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About Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson became the Editorial Director of after working as books editor at O, the Oprah magazine, and as editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. In other words, her job for many, many years has been to read a lot of books and talk and write a lot about books. Tough life, huh?

Posts by Sara

Sara Says: All I Want for Christmas Is...

BlumeAll I want for Christmas, as usual, is a big fat novel I can curl up with, all the better to get some quiet time amid the usual family hubbub.  

But even though I’m going to have to wait a bit to read one of the ones I’m most excited about, at least we got an early look at the jacket for Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event.

Blume might be best known as a children’s author--many’s the woman who can quote verbatim from Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret--the fact is that her last adult novel, Summer Sisters, was a huge hit a while back. And this one--about a series of plane crashes that changed the lives of a whole town--will surely be one, too.
And while we’re talking about the future, let me also mention that I expect to hide out with Jami Attenberg’s Saint Maizie, which is coming next summer. Her The Middlesteins was one of my favorite books of 2012.

What else? Oh, right--there’s that adorable new Funny Girl from Nick Hornby, which so far has me thinking back to the joy of discovering one of my alltime favorites, High Fidelity.

FidelityAll that said, there are plenty of things we all can get our hands on RIGHT NOW--and for once, one of my most wished for books is not fiction. Instead it’s a gorgeous photography book about the making of the movie Boyhood, complete with pictures of the characters from the movie as they aged during the 12 years of filming. I’m never good at predicting movie awards, but as a book-about-a-film, this one is a prizewinner.

And last but not least, I’m going to catch up with the pseudonymous Italian author, Elena Ferrante, whose Days of Abandonment is one of my favorite dark-books-about-love of all time. Ferrante’s popularity is growing, and I’m sorry I missed My Brilliant Friend, which is the third in her Neapolitan trilogy. The holiday  seems the perfect time to right that wrong. I’m clearly going to have a happy reading holiday. Hope you do, too!

New York Times Book Review Editor Pamela Paul on "By The Book"

By-the-bookSince taking over the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul has revamped the venerable weekly, and brought it some much-needed life. Among her improvements, a weekly interview with a writer (usually) about his or her reading habits and predilections. Want to know what Michael Chabon has on his newsstand? Paul’s new compilation of columns, By the Book (with an introduction by Scott Turow) will tell you. We at Omni can tell you some of the same kind of stuff, too, of course, but we work on the principle that there’s plenty of info to go around, and whatever, whoever connects readers with writers is fine with us. And so, we turned interviewer of the interviewer, just to find out how she does it.


Is By the Book “edited”--i.e. do you cut answers, or rewrite questions or run answers together when appropriate?   

By the Book is edited in the sense that the editor (me) chooses who to include in the column each week, which questions to ask each person (the questions vary and rotate), and which answers will appear in print, where space is more limited. That said, we never edit within a given an answer--if we're going to include a question and answer, we run it in its entirety. We also edit for Times style, which has its own idiosyncrasies, and for accuracy. This is not a gotcha column in which we want to highlight someone accidentally referring to Isabella Archer. [p.s. - We didn’t edit Paul’s answers here either.]

Do you print every answer to every question, or do you pick and choose? What’s the difference between the By the Book that’s in the print paper and the one on the Web?

Pamela-paulWe do not have the space to include every question in the print edition, but we do run it in its entirety online--and in this book, which reprints the full Q and A. These are really portraits of a person through their life with books, and rather than abbreviate a long answer about someone's favorite novelist, that we should run it in full.

Why do you think the feature is so popular?  

As the editor of The New York Times Book Review, I like to think that book reviews are of paramount importance, but it would be foolish not to recognize the persuasive power of word-of-mouth. We all like to hear book recommendations from our smartest colleagues, best-read friends, spouses or just people we think are culturally tuned in or expert on a given subject. The idea of By the Book is to provide that word of mouth from the writers we most admire or whose work we most enjoy. Or whose opinion, on say, history books or music biographies we'd be especially keen on knowing. What By the Book does is marry word-of-mouth with informed opinion from our most popular and/or (not always the same) critically acclaimed writers. 

