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About Neal Thompson

Neal is a journalist/author, an amateur photographer/videographer, and a compulsive reader-writer whose rampant tastes veer from narrative non-fiction to literary fiction to long-form journalism to memoir/biography to sports, history, food, music, and so on. He's also a dad/driver/banker/chef to two skateboarding teen sons and an avid skier and runner. Favorite way to kill an hour: a book, a bourbon, and some Miles Davis.

Posts by Neal

Survival Lessons from Alice Hoffman: Choose Your Relatives

Hoffman_author_CMYK_HR[Our thanks to Alice Hoffman for sharing this excerpt from her recent book, Survival Lessons. Based on her own experience as a cancer survivor, this is a deeply personal and profound collection of essays on dealing with trauma and loss. Read yesterday's excerpt, "Choose Your Friends."]

Choose Your Relatives

They say you can’t choose your family. But you can choose the people you’ll spend time with and who will receive cards notifying them you are currently unavailable. Relatives can be tricky when you are undergoing treatment for a disease or are in the throes of any sort of tragedy. Some want to do too much, some too little. But some are just right. A pie left on your back porch is just right. A hug in the hallway. A book of poems sent through the mail.

Only answer the phone when you want to, and then, give yourself permission to say you can’t talk, especially if it’s a relative. Make up an excuse. There’s someone at my door, a bear is in the living room, there’s a meteor shower spilling over my front lawn. Or just tell the truth. I’m tired. I’m sick. I’m at a loss. I’m not ready to talk. Call me later, tomorrow, next month. Better still, let me call you back.

HoffmanI learned from my mistakes. I didn’t experience illness in my family until Jo Ann was diagnosed with brain cancer. For some reason I thought life always got better, but it was nearly a full year of things getting worse. When she was failing there was an afternoon when we sat together and she told me she was afraid to die. I quickly said, Don’t be silly, that’s not going to happen. The words were out of my mouth before I had time to think. But it was happening, as it does to all of us, only she was dying sooner rather than later and she knew it. She had been very brave and had sworn she would make history. When doctors found a cure, she would be on the cover of Time magazine. That’s what she had hoped for, but that’s not how it turned out.

I was with her every day of her illness, but at the very end, I had plans to take my children on vacation. I waivered and thought I should stay, but Jo Ann said to me, Go! And don’t feel guilty!

She knew exactly what I needed to hear. Those were the last words she ever said to me. She died while I was in the desert in Arizona with my husband and children. She allowed me to understand I’d done everything I could for her, and that I, and everyone who loved her, had to step away and go on living.

Now I know what she wanted from me on the day she told me she was afraid. It was exactly what I wanted when I had cancer and I thought I was going to die. I should have sat down next to her, put my arms around her, and told her that I loved her. That’s all anyone wants. It took me a long time to figure this out. It’s a complicated human puzzle. But it’s never too late to know that love is all you need.

~

> See all of Alice Hoffman's books

Survival Lessons from Alice Hoffman: Choose Your Friends

Hoffman_author_CMYK_HR[Our thanks to Alice Hoffman for sharing this excerpt from her recent book, Survival Lessons. Based on her own experience as a cancer survivor, this is a deeply personal and profound collection of essays on dealing with trauma and loss. Check back tomorrow for another excerpt.]

Choose Your Friends

When you have a dinner party only invite people you want to talk to. Invite those you’ve always wanted to know.

If I could, I would invite the Brontës and Edgar Allan Poe. They would be my first choices for dinner guests. I would want to know about their minds and his life. I would also want to invite Emily Dickinson, even though it is said that at some point she only spoke to callers through her bedroom door. That makes me love her all the more because I often feel exactly the same and want to hide away. She took to covering the windows in her bedroom, so she would feel safe, but she also went into the woods and collected hundreds of specimens of wildflowers.

Since it is impossible to invite great, dead writers, invite alive young people. Girls with pink hair who have big dreams. Young men who plan to change the world. children who get into trouble at school because they have too much energy and too many ideas. People in the middle of their lives are so busy working, buying things, and trying to pay their mortgages that they often don’t have time to spend dreaming out loud. Your friends’ children may now seem more interesting than their parents. It may come as a complete surprise when they are the ones who take time to visit, who view you without judgment even though you have lost your hair and your eyebrows. They ask questions other people are too polite to bring up: Did you love her? Does it hurt? Are you afraid of what happens next?

HoffmanI especially appreciated the fearlessness of teen readers and writers when I was undergoing treatment. One beautiful girl said to me, I am the darkest person you’ve ever met, but her poems were graceful and eloquent, and she hugged me when I left. Another told me that my book Green Angel--about a girl who loses everything and has to reclaim her life through writing her story--had gotten her through months in a hospital bed and several surgeries. I realized these teens were just starting out and I might be ending, but I felt a wild sort of joy to see how alike we were despite the difference in our ages. The fact that they loved books assured me that even if I wasn’t able to be a part of it, the future would be in good hands.

