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Amanda Vaill on Ernest Hemingway

Hotel FloridaReading a book by Amanda Vaill practically guarantees that you'll learn a lot -- about places, about history and especially about people you already thought you knew. Her Everybody Was So Young introduced us to Sara and Gerald Murphy, patrons of such then-bold-faced names as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker.

Now, in her new book, Hotel Florida, she explores the lives of six people whose paths crossed on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Doesn't sound exciting? How about if one of those people was that other bold-faced name of the era, Ernest Hemingway?

Here, Vaill tells us what she learned about that other famous writer of the era, Ernest Hemingway.


Five Things I Learned About Hemingway While Writing Hotel Florida

Vaillby Amanda Vaill

1) He was a classical music maven.

Although I knew his mother had been an aspiring opera singer and had taught piano and voice in the Hemingways' Oak Park, Illinois home, I didn't realize that classical music was Hemingway's go-to soundtrack for relaxation and distraction. But when shells were whistling over the Hotel Florida in Madrid, where he and Martha Gellhorn were staying during the Spanish Civil War, what did Hemingway put on the Victrola to drown out the bombardment? Chopin's Opus 33 mazurka, number 4, and the ballade in A-flat minor, opus 47.

2) He was an agent of the KGB.

In public Hemingway had always strenuously resisted the idea of writing anything from "a Marxian viewpoint" – something he derided as "so much horseshit." But in 1937, when he was in Spain covering the Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance and writing the script for Joris Ivens's documentary film, The Spanish Earth, Ivens had tried to enlist him as a propagandist, and possibly more, for the Communist Party, which had been supporting the Spanish government against Franco's rebels. And according to internal KGB files studied by a former Soviet agent, Alexander Vassiliev, Hemingway was recruited by the KGB in 1941 and given the code-name "Argo." It was hoped he could report on Nazi activity in Cuba and the Caribbean during World War II, but he never generated any useful intelligence and his cover was terminated in 1950.

Hemingway

3) He couldn't cook paella.

In April of 1937, at a Rioja-fueled lunch party at the Madrid restaurant Botin, a spot Hemingway loved (and had celebrated in The Sun Also Rises), the writer insisted on leaving the table – where the company included the photographer Robert Capa and Capa's beautiful girlfriend and professional partner Gerda Taro –- and going into the kitchen to help prepare paella. "Less skillful in the kitchen than at the typewriter," was the tactful verdict of the restaurant's owner, Emilio Gonzales.

4) His affair with Martha Gellhorn was less than a great romance.

He might have run off with Gellhorn to Spain, beginning an affair that culminated in marriage three years later, after he divorced his second wife, Pauline; but apparently the Gellhorn-Hemingway romance could have used some couples therapy. Gellhorn later claimed her "whole memory of sex with Ernest [was] the invention of excuses and failing that, the hope that it would soon be over." Which it was, by 1944, when Gellhorn scooped her husband by getting a ride on a hospital ship to the D-Day beaches while he gazed at the coast through binoculars from the deck of an attack transport.

5) He originally began the manuscript of his most successful novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which draws on his experience in the Spanish Civil War, in the first person.

He changed his mind, choosing the detachment of a narrative in which the protagonist is "he," not "I." It was the best and most truthful decision he could have made. To understand why, of course, you have to read the book. Or books. His, and mine.

