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How I Wrote It: Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” and 5 Books for Labor Day

BethBeth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.

Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.

“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”

In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.  

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FactoryWhat sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?

I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).

How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?

Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.

What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?

He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.

I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.

What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?

Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.

How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?

I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.

Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?

Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.

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Recommended books:

Hairstons1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes. 

2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance. 

3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend. 

4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos. 

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses. 

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> Visit Macy's website

> Follow her on Twitter


 

"We Should Have Brought More Pemmican." (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)

August 2014 marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out in the Endurance on the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition," a mission to trek 1,800 miles from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea on the far side of the continent, crossing the South Pole on the way. The events are well known. The ship was trapped, eventually sinking under the hull-wrecking pressure of the ice. Shackleton's men were forced to make camp on the floe, drifting on the sea before reaching the barren rock of Elephant Island--more than a year since the boat had first become ice-bound. Only a desperate and heroic effort by Shackleton and a few of his men saved the crew from certain death: a 15-day, rough-water sea journey in a small, ramshackle craft, followed by a 36-hour mountain crossing to reach the whaling stations on the Island of South Georgia.

While Shackleton's tale has earned the most fame over the last century, his is not the only story of a Voyage Gone Very Wrong. Here we present six books chronicling the pitfalls of the age of polar exploration.

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfed Lansing

Widely considered the definitive account of Shackleton's ordeal. Lansing's exhaustive research--including information drawn from interviews with 10 surviving members of the expedition, and the diaries and personal accounts of eight more--resulted in this immediate and engrossing account of disaster, courage, and redemption.

See also:
--South: The Endurance Expedition
--The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander 
 
 

 


In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Amazon's Spotlight selection for the Best Books of August, 2014. Award-winning author Hampton Sides recounts the tale of George Washington De Long and the U.S.S. Jeanette: Sailing out of San Francisco Bay and into the waters of the Arctic, the ship was was abandoned by its crew after becoming locked in the pack ice--setting the stage for a gripping story of perseverance and survival. Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep says Sides has done "a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction."


 
 
 

 Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin ExpeditionFrozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out for the Artic to “penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America.” It didn't work out. Despite the best scientific equipment the day had to offer, the crew and the expedition’s two ships disappeared without a trace. The mystery persevered for more than a century, until the makeshift graves of a few missing sailors were discovered on a remote island, and modern forensics unlocked the grisly secret of their demise: Franklin's expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive the unforgiving landscape. (The link above is for the Kindle edition. A new paperback edition is due in October.)

 

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time ForgotFatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan


Poor John Rae. Perhaps the most successful Arctic explorer of his day, the largely self-taught Hudson Bay man charted thousands of miles of previously unknown territory along the northern Canadian coast in ships, on snowshoes, and canoes. He also uncovered the fate of Franklin's crew. Unfortunately for Rae, Franklin's cabal of dogged supporters suppressed the truth through a campaign of character assassination, effectively obfuscating Rae's achievements for more than a century.

 

 

 

 The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea PartyThe Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Almost everything about the Shackleton expedition went sideways. Sent on a mission to cache supplies for Shackleton's Antarctic traverse, the men of the Aurora were stranded when their ship broke from its moorings during a storm, vanishing into the sea. The Lost Men vividly recounts the two years before they were rescued, drawing on journals to recreate not only the objective hazards they faced, but their mental, emotional, and  interpersonal challenges, as well.

 

 

  

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KarlukThe Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

The Gilligan's Island of all the ill-conceived polar expeditions, with sadly predictable results. A year before Shackleton launched his own wildly-successful-by-comparison voyage, the Karluk--a ship deemed inadequate by it's apparently incompetent captain--set forth to prove the existence of a continent beneath the Arctic ice. They didn't find it. Not just because it doesn't exist, but because their ship was locked in the ice and pushed north before succumbing to Siberian waters. And that's when things got really dark.

How I Wrote It: Karen Abbott, on Maverick Women and the Civil War

Karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1719461246While sitting in Atlanta traffic years ago, Karen Abbott noticed the bumper sticker on the pickup truck in front of her: "Don't blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis." She realized that many southerners not only felt residual pride for their long-ago Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but that they were "still fighting the Civil War down here."