I also found myself drawn to older people. I asked them, How did it feel to see yourself change on the outside and look entirely different? I began to talk to neighbors in their eighties and nineties, people who had previously been nothing more than nodding acquaintances. I discovered what interesting lives they’d led and how much they had to say. Once I slowed down and took the time to ask questions, I realized they had a thousand and one stories.

I threw a party for my mother’s birthday, inviting both her friends and mine. We had tea in an old New England inn. It was the last birthday my mother celebrated. We didn’t know that, but we had an idea that might be true. We didn’t count calories or glasses of wine. One of the younger women asked if there was anything the older women wished they’d done when they were younger and had more energy and time. The older women all agreed upon the answer: They wished they had traveled the world. But more importantly, they wished they’d fallen in love more often. Don’t hold back! they told us. Live right now!

Make time for old friends. Get a group of your favorite people together and rent a room at a hotel. Order room service, watch movies, dance until the management starts to get complaints from other guests. Go to a spa together or make pizza from scratch. Tell someone how much he means to you. Don’t hold back! Throw your arms around somebody right now.

The truth is, some of your closest friends may disappear during your most difficult times. These people have their own history and traumas; they may not be able to deal with yours. They may belong to the before.

I still mourn the loss of certain people, friends who didn’t call after my diagnosis, who were too afraid to come to the hospital or visit me on my worst days. I was hurt. I felt abandoned. Looking back on it, I wish I had let them go more easily. If people aren’t there for you now, when you really need them, they never will be, and it’s time to move on. You’ll be amazed by how many new friends you have in the after. They’ll be the ones who aren’t afraid of sorrow, who know we can’t avoid it. The best we can do is face it together.

~

> See all of Alice Hoffman's books

How I Wrote It: Donna Tartt, on Beatles Notebooks, Afternoon Naps, and the Writing of ‘The Goldfinch’

DonnaTartt2Who did you write The Goldfinch for?

A book is always one person speaking directly to one other person. So though in different parts of the book, I felt as if I were writing to different people (which is not really as strange as it sounds, given that this book took ten years to write), I always feel that I'm writing to one person, never an audience. But the person varies. 

Space

I write by hand, in notebooks, so my work is very portable. I have an office, which is tiny and crowded--I seem to work better in small rooms--but I'm also happy working in a hotel room or a carrel in the library. And sometimes if I'm feeling particularly beleaguered or fretful I'll write in bed. Great storms of paper everywhere.

The one place I don't like to work is outdoors. And, even on beautiful days, I keep the windows shut, as I live in terror of the gust of wind that will send my papers flying all over the room.

Tools

For actual composition: I write by hand, with ball point pen, in college-ruled spiral notebooks, the kind that children use for school. In the fall when the school supplies are in the store, I'll tend to buy lots of them so I can get just the kind I want: silly patterns and colors are, for me, an important aide memoire, a mental filing system. When I was finishing Goldfinch, I had a series of notebooks that had covers from Beatles albums, and when I was looking for something, it was easier for me to think: "Oh, I wrote that in the 'Hard Day's Night' notebook" or "I wrote that in the 'Sgt. Pepper' notebook" rather than "I wrote that in the blue notebook."

Anyway, that's how I write: by hand, in notebooks. By the end of this book, I had stacks of them. And then, I'll often go and write over that draft in colored pencil (colored, so that the revisions stand out.) When the notebook starts getting too tangled-up to read, I'll type it up into a computer--I print out my drafts on different colors of paper, because with a long book, the paper tends to pile up, and it's easier to keep different versions straight that way. You're reaching for the pink draft, or the blue draft, or the gray draft, instead of being lost amidst stacks of white paper and not knowing what's what.

GoldfinchFuel

Coffee makes me too anxious and vigilant---I get most of my best work done when I'm in a more relaxed state of mind. So I drink tea when I'm writing. But I don't drink a lot of it: a cup of Assam or strong Scottish Breakfast when I go to my desk in the morning and then, mid-afternoon, if I'm still at my desk, a cup of something perfume-y to cheer me up, like rose or jasmine. As for food: if my work's not going well I'll keep drifting into the kitchen and prowling for something to eat, but when I'm really working hard all I want are little things to nibble on--an apple, a handful of almonds, a peach. If someone brings me something I'll eat it happily, but I'm generally too distracted to go hunt it down myself. And then at some point I look up and realize: I'm starving!