"The Poker Chips Is Filth": Colson Whitehead's Guide to Vegas

Colson Whitehead

Every year, thousands of card  players converge in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, all hauling varying levels of hope and skill with them into the southern Nevada desert. As a regular in a neighborhood game, Colson Whitehead didn’t harbor that kind of ambition—until Grantland.com staked him $10,000 for a seat at the WSOP. Whitehead goes all-in with a Rocky IV-worthy regimen, hiring a personal trainer to prepare himself for the long, grueling table hours and a tournament-hardened coach to navigate the mysteries of Texas Hold’em. When he arrives at the tournament, he navigates using a set of laws essential to any aspiring card sharp: which casino restaurants provide poker-appropriate nutrition; how to hit the bathrooms ahead of the mad rushes of the game breaks; and, of course, the necromancy of a successful Hold’em hand. With its cast of poker-universe luminaries and aspiring misfits, the tournament stuff is fun, especially to this gambling rube. But Vegas is Vegas, and between the notes of the Wheel of Fortune slot machines, one can hear the suck of entropy. Whitehead--whose previous books landed him on the short-list for the Pulitzer, as well as a MacArthur "Genius" grant--has the wry sense of humor to observe the twisted reality of the "Leisure Industrial Complex"  without mocking it; he’s the kind of writer who can see the human condition reflected in the windows of a failed Vegas market that sells only beef jerky (and other jerky-like products). The Noble Hustle: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

 The Noble Hustle is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for May 2014.

 


THE OUTSIDER'S GUIDE TO GAMBLING IN LAS VEGAS, BY ANOTHER OUTSIDER

by Colson Whitehead

Coming to Las Vegas for the first time can be intimidating. Sitting down at a poker table in a casino is even more intimidating. What if there were someone who could help you out, show you the ropes, prevent you from making a series of terrible, terrible mistakes?

That person is not me.

I can, however, share a little of what I learned while writing The Noble Hustle, conveniently grouped under four crucial subject headings.

Hygiene

As my poker coach Helen Ellis informed me, "the poker chips is filth." I'd rather lick every subway pole on a New York City rush hour train than touch a poker chip without proper precautions. Most casinos have latex gloves in wall dispensers by the entrance - use them. Sanitize thoroughly before you touch anything, and keep rubbing it in until you are ready. When the poker dealer demands, "Check or bet?", don't get flustered. Just say, "I am doing my ablutions, sir!" and let them wait.

Nutrition

The brain is the second biggest organ in the human body (this is not factually incorrect). Can you imagine how many calories the brain consumes while bluffing, laying traps, and calculating implied odds for hours on end? Quite a few. Especially during the twelve hour marathon sessions of the World Series of Poker. That's where beef jerky comes in. Dried muscle meat, spiced, cured, and distributed in easy-seal bags. Once a cowboy secret, beef jerky is now the number one meat snack of professional card players. It's low calorie, low nutrition, and nothing breaks the ice at a high stakes No Limit Game like, "What kind of jerky you got there, hoss?" Ask your local grocery store to stock some of the new flavors hitting the market, such as Thai Barbecue, Hint of Gluten, and Spicy Kale.

Strategy

There are hundreds of brilliant poker How-To's out there, covering everything from low limit  money games, to Sit 'n Go's, to next-level tournament wizardry. Don't read any of them. Instead, get some of those Google Glasses. Sunglasses have been standard poker armament for years - how is this any different? Why bother to learn pot odds or flop strategy when you can just go, "Google Glass, should I stay in or what?" and have the artificial intelligence program work that algorithm magic.

Entertainment

You can't spend all day losing money, however. The nightlife beckons. All kinds of people flock to Vegas in search of excitement. Millennials bust loose with their sock hops and "rock and roll" music, Gen Xers make the scene at NirvanaLand, the hot new grunge-themed megaclub. But there is one demographic that outnumbers and outparties all others - the aptly-named Greatest Generation. Whether you're a Sexy Septuagenarian or a Naughty Nonagenarian, there are plenty of members of your peer group to throw dice with, flirt with, and engage in a nice conversation. Especially at 2 in the afternoon before the Early Bird Special. Push away from the craps table every once in a while and don't be afraid to take a chance on love, no matter what age you are.

J.R. Moehringer on Marina Keegan

Words of Wisdom: She lived only 22 years, but her writing is timeless

Marina KeeganI never met Marina Keegan, but when I learned of her death I felt as if I'd known her well. We belonged to several of the same tribes. We were both Yalies. We were both from the Northeast. Both Irish, both writers. We walked some of the same paths, probably sat in the same chairs. So it was as if I'd lost a close cousin, or even a kid sister.