From those origins comes Abbott's new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, the story of four female spies, two from each side, including one who disguised herself as a male soldier in the Union army. The book is a thrilling look at the forgotten role subversive women played in the Civil War. "They didn't have political discourse. They didn't have access to the vote. What could they do?" Abbott said.

With playfulness, enthusiasm, and a bit of naughty, Abbott gives us an energetic and witty new take on the Civil War. It's a story as much about women's rights and breaking marital shackles as it is about espionage and subterfuge. Her curiosity is contagious, as is her admiration for the maverick women who "longed to be useful" in a man's war.

Abbott is the bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. We spoke with her at the annual Book Expo America in New York, in late May of 2014.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy goes on sale Sept. 2.

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>See all of Abbott's books

>Visit her website

>Follow her on Twitter

The Richard M. Nixon Ex-Presidential Library

On the evening of August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon, drowning in scandal and facing almost certain impeachment, announced his resignation as President of the United States. Though he vacated office the following day, Nixon still casts a long, victory-sign-waggling shadow--not just politically, but in the publishing world, as well. Though we'll have to wait another decade for the 50th anniversary and the flood of books sure to come, the Ruby Anniversary offers some interesting new perspectives on the affair, including some from principals of the administration. Here's a look at a few of the most prominent titles.

[Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon Customer Reviews are provided for each title. He said all of these things, but obviously in different contexts.]

 

The Nixon Defense

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean

As White House Counsel for Nixon from 1970 to 1973, Dean was instrumental in both the Watergate burglaries and their cover-up. He was also the first to turn, plea-bargaining for a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony. In his latest effort, Dean has drawn on his own extensive archive of conversations and documents to answer the titular question.

 

One StarI am not a crook.

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal.

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Richard Perlstein

Though technically a Reagan biography, the follow-up to Nixonland recounts the tumultuous events of the 70s, starting with the resignation. Perlstein contends that rather than leading to a humbler style of politics--which many predicted--they set the stage for Reagan's ascension to the pinnacle of power, as well as his doctrine of American exceptionalism that influences policy to this day. [Note: This book is currently the subject of its own scandal.]

 

 Three StarsBureaucrats.

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist.

The Greatest Comeback

The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by The Patrick J. Buchanan

Nixon's trusted advisor (and eternal loyalist) Buchanan documents Nixon's remarkable revival following his twin disasters of the 1960 presidential and 1962 Californial gubenatorial elections.

 

Five StarsSock it to me?

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
Defeat doesn't finish a man. Quit does. A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.

The Nixon Tapes

The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter

Acutely aware of his position as an important historical figure, Nixon (in)famously outfitted his White House with voice-activated tape recorders. What could go wrong? Luke Nichter's Herculean effort to digitize and transcribe much of the material finally offers a glimpse not only into the events of Nixon's presidency (SALT I, the opening of China, and the landslide re-election), but also the mind of the man in the eye of the storm.

 

Three Stars[REDACTED]

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
[REDACTED]

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes

Bob Woodward calls Ken Hughes "one of America's foremost experts on secret presidential recordings, especially those of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon." In Chasing Shadows, Hughes, drawing on his own extensive research of thousands of hours of declassified recordings, illustrates how events and behavior starting with the 1968 election led to the paranoid strategies that ultimately brought Nixon down.

 

One StarWell...

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
I screwed it up real good, didn't I?

All the President's Men

 More on Richard Nixon

The Men (and Women) Who Knew Too Much: History's Most Notorious Spies

Nobody knows spies like Ben Macintyre. With Double Cross, Agent Zigzag, and Operation Mincemeat, the London-based author established himself as the master chronicler of spooks and subterfuge, a biographer of the most eccentric personalities ever to dwell in the shadows of diplomacy. (Macintyre is also a regular dweller of our Best of the Month lists.) His latest, A Spy Among Friends, tackles the story of the man who may have been the most damaging double-agent in history: Kim Philby, Britain's top spy-hunter charged with catching Soviet moles, who all the while spilled deadly secrets to the Soviets themselves.

We couldn't think of anyone more qualified than Ben Macintyre to ask for history's most notorious double-crossers, and unsurprisingly (spoiler alert) Philby made the list.

