biggest names in books, fashion, film, food, music, and more--all of whom have recent books of their own--to tell us about three books they loved in 2014. See which books Anne Rice, Brooke Shields, Lena Dunham, Norman Lear, Tory Burch, George Clinton, James Franco, Mark Bittman, Alan Cumming, Martin Short, Diana Gabaldon and others chose as their favorites.

The full roster is in alphabetical order below, or you can visit the Celebrity Picks page on Amazon.com.

Holly Black
Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman
Grace Bonney
Grace Bonney
Tory Burch
Tory Burch
George Clinton
George Clinton
Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming
Christopher Paul Curtis
Christopher Paul Curtis
Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo
Ree Drummond
Ree Drummond
Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham
Cary Elwes
Cary Elwes
Gayle Forman
Gayle Forman
James Franco
James Franco
Alan Furst
Alan Furst
Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon
Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande
Dorie Greenspan
Dorie Greenspan
Grumpy Cat
Grumpy Cat
Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness
Laura Hillenbrand
Laura Hillenbrand
 Gina Homolka
Gina Homolka
 Jeff Kinney
Jeff Kinney
 Norman Lear
Norman Lear
 Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman
 Jane Lynch
Jane Lynch
 Lianne Moriarty
Lianne Moriarty
 B.J. Novak
B.J. Novak
 James Patterson
James Patterson
 Stephanie Perkins
Stephanie Perkins
 Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult
 Anne Rice
Anne Rice
 Sarah Richardson
Sarah Richardson
 Brooke Shields
Brooke Shields
 Martin Short
Martin Short
 Lara Spencer
Lara Spencer
 Brandon Stanton
Brandon Stanton
 Garth Stein
Garth Stein
 Amy Stewart
Amy Stewart
 Brad Thor
Brad Thor
 Scott Westerfield
Scott Westerfield
Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer
 William Gibson
William Gibson
 Sean Brock
Sean Brock

"Fog Island Mountains" by Michelle Bailat-Jones wins Inaugural Christopher Doheny Prize

FogislandmountainsMichelle Bailat-Jones's novel Fog Island Mountains has won the first-ever Christopher Doheny Prize, which recognizes excellence in writing about serious illness. The prize was created by Audible in honor of Chris Doheny, an employee at Audible who lost his battle with cystic fibrosis in 2013.

Fog Island Mountains--the story of a man with terminal cancer whose wife disappears--was published this week, in paperback and audio (narrated by Jennifer Ikeda).

Our thanks to Diana Dapito, Director of Editorial Merchandising at Audible, for the following remembrance of Chris Doheny.

~

Chris Doheny--one of my closest friends and favorite colleagues--passed away in 2013 due to complications from cystic fibrosis. Unless you were part of his close inner circle (and even then the topic didn’t come up often), Chris didn’t talk much about his illness; about how difficult it was for him to breathe sometimes, and how a double-lung transplant, the last resort for treatment which Chris received in 2010, would still only potentially give him a few more years.

Chris Doheny2Instead, Chris liked to talk about books. (And music. And good coffee. And soccer. But a lot about books.) In our work together at Audible, Chris championed his favorites--Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Tinkers by Paul Harding … long before it won the Pulitzer. The first book he ever recommended to me, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, is still one of my favorites, and my son loves Jon Klassen’s darkly funny I Want My Hat Back, a gift from ‘Uncle Chris’ that perfectly reflected his wicked sense of humor. Chris’s discerning taste and deep love of literature was prevalent in all facets of his life--he even named his pet rabbit Vonnegut. Towards the end, he was almost done writing his own novel, and it was at his request that his vast collection of books was given away at his funeral--the best way for a book lover to leave a piece of himself with his friends.

And when we knew that the end was coming, Audible’s publisher, Beth Anderson--the woman who hired both me and Chris and had been our mentor since 2004--worked with Chris to figure out the best way we could honor him. And so The Christopher Doheny Award was established with The Center for Fiction to recognize excellence in fiction or nonfiction on the topic of serious physical illness. The author has to have personal experience dealing with life-threatening illness, either his or her own or that of a close relative or friend. Because even though Chris didn’t let CF define him, he thought it important that more books address the toll that serious illness can take on the patient, family and friends, and others.