Then I read her work. In that terrible week, as media outlets posted her essays, as people around the world reposted them, I read every word with a sinking, quickening heart. The first news reports, I felt, had been wrong - this wasn't simply a promising young writer, this was a prodigy, a rare rare talent, still raw, still evolving, but shockingly mature. From the few things she'd published in her brief life I could project a remarkable career, a line of words stretching far into the future, words that would have thrilled and enlightened, words that might have changed people's lives. As I grieved for her family, her friends, her boyfriend, I also grieved for the global community of readers who would never know the pleasure and excitement of a brand new book by Marina Keegan.

All of which made me think there should be, there must be, at least one book with Marina's name on the spine. Publishers aren't eager to take chances these days, but I hoped that one would have the guts, the heart, to make a slim, posthumous collection of Marina's stories and essays and poems. I could actually see the book in my mind, stacked on the front table of a sunlit bookstore, perhaps the Yale bookstore, where I'm sure Marina dreamed about her work appearing one day.

The Opposite of LonelinessA year later, it came in the mail, the very book I'd seen in my mind, with the only possible title: The Opposite of Loneliness. I studied the striking cover photo and felt a wave of sorrow and joy. Then I sat down and read it and that sorrow-joy feeling became my constant companion over the next several days.

This is a book full of wonders. This is a book full of sentences that any writer, 21 or 101, would be proud to have authored. This is a book that will speak to young readers, because it expresses some of that inexpressible anxiety of starting out, of making life's first momentous choices, of wanting and fearing and needing and hoping and dreading everything at the same time. It will also speak to older readers, because it's an inspiring reminder of youth's brimming energy, its quivering sense of possibility.

Young people get a bad rap for thinking they're immortal, and acting accordingly, but Marina dwelled on the end. Hers, civilization's, the sun's. “And time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop.” She must have heard her beloved adviser Harold Bloom expound many times on Hotspur's line, and clearly she took it to heart, personalized it. Savor every half-second, she seemed to be saying, to herself, to her readers, and her meditations on death, once charmingly precocious, now feel breathtakingly premonitory. Describing a group of fifty whales beached near her house on Cape Cod, she laments that their songs don't transmit on land, and thus they can't communicate their final thoughts. “I imagined dying slowly next to my mother or a lover, helplessly unable to relay my parting message.”

Such was her fate. And yet it wasn't, not really. This book is her parting message, exquisitely relayed.

And it's not a mournful message. There's so much light and humor here. In the title essay alone I hear glimmers of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, Fran Lebowitz. For example, when Marina worries that other kids are sprinting ahead of her, embarking on fabulous careers while she's still clinging to the cocoon of Yale. “Some of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.”

My favorite passage might be this gorgeous burst of nostalgia, this prose poem about the bright college years. “When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it's four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can't remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.”

The hats. That tiny sentence was the first raindrop before the deluge, a tickling hint of all that was to come. How many 21-year-olds are capable of a line so sure-handed, so precisely and comically placed? The only other two-word sentence I can think of that had me laughing aloud and shaking my head was in Lolita. (Humbert summarizing his mother's demise: “Picnic, lightning. ”)

If I'd met Marina, I'd have urged her to keep these first hopeful essays handy, cherish their energy, refer to them whenever beset by despair and doubt. Instead I'll have to give that advice to her readers.

I also might have told Marina that we do have a word for the opposite of loneliness. It's called reading. Again, I'll have to tell her readers. This book reminds us: as long as there are books, we're never completely alone. Open it anywhere and Marina's voice leaps off the page, uncommonly honest, forever present. With this lovely book always at hand, we and Marina will never be completely apart.


J.R. MoehringerJ.R. Moehringer is the author of The Tender Bar and Sutton.