Words

I read a lot while I'm writing. If I'm feeling dull or uninspired, I'll often reach for a book of poetry:  often an anthology of British and American poets of the 20th century that I've had since high school and am superstitious about. At night, I like to read something completely different from what I'm working on, to get my mind off my work--Ivy Compton-Burnet is always bracing and fresh, and so is P.G. Wodehouse.     

Inspiration

Sleep is always helpful for me. If I can manage to take a nap in the afternoon, just the right kind of nap, I'm often good for another three or four hours of work before dinner. A walk about three in the afternoon is also helpful.

Temptation

I try to avoid social engagements. It's hard for me to socialize or see people while I'm working. I sleep irregular hours and eat irregular hours and don't like to be interrupted to go have dinner with someone if my writing is going well. Sometimes even knowing that I have a dinner engagement in the evening will keep me from working well during the day. I DO have a number of exuberant email correspondents though--writing letters to people at the end of the day is often my way of winding down from a day of work.

~

> See all of Donna Tartt's books

[author photo by Beowulf Sheehan]

Elissa Schappell reviews 'Quiet Dell,' by Jayne Anne Phillips

[Our thanks to guest reviewer Elissa Schappell, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me.]

Jayne Anne Phillips is a dangerous writer. Fearless in her writing and fearless in the territory she stakes out, a vast shadowland populated by people young and old in the grips of obsession, seeking comfort, love, salvation.

Elissa Schappell
Elissa Schappell

In her mesmerizing new novel, Quiet Dell, Phillips returns to the scene of a real crime that occurred in the 1931, in a West Virginia town not far from where Phillips grew up. A crime that Phillips’ mother, herself haunted by memories of watching townspeople flocking to the scene, had told her about when she was a girl.

At the time the newspapers were full of sensational stories about Asta Eicher, a lonely young widow, and her three children, imprisoned and murdered by Harry Powers, a charming serial killer who seduced scores of women through lonely hearts columns all around the country with the promise of making them his wife.

Many are comparing Quiet Dell to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and they do have much in common. Both are born out of a true crime, both contain photographs--Phillips also includes evidence such as court transcripts, the letters Asta and Harry Powers exchanged, as well as the lonely hearts club ad Powers posted in newspapers to lure his victims. And both books to differing degrees contain elements of fiction, although Capote might dispute that.

 

Quiet Dell is a fully realized work of fiction. Phillips deeply inhabits the characters of Asta, full of yearning, who carries on her correspondence with Powers in secret, and her children: daughter Grethe, son Hart, and the youngest and most intriguing, mysterious Annabel. The descriptions of Annabel’s mystical visions, suggesting as they do a life beyond the veil, possess the surreal poeticism that has become a Phillips’ trademark.

It is her creation of Emily Thornhill, an ambitious young reporter at the Chicago Tribune, whose obsession with the family’s disappearance and in particular Annabel, that fills out the novel.  Emily’s ambition, and her eagerness to make a name for herself in a man’s world, provides a powerful counterpoint to the society that was quick to shame Anna Eicher, and by extension all middle-aged women foolish and reckless enough to imagine they could find true love through the newspaper, or at all.

DellThough set in the 30s, this novel of alienation and the search for connection resonates with the digital age. Asta’s story is that of a lonely woman in the midst of an economic depression watching promise turn to dust, seeking connection and the possibility of love, turning to strangers who can write a pretty letter. The difference between then and now is we communicate not via the post but Internet. And sadly, the grisly horrors that are visited on this doomed woman and her children appear with sick-making frequency on our nightly news.

A reader, or this reader anyway, has to wonder what influence such a story had on Phillips as a girl growing up so close to where the Eichers died. Such terrible knowledge, so close to home, darkens the lens through which a person sees the world. It might inspire a fledgling writer to bunker down in her room with a pencil in the hopes of figuring it out. Who knows.

What I am sure of is this: Quiet Dell  is a gorgeous, masterful melding of fiction and non-fiction. A completely engaging read that rescues the Eicher family’s lives from the tabloids so that they live, really live, in our memories.

--Elissa Schappell

 

Exclusive Excerpt from Newly Discovered Pearl Buck Novel

[An unpublished manuscript by Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck, who died in 1973, was discovered in a Texas storage last year and is being published today by Open Road Integrated Media. Buck apparently completed The Eternal Wonder shortly before she died of cancer at the age of 80. (Prolific to the end, it is estimated that Buck--best known for her 1931 bestseller, The Good Earth--wrote 100 books in her lifetime.) The Eternal Wonder tells the coming-of-age story of Randolph Colfax and his lifelong pursuit of a Chinese-American beauty named Stephanie Kung.]