 

A Spy Among Friends

 

History's Five Most Notorious Double-Agents

by Ben Macintyre

The FBI has coined an acronym to describe the motivations of the spy: MICE, which stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. Some spies are inspired by simple greed; others by pure conviction. But the greatest spies of all are a driven by something that defies categorization: a love of espionage, an addiction to the thrill and danger of subterfuge, and a dedication to this most fickle of professions for its own sake. The most successful and notorious spies in history have all possessed this peculiar quality: they each fell in love with spying itself, and remained besotted, prepared to take the most appalling risks to remain one step ahead in the lethal espionage game. These are the most dangerous spies of all, because they cannot be controlled by money or blackmail, by appeals to their vanity or ideology. They do it for love of the game.   

Eddie Chapman
Chapman was a burglar, con man, and gangster in pre-war London, who happened to be in prison in Jersey when the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands. He struck a deal with the Germans to spy against Britain in exchange for his freedom. Trained at a spy school in occupied France, he was parachuted into Britain in 1942, and immediately defected to British intelligence. For the rest of the war, he spied for Britain, while pretending to spy for Germany. The British code-named him “Agent Zigzag,” because they could never be sure whose side he was on. The Germans never realized the game he was playing, and even awarded him the Iron Cross for services to the Third Reich. After the war, Chapman immediately returned to a professional life of crime.

Richard Sorge
Ian Fleming, the creator James Bond, considered the half-German and half-Russian Richard Sorge to have been “the most formidable spy in history.” A committed communist, Sorge spied for the Soviets in Japan at the start of the war, supplying vital military intelligence gleaned while ostensibly working as a journalist. He even informed Moscow that Japan was not planning to attack the USSR, which enabled the transfer of Soviet troops from the east to defend Moscow and changed the course of the war. Sorge was eventually betrayed, captured by the Japanese secret police, tortured into confessing, and hanged in November 1944. In 1964 he was recognized as a Hero of the Soviet Union.  

Juan Pujol
Pujol was a Spanish chicken farmer, who managed to get himself recruited as a German spy at the start of the war while always intending to spy for the Allies. He is one of the very few spies in history who set out to become a double agent.  Ensconced in a safe house in London, Pujol (codenamed Garbo, on account of his acting abilities) not only supplied reams of false information to the Germans, but invented no fewer than twenty-nine additional sub-agents, all of whom were entirely fictitious, and wholly deceptive. He was one-man band, with a huge, invented orchestra. Pujol was, in a way, a spy-novelist, creating an imaginary world and then luring his German spy-masters into the illusion that it was real. He played a pivotal role in the run-up to D-Day, successfully convincing the Germans that the invasion would come at Calais, and not Normandy, thus tying up thousands of German troops. After the war, he took on a false name, and vanished into obscurity.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow
Greenhow was not technically a double agent, since she only ever spied for one side (the Confederates during the Civil War), but she was undoubtedly America’s most successful woman spy. Socialite, diplomat and secret agent, she ran an extensive spy network in Washington, DC, during 1861, helped to bring about Union defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run. Betrayed and captured, she was imprisoned for five months and then deported to Richmond. Undaunted, she then represented the Confederacy on a diplomatic mission to France and Britain, and was drowned after her ship ran aground on the return journey. Greenhow was a ferocious ideologue, but a most effective spy: “Instead of loving the old flag of the stars and stripes, I see in it only the symbol of murder, plunder, oppression, and shame,” she said.
 
Kim Philby
The notorious British spy and KGB agent was recruited to the communist cause in 1934, and went on to achieve something no other spy has managed: he got himself recruited by the enemy spy-organization, namely Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6. By 1944 he had become head of the Soviet counter-intelligence section of MI6, responsible for attacking Soviet espionage around the world, exposing Russian spies and breaking up the USSR’s spy rings. In other words, he was in charge of hunting people like himself. Tipped as the future head of MI6, he used his position to extract a multitude of secrets from his friends in British and American intelligence, and did spectacular damage by betraying everything to Moscow. Hundreds, if not thousands, died as result of Philby’s betrayals, for which he never expressed a single word of remorse.