I was honored to be a judge--along with Beth and the authors Ann Hood and Dani Shapiro--for the first prize awarded in Chris’s name. But I’ll admit I felt a lot of pressure reading through the submissions because Chris had such high literary standards and the winner absolutely had to reflect them. When I started reading Fog Island Mountains by Michelle Bailat-Jones though, its atmospheric storytelling really stuck with me, as well as the notion that, in Japan, doctors would sometimes keep the dire realties of a terminal diagnosis from patients. (Something that would have driven Chris crazy.) I knew I’d found my pick for a winner, and was thrilled to find that it actually was the unanimous choice of all the judges. I have no doubt that Chris would be proud of this selection, and am excited for more readers and listeners to discover it.

~

About Christopher Doheny
 
Chris Doheny joined Audible, Inc. while in college as a summer intern in 2002 just a few years after the company was founded. After graduating from Georgetown University in 2003, he returned to Audible, Inc. and spent the next eight years helping to build the company. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was just a baby, Chris strived to live as normal a life as possible. Chris received a double lung transplant in June 2010. He passed away on February 20, 2013.

Read more about the Chrisopher Doheny Prize here: http://centerforfiction.org/awards/the-christopher-doheny-award/

Guest Review: Michael J. Fox on "The Pollan Family Table"

PollanFamilyTableThe Pollan family is expanding a presence in our kitchens that began with Michael Pollan’s ground-breaking book, The Omnivore's Dilmena. Now it's the Pollan ladies, matriarch Corky and three sisters Lori, Dana, and Tracy, in the spotlight with The Pollan Family Table, a new cookbook that begs to be read and shared, used widely and often (we chose it as one of our Best Cookbooks of November).  

Beautifully photographed, the recipes are personal and accessible, with enough variety to easily put together a delicious meal for guests or night after night for family.

Besides the recipes, I also really like the section called Sage Advice that covers everything from replicating buttermilk using 2% and lemon juice to removing corn silk using a damp paper towel. 

Below, Michael J. Fox, married for more than two decades to Tracy Pollan, shares his thoughts on The Pollan Family Table.

PollanFamilyWomenCropped

 


 MichaelJFoxIn the interest of full disclosure, you should know that the authors of The Pollan Family Table are my wife, Tracy Pollan; her sisters Lori and Dana; and my mother-in-law, Corky. My brother-in-law, Michael Pollan, the Carl Sagan of food, wrote the foreword. Spoiler alert: my review is a rave.

How could it not be? Notwithstanding the fact that I’d like to keep my place at that eponymous table—one that I’ve had the privilege to hold for some twenty-five years—I can honestly and enthusiastically report that this collection of recipes, reflections, and gorgeous color photographs is a thoughtfully conceived, beautifully realized, invaluable asset to any family making dinner plans. Moreover, it’s a paean to those moments, however brief or infrequent they may be, when we gather the people we love and share a meal.

So much can get in the way of preparing and convening for a regular family dinner. But this book offers solutions to those problems with simple recipes that cater to any taste or occasion, running the gamut from soup (Creamless Broccoli Soup with Whole Roasted Garlic and Frizzled Leeks) to nuts (Key Lime Pie with Walnut Oatmeal Crust).

And there is something in this book you will love, no matter your appetite or dietary restrictions. Even nonvegetarians will rejoice at what I believe to be the most perfect veggie burger on the planet, the Supreme Crispy Quinoa Vegetable Burger. Seafood lovers are well served here, too, with favorite recipes like Smoky Sautéed Shrimp. And just looking at the Citrus-Roasted Chicken with Grand Marnier triggers a Proustian flashback, bringing to mind not only the aroma and juicy, subtle flavor but also a cascade of memories, conversations, plans hatched, jokes and stories told and retold at family get-togethers. The familiar food and setting provide a continuum. Proust describes it as “Time regained.” Marty McFly might exclaim, “You built a time machine . . . out of a beef tenderloin?”

Every family’s story develops around its own table. You share the moments, both seminal and trivial, that over time become your life. For us, it’s a banquette in the breakfast nook of our New York apartment. In the chaotic process of raising four children, we have put in so much time around our own table—not only with meals but also with homework and art projects and games of Clue—that Tracy and I have had to reupholster the bench seats at least half a dozen times.

But the definitive PFT is the trestle table in the dining room of Corky and Stephen’s Connecticut home. As the family multiplied, there became less and less space for new spouses and their offspring and weekend guests, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. Corky says that she and Stephen “were determined the family tradition would continue, with everyone able to sit together, rather than relegating the youngest to ‘the kids’ table.’ So ours became the ever-lengthening table.” When the table grew too large for the room, Corky and Stephen extended the house, knocking out a wall in the dining room to provide extra space for another half-dozen happy cousins.