Pearl.Buck.OpenRoadTHE ADDRESS WAS IN BROOKLYN and he had not yet been to Brooklyn. He disliked the subway and he liked to walk, especially in the early morning, when the air was still clean and the streets were almost empty. Only great trucks lumbered in from the coun­tryside, bearing their loads of fowl and vegetables and fruits, eggs and meat. He stopped to saunter through Wall Street, that narrow center of the city’s financial heart. He lingered to peer through the iron fence of an ancient cemetery set about an old smoke-blackened church, Fraunce’s Tavern—he knew its history, and paused to stare at its sign, its doors not yet open for the day. And reaching at last to the great Brooklyn Bridge, he stood gazing into the flowing water beneath. The ships, the barges, were on their way. He saw it all in his usual, absorbed fashion, in his habit of wonder, each sight sinking into the depths of mind and memory, and deeper still, into his subconscious, somehow, sometime to emerge when he needed it, whole or in fragment.

Thus he followed one street and another, having studied his map well before he came. He did not like to ask his way, he liked to find it and for that he learned to memorize a map visually so that he always knew where he was. Thus in time, before the sun had reached the zenith of noon, he found himself standing before an old but very clean apartment house. The street was quiet and lined with trees now beginning the first autumn coloring.

He entered the building and found an old doorman in a gray uniform, asleep in an armchair, its brocaded upholstery rich and soft.

“Would you please—,” he began.

Instantly the old man woke. “What do you want, boy?” he asked, his voice quavering with age.

“My grandfather lives here—Dr. James Harcourt.”

“Does he expect you? He don’t usually get up until afternoon.”

“Will you tell him his grandson, Randolph Colfax, is here from Ohio?”

The old man heaved himself stiffly from his chair and went to the house telephone. In a few minutes he was back.

“He says he’s still eatin’ his breakfast but you can come up. Top floor, to the right, third door. I’ll run you up. The elevator’s over here.”

BuckThe vehicle conveyed him to the top floor, and he turned to the right and knocked on the third door. There was an old-fashioned brass knocker and a small engraved card was fastened to the centerpanel of the mahogany door—JAMES HARCOURT, PHD, MD. And now the door opened and his grandfather stood before him, a white linen napkin in his hand.

“Come in, Randolph,” he said, his voice surprisingly deep and strong. “I’ve been expecting you. Your mother wrote me you were coming. Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, sir. I got up early and walked.”

“Then sit down and call it luncheon. I’ll have some eggs scram­bled freshly.”

He followed the tall, very thin old figure into a small dining room. The oldest man he had ever seen, wearing a spotless white jacket over black trousers, came into the room.

“This is my grandson,” his grandfather said. “And Randolph, this is my faithful manservant, Sung. He attached himself to me some years ago because I was able to—ah, do him a small favor. Now Sung takes good care of me. Eggs, Sung, scrambled, and fresh coffee and toast.”

The old man bowed deeply and went away. Still standing, he met his grandfather’s electric blue eyes.

“And why have you waited so long to come to me?” his grand­father demanded. “Sit down.”

“I really don’t know,” he answered. “I think,” he continued after a few seconds of thought, “I think I wanted to see everything—the city, the people—first for myself, so that I could always keep them, you know, inside me, as they are . . . to me, I mean. As one does with pictures, you know—laid away for what purpose I don’t know, but that’s my way of learning: first I see, then I wonder, then I know.”

His grandfather listened attentively. “Very sound,” he said. “An analytical mind—good! Well, here you are now. Where are your bags?”

“At the hotel, sir.”

“You must fetch them at once. Of course we must live together. I have plenty of extra room, especially since my wife died. I live in her room, not my own. We believed in separate rooms, but after she went on her way I moved into her room, thinking it would be easier for her to visit me then—as seems to be the case. Not that she comes often—she’s independent, always was—but when she feels the need, or understands my need, she comes quite promptly. We arranged for all that before she went.”

He listened to this in amazement and with puzzlement. Was his grandmother dead or was she not? His grandfather was still talking.

“I would send Sung with you to get your bags, Randolph, but he is afraid to go to Manhattan. Ten years ago he was wanted by the police for jumping ship. Serena—that’s my wife—and I were shopping on Fifth Avenue. I believe we were looking for a white mink stole for her Christmas gift that year, and he came dashing in, obviously escaping from someone. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but luckily I’d been in Peking for some years doing research at the great Rockefeller Hospital there. I’m a med­ical doctor as well as a demographer—and my Chinese is fluent enough that I was able to ask him what was wrong. I am entirely out of sympathy with our immigration policies toward Asians, so I told him not to be afraid, for I’d take him as my servant. I gave him my overcoat to carry and took him at once to the men’s department and bought him a decent black suit and had him put it on, and when the police came into the store, I was very angry with them for interfering with my manservant. He came home with us but he is still afraid to go to Manhattan, with which I have every sympathy, not because I am afraid, but because it is a hell hole. So leave it at once, my dear boy, and come here.”