Mystery Solved: Sophie Hannah Suggests Five Great Entry Points for Reading Agatha Christie and Why

Agatha Christie's last novel, published in 1976, was Sleeping Murder. Miss Marple's Last Case, as it was subtitled, saw her return to her small village home, hanging up her detective's hat for good. She certainly fared better than Hercule Poirot, whom Christie killed off when Curtain was published the year before (though she had written it decades earlier).

But it seems even death, neither real nor fictional, can keep the great Poirot down. Agatha Christie's estate, for the first time since she passed on in 1976, has authorized a new Poirot novel to be written by British author Sophie Hannah. We'll have more about that closer to the book's publication in September. For now, to celebrate our list of 100 Mysteries and Thrillers to Read in a Lifetime -- where Agatha Christie is the only author to appear more than once -- we asked Hannah to share her own list dedicated to Agatha Christie's work. Here's what she had to say.


Murder on the Orient Express

GENIUS SOLUTION AWARD: Murder on the Orient Express

This book has the best solution-to-a-mystery of all time. It cannot be beaten, has never been beaten, and will never be beaten. It is perfect, elegant and --best of all -- its brilliant concept can be summarised in five words. I spent years pointlessly wishing I'd thought of it, then more years equally pointlessly wishing I'd thought of something else that was anywhere near as good. The train stuck in the snow is a wonderfully atmospheric setting, and Poirot is at his best in this book.
Sleeping Murder

IMPOSSIBLE PREMISE AWARD: Sleeping Murder

This is the best of Agatha's "It can't be happening and yet it is" books. It begins with the unlikely scenario of a woman finding herself in a house that she knows very well, and recognizes right down to its old, peeling wallpaper -- but she also knows that she has never been there before and so the house cannot possibly be familiar to her. At the beginning of this novel, the reader thinks, "It's a great premise, but it simply cannot be made to work without resorting to ghosts or aliens with special powers" -- and then Agatha makes it work stunningly well, while playing fair with the reader throughout.
Lord Edgeware Dies

MOST SINISTER MURDERER AWARD: Lord Edgeware Dies

Agatha's murderer characters are not always so psychologically developed, but the killer in this novel is so vividly realized, and so horribly plausible, that I would, on balance, prefer to be murdered by any or all of Agatha's other murderers rather than this one. There's a section of the book in the killer's voice at the end, and it is utterly chilling and convincing. I suspect Agatha knew someone with this kind of personality, and based the killer in this book on him or her.
After The Funeral

BEST ALL-ROUNDER: After The Funeral

Everything about this novel is wonderful. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the balance between plot and character is exactly as it should be, and the structure of the story is perfectly sculpted. The clues are where they should be -- visible but not too obvious -- and the motive is one of the most memorable in Agatha's fiction. I wouldn't commit murder for this reason personally, but it's such a unique, persuasive and idiosyncratic motive that, once the solution is revealed, the whole book comes alive in a new way. It's also a double-layered motive, which makes it more interesting. There is an obvious reason why the killing takes place, but beneath that there is another reason -- the true motive 0-- which is so poignant and plausible, it takes the book to a whole other level of excellence.
Three-Act Tragedy

INNOVATIVE IDEAS AWARD: Three-Act Tragedy

In this novel, there are three murders. One is ordinary enough, but the other two are committed for reasons that are conceptually so daring and inspired that you can actually feel the possibilities of the genre expanding as you read. Both of these -- as with the perfect solution to Murder on the Orient Express -- can be summed up in a sentence. When you read this novel, you realize that Agatha never -- not for a second -- stopped thinking to herself "Why else might someone kill? What other reason could there be, that I haven't thought of yet?" You can feel her enquiring intellect at work in these pages, and it is a joy to behold.

Charlaine Harris on Starting Over— Goodbye Bon Temps, Hello Midnight

Charlaine HarrisTalk about daunting...