Do you do the interviews by phone, by email or in person?

As a reporter, I only conduct interviews by phone or in person--no exceptions. I'm actually vehemently opposed to email interviews, which I think have become too prevalent in journalism. A written answer is necessarily premeditated, edited, packaged. And it doesn't allow for probing, questioning, follow-up. So it feels odd to insist that this particular feature be done only by email (even when the rare person asks to do it by phone or in person, which has happened). But I think that this is an instance in which you want to get a deeply thought out answer, not an off-the-cuff response to a question like, "What book made you the person you are today?" It doesn't make for a better column if the person gives an answer and later realizes, "How could I have possibly said "Narnia" and forgotten about "Madame Bovary?" or whatever the specifics might be. Readers want to genuinely know what an astrophysicist thinks is THE best book about cosmology, not the first book that comes to mind.

Who has been your favorite By the Book respondent?

Very hard to say, I have many favorites. I think the journalist in me most appreciates the big "gets"--Malala Yousafsai, Hillary Clinton, Donna Tartt, Edward St. Aubyn. I was also incredibly pleased that the first two people I asked when I had nothing on paper to show and had just started the column--David Sedaris and Lena Dunham--both said yes right away.

Who would you most like to get but haven’t yet gotten for By the Book?

Happily, not a lot of people have said no. But I would love to get people who are not necessarily authors but are writers in other formats, or great readers. I'd love to have Mick Jagger or Paul Simon. Or both.

Are BtB respondents always authors?

No. The actor and comedian Bill Hader did one this past summer that I thought was brilliant and unexpected. He's an autodidact, a voracious reader, and he's got excellent taste.

Must you have read the work of the author(s) you choose for BtB?

No, but it helps. At the very least it helps to have a sense of their work, their lives, their experiences. Because the interviews are tailored to each person and you want a mix of both expected an unexpected answers. I really like the question "What's your favorite love story?" which I don't ask all the time, but I do like to ask both of the expected (a romance writer) and the unexpected (a military historian). Same thing goes with asking about self-help. Who knew Hilary Mantel would be such a fan of the genre?

Who chooses the authors and who does the interviews?

I do.

What happens if a BtB respondent has a new book that’s not positively reviewed in your pages?

In a way, By the Book is a nice way to balance our review coverage, and to offer readers another perspective on the author or her work. A reader may find herself disagreeing with the reviewer who pans a book, and very much liking what the author has to say for himself, or find they have literary tastes in common. 

What’s the best answer you ever got from a BtB respondent?

I think the best answers, honestly, are the ones that connect different authors. I realize its sappy, but what I love most is when writers find out they admire each other's work from afar. It was a delight when Donna Tartt said, for example, that she was eagerly awaiting the next Stephen King novel--before she saw Stephen King's rave of The Goldfinch on our cover.

What are you reading right now--and why?

I am reading all (or nearly all) of Dave Eggers's books in anticipation of an event I'm doing with him in San Francisco on October 29th. I had only read What is the What, so I'm going back and reading through his earlier books. I started with The Circle, then went to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and now I'm reading Hologram for a King, which I plan to follow with Zeitoun. He's been incredibly prolific in a relatively short period of time so I have my work cut out for me.


> See all of Pamela Paul's books

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

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

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


Identity in the New Millennium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Trust the Reader: Author Colm Tóibín on "Nora Webster"

Nora WebsterOh, to spend a few minutes talking to Colm Tóibín! Even on a transatlantic telephone call, the sonorous voice comes through, as precise and erudite and charming as you would expect from having read his books. Tóibín is a master of the beautiful, quietly emotional novel, but he’s also very definite in his opinions ("This business that you must like characters in fiction!" he practically harumphs) and rigorous in his locutions. I wish I could have listened to him for hours...