“But Grandfather, I hadn’t planned—”

“Never plan, please. Just do the next thing that happens. You can always go your way. But it would please me to know my only grandson, even briefly.”

How could he refuse? The old gentleman was charming. Sung brought in eggs scrambled with a dash of something delicious—

“Soy sauce,” his grandfather explained.

He was always hungry; he ate heartily, drank three cups of coffee with sugar and thick, sweet cream, ate his way through a mound of buttered toast spread with English marmalade, and in an hour was on his way—“in a taxi,” his grandfather said, stuffing a bill into his coat pocket. “I’m a poor one at waiting.”

[Author photo: Courtesy of Pearl S. Buck Estate]

Exclusive Excerpt from 'The Family,' by David Laskin

[David Laskin's The Family, a Best Book of the Month pick for October, goes on sale today. In 1922, Laskin's great aunt, Ida Rosenthal, known as Itel, founded the Maidenform Bra Company with her husband and their partner, former vaudevillian Enid Bissett. The following paragraphs describe the moment when the partners took a "breast flattener" bra and, with a few snips and a bit of elastic, transformed it into the first Maidenform.]

29_ItelRosenthal_R2Day in, day out, the shop door of the stone-clad, vaguely French Renaissance building at 36 West Fifty-seventh Street would swing open and another lovely customer--patroness, Mrs. Bissett like to say--breezed in. Rich, of course, fashionable, bobbed, cloche-hatted, displaying the requisite inches of ankle and lower calf. The ideal Enid Frocks type. Alas, Itel knew at a glance that, when the dress was done, neither she nor the new patroness would be one 100 percent happy. The problem was the patroness’s bust. The problem, to be precise, was that she had a bust. Soft yet firm, full and swelling, round, smooth, perfectly symmetrical, the perfumed essence of American femininity made flesh--this lovely pair of breasts was doomed to be squashed into submission by the dictates of 1920s fashion. The flapper style du jour called for dresses to drop with barely a bulge or curve from neck to knee, and in order to achieve this sticklike silhouette a woman wore a flattener--“a towel with hooks in the back,” as Itel described it. These hideous mammary-mashers were marketed under the trade name Boyish Form, which pretty much said it all. Itel knew from sad experience that no Enid Frock ever looked right when worn over a Boyish Form bandeau. It was a crime and shame for a chic well-endowed lady to spend upward of three hundred dollars, a fortune in those days, for her Enid Frock and come away with a less-than-perfect fit because of the cursed flattener. “It was a very sad story,” Itel sighed. “Our cheapest dress sold for a hundred and a quarter, and it just didn’t fit right. Women were told to look like their brothers--that was just not possible. Nature made women with a bosom, so nature thought it was important. Why argue with nature?”

Mrs. Bissett had a brainstorm. She grabbed a Boyish Form bandeau, sliced it down the middle of the front with a pair of scissors, took the two edges and shirred each one to a small bridge of elastic so that they formed a pair of slightly bulging pockets. William was summoned to take a look. “If you want to wear something like that,” he harrumphed, “at least let me make you a nice one.” William was an artist, a male artist, and by the time he was done, it was very nice indeed. Satin shoulder straps were added; the pockets--the primordial cups--were fashioned of fine ivory-pink cotton net trimmed with silk rosebuds in pink and jade; the elastic center piece was shiny and striated; three tiny hooks were affixed to the back. Mrs. Bissett christened the garment Maiden Form to distinguish it from the hateful Boyish Form bandeau.

LaskinItel saw at once that her frocks fit better with a Maiden Form brassiere sewn into the bust or worn separately underneath, but it took the partners a while to realize what a hot commodity they had on their hands. At first every woman who purchased an Enid Frock got a Maiden Form bra for free. When the ladies came back marveling at how good the bit of mesh and elastic made them look and feel, Itel offered to whip one up custom for twenty-five to fifty dollars a pop. The dress business kept booming--bras were just a sideline, a novelty item that the seamstresses ran off in their spare time. It was Broadway that made Maiden Form a star.