So, yes, this is a book of delicious recipes, complete with pantry and market lists and tips on essential utensils and homespun advice; but what makes it compelling on the human level is its insistence that the family meal is not a thing of the past. The Pollan Family Table reassures that best intentions can be put into action and the results can enrich your family’s life in ways that are both harmonious and healthy. Corky, Lori, Tracy, and Dana share what they know so you can share with those you love. As I said, full disclosure: you knew it was going to be a rave because, after all . . . this is what my life tastes like. -- Michael J. Fox

Four Great Novels That Can Be Called Post-Multicultural (Or Not)

Who We BeJeff Chang has spent the better part of his adult life analyzing and chronicling the role of race in America. The result is Who We Be, a compendium of essays, photos, lyrics, and other snippets that define, well, Who We Be. Here’s how he puts his thoughts in the book (below). And here is Chang’s list, exclusively for Amazon customers, on further reading on related topics.

When the legendary curator Thelma Golden wanted to name the generation of Black contemporary artists who came of age around the turn of the millennium, she jokingly called them "Post-Black," as in post-civil rights, post-Black Arts, and as she put it, "post-Basquiat and post-Biggie." Writers of that generation—you might call even call them part of the hip-hop generation—shared lots of things with Golden's visual artists. They were no less concerned than previous artists with legacies of race and racism, but they had a different relationship to identity. Their elders had dealt with invisibility. They were dealing with visibility. They were writing for audiences who knew all about affirmative action, diversity trainings, and "political correctness"—but were just as stumped at how to forge racial progress. These audiences knew what not to say to each other, but not what to say next. These novels capture the difficulty—and, just as often, the absurd hilarity—of the post-multicultural, post-whatever, post-post era we are living through.

 

POST TIME:
Identity in the New Millennium

But if I have to choose between
I choose me
—Erykah Badu, “Me”, New Amerykah Part One: (4th World War)

There was a joke that was everywhere at the turn of the millennium. It had started long before, among high-school friends, back when the saying was, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” But this post-“Black thing” thing was much smaller than that, even more impenetrable, a sub-tribal sign.

The joke had begun with a group of Black guys at a diverse high school in West Philly. It first surfaced in a two-and-a-half minute film short Stone had made with some of those same friends, called True.

It opens with a shot of Stone lying on the couch watching a football game. The cordless rings and it’s his friend Paul, lying on his own couch watching a kung-fu flick.

“’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin’ man, just chillin’.”
“True, true.”

The other characters don’t do much either: Dookie draws comic book characters, Fred picks up the phone and buzzes his friend Porto Rock into the apartment. The dialogue amounts to maybe a dozen words, the most meaningful of which is simply “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” When each says it, he stretches out the “aaauuuuuuuuh,” wags his tongue, bobs his head, improvises his own stupid faces in his own way.

By the end, Paul has changed the channel to the game, and he and Charles watch together, still having a non-conversation conversation.

“So what’s goin’ on, B?”
“Chillin’. ’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin man, just chillin’.”

And that was it—a group of Black men at rest, not called upon to perform, just being who they be. The short was like what an anthropologist might call “thick description,” what a psychologist might call “the opposite of micro-aggression,” what a comedian might call great material. Years later, when director/actor Charles Stone III’s Whassup? commercial for Budweiser debuted in the 2000 Super Bowl, it seemed that millions were let in on the joke, too.

Multiculturalism had allowed artists of color to toy with the possibility of no longer having to play a role already scripted for them. After multiculturalism, they might move beyond the aesthetics of uplift and respectability, be freed from the burden of representing positivity or confirming oppression. They could aspire just to be. They might still choose to represent identity, race, difference, and inequality. But they wanted to consider it a choice.

“Individuality,” wrote the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in his 2005 post-multiculturalism book The Ethics of Identity, “is not so much a state to be achieved as a mode of life to be pursued.”1

Stone had been a music-video director, making videos like A Tribe Called Quest’s Bonita Applebum and The Roots’s What They Do that had slyly subverted Black male stereotypes. By the late 1990s the industry was changing. This short was Stone’s bid for new work. He knew he had something good, so he took his time. He spent two years writing it, and one more to shoot and finish the edit. He debuted True at a music video short festival in the summer of 1999.

An Irish-born-and-raised copywriter at agency DDB Chicago named Vinny Warren spotted True at a festival and brought it to Budweiser. Stone had worried about how the ad would play in the real world. “When people do it and do it badly, it’s like some old Blaxploitation shit, like straight-up minstrel,” he said.