Tóibín's new book, Nora Webster, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month. It will be available October 7.

Many of your books take place in, or refer to, the same county in Ireland where you grew up, and to people you might have known in the town. Who or what was the inspiration for this particular novel about a widow and her children?

My father died when I was 12, and it was just myself and my brother and my mother in the house. And I noticed everything. So while this is not a memoir, it does come from memory. A lot is invented, but what isn’t invented is the silence, the way of handling things. All the chattering, but underneath so much that is not being said. What I set out to do was just to get it right: the story of those years and what it was like in that place. I began to imagine as much as remember. It’s as though I was making a tapestry from two forms of wool: one was called memory, the other imagination. In many ways this is the story of what happened to me, even though it is a novel, not a memoir, and not fully from memory.

Some early reviews have compared Nora Webster, as a character, to Hedda Gabler and Emma Bovary. How do you feel about that?

The way I see it is that she’s sort of Emma Bovary without the adultery, the obvious excitement of a 19th century novel. Yes, the book is about provincial life. And yes, it’s about a woman oddly trapped. And yes, it’s about a woman who is not meek and mild, who can exert herself. And like Jane Austen’s Emma, every so often she does something extraordinarily wrong. She’s oddly damaged in some way or other, but at the same time has many good qualities. Still, you don’t want to make her a fierce mother, an Electra figure, a Medea. She wants to be left alone, but she also wants everyone to come near her. There are levels of ambiguity in her that I thought would be interesting.

You don’t generally write loud, noisy books, and this one is no exception. You seem most interested in designing the small moments, the interior thoughts...

It’s a question of trusting the reader. When you leave out an awful lot, the reader's imagination is pushed very far. It’s a portrait of a sensibility, the same as a painter would paint. One of the advantages of being in New York a lot is going to the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and looking at the Vermeers. It’s not so much creating "scenes"--as ordinary moments. You have to make them luminous, make them mysterious. Make them matter.

Do you feel differently about this book than your others, because it does have an autobiographical element?

There’s an early novel called The Heather Blazing that is like this is in that it goes back to the childhood and the house. The others are based on my having left the town. So yes, the [autobiographical] ones feel different. They have a funny, different texture to them.

A Conversation with Liane Moriarty, on Writing About the Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary Women

LiesLiane Moriarty broke through last year with her book The Husband’s Secret, still a bestseller both here and in her native Australia. This year, just on the eve of the publication of her next bestseller –- Big Little Lies -– she sat down with Amazon's Sara Nelson to talk about what it’s like to write contemporary stories about ordinary women's lives, and to become one of the biggest publishing success stories of the past few years.

Their conversation took place at Book Expo America in New York in May, 2014.


Season of "The Witch": Fairy Tales for the Modern World

The Witch: And Other Tales Re-ToldIn a world that loves to categorize writers – he writes horror, say; she’s a journalist – Jean Thompson is uncategorizable. In fact, the only consistent thing you can say about the author of several award winning novels and collections (my favorite: Who Do You Love?) is that she’s always interesting and good – and, yes, surprising. This month Thompson releases a new collection of tales that seem Halloweenish, The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told, in that they’re inspired by fairy tales – grim and not so – of her youth. We asked Thompson to complete a specialized version of our Amazon Asks.

The Witch will be available September 25.

What’s the elevator pitch for your book?

I rewrote some classic fairy tales with ordinary people as characters. It's great, really!

What inspired you to do that?

I'm interested in what makes stories compelling, and what gives them staying power. Fairy tales reach so far back into our collective past, and new versions of them constantly evolve and surface. We seem to have a very human need for stories that end with the triumph of the good, the innocent, the brave, the virtuous, with obstacles overcome and the world set to rights. And often enough, only some kind of supernatural intervention can overcome the very long odds of this happening. There's a lot of wish fulfillment you can't get anywhere else.