Broadway had been lit up with energy and hot jazzy new music since the Great War ended, and it was ablaze the year the bra was born. Chorus girls who strutted on stage half naked in George White’s Scandals at the Globe Theater or Ziegfield Follies of 1922 at the New Amsterdam had no qualms about trying out a slinky new undergarment that made them look sexy, even if it broke with fashion. “The acting trade were the first customers because they were brave enough to uplift,” Moses (Moe) Rosenthal, William’s brother and later the company’s general manager, said. Where brave busty show girls led, ordinary busty women were sure to follow. Transgression was in the air in 1922. Women had won the right to vote two years earlier; they smoked in public and no one batted an eye (Itel herself put away four packs a day); they scandalized their mothers with their clothes, dances, drinks (illegal as of January 1919), and love affairs. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was a best seller that year, and he and Zelda were the toast of the town. Nowhere was the spirit of transgression headier and more pungent than on New York’s Forty-second Street. What better locale to kick up a lingerie revolution? Joe Bissett hit every specialty shop between Forty-second and Fifth-ninth streets. He placed Maiden Form bras and racy little counter cards touting their virtues in the Astor Shop, in the Hotel Astor, and the Regina Shop, abutting the renowned Palace Theater vaudeville house. If a manager was reluctant to place an order, Joe got one of his chorine pals to sashay into the shop, demand a Maiden Form, and storm out in disgust when told they didn’t carry them. The next day a salesman came calling. “It was an extreme product but was accepted there [the theater district],” said one of the early salesmen.

LaskinGetting it accepted elsewhere required greater powers of persuasion. “I would take it out, and when I showed them this little bit of bra, all hell would break loose,” recalled Jack Zizmor, who became a top salesman. “If it were the husband, he would call to his wife, ‘Come over here and see what this crazy guy is trying to sell me!’ They laughed and they ridiculed us, and said, ‘This is a fly-by-night thing. It will die out next week, next month, next year.’” They didn’t laugh for long.

The Maiden Form bra was the quintessence of the 1920s—fun, novel, vaguely risqué, easy to mass produce, perfectly promotable, seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable. No one had heard of a brassiere in 1920. By 1924, all the fashionable women had to have one. The daughter and granddaughter of scribes had stumbled on one of the pure products of America.

[Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © David Laskin, 2013. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Laskin Family.]

> See all of David Laskin's books

> Visit his website

> Check back next week for Sara Nelson's one-on-one with David Laskin.

How I Wrote It: Andre Dubus III, on "Dirty Love"

DubusAndre Dubus III's sadly beautiful new book contains four novellas, four stories of love and loneliness, desire and deceit, loosely connected by geography (north of Boston) and circumstance (love on the rocks). Dirty Love explores the inevitable challenges faced by long-married couples. Yet, despite the bleak desperation of his characters, Dubus manages to imbue these stories with glimmers of hope and happiness.

"It's really a book about relationships," he said. "You know, my wife and I have been together for twenty-five years, and so many of our married friends have not lasted. And it's terrifying to me."

A few months back, at Book Expo in New York, I sat with Dubus beside his publisher's booth as fans waited to get galley copies of Dirty Love signed. We discussed his work habits (coffee, pencil, and Mead Composition notebooks in his soundproof basement "cave"), his playlist (Radiohead, Lucinda Williams, Miles Davis, Tom Waits) and the "spiritual condom" that he feels is an artistic barrier of sorts while writing on the computer (as opposed to his preferred longhand). 

Dubus is a smart, generous (he has taught for many years), and compassionate writer, and Dirty Love is a deeply moving return to the short form that launched his career more than twenty years ago.

[Apologies in advance for the hissing audio glitch. Oops.] Dubus2

~

> See more books by Andre Dubus III

Tom Clancy, Master of the Military Spy Thriller, Has Died at Age 66

ClancyTom Clancy, the former insurance salesman who became an international bestseller and one of the world’s best-known authors, has died. He was 66.

Clancy died late Tuesday--following a brief illness, according to the Baltimore Sun--at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, not far from his home. Born and educated in Baltimore, Clancy had lived most of his life in Maryland, where he was co-owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

Across an unparalleled career that began in 1984, with the smash success of his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October, Clancy created the modern paragon of the militarized spy thriller. Clancy’s novels, perpetual New York Times bestsellers, most of them featuring his tough-guy, ex-Marine CIA agent hero, Jack Ryan, are considered classics of the genre. Clancy’s latest Jack Ryan book, Command Authority, is scheduled to be released in December.

Red-octStephen C. Hunter, the author and former film critic, told the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday that Clancy inspired a generation of spy novelists, like himself. Clancy's novels “redefined and expanded the genre and, as a consequence of that, a lot of people were able to publish such books who had previously been unable to do so," Hunter said. Many of Clancy’s novels--Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears--were made into blockbuster films, as was The Hunt for Red October.

Clancy's publisher, Penguin, estimates that there are more 100 million copies of his books in print.

In addition to his many novels, Clancy was a prolific nonfiction writer, penning military histories and biographies of military leaders. Entrepreneurial to the extreme, he was also a screenwriter, a video game creator, and had licensed his name to numerous books that were co-written by other authors. Clancy was also known for his vocal conservative politics, his pro-military opinions, and his support for the National Rifle Association.