“True” required context and specificity to work. Saying “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” to each other was an act of recognition. I see you. You and I are together in this moment. The ad had to be made by a Black director featuring an all-Black cast. Stone knew there would still be objections that his concept was “niche market.” Warren’s Irishness, his foreign-ness, Stone felt, allowed him to understand the nuances and see the big picture.

They still needed to pitch the concept to all the confused marketers, casting agents, and execs. In those sessions, Stone decided to describe it in gendered terms. “Look, it’s really simple. It’s men holding hands through the phone,” he would tell them. “It talks about that wonderful nothingness that men do that is actually quite complicated.”

One day DDB execs told Stone they wanted to try out a “multicultural” cast. By this, they meant that they wanted to try white actors. Maybe it was progress that whites could now see themselves in the “multicultural” thing. But wasn’t that still kind of missing the point?

On the last day of casting, Stone and Warren asked to bring back four of the five actors from the original True cast, just to compare them to the “multicultural” cast. Stone recalled, “Sure enough, they were like, ‘What are we doing? We should just stay with the original cast.’”

And so Stone turned up the lighting, put bottles of Bud in each character’s hands, and further slashed an already haiku-length script into what would become the commercial called Whassup? At the end the word “true” rested over a Budweiser logo. Six months later, he and his homies were partying in Cannes after receiving the Grand Prix, the global ad industry’s top award.

Fred Thomas—Stone’s old buddy turned international star—told a British reporter, “It was strictly our thing. Strictly our clique.2 It never went all over Philadelphia. Now the whole world is part of our clique.” One of the Cannes judges agreed, “It’s not just an ad campaign, it’s a movement.”3 Who in the history of advertising could have predicted that a sixty-second spot featuring a group of bored Black males would become the first globally viral ad of the millennium?

The joke among friends had become a joke shared around the world. But what was the world seeing?

 

1Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.
2Simon Hattenstone, “Whassup?”,Guardian, October 25, 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/print/0,,4081177-103680,00.html.
3Michael McCarthy, “Budweiser’s ‘Whassup?!’ TV Ads Claim Grand Prix in Cannes,” USA Today, June 26, 2000.

The Only Way Out of the Apocalypse Is Through

Station ElevenPublished earlier this year, Claire Cameron's novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness, ending their world as they know it. It's a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves to propel us through.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven--recently announced as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction--deals with the end of the world on a much larger scale: A doomsday virus that wipes out 99% of humanity. We thought it would be interesting if the two authors spoke about the new book and the inspiration behind it.


Claire Cameron Interviews Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven

Station Eleven, the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has been called, "an ambitious and addictive novel" by The Guardian and "equal parts page-turner and poem" by Entertainment Weekly. Author Ann Patchett said, "I wouldn’t have put it down for anything." 

The novel jumps back and forth between a post-apocalyptic world and the start of a flu epidemic that had wiped out 99% of the world's population twenty years earlier. This sounds like a dark story, and it is. But, as with the best tragedies, St. John Mandel manages to show beauty and hope in the gloom. It is also expertly crafted. She weaves time and develops characters in a non-linear and convincing way. It's a riveting read.

As a writer, the moment I finished the novel I wanted to know more about how it was written. I interviewed St. John Mandel by email. --Claire Cameron

Claire Cameron: What was the first spark of inspiration for Station Eleven?

Emily St. John Mandel: I wanted to write something quite different from my previous three novels, all of which were generally categorized as literary noir. I'm happy with the way they turned out, but I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for crime writers and crime fiction. It's just that I don't want to be pigeon-holed as anything, and I love film and theatre, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the life of an actor.

At the same time, I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, this place where rooms fill with electric light at the flick of a switch, water comes out of faucets, and it's possible to cross the Atlantic in an afternoon. One way to write about the modern world is to contemplate its absence, which is why I decided to set parts of the new novel in a post-apocalyptic era. I think of the book as a love letter in the form of a requiem.

CC: How did you imagine the disaster specifically, the flu epidemic, in your novel?

ESJM: I imagined an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu—with some variant in the viral RNA resulting in a freakishly quick incubation period—making the jump from pigs to humans on a farm in the Republic of Georgia. In early drafts, the initial outbreak was quite specific and detailed: a teenaged girl who lives on the farm kisses her boyfriend, who's traveling to Moscow that afternoon. The following day, passengers on a plane from Moscow to Toronto begin to feel ill a few hours into the flight. This is also true of passengers in other airplanes bound for other continents, and in trains and buses bound for other countries. I imagined a mortality rate of 99%.