Your books usually address the everyday experiences of ordinary Americans. Fairy tales almost always have magical elements. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the mundane in this book?

I'm a connoisseur of the mundane, in that everything I write comes out of closely observed ordinary life, and is grounded in reality. There are no fairy godmothers in The Witch, no amazing transformations, or rather, anything that might partake of the magical can also be explained by psychology or circumstance. And yet, if this doesn't sound too contradictory, I believe that the world we live in is the only real source of magic: of delight, of unexpected fortune, of second chances, new beginnings, of all that transports us.

These tales, as you’ve rewritten them, are quite subversive, politically and socially. (Cinderella has a drunken encounter; Hansel and Gretel deal with the foster care system) How do these stories reflect your own political views?

Thank you for introducing the word 'subversive', which I shall promptly add to my lexicon of self-description. Subversive sounds so much better than cranky and mistrustful. I guess I'm not inclined to take things at face value, or to believe official party lines. In politics, this probably stems from coming of age during the Vietnam war and later Watergate, when even the paranoid were a little shocked to discover the extent of official lying. In my fiction, I'm fond of characters, especially young characters, who see through cover stories and lectures to real motives. Yes, I suppose I was a difficult child.

What’s the last dream you remember?

I have a lot of fairly detailed anxiety dreams: forgetting appointments, not being able to find keys, and most often, being lost or trapped in some strange landscape or building with doors that won't open, endless staircases leading nowhere, and the like. Always happy to wake up.

What’s your most memorable author moment?

Giving a bookstore reading of a story where a character has a blind date with a man who had an unrequited crush on her many years ago in college, then afterwards, signing a book for a guy who once asked me out many years ago in, etc. Memorable, and not in a good way.

What superpower would you most like to have, not including invisibility or flight?

The superpower I'd choose, if invisibility is off the table: I'd like to be able to win arguments. With anybody, about anything. So there.

Sometimes It’s OK to Say “I Told You So”

RobPeaceAbout three years ago, my friend Rebecca introduced me to her husband, Jeff Hobbs, who had published one novel and was working on another. Like me, Rebecca is a major reader—our relationship started because we both worked in related parts of the book business—and she wanted my opinion on Jeff’s book. I read the partial manuscript—and was unsure. There was a lot about Jeff’s writing that I liked, but the story (about a marriage, as I recall) didn’t quite hold together. When Jeff and Rebecca and I talked, we talked about how to fix it.

But a funny thing happened in the course of that telephone conversation three years ago. Jeff mentioned that he was taking a break from the novel anyway, because he was trying to deal with his grief and sadness over the death of his friend and college roommate, Rob Peace. He was travelling back and forth to the east coast (the Hobbses live in L.A.) to attend the funeral and reconnect with his and Rob’s old friends. I didn’t know Jeff well at all at that point, but even I could tell that this experience—losing his friend in this horrible way—was just about all he was able to think about.

So I honestly don’t remember who said it first—whether it was Jeff or Rebecca or me—but what I do know is from that moment on, we stopped talking about the novel and started talking about how Jeff, a writer whose main way of figuring things out is to write about them, would honor his friend.We talked about Jeff writing a magazine article that might, if it worked, turn into a proposal for a book. I said I’d help him find an agent or editor to help.

A few months, or maybe it was only weeks later, Jeff showed me a 30-something-page proposal that blew me away. It was knowing, it was journalistic, it was beautiful: all that and more. So I sent it along to a friend, David Black, who just happened to be one of the best agents in New York.

Author Jeff Hobbs

The rest, as they say, is history—if you read the footnotes. Which, in this case, means that David worked with Jeff to turn a brilliant 30 page proposal into an even more complete 80-or-something-page proposal. Within weeks, the book was bought by Scribner, which is publishing it with the enthusiasm and passion it deserves.