Known for love and understanding of weapons and technology, Clancy "valued technical precision and on-target writing that became the form of the modern thriller," Hunter told the Baltimore Sun.

Clancy was equally well-known for his undying love of his home town of Baltimore, which is where the fictional Jack Ryan was born and raised, too. Reflecting on his working-class roots, Clancy told the Baltimore Sun, in a 1992 interview, "I've been lucky."

Clancy is survived by his wife, Alexandra Marie Llewellyn, and an ex-wife, Wanda Clancy.

~

> See all of Tom Clancy's books

> Read the Baltimore Sun obituary

> Visit his website, TomClancy.com

Guest Essay: In Praise of Famous Chimps, by Colin McAdam

Chimps Debbie & Dalton 2010Named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month in literature and fiction for September, Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth revolves around the story of a chimp named Looee. Adopted by a childless couple, and later moved to a research institute, where he attempts to fit in with the other chimps, Looee is as flawed and lovable as any human. He experiences fear, loneliness, anger, desire, and love. In this exclusive essay, McAdam introduces us to the real chimps that inspired his fictional ones.

A portion of the book's proceeds are being donated by the publisher, Soho Press, to Save the Chimps, the world's largest chimpanzee sanctuary. (Read more about Save the Chimps below.)


A Beautiful Truth is a novel about great apes--humans and chimpanzees. I think of it as a fact-based story of survival and a look at what it means to be an ape. There are many characters in the novel, but the two central figures are chimpanzees, one named Looee and the other Mr Ghoul, whose stories begin far apart but eventually entwine. It was important to me to base all chimpanzee actions and thoughts on documented or observed behavior. I did a lot of research--some of it book-based, some of it through talking to people and meeting chimpanzees in the flesh.

The first chimp I met was Spock. He lived at a sanctuary called the Fauna Foundation near Montreal, Canada. All of my reading about chimps had not prepared me for this grizzled, swaggering combination of a yeti and a goof. He was simultaneously mythical and familiar, much larger than I had expected, and even though he was walking in an enclosed, protective catwalk, I was slightly afraid of his approach. I didn’t base any characters on Spock, but he adjusted my preconceptions about the appearance of chimpanzees. They are as different, individually, as we are to each other. Adult chimps are big, sometimes scary, and charismatic in their unique way. The childish, patronizing names we give them are always inappropriate--there was nothing less like a nerdy Vulcan on a spaceship than the slow-striding figure of Spock.

Colin McAdam (credit Lisa Myers)My character Mr Ghoul is partly an amalgam of various famous apes involved in language studies over the years. His early “sentences” are direct quotations or echoes of those made by a chimp named Lana, who lived at the Yerkes Primate Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr Ghoul’s early years were based on hers. The work of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had a big impact on how I think of language, as did Roger Fouts’s book, Next of Kin. I think their work should be known to everyone. Savage-Rumbaugh’s pupil and teacher, the bonobo Kanzi, charmed the pants off me, as did Fouts’s Washoe. These apes’ spirit of curiosity and the way they have commented on their environments are what I tried to reproduce in Mr Ghoul.

Chimps, like humans, are relentlessly political. Much of the politicking between the the chimps in my novel was inspired by, if not copied from, Frans de Waal’s descriptions of Yeroen, Nikkie, and Luit, in Chimpanzee Politics, which is a fantastic book. After I read that book I initially wanted to write a novel solely about chimps in an enclosure--it seemed to me that all of life, the desires, power struggles, parenting and sex (all the stuff of novels), was there in a group of captive chimps.

Maurice Temerlin’s account of raising the chimpanzee Lucy as his daughter was a source for imagining the domestic arrangement of my character Looee. The locked fridge, adjusted doors and relentless mischief in Temerlin’s house were models for what happens in Vermont in my story, including the building of a separate “house” for Looee, as Temerlin did for Lucy.

ColinAs I wrote the novel, there were a few widely reported chimp attacks on humans and the incident involving a chimp named Travis was the most famous of them. These attacks crept into the reality I was trying to describe. There is a scene in my novel where Looee attacks some landscapers because they laughed at him. When I wrote that scene I was thinking of Billy Jo, a chimp who used to live at Fauna. Some workmen were doing repairs at the sanctuary, and something about Billy Jo made them laugh. The image of these two clothed apes laughing at another, whose feelings were hurt, was one that stayed with me.