Imagine you're a bestselling author. You've spent more than a decade writing a series of 13 novels -- building a vivid town, dynamic characters, complicated relationships, wicked plot twists. You've ignored the boundaries of traditional genres and mixed dark romance with bits of horror, supernatural fantasy with a hint of mystery. Your world took the mainstream by storm when HBO picked it up as a TV series, followed by Emmy nominations, Golden Globe nominations, and more. You saw places you've invented on the page promoted through clever merchandising -- a bar on a t-shirt, a backwater restaurant on a kitchen apron, cookbooks, branded bottled drinks.

And then, voila! It's complete. What now? How do you even begin to follow that up?

If you're Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (and credited writer on 72 episodes during the six-year run of "True Blood"), you just do. You focus on a new town, you concoct a new cast of characters, and you jump in head first.

We asked Harris to tell us a little more about that process of leaving such a successful past behind and building a new future. Here's what she had to say.


Midnight CrossroadStarting a new series is a lot like having your second baby. The basic mechanics are the same as when you had the first one, but the result is completely individual. Though the Sookie Stackhouse books were far from my first, I lived with Sookie and her world for well over a decade. I found it both exciting and terrifying to face the prospect of creating another world, one populated with different people and operating under different rules.

I wanted a challenge (as if writing a book isn't always a challenge), so I decided to forego the first person narrative that was the earmark of the Sookie books. So Midnight Crossroad has multiple points of view. In the first book (there'll be at least two more) I chose to tell the story through the eyes of Fiji Cavanaugh, Bobo Winthrop, and Manfred Bernardo.

Fiji is an entirely new character. Even in a town like Midnight, Texas, where everyone has secrets and some have unusual abilities, Fiji is not taken as seriously as she ought to be by some of the other citizens, maybe because she hosts a new-age women's group, maybe because her cat is named Mr. Snuggly. But it's a mistake to turn your back on Fiji.

Bobo Winthrop and Manfred Bernardo, on the other hand, may be recognizable to my readers, especially Manfred. The psychic was a character in the Harper Connelly books. I got a lot of mail about the tattooed and pierced young man who was smitten with Harper. In Midnight, he's a little older and wiser. He's running several successful businesses, and to keep his momentum going, he needs peace, quiet and good internet connections. In Midnight, renting a cottage from Bobo Winthrop, he finds all that and much, much, more.

Bobo Winthrop is someone I always wanted to work with again. He entered the world in the Lily Bard books as a teenager enrolled in the same martial arts class as Lily, my housecleaner with a horrible past. Bobo did a lot of growing up in the books, passing through his own valley of the shadow to gain a new maturity. I wanted to find out what he was like in his thirties. When I understood what his life had been during those years, I met up with an interesting guy who had definitely been through hard times; but he'd still retained his balance and his enjoyment of the moment.

The real core of Midnight Crossroad is the town itself, founded at a mystical crossroad and anchored by the old pawnshop that has stood for decades. In fact, one of the first owners is still around. He only comes out after dark, when he takes the night shift at the pawnshop. That's when the really strange customers come in.

There are touches of the supernatural in the Midnight books, but they're primarily anchored in the mystery genre. It felt like the right time to revisit my roots, as well as some old friends. I hope you enjoy a roadtrip through my new town.

If you do come to visit Midnight, stop and fill up your tank at the Gas N Go. You might want to go in to buy a Coke and a Slim Jim, meet the proprietor and his son and daughter. Or walk across Witchlight Road to have a meal in the Home Cookin Restaurant: Madonna is a great cook. If you need your nails done or you're in the market for a new sideboard, try Chuy and Joe at the Antique Gallery and Nail Salon.

If you're really anxious to get married, visit Rev. Emilio Sheehan's chapel; and if your pet is dead, the Rev can provide a great burial service.

Whatever you find to do in Midnight, don't forget to look both ways when you cross the road. You never know what's coming.

Don't Look Down: Training for the New Alpinism

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston

As a writer for a blog that is somewhat preoccupied with literary fiction and popular nonfiction, it's not often that I have the opportunity (or reason) to go off-topic and talk about a fitness book.

Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, by Steve House and Scott Johnston, is no ordinary fitness book. House is a world-renowned climber and an advocate of the "alpine-style": A fast-and-light, carry-all-your-gear approach that eschews the siege-style encampments and support typical in commercial mountaineering, especially in places such as Mt. Everest. In order to do that ("that" meaning scaling vertical ice walls thousands of feet high with a 20-pound pack on your back), one must be extraordinarily fit. Along with his climbing partner, Vince Anderson, House won the 2005 Piolet d'Or for their ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in the western Himalayas, and his previous book, Beyond the Mountain, won the 2009 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Johnston, also a climber, has skied at the international level and coaches several top cross-country skiers.

If you're serious, or semi-serious, about climbing, this is your book. House and Johnston have put together regimens of varying difficulties that are both comprehensive and intense, while also addressing nutrition, mental fitness, and goal-setting. Though the exercises are nominally climbing-specific, they're appropriate for anyone who spends time in the mountains, or anyone looking to shake up their routine.

But even if you don't know a Prusik from a piton, there's a lot here to love. The book contains dozens of full-color high-altitude climbing photographs, as well as 27 essays by accomplished climbers, including Ueli Steck, Mark Twight, and Peter Habeler. To illustrate the unique nature of this book, House and Johnston (along with Patagonia Books) have provided several images, along with two excerpts:

  • "The Alpinist as Athlete": A summary of House and Johnson's philosophy of training's central role in the success of any climber
  • "The North Face of the North Twin": A short essay by House about a time something went sideways at altitude (the full story is included in Beyond the Mountain)

 Training for the New Alpinism is a book Fred Beckey would love.

 Images from the book (click for larger photographs):

Marko Prezelj climbing the short traversing pitch to the ice in the exit cracks of the headwall. North face of the North Twin, Alberta

Justin Merle chucks a lap near Ouray, Colorado

Continue reading "Don't Look Down: Training for the New Alpinism" »

Rabbit, Write: Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

Updike by Adam Begley It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.

* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters

Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.

 


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley

 

1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.

2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.

4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.

5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!

A Peek Inside a Best-Seller...for Babies

Peek a WhoThere are some children's books that fly a little under the radar but are parent favorites year after year. These are not books by the "S's" (Seuss, Sendak or Silverstein) or books with characters that show up as a PBS show or on nursery decor.  These are the unsung staples of a first library, and Nina Laden's Peek-a-Who? is one of them. 

Published in 2000, this board book with die-cut pages is one I like to recommend for baby showers or toddler birthdays, and hundreds of customer reviews sing it's praises.  This month, Laden released a companion book, Peek-a-Zoo!, which made our first list of Best Books of the Month for Baby-Age 2.  Fourteen years is a long time between the two books and we were curious about the how, when, and why now of Peek-a-Zoo! Here is Nina Laden on writing the new book and a peek (I can't resist) inside her studio and early sketches.

 


Peek a WhoIt was the year 2000. Some people were worried that the world would end, or that the Y2K virus would cause computers all over the world to crash. But I was anxious about my very first board book, Peek-a Who?

I'd published several picture books that were very well received, but had never planned to do board books. But I got to the stage when all of my friends started having babies and I wanted something hip, cool and interactive to give them, something more "me" than the typical "A is for Apple" and "B is for Ball" book Little did I know that Peek-a Who? would basically become "The Little Book That Could," as I've been calling it for years. My take on the game of peek-a boo struck a chord with parents and kids, and has sold beyond my wildest expectations. Even with that success, I am not the kind of author who likes to do series and didn't immediately plan a follow-up I just don't think that way. I am constantly trying to reinvent myself, mostly so that I won't get bored. But as the years went past, including some difficult years spent managing some family crisis, and Peek-a Who? continued to sell better with each passing year, I began to think of new board book ideas.