The Bear

The Bear

by Claire Cameron

CC: I was struck by a character who watched an airplane take off, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?” Do we live in an era of beauty?

ESJM: We do, although it's also of course an era of ugliness and horror. We live in a world filled with spectacular things that we too often take for granted, and flight is an easy example of that. I don't always enjoy flying. It's often a horribly uncomfortable experience. But the fact that it's possible is incredible, isn't it? I've been fielding accusations of being easily impressed since childhood, but in my defense, a lot of things are impressive.

CC: Your novel shows that even in the face of disaster humans can be good to each other, which is a different world than is depicted in many post-apocalyptic stories. Are you hopeful about human kind?

ESJM: Generally, yes. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of people on the world really just want to go about their business, raise their families, and live peacefully. But with regard to this book, the key here is the timing. Post-apocalyptic stories are often set in a period of chaos and mayhem immediately following a societal collapse. I assume that such a period would occur, but I was more interested in writing about what might come after that, fifteen or twenty years after the collapse. I assume that the entire world wouldn't be consumed by mayhem forever, because mayhem isn't a sustainable way of life over the long term.

CC: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Canada. Did this influence your novel?

ESJM: Yes. Delano Island in the book is an ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and the book is partly set in Toronto, where I went to school.

CC: Station Eleven is a literary novel, but it also uses some of conventions of genre – suspense, science fiction and elements of horror. How does genre influence your writing? Do you think about genre or conventions when you write?

ESJM: I've always just set out to write literary fiction, with the strongest possible narrative drive. My ideal of the perfect book is Donna Tartt's The Secret History; it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.

I try not to think about genre while I'm writing, because the whole question of genre seems completely arbitrary and amorphous to me. If a literary novel is set partly in the future, does that somehow make it less "literary" than a novel set in present-day suburbia? If a literary novel has a crime in it, is it automatically crime fiction? Ultimately, these labels have more to do with marketing than with the content of the work itself. Case in point: my first three novels were generally marketed as literary fiction in North America, but I'm a thriller writer in France. Same books, different marketing strategies.

CC: The traveling symphony has a line from Star Trek on the side of their caravan: "Because survival is insufficient." How important is art to our lives? Does it change how or why we live?

ESJM: I think it's very important, and it does change the way we live. Survival is never enough for us, and we find examples of this in the most desperate places on earth: people play musical instruments in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.

 

See more books by Claire Cameron and read more--including the proper way to split firewood--at www.claire-cameron.com.

Jim Gaffigan Eats His Way Across the USA

FoodLoveStory500Jim Gaffigan has been making us laugh for years, both as a top performing stand-up comedian and the author of last year's best-seller, Dad Is Fat On stage, Gaffigan freely shares his thoughts, obsessions, and observations of food and food culture, and he brings that and more to a new book, Food: A Love Story. To give you a little taste of what's in store, check out this exclusive guest post from the author:


People look at a map of the United States and see different things. Some people see red states and blue states. Some people see North and South. Some see East and West. I see food. I’ve performed in all fifty states and eaten my way through pretty much every major city. After my fourth or fifth lap of performing and eating across our beautiful and delicious country, I started to think of the geography of our country as it relates to food.

Here’s a preview of five food lands I talk about in Food: A Love Story

SEABUGLAND: (The northeast coast of the United States as far south as Maryland)
Lobster is as much a part of the New England personality as is the hating of all things New York City. If you can catch something in a net and crack it open for food, those bug lovers will eat it. The French may refer to seafood as the “fruit of the sea,” and scientists may call shellfish “crustaceans,” but to me they are creepy-crawly giant insects on the bottom of the ocean floor.

SUPER BOWL SUNDAY FOODLAND: (The Midwest and eastern part of the United States)
What is served on Super Bowl Sunday feels like a homecoming of all the great unhealthy American foods. They are dishes that taste great with beer and are all easy to eat while watching television. What could be more American than that? The deepest appreciation of and love for these Super Bowl Sunday foods can be found in the Midwest.

MEXICAN FOODLAND: (The southwestern part of the United States, and, of course, Texas)
I’m convinced that anyone who doesn’t like Mexican food is a psychopath. It is a known fact that it is impossible to eat quality Mexican food and not be in a good mood afterward. Even bad Mexican food is better than 90 percent of all other foods.