Philby was the most remarkable example of a spy acting, in the end, out of pure love for the game of espionage. Philby was a master spy, addicted to the thrill of betrayal, whose willingness to manipulate and double-cross his friends allowed him to survive uncaught for three decades, and then escape to Moscow to spend the rest of his days. Philby is the greatest double agent in history.

American Spymaster

Meet Jack Devine. Something of a real-life George Smiley, he is a 30-year veteran of the CIA who, among a lot of things, ran Charlie Wilson's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, knew a thing or two about the Iran-Contra affair long before the rest of us did (including the president?), and tangled with some of the agency's most notorious double-agents. In Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story, Devine has written a fascinating memoir of his time overseeing the agency’s spying operations, while also critiquing its policies and direction--arguing that covert ops (i.e. actual undercover operatives on the ground) is the best, most effective use of the CIA’s talents, rather than its increasingly paramilitaristic role during a decade of war. Devine has managed an unlikely accomplishment: enhancing the aura of the agency while stripping away some of its myths, in the process producing a clear-eyed and forthright account from an intelligence insider.

 

 

Mr. Devine stopped by our offices for a candid--and lengthy!--chat about the book, his career, as well as some other notable current events. Good Hunting is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for June 2014.

 

Fake Proposals, Intriguing Propositions and the Unusual Poetry of Hedgehogs

Console-wars

I grew up battling my brother in just about every two-player videogame released in the '90s. But little did I know that while my sibling and I were duking it out on our TV, Japanese console manufacturers Sega and Nintendo were similarly engaged in a competition for videogame dominance. This business history is thoroughly detailed in Blake Harris's terrific Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (one of our Best Books of May in both Business & Leadership and History. The book chronicles the ascension of videogames as a minor toy category to one of the biggest media industries in the world. Console Wars is also in production as two movies: a drama starring Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and a documentary.

Harris has been kind enough to share with us this essay all about proposals: book proposals, film proposals, and the biggest surprise proposal of all.


What Would Sonic the Hedgehog Do?

I can’t count the number of times that I asked myself this question while writing Console Wars. Whether I needed a burst of energy, a zap of inspiration, or the courage to pilfer golden rings out of the air, aspiring to be like Sega’s Blue Dude With Attitude often armed me with the craftiness I needed to track down 200+ former employees of Sega and Nintendo. But despite the many ways that thinking about Sonic helped make this book possible, there was an incident a couple years ago where asking myself this seemingly innocent question very nearly ruined my life.

It happened back in December 2011, when my girlfriend Katie and I were at my cousin midtown Manhattan apartment for a holiday party. My mom and dad were there, Grandma too, and even Uncle Bradley and Aunt Erica made the trek all the way from Long Island. In short, all my favorite people on earth were gathered together in one room, and that’s when I made the terrible mistake of asking myself WWSTHD?

Actually, I should amend that statement. My mistake was not so much in asking the question, but rather in not yet knowing Sonic well enough to answer it correctly. In the grand scheme of things, I would end up spending over three years researching and writing Console Wars, but this faux pas took place only one year after my brother had given me a Sega Genesis and inadvertently sent me on the adventure of a lifetime.

This was the console that we had played together as kids—the source of so many late nights, high-fives, and childhood skirmishes resulting from vague allegations of cheating—so naturally I expected that booting it for the first time in two decades would unearth all kinds of memories. And it did, unleashing a hurricane of pixels in my mind. But after the barrage of nostalgia came a bombardment of questions: What ever happened to Sega? Or, better yet, how were they even able to compete against mighty Nintendo in the first place? And ultimately: what the hell was going on behind the scenes all that time?

Continue reading "Fake Proposals, Intriguing Propositions and the Unusual Poetry of Hedgehogs" »

Ken Jennings: The Water Boys of the White House

JenningsUSpresidentsYou probably know Ken Jennings as the game show record breaker who won $2.52 million on Jeopardy! and then became a best-selling author.  Most recently, Jennings has turned his attention to writing books for kids--really great informative and FUN books in a series called the Junior Genius Guides.  The first two titles were Maps and Geography (a pick for Best Nonfiction Children's Books of February ) and Greek Mythology.  Embarrassing fact about myself: I stink at geography. But when I read Jennings' book, I not only learned new facts but they were interesting enough that I found myself parroting tidbits to family members, including my seven-year-old.