 

Backyard
Nina's backyard studio
Inside Studio
The inside view of Nina's Seattle studio

 

Interior SketchesAt first I played with eyes and noses of different animals and creatures and sent these ideas to my editor, Victoria Rock at Chronicle Books. They just didn't work on all of the levels that they should have, and for me those levels are: a good rhyme, fun images that have some sort of game or guessing element, a surprise at the end, and a way to end with the child reading the book. Then one day, the clouds parted. So many people had told me how much they loved the zoo image in Peek-a Who? and I realized that I could create an entire board book with zoo animals.

I did a thumbnail dummy and I rounded up a group of animals that all rhymed with the "oo" sound: MEW (kitten), KANGAROO, GNU, COCK-A DOODLE-DO (rooster), EWE, and the mirror at the end.

I sent these thumbnails off to Victoria and after we discussed them, I drew them full-sized and then I even started painting the kitten for the first spread. Something was bugging me, though and I wasn't quite sure what it was. Then I got the email from my editor saying "these really aren't all zoo animals." Yeah, that was it. They weren't. The kitten was replaced with a tiger cub. The kangaroo stayed, but the gnu failed the audition and was replaced with a cockatoo. The rooster became a panda eating bamboo, and the ewe went away because I had come up with too many spreads! (I may have to do a farm version of the book in the future.)

 

Mew Bamboo

 

Peek a ZooOnce we had the animals all set and my sketches approved, I painted all of the interior illustrations. I love painting in the technique I created for my board books, which involves painting the paper black first and then making it look like a wood-cut.

I had known basically what I wanted the cover to look like from the beginning, but we had to go through a few different background patterns. I had started with leopard spots, tiger stripes and peacock feathers. The tiger stripes won.

It was truly a lot of fun to create Peek-a Zoo! I've also embraced the idea of creating a series of "Peek-A Books." The good news is that there are so many great words with "oo" sounds to play with. But don't worry, I won't be doing Peek-a Tattoo. Or maybe I will. You never know.

Peek a Zoo SketchPeek a Zoo Sketch Concepts

YA Wednesday: Lauren Oliver--To Play or Not to Play

Panic344Lauren Oliver's new book, Panic, is her first return to realism since her best-selling debut, Before I Fall, and our spotlight pick for the Best Young Adult Book of March. Panic tells the story of Dodge and Heather, two teenagers, caught up in a high stakes rite of passage game (called Panic) played in secret each year in their small, poor town.  As I read, I found myself wondering if I would have entered the competition as a teenager, at what point I would likely have quit, and would I even think about it now.   I asked Oliver her thoughts on this and here's what she had to say about the question of to play or not to play...

My new book, Panic, is about a small, rundown town called Carp, in which a sense of isolation, an almost institutionalized boredom, and the social competition native to every American high school combine in one explosive, legendary game.

I didn't grow up in a rundown town--far from it--but my town was certainly small, and we were certainly bored. We did a lot of stupid things in high school: we drove too fast once we got our licenses, and I resolutely and universally refused to wear‎ my seatbelt, for reasons I no longer remember. We mixed whiskey and vodka and chugged it (not recommended). We scored fake IDs in the city, cut class, smoked cigarettes, and bounced from party to party on weekends, looking for something to do.

I wasn't just an inveterate bad-decision maker, though--that was just a pastime. I was also an excellent, ambitious, and enthusiastic student, nerdy and more than a little insecure, trying to conceal my fears and frustrations beneath an attitude of recklessness and indifference.

Would I have participated in Panic back then? Heck yeah. Because Panic, the game, is about more than resistance to fear; it’s about the promise of escape. ‎And although the kids of Carp have real problems to outrun, they're also (like many teens; like myself, at that age) trying desperately to outrun themselves, to escape their identities, their anxieties, their creeping sense that they've inherited a life that is broken or misshapen in some way. Paradoxically, the reason I was so reckless in high school was because of my fears, not in spite of them.  I was hoping that if I could pretend to be fearless I might not only become fearless, but the very things I feared would never come to materialize.