Why am I telling you all this stuff, which is inside-baseball at its most arcane? Because now, on the eve of the publication of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, I find myself sitting with the book, with pre-pub reviews, with Goodreads commentary, and finding my eyes fill up with tears. Yes, I’m proud to have been a small part of something so great, but this is Jeff’s book all the way—though Jeff, in his characteristically humble way, corrects me by saying “It’s Rob’s book.” But what I’m moved by, as Rob Peace’s story, honored by his friend Jeff Hobbs, goes out into the world, is that an awful lot of people are feeling the way I felt when I first talked to the Hobbses about this years ago: Rob Peace’s life story is not only worth telling, it must be told. So here’s my shameless plug: if you haven’t read this book yet, do it now. You don’t want to be the last one on your block to join the conversation about race and friendship and family in our time.

And, after you do, you can say I told you so.

No One Is Alone: Affirmations for Life Change

Lifelong friends, screenwriter Tracey Jackson and musician Paul ("Evergreen") Williams have a lot in common: great wit, great talent, and a gift for friendship. One thing they haven’t shared, however, is addiction. But while Paul spent many years decidedly unsober and Tracey has not, she’s all plenty aware of how we all practice self-limiting behaviors. These two understand each other as only best friends can. (Watch them soon on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday.) Together, they’ve written a book about all the ways we can mess up even the “healthiest” lives, and ways to unmess them.

An interview with the authors of Gratitude and Trust

Q: What inspired you to write Gratitude & Trust now?

Tracey Jackson: I don’t think it was a matter of “now” versus “then” or “in the future.” For me it is a topic I have been playing with for years. I have always felt the world would be a better place if everyone were exposed to the basic principles of the recovery movement. It is “now” because I needed someone to do it with and Paul was/is the perfect person.

Paul Williams: I embraced the idea of writing the book as soon as Tracey suggested it. My recovery has been the single greatest gift I’ve ever received. As we began to examine the possibility of creating a parallel program built upon the age-old principles of “owning your problems, cleaning up your messes, and seeking a life of love and service,” I became convinced that there was no task in life more important for me than co-writing the book. To quote directly from the text, “You get to keep the miracle by giving it away.”

Q: You champion the truth that “recovery is not just for addicts,” citing problems like over-spending, food dependencies, and serial bad relationships. You site the dangers of all addictive and destructive behaviors. Can you address that?

Tracey: We often refer to life-limiting behaviors; mind you, people can trundle on forever in the land of life limiting, but how much better would their lives be if they could get a grapple on those “addictions.” The problem with many addictions is they are so engrained in our daily life patterns we often don’t see them as real issues. Or if we do, we find endless excuses to separate ourselves from them.

Paul: The excuses that we use as addicts and alcoholics are evidently endowed with a “one size fits all” element that makes them easily adaptable to an entire laundry list of bad habits. If the symptoms of the behavior are so similar, it makes sense that the treatment should be, too. We’ve created an approach that is equally effective and a little more “bite sized” than chomping down on the “change or die” rethinking an addict must do.  
Q: How do your Six Affirmations help people solve such challenges?

Tracey: Awareness and action. With the Six Affirmations, you have a blueprint to follow that points out where you are not living to your full potential. You have guides to lead you to your dysfunctional behavioral patterns, and then we give you the tools you need to set yourself back on course and stay there.  

Paul: It’s said, “recovery is a process, not an event.” I like that. It’s a continuum of adjusted behavior that leads to a better way of living. To achieve the same results for the non-alcoholic/addicted population, we needed to provide a measured and focused process. The affirmations are guides to an awakening. The first affirmation reveals the reality that change is in order and we are the ones capable of change. The second offers an insight into the value of faith and the third retires the well-practiced line of defense from change. We own our mistakes, learn from them, and set about repairing the damage we’ve done. The healing properties of honesty are perhaps the magical ointment in the mix. The affirmations are bullet points that keep us on target for the life we deserve — the life we are earning with the ability to live in love, service, gratitude, and trust.
Q: What was the most personally challenging affirmation for you?