The latest book in the series, Ken Jennings' Junior Genius Guide to U.S. Presidents, just released and once again I find myself a fan. Did you know that President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday? I did not.  But it's a fun fact that I've now committed to memory.  In the guest post below, Jennings talks a little about why he chose Presidents and five of them that didn't quite make the cut for his book.


The third installment in my series of Junior Genius Guides for kids is out this week, and this one is about U.S. presidents. When I’m writing these books, the audience I always have in mind is me at nine years old: curious, fact-obsessed, and always on the lookout for books that didn’t talk down to me. (Kids aren’t dummies.  They can tell the difference between smart, funny books and “smart,” “funny” books.)

When I was nine years old, I was particularly obsessed with U.S. presidents. Something about the mystique of the office (the private airplane, the Easter Egg rolls, the giant statues carved into mountains) combined with the wealth of available trivia (Millard Fillmore? We had a president named “Millard”?) spoke to me. It wasn’t political.  It was just . . . American.

Let me introduce you to a few people who are not in my book . . . though they almost were. On the all-star team of Chief Executives, these are the alternates, the water boys.  They’re more obscure than Millard Fillmore, but they got even closer to the presidency than Al Gore. 

  • John Hanson. America’s first president as a newly formed nation was not George Washington. Before the Constitution was ratified, when the U.S. government was still organized under the Articles of Confederation, eight men were presidents of the Continental Congress. The first was an otherwise obscure Maryland merchant named John Hanson. Nice enough guy, but you won’t be seeing him on the dollar bill any time soon.
  • David Rice Atchison. In 1849, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, so Sabbath-observing Zachary Taylor was sworn in a day late.  (As was the style at the time.)  If James Polk’s presidency ended at midnight on Saturday, but Taylor wasn’t sworn in until Monday, then who was president all day Sunday? Next in the line of succession was theoretically Missouri senator David Rice Atchison, who had been serving as President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Atchison spent the rest of his life boasting that he’d run the nation’s most honest administration, since he’d been asleep pretty much his entire (24-hour) term! Technically, though, his Senate term had ended at the same time Polk’s presidency did, so legal scholars agree that he was never really president.
  • Benjamin Wade. In 1868, during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate was a Radical Republican from Ohio named Benjamin Wade. Wade was so sure he’d accede to the presidency that he even started assembling his cabinet. But the thought of the abrasive Wade in the presidency scared senators so badly that, though largely convinced Johnson was guilty, they failed to impeach him by one vote. Wade had to stop measuring curtains for the White House.
  • Samuel Tilden. In the 1876 election, Governor Tilden of New York won the popular vote easily, but four states had disputed electoral votes. Tilden needed just one of those states to take the White House, but a commission of eight Republicans and seven Democrats voted 8-7 to give all four disputed states to their man, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was sworn in secretly in the Red Room of the White House, for fear that a public inauguration would turn into a riot.
  • Sir Anthony Hopkins. The former Hannibal Lecter has been Oscar-nominated not once but twice for playing U.S. presidents: Richard Nixon in Nixon and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. Sadly, Hopkins was born in Wales, and is therefore constitutionally ineligible for the presidency.

Case Closed? Art, Cannibals, and the Fate of Michael Rockefeller

Savage-Harvest-jacket-omni“I think I can make it.” In 1961, while on an expedition to collect pieces for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art, Michael Rockefeller and his traveling companion were plunged into the warm waters off New Guinea. The billionaire scion tied two empty gas cans to his body for floatation and swam for shore, and by most accounts, he made it. But what happened there, when he encountered members of the Asmat tribe--a culture marked by ritual violence and cannibalism--has been long debated. Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics. So, did he make it? Read our Q&A with Hoffman and decide for yourself.

Learn more about Savage Harvest, an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for March 2014.

 



What drew you to the mystery of Michael Rockefeller?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael.  In my 20s I saw Dead Birds, the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me.  Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place.  His death took on the quality of myth - Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners - an idea echoed by the press accounts of the time.  Wrote a LIFE photographer, after a day of searching for Michael: "they say if a man falls in the mud he cannot get up without help..."  Which I knew not to be true - the Asmat had been rolling in that mud and spreading it on themselves and walking in it and living in it for 40,000 years.  