I'm less afraid now than I was at eighteen, and also far less reckless, though I have a deeply ingrained adventurous streak that now finds expression in activity, travel, and experimenting with new things. I'll be the first to hop on a rock-climbing wall or jump out of a plane, fly across the world armed with just a passport and a sense of fun; sample fried insects (not, like, off the street, but in places where people eat insects)‎ or monkfish liver. I've built a life I love. I'm no longer plagued by the insecurities and fears that used to eat at me constantly, the suspicion that if I let my guard down for a second, everyone would know how weak I really was.

Would I play Panic now?‎ Absolutely not. I'm not running from anything. I don't need money to escape. And I'm lucky enough to say there's really nothing I could win that I don't already have. ---Lauren Oliver

 

Guest Essay: Rene Denfeld on Translating Life into Fiction for "The Enchanted"

The Enchanted"Write about what you know," they say. Author Rene Denfeld, who has several nonfiction books to her name, took that advice to heart when writing her powerful debut novel, The Enchanted. Told from the perspective of a death row inmate, the story, in large part, is about the inmate in the next cell and the work of "the Lady," an investigator who is trying to help him avoid execution. Drawing upon her own experiences investigating death penalty cases, Denfeld brings us inside the prison walls, deep into death row, and beyond.

We asked her to tell us about how her own experience influenced her writing, particularly with "the Lady." Here's what she had to say.


The EnchantedNot long ago, I was interviewing a man on death row.

He appeared angry with me, and I asked why. He turned haunted eyes towards me and said, "You brought the outside in."

For decades, he said, he had been trying to forget there was an outside. It was the only way to cope with being locked in a fetid prison cell. Now here I was, smelling of fresh air, with the bloom of winter sun on my cheeks, and he was furious.

I had reminded him of the greatest thing he had lost: hope.

In my job as a death penalty investigator, I spend a lot of time talking to men like this: men in prison cells, waiting for death.

My work is very much like that of the character of the lady in my first novel, The Enchanted. Attorneys hire me to investigate the lives of their clients--men and women facing execution.

Like the lady, I track down long-ago family members, and childhood friends. I find teachers based on pictures in ancient yearbooks. I dig up forgotten records in mildewed file rooms, and often locate witnesses starting with nothing more than a first name.

And most importantly, I spend time with the clients, making a safe place for them to tell me their secrets.

My job is painful and difficult, but I love it, because I get to learn the answers to the most critical question of all --"Why?"

Why are people the way they are? Why do people do such terrible things to each other? Why do some survive bad childhoods, while others succumb to rage and violence?

It fascinates me that for all our focus on crime--the movies, the novels, the television shows--we so seldom dig deep to find out why. We spend a lot of time in our culture telling each other what's wrong with people, but rarely do we stop, and just listen.

Like the lady, I find that most of the people I interview have been waiting a lifetime for someone to listen. Poverty, crime, and abuse have created vast swaths of the population who are silenced. They are our caste of invisibles, unseen and unheard.

Until, sometimes, their actions speak for them--and then it is too late.

For me, listening led to this novel. I listened to the voice of the narrator much as I have learned to listen to the voices of men on death row, their family members, and the families of their victims.

I feel honored to be entrusted with the truths of others, as real and painful and beautiful as they can be. Each secret told is a gift, the chance to truly understand another person.

I have been brought to my knees by the raw courage that can exist in victims and survivors. I've been humbled by the naked humanity of the penitent. Mostly, I've been astounded at the ability to find joy and hope and celebration even in the most despairing of circumstances.

Writing The Enchanted, there were times when I recognized myself in the lady. I also come from a difficult background. Like her, I've used my hardships to make room in my heart for others. But she made it clear that she was her own person, with her own story. She was not me--none of the characters are.

And yet, we share a comon humanity. We all have pain and sorrow. We all share the unquenchable human need to be heard, to be seen, and hopefully, accepted--to find a reason to let the outside in.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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