Everything changed for me when I met Pepper, another chimp at Fauna. I had gone to the sanctuary intending to write solely about chimps in an enclosure, but when I left the first time, having met Pepper, I felt I had to tell her story. Pepper was my age (almost forty, at the time), and she struck me as a charming woman, maybe a kindred spirit. She had lived at the sanctuary for around eleven years, settled with friends and factions among the other chimps. But for the previous twenty-seven years she had been in a cage at two biomedical labs. I later went through her medical files. She was HIV positive, had had numerous biopsies and deliberate infections, and the catalogue of procedures made her ability to survive seem completely unbelievable.

The role of chimpanzees in medical research is something that divides people’s opinions. I wanted to portray it as frankly and accurately as possible. I think that humans (as apes and animals) will do anything to survive, and that there is no ethics to survival. I also know that we have a huge capacity for empathy. Being an ape means embodying some huge contradictions. When I first met Pepper she tried to groom a freckle off my hand. A small moment that said a lot to me about empathy, friendship, the will not only to survive but to continue to be curious about others. It was really from Pepper that my character Looee was born, and it was she and the other chimps I met who gave the novel its shape.

Chimps Jude & JB Photo by Jo-Anne McArthurAbout Save the Chimps
Save the Chimps is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing permanent sanctuary for the lifelong care of chimpanzees rescued from research laboratories, the entertainment industry and the pet trade. Founded in 1997 by Carole Noon, who was inspired to help chimpanzees after meeting Dr. Jane Goodall in the early 1980’s, Save the Chimps to initially provided permanent sanctuary to chimpanzees being abandoned by the United States Air Force. (The Air Force rejected Noon's proposal to care for the chimpanzees and instead gave them to the Coulston Foundation. Noon sued the Air Force and after a year-long legal struggle, the lawsuit was settled out of court. With financial support provided by the Arcus Foundation, 266 chimpanzees were rescued from Coulston and now call the 150-acre Save the Chimps sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, FL, their permanent home.)

For more information, visit www.savethechimps.org

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*[photo credits: chimps Debbie & Dalton, by Jo-Anne McArthur; Colin McAdam, by Lisa Meyer; chimps Jude & JB, by Jo-Anne McArthur.]

Susan Conley's 10 Favorite Books About Paris

Paris From The Ambassadors to The Paris Wife, the city of light has been a timeless, central character in fiction. Susan Conley, author of the new novel Paris Was the Place, chooses ten books that inspired that title. 


A funny thing happened after I wrote a novel starring Paris as the main character. All these other books about Paris began showing up at my book readings. People in the audience call them out during the question and answer period. Then everyone writes down the titles they haven’t heard of on the backs of shopping lists and paper napkins. It turns out that everyone has a favorite Paris novel or memoir (or two). What is it about that city?

I love so many books about Paris. And I love them all equally.

But I’ll start with Me Talk Pretty One Day because when David Sedaris tries to learn the intricacy of French verbs it makes me laugh so hard that I cry.

Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast comes next because this book always makes me want to fly to Paris and have a real meal in a street cafe. Soft cheeses. Filet of sole. Warm baguette. Flan and coffee. The novel has a style so immediate and intimate.

I can still read Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans out loud to myself at night very happily, even though my two boys are almost teenagers now and there’s no child in the room listening to me. There doesn’t need to be. Whenever I get to the appendix scene in the hospital, my heart skips.

SedarisThe Paris in Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, is an entirely different version of the city: a city that’s vulnerable and battered and circled by the ghosts of families lost to the war. This is a beautiful novel.

Reading Marcel Proust’s entire In Search of Lost Time is like putting on someone else’s nostalgia and wearing it for thousands of pages. There’s no plotline, just a series of remembrances and how lovely is that: an ode to the fleeting mechanisms of memory.

When I first read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon back in 1995, it was so compelling and transparent that I felt like I was there with him in the Tuileries, while he watched his daughter at the carousel. I wanted to live that life—to move to Paris. And so I did.

The Paris in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an upstairs/downstairs kind of city. This book is terrific and funny and so wise. It takes Parisians and all their fascinating, inscrutable cultural fetishes head on.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer goes back to pre-World War II Paris and then takes us right up and through the war. This is a triumphant love story even though darkness lurks around every corner.

The Pleasing Hour by Lily King is about what happens when an American au pair lands in Paris. This book is a lovely dismantling of an entire French family’s ecosystem in evocative, sensual prose.

Paris2Then here at the end I go back to Hemingway and to romance. Because even though Paris is called the City of Lights, it could be called the City of Love on Ancient Bridges. People get more romantic in Paris. They just do. And all these books allow for that. There are moments in Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife when I feel like I’m seeing Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, up close, and it’s tantalizing—as if we’re there with them in Paris flirting and drinking wine. How great is that? The passage of time has erased nothing.

Each of these books bridges the miles to Charles de Gaulle Airport and lands me somewhere near the Seine at a bustling street café where I get to go on a vacation of the mind.

 --Susan Conley

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