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren't alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.  And there was enough about Michael's disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn't a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.


Savage-Harvest-MRBeardedYour book opens with a horrifying, detailed depiction of what might have happened to Michael Rockefeller in 1961, if he had been killed by cannibals. How did you conduct the research for this?

That description is based on the Dutch priest Gerard Zegwaard’s seminal examination of Asmat head hunting practices, published in the American Anthropologist in 1959.  Zegwaard was the first Westerner to spend any time among the Asmat and he spoke the language and delved deep.  Cannibalism was an offshoot of head hunting, an all-important sacred ritual necessary to keep the world in balance and for restoring life in the community, and it was conducted according to formal charters and prescriptions.  It was not random.  If Michael was killed by the men in Otsjanep, as I argue, what happened would have closely followed standard Asmat ritual practice.   

You write, “If I asked anyone about cannibalism, they would acknowledge it. Sure, we used to eat people, now we don’t. They didn’t want to talk about it.” Given the central roles that vengeance and violence played in Asmat culture, is it possible that cannibalism existed in the 1960s, or even later?

Head hunting and ritual cannibalism were still the rule in Asmat in the early 1960s, when Michael disappeared, and there were scattered reports of it well into the 1970s.  

The Rockefeller family resisted the idea that Michael was murdered, and even traveled to New Guinea, in part to dispel the worst rumors. What were the factors that influenced this resistance?

I can’t speak for Michael’s family, but I think they clung to the idea that he disappeared at sea because the Dutch government never told them otherwise and actively denied what it was in fact investigating, and because, of course, the idea of anything else is pretty horrifying.  And they wished to keep everything private, as well.  

Savage-Harvest-SauerDid you seek assistance from the Rockefeller family for the book? Did they participate at all?

I made various efforts to contact Michael’s twin sister, Mary, which all drew a blank.  We have since made contact, but no one from the family helped in any way.

Rockefeller’s disappearance occurred at the moment Asmat society (and similar cultures) was being exposed to the modern world. What were the factors in play, and was Michael’s fate a consequence of that upheaval, at least in part?

Yes, in every way.  Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he personally was not the target, but he was traveling in a culture under siege, one in which all of their most sacred and meaningful activities, the very things that defined them as human beings, were being suppressed, sometimes violently, by a growing tide of Westerners backed up by modern firearms.  Had the Dutch patrol officer Max Lepre not killed the four most important men in the village of Otsjanep in 1958, Michael would be alive today.  And his murder might have become public knowledge at the time if the governments of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United States hadn’t been engaged in a geopolitical struggle over the future of western Papua.  

What was the most dangerous or uncertain moment of your own research?

I only felt in danger once when we were in rough, difficult seas crossing the mouth of the Betsj River.  I never feared for my personal safety from the people, but they intimidated me at first and it was not easy physically or emotionally to be among them at first.  They were hostile to questions about Michael Rockefeller and that was difficult.  I had to learn their language and live with them for a month before I came to understand them.  

Are your heroes journalists, anthropologists, or adventurers? Or journalist-anthropologist-adventurers?  Who are they?

Interesting question.  I’d say I admire most those people who can combine adventure with beautiful writing, whether they call themselves anthropologists or journalists or whatever.  People who can capture not just the physical essence of a place, but the complex emotional lives of human beings, themselves included.  People like Wifred Thesiger or Tobias Schneebaum or even George Orwell.

What were the five (or more) books most influential to your own work?

So hard to narrow it to five!  Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons (beautiful story and narrative with simple, precise writing); John Hersey’s Hiroshima (perfect prose with deep reporting); Capote’s In Cold Blood (the edge of the envelope of the line between fact and fiction); for this book in particular I thought often of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and the way he was able to get inside the heads of the Somalians who attacked the Americans, which I try to do a bit with the Asmat; and last, again for this book, I often thought of lots of great thriller writers in terms of pacing.  It is a complex story, but it’s also a murder mystery and I wanted it to read like one.  