Tracey: They are all challenging and rewarding in their own way. And if you use them properly, you apply them on a daily basis, so you come back to them all the time. Oddly, I think the first affirmation — Something Needs To Change and It’s Probably Me — might be the most challenging. It is the first step into the land of the only way I can move forward, deal with this situation, this person, this anything that is an issue, is to change me, be it my behavior or attitude. It is taking full responsibility for your life. The buck has finally stopped and it’s yours to deal with. Once you know, you can no longer pretend that you don’t.

Paul: Tracey and I created the affirmations in order and we’ve worked them all. Perhaps the greatest challenge was in dealing with the concept of an inner ally, a higher power. Religious views are so charged for some people and we were fearful that the very word “God” would turn some away. I think we found a way to share the concept of “Trust” as a remarkable key toward escaping fear-based thinking. Hopefully we took the non-believers to a place where they can see the benefits of “acting as if” as a transitional tool that can eventually morph into a solid and reliable faith.

Q: What surprised/scared you as you set about righting the wrongs you’d done?

Tracey: How many there are: Small and large, mildly catastrophic to merely bumping into someone’s cart at the super market. The great thing about nailing the whole righting-your-wrongs thing is once it becomes a habit, you tend to catch yourself and right your wrongs as you are making them. Then boy, oh, boy, does that lighten your guilt load.

Paul: I’m almost 25 years sober and while my behavior is more considerate than it was during the decades of drug abuse, there is no end to the amends process. Intentionally or unintentionally we cause discomfort, damage, pain, or problems now and then. And “now” is the starting gate to resolution and repair. The reward for reconstructive action is immediate. A sense of well-being and relief so comforting I’m seldom, if ever, frightened by the prospect of setting things right.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from Gratitude & Trust?

Tracey: That they are not alone. Not only is there a universal power that can always be tapped into, but also that there is no one walking around who does not carry guilt, shame, problems, compulsions, and addictions of some sort. They are not all on the same scale, but it is universal. I would also like people to grasp how important it is to take control of their lives. Letting go of the “it’s everyone’s fault but mine” is huge. And in an odd way we are sending out a double-edged message, but one that works. You hand over the reins to your higher power, and in doing that, you remove power from other mortals or indulgences that have taken over the keys to your kingdom. In doing this, people see where they have chosen poorly and how to choose better. They learn how to own their mistakes and in amending those, they free themselves and others from carrying the burden of feeling responsible. And ultimately to be grateful, to wake up each day, knowing we live a day at time and each new day is a chance to start over. And to ring in that day with gratitude for all that one has and trust that all one needs is right there and always will be.

Paul: A healing. A way of living that is in fact easier, more rewarding, and joyous. It’s what I’ve been given, what Tracey has not only co-created but employed to great success on a daily basis. We have actively participated in the process we gave voice to and have lived the transformation through love and service into gratitude and trust.

Runway Roundup: New Releases for Fashion Week

I think I’ve probably used up all the words allotted for praising I’ll Drink to That, the new memoir from the octogenarian style maven, Betty Halbreich. But, love it as I do, there are other brand new books about fashion and their –istas, just out or about to come out. Why does it seem there’s a bounty of such books right now? Fall is big clothes-buying season, for one thing (I bet that fact has to do with our collective memories of back-to-school outfits and shoes) and, also because it’s the week designers show their upcoming stuff at Fashion Week. Here, then, some other books for the adornment-obsessed.


Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes

A quirky compendium of essays, photos, interviews and other pieces by and about women and the things they wear. Notable contributors include authors Heidi Julavits, artist Leanne Shapton and (of course) Girls creator and, ahem, creative dresser, Lena Dunham. Anthologies are usually tricky – uneven – and this one can be. But it’s so well done, and so chock full of charm, you can’t help learning (again!) that in books, as in fashion, style and confidence is all.