WINELAND: (Northern California)
Wine is a key element of the NorCal culture, and it is overemphasized with gracious abandon. I enjoy wine, but I’m certainly no expert. Occasionally, I’ll make the mistake of asking which wine the waiter would suggest. They always seem to point at one of the more expensive wines. “Well, this wine would complement your meal.” I always think to myself, Is there a box of wine you’d recommend? ’Cause that would complement my wallet.

FOOD ANXIETYLAND: (Louisiana)
You don’t just dine in New Orleans. You overeat. Whenever I’m about to go to New Orleans for a show, I always suffer food anxiety. There are just too many decisions. Where should I eat? What should I eat? How often can I eat? Did anyone watch all the episodes of Treme? New Orleans is a food mecca. It’s not just the variety; it’s the fact that I’ve never had bad food in New Orleans. I think it may be against the law.

Of course there is much more in Food: A Love Story.

--Jim Gaffigan

  Final-Gaffigan-Marketing-MapNODATE

10 Songs: Greil Marcus and the Culture of Surprise

The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten SongsIf rock & roll has achieved institution status, Greil Marcus certainly qualifies as one of its pillars. As one of the most influential critics of rock music--a small and vital, club, to be sure--he has made a long, distinctive career by elevating an often disparaged form and placing it firmly (rightly) within the hierarchy of great art. In addition to his writing for the likes of Rolling Stone (he was its first reviews editor), Creem, and The Village Voice, Marcus has authored many books, often dealing with the idea that rock & roll is both a accelerant and amplifier of cultural memes, Narcissus and his reflection in one. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, originally published in 1975, traced rock music's roots, evolution, and impacts--intuitive and otherwise--through the lives and careers of six epochal artists; TIME appointed it one of the 20th century's most influential nonfiction books. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century launches itself from the Sex Pistols and the punk scene of the 70s into an examination of heretics, rioters, and iconoclasts spanning Western civilization, across both time and geography. There are many more, occasionally academic, always incisive, and definitely fun.

In his latest--The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs--Marcus rambles the back roads of rock history to present  short biographies of 10 songs spanning the entire breadth of rock & roll, from doo-wop to post-punk, demonstrating how rock's impulse to combine (and recombine) its influences made each possible and entirely original. Two pieces of advice for readers: 1.) Unless your record collection is as expansive as Marcus's, have YouTube cued up so you can listen while you learn. 2.) Set "Shake Some Action" to repeat.

We asked Marcus for 10 songs that shaped his own rock & roll experience. Here's what he said.

 


 

Greil Marcus: 10 Songs

Rock & roll for me has always been a culture of surprise. When it’s at its best you never know what’s coming and you can’t wait to find out what it is—when all the music seems to be one great answer record, with everyone, performers, listenters, the radio, a club, even the background music in a supermarket or the foreground music in a restaurant part of the same conversation. That happens best on Quentin Tarantino soundtrack albums, which aren’t references to his movies but almost counter-works—from the neo-surf music in Reservoir Dogs to the creamy, sleazy pop on the two Kill Bill albums to Django Unchained, which is probably the best. But it can happen anywhere.

In the order they occurred to me:

Outkast, “Hey Ya!” (2003). As Lou Reed once said, when you first heard this song you felt as if you could listen to it forever—“And then you kind of had to.” But endless airplay didn’t wear the song out, it only revealed equally endless layers of play, emotion, and a life being lived: the cool comedy of the verses always falling into what seemed like the unalloyed joy of the chorus. And it was in the chorus that, after weeks, months, never, provided its own drama: the way the first “Hey ya” was nothing but a smile, the way the second pulled away from the first, with a dying fall of regret, loss, uncertainty, doubt. There is a whole history of American music in this song—minstrelsy, wild and fast L.A. doo-wop (the Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone,” the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz”), Bob Dylan’s carnival sound (“I Want You”), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—and also prophecy: a sound and a feeling the Roots will probably always be looking for.

Bo Diddley, “Say Man” (1959). Even by 1959, after Little Richard, after “The Book of Love,” I didn’t understand how anything this ridiculous—so ridiculous it was, somehow, pure anarchy, an epistemological proof that neither government nor society did, in fact, exist—was allowed on the public air. Now, long after learning that this was just a Top 40 version of the dozens, of The Signifying Monkey, of a harmless African-American insult ritual going back to forever, I still don’t.

Greil Marcus

Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter” (1969). It’s been on the radio for 45 years and hasn’t lost anything. It’s kept up the with times, or the times are still chasing it. And I knew that would be the story from the first time I heard it.

Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (1958). For me, proof that music—the language everyone was speaking, that everyone though was sufficient to say whatever needed to be said—could change overnight. The day before, whatever was on the radio sounded just right. The day after, it sounded old, tired, and fake. The same thing happened with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Hockey “Song Away” (2009). I heard it sitting outside a shoe store in Minneapolis. I caught a few words, maybe the title phrase, but mostly a smile that I couldn’t get out of my head. Thanks to the internet, I could track it down and play it a dozen times in a row. I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Whenever I think about it, I still can’t. That’s what rock & roll is for.

 

Portrait by Rich Black based on the original photo by Thierry Arditti

The Rules of the Handshake

I Stand Corrected Lots of people dream about doing the kinds of things Eden Collinsworth does routinely in her life: change jobs, move countries, strike out for parts unknown both internal and external. In the form of an etiquette guide, I Stand Corrected – excerpted below -- is both a cultural analysis of East-West relations and a witty memoir of a very unconventional life.


In 1985, I received an invitation from a delegation of Chinese businessmen offering me the opportunity to see Shenzhen. It was the height of China's policy of economic Opening Up, and this former fishing village had grown into a booming metropolis constructed with what looked to be gigantic Lego pieces. At the time, I was a book publisher. I was also young, fair- skinned and redheaded; and so, when I arrived in Shenzhen, it was easy for the Chinese to believe I might have come not from America, but from another planet entirely.

"What do you mean he's asked how much I am?" was my stunned question to the associate acting as my translator at a business dinner for which I was the host.

"Just that," he told me.

All at the table had been imbibing a great deal; it was not without reason that I asked my colleague if the man inquiring was sober. "He seems to be," was the answer.

"Have you correctly translated?" I asked? "Surely he's asked how much it would cost to buy the company we represent," I said.

"No. He means the cost for you, as a woman," reiterated my colleague. "Our guest has just inquired about taking permanent possession of you." Latching on to whatever composure had not already abandoned me, I pointed out that I was not just a woman, I was also the president of an American book publishing company. "One who happens to be the host this evening," I made clear.

"I can translate what you've just said," volunteered my colleague. "But it won't matter."

"Why not?" I wanted to know.

"Because he believes that your gender makes your professional rank insupportable."

And there it was. A full-in-the-face statement, which forced upon me the irrefutable difference between my self-image and my status in China where, at the time, I was Western luxury item possibly to be purchased.

"What would you like me to tell him?" asked my colleague.

It took a moment to realize that it wasn't so much that I needed to surrender my self-image as that I should consider suspending it. Making a bottom line calculation with that in mind, I responded with falsehoods calibrated to avoid embarrassment.

"First, thank him for his interest," I instructed my colleague. "Next, tell him I'm extremely flattered. And then let him know that, sadly, I belong to someone else."

That face-saving response—and others like it—enabled my many years of doing business in China, during which course I witnessed the nation's profound transformation. But, long after committing to advance gender equality there, it seems to me that the Communist Party has underestimated resistance from their nation's culture, a culture that remains rooted in a traditionally Confucian society.

Eden Collinsworth

Only after living in China did I understand how women there struggle to break through the encased male-dominated work environment, not just in circumstantial ways but in the far more complex ways that have to do with self-belief. Very few possess the emotional and financial resources required to brave the tide of political, social, and parental waves pushing them toward marriage.

Hengnu, or "leftover woman," is a term China's Ministry of Education has added to its official lexicon. It describes an urban professional woman over the age of twenty-seven. For those slow in understanding the implications, the prefix sheng is the same as in the word shengcai, or "leftover food."

Setting its own action-oriented time line that delineates exactly when women become stale, the Communist Party provides instruction by age groups. At twenty-five, women must "fight" and "hunt" for a partner. If not married by twenty- eight, women are pressured to "triumph against the odds." Between thirty-one and thirty-four, still-unmarried women are referred to as "advanced leftovers," and by thirty-five, a single woman is the "ultimate" leftover, spiritually flawed in thinking she is higher than the mandate of marriage.

That being the case, Li Ping, a young woman I came to admire in Beijing, was spiritually flawed. Ping was a decent, well-educated, hardworking woman who had made a fortune launching a portfolio of magazines. She had proved herself an astute businesswoman and, by all Western accounts, a great success, but during a revealing conversation in the backseat of her chauffeur-driven car while stalled in Beijing traffic, Ping told me that her younger sister was more successful in the "important way."

"Why would you think that?" I asked.

"It's not what I think, it's what I know. My sister is married, and I am not. I am shaming my parents."