Savage-Harvest-Family

10 Immortal Gifts Between Writers and Their Beloveds

Writers-CoversTo celebrate this amorous season, Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, authors of Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads, present the 10 most memorable gestures of affection between writers and their lovers (including one that was mistakenly--and scandalously--delivered to the wrong woman).

 

1. Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert gave a whole new meaning to the idea of re-gifting in his novel Madame Bovary.

A heartfelt token he had received from his longtime mistress Louise Colet—a cigar holder engraved with the words “Amor nel cor” (Love in the heart)—inspired Emma Bovary to bestow a seal with the same motto on her rakish lover. The fictional rogue later breaks off their relationship in a letter he cruelly marks with the romantic insignia.

 

2. John Keats

The Romantic poet fell in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, only to be parted from her by illness. Keats hoped a short stay in Italy would bolster his health, never imagining the parting gifts the couple exchanged would be their last.

He gave Fanny his cherished Shakespeare folio with personalized notes written in the margins, while she lined his traveling cap with silk and presented him with a lock of her hair.

 

Author-Shakespeare

3. William Shakespeare

When the Bard passed away, he ignited a four-hundred-year controversy by leaving his “second-best” bed to his wife, Anne. The perceived snub led many to speculate that his marriage had been unhappy.

But contrary to appearances, the bequest was probably a romantic gesture rather than a slight. Tudor custom dictated the best bed be reserved for guests, while the second-best bed would have been the one on which Anne conceived their children.

 

Author-Margaret-Mitchell Margaret-Mitchell-Typewrite4. Margaret Mitchell

The aspiring writer received more than tea and sympathy from her husband while she was housebound recovering from a car accident.

He presented her with a secondhand typewriter and a sheaf of paper, saying: “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a great new career.”

By then Mitchell had read most of the books at the library, and her husband insisted she try writing one of her own. Taking up his challenge, she set to work on her masterpiece, Gone with the Wind.

 

Invisible-woman5. Charles Dickens

The Victorian novelist should have chosen his jeweler more carefully. When he ordered a bracelet inscribed to his mistress, Nelly Ternan, it was accidentally delivered to his wife instead.

The misdirected gift was the last straw in a string of indignities. Catherine Dickens finally left her philandering husband, engulfing him in a sea of scandal.

 

Author-Henry6. O. Henry

When the struggling scribe saved up money for his wife to attend the Chicago World’s Fair, she took the cash but never boarded the train. Instead she used the gift to spruce up their sparse cottage with muslin curtains and wicker chairs.

Later, while her husband was on the lam avoiding embezzlement charges, she made a lace handkerchief and auctioned it for twenty-five dollars in order to send him a Christmas care package. Her generous acts inspired his tale “The Gift of the Magi.”

 

7. Jack Kerouac

Edie Parker’s wedding gift to Jack Kerouac was bail money. She tapped into her inheritance to spring him from the slammer, with the stipulation that they tie the knot. The pair swapped vows while he was handcuffed to a police detective, after being arrested as a material witness in a murder investigation. Not surprisingly, the hasty nuptials ended in divorce six months later.

 

Hemingway The-farm-19228. Ernest Hemingway

Struggling writer Hemingway hit up friends for cash to buy his wife, Hadley, an impressive gift: Joan Miró’s oil painting The Farm.

A roll of the dice between Hemingway and an acquaintance decided who had dibs on buying the coveted canvas, which the novelist victoriously toted home to Hadley in a taxi.

Today The Farm is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

 

9. George Sand

The stormy two-year liaison between French novelist George Sand and dissolute poet Alfred de Musset was rife with quarrels, breakups, and tearful reunions. When their relationship finally fell apart for good, Sand said farewell with a dramatic parting gesture. Like the heroine in her novel Indiana, she cut off her dark, waist-length hair and sent it to Musset in a skull.

10. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The honeymoon phase was still going strong three years after Elizabeth Barrett Browning defied her tyrannical father to marry Robert and elope to Italy. On their third anniversary, she presented her beloved with forty-four sonnets she had secretly penned during their clandestine courtship. Among the intimate love poems is number 43, which begins with the now-famous lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

-- Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon are the authors of Writers Between the Covers and Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West. Joni lives in London; Shannon is a full-time traveler. They can be found at www.NovelDestinations.com.

 

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