Champagne Supernovas

Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the 90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion by Maureen Callahan

Dish-y! According to New York Post writer, Maureen Callahan, model Kate Moss and designers Marc Jacobs and the late Alexander McQueen are responsible for turning alternative style into the mainstream – and making billions in the process. Callahan posits that these mad geniuses of fashion are major cultural icons, or at least were responsible for major cultural shifts. It’s a provocative argument. As the late Joan Rivers, who also had a few opinions about fashion, would say, “Can we talk?”

The Woman I Wanted to Be

The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane von Furstenberg

Her second memoir, the designer Diane von Furstenberg here inspires women not necessarily to wear her signature wrap dresses, but to believe in themselves. After all, the now-wife of mogul Barry Diller did, through family crises, career setbacks and serious illness. Still, in the end, she says, “I owe everything to that little dress.”


D.V. and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel by Diana Vreeland

And no book about fashionism [sic] would be complete without a mention of the very best, funniest, oddest books about loving and having style. Those, of course, are Diana Vreeland’s D.V. and The Eye Has to Travel. “Pink is the navy blue of India,” the legendary Vogue editor famously opined. Like the aphorisms attributed to Yogi Berra, hers are, even in the re-reading, irresistible.

Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography

Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest

And then there’s Elsa Schiaparelli, best known until recently by only the  most serious fashion lovers, but who was, in her day, even more famous than Coco Chanel. Meryle Secrest’s biography makes the case that Schiaparelli (grandmother of actress Marisa Berenson) was not merely a designer, but was, in fact, an artist (she was close to Man Ray, among others) and an eccentric social revolutionary whose medium was apparel.   

Forever in Fashion

I'll Drink to ThatI’ll Drink to That, the memoir from legendary Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich, is more than just a book about fashion. Sure, there are tons of stories of  little, lonely Betty playing in her mother’s closet among bottles of Joy perfume, of working for “Mr Beene” (no one would ever have called the mid-century designer anything else), of the golden sable coat that still, to this day, hasn’t turned color. (They do that, you know.) But equally interesting is the way Halbreich’s life unfolds, and how she managed to turn a  passion into a salvation. Halbreich’s voice – on the page and in person – doesn’t have a soupcon of little-old-lady; what I like best is that it’s peppered with barbs and idioms of her era. (Now that I’ve talked to Halbreich, I appreciate that co author Rebecca Paley is a genius channeler; Halbreich in person sounds just like Paley has made her read on the page.) Sure, she rambles a bit – but, as she reminds you often, she is 87. Besides, she says she’s not crazy about all this attention she’s getting. (Methinks the lady doth demur a bit.)  But all I can tell you is that the only thing better than a half hour conversation with Betty Halbreich might be Betty Halbreich looking around your closet for half an hour. But, alas: she doesn’t make house calls. (I asked.)

Q: You were featured in a beloved documentary (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) and have been the subject of an article in The New Yorker. Lena Dunham (of Girls fame) is developing a TV show around you. And now you have this book: can you say why you decided this was the time to write it?

A: I think this was a catharsis. It’s a strange thing about my life. I’ve never had to look for a job, I never wanted to write a book. Someone I knew always pushed me. I always have to be pushed.   Everything I do, someone has to take me with an invisible hand and leave me. I’m not a self motivated person, but once I start to do something, I always belong to the Clean Plate Club.

I'll Drink to ThatQ: Were you always obsessed with clothes?

A: I cared about clothes. I care visually about clothes. My mother loved clothes and was fashionable, and I guess I grew up in a world of looking around. It’s [the love of fashion and art] sort of inbred;  it’s truly something you’re born with. My daughter knows about painting and art. She’s the associate director of the Modern [Museum of Modern Art]. My son is a nonprofessional photographer. So we are sort of visual people. I don’t add, I don’t subtract, I don’t divide and I don’t use the computer. Visual people sometimes have a very difficult time. 