Ping's punishing words spoke of the worst kind of self-judgment, and it was difficult for me to understand the irrational degree to which she was holding her self-esteem in abeyance until she was married. Still, her plight was not without claims on my sympathy. At one time, I, too, would have been an "advanced leftover."

Eventually, I married, having fallen in love with a man in my own country. When I did, I gave myself away to him for free.

Who Needs Pictures? B.J. Novak Tells the Story

BkWithNoPicturesFrom his work on The Office we already know B.J. Novak is funny, and we had a great time reading his book, One More Thing earlier this year.  It was when he came to our office for that book that I met Novak and he told me about the children's book he had coming out at the end of September.  A picture book format but with no pictures. Huh. 

When The Book With No Pictures came in I took it home right away, read it to my seven-year-old and we both cracked up.  This is one of those rare children's books that, as a parent, I'm willing to read over-and-ove--and believe me, I've been asked to do exactly that.  Loads of fun for kids and adults, Novak proves that even in children's books, words can do all the heavy lifting.

In his guest essay below, B.J. Novak talks about the origin and creation of The Book with No Pictures (one of our Best Children's Books of October and our top pick for ages 6-8).


When I was a very little kid, I was lucky enough to experience the joy and connection of having my parents read books to me. I found myself drawn above all else to humor, and especially the sense of controlled rebellion that humor always represented in books by my most beloved authors—Dr. Seuss,  Shel Silverstein, and Roald Dahl, to name a few favorites. The world they presented had clear rules and expectations; and when those rules and expectations were bent and broken, the results were exciting, interesting, funny.

Last year, as I waited for my first book, One More Thing, to be published, I would often spend time with my friends and cousins who were starting to have kids. My role in connecting to these kids was always to ask which books he or she would like me to read.

My best friend has a very young and rambunctious son named Bruce. One day when I was visiting, Bruce picked up a book and held it out to me with an insistent expression that I read him whatever was inside, and something occurred to me. This is funny, I thought. Even though I’m the one who can read, and I’m the adult—he’s in control of me, because he’s choosing the book, and the book is in charge. This was basically a little two-year-old producer handing me a script. And it occurred to me that any kid who hands you a book is essentially the producer of that evening’s entertainment, a tiny Harvey Weinstein telling you, “Here’s what you’ll be performing tonight. These are your lines, stick to the script; and I may ask you to do it a second time.” The kid was in charge because the book had the power, and the kid had the book. That was funny to me. And I thought, you know who would really find this funny? The kid.

The idea started as simply as that: If a book is a script that a grownup is being asked to recite, what script would be the funniest one for a kid to hear? As I thought more about this idea, and looked back at my favorite books from childhood from the point of view of someone who had written comedy for adults but not yet for kids, I realized a second necessary function in comedic children’s books that is not present in comedy for adults. Comedy for adults takes the rules of the world for granted - and then twists them. The world has already provided the set-up; all that the humor really needs to provide is a punchline. But comedy for the youngest children needs to accomplish a second purpose, too: It needs to somehow introduce kids to both the setup and the punchline. In an Amelia Bedelia book, a child may need to be introduced to the idea that words can have double meanings; in Dr. Seuss books, there is an established sense of order that it would be particularly funny to disrupt.

This inspired me to play with the ways that a book might introduce the rules of the written word itself, leading to a comic payoff of these rules a few pages later. The fun would come from the child and book “teaming up” to make the adult say words that were purely for the enjoyment of the child. And the lesson would be that written words aren’t simply captions to pictures: They are powerful on their own—and they can always be a child’s ally. To try to make this lesson even more clear, I came up with a title that I knew would inspire a child’s curiosity with its sheer audacity: The Book With No Pictures.

I wrote and printed up a copy and took it around to the houses of other friends with young children and asked if I could watch them read it to their kids—rather than read it myself —because I wanted to be sure I had a book that worked as a reading experience for every type of parent. With each reading I made small changes to phrasings and pacings based on the grownup’s reading and the child’s reactions, until I could tell it inspired the same amount of laughter for everyone, but for different people in different ways. As the book got closer to publication, I focused on the design, keeping an eye out for two purposes: that the page looked beautiful and colorful to a child’s eye; and that the size, spacing, and rhythmic layout of the words were so clear and simple that even the most performance-shy adult could read it easily and intuitively.

That’s the story of The Book With No Pictures. I hope people enjoy it! There’s no sound in the world like a child’s laughter, and while there are so many things I can’t do—for instance, draw—it would be quite an honor to know I’ve contributed a little more of that sound to the world.--B.J. Novak

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