Q: You get the sense from the book that fashion advice is not the only kind of counsel that your clients are seeking...

A: Here in the dressing rooms, you wouldn’t believe what comes out. And they say things like: My husband says I should wear this or that, and what do you think? Half of the women cannot face themselves in the mirror... but they can face me. They can face the stranger, but not themselves. They don’t feel secure, but maybe I make them feel secure because of my age. They have nothing to fear from me.

Q:  Don’t you think we all grow up with “rules” in our heads about what we can and cannot wear, rules maybe our mothers or the fashion world told us.

A: Well, you can take those rules and scratch them right now! I said to young Emily (her assistant at Solutions, the personal shopping department at Bergdorf) who’s my right hand, my left hand and half of my brain: “Everybody is wearing white pants!” In my day you never wore white pants in the city. Maybe at the beach, but not tight ones. I see size 20s in white pants: where do they find them? They look like they’re going to be beached. I can’t wait until winter when everybody puts a coat on.

I'll Drink to That

Q: But size 20s have a right to be fashionable, don’t they?

A: Yes, of course, but it can be very difficult. I say my most difficult clients (to dress) are the 12s, 14s and 16s: they’re the lost ladies. Nobody wants to dress her, give her a sleeve, or some length. My department shouldn’t be called Solutions. It should be called Challenge.

I'll Drink to That Q: Do women dress for fashion, for men, or for each other?

A: Don’t you think people should be comfortable in their own skin? I always say it’s how you carry yourself. A lot of dressing is to make you feel good, but sometimes it has to do with your peer group.  You want to look like your group. And we’re all into a youth thing: I abhor what everyone’s doing to themselves: the injections and the redoing. There’s a lack of individuality. Do women dress for women or men? Both, I think, but when someone says to me that they took a dress home and Joe didn’t like it, I say, “You know. Don’t wear it around him. Don’t let him make you hate that dress!”

Q: If you had to pick your favorite item of clothing, what would it be?

A: Well, there’s that sable, still in my closet... The cabochon ring my mother gave me is the most important thing in my life. Every morning when I put it on I hear my mother saying, “You wear that every day of your life.”  My mother was one tough broad. I have a love hate relationship with the old world. I’m thrilled that I can be part of this [modern] world. I really don’t know how it happened.  Somebody is taking care of me. So many people my age, they’re in wheelchairs. I’m in heels!

Sara’s Sleeper: "We Are Called to Rise" by Laura McBride

SaranelsonWe Are Called to RiseSometimes I crave a simple, straightforward novel--not necessarily light, but straightforward;  one that makes a point about our world-views, our morality, the way we live now. 

We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride, is that kind of book. It’s a  series of interlocking vignettes of four characters:  two middle aged women with in-flux family lives, a little Albanian-immigrant boy and a wounded soldier too scared and angry to remember his patriotic platitudes. It’s set in Las Vegas, but if you’re thinking glamorous, you’ll be surprised.  And while there are moments you can’t help but see that this debut author is more fascinated by her ideas than the characters she gives them to, I dare you to come away from this arresting novel unmoved. 

Plus:  how can you resist a book that is both readable in one sitting AND takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson? 

Susan Jane Gilman on Everything You Never Knew About Ice Cream… and Then Some

Susan Jane GilmanTo write my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street I had to research the history of ice cream and modern-day ice cream production in great detail. This, as you might imagine, was extremely taxing. Not only did I have to go behind the scenes of a Carvel Ice Cream store in Massapequa, NY, but attend a "master class" at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Italy. I then read extensively about ice cream and, of course -- just to make sure I'd grasped the basics --ate a monumental amount of ice cream, as well. Really.

The things I have to do for my art. It's a wonder I managed to write my novel at all.

Still, after christening myself the founder of the "Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Research" and completing my book, I did come away with a whole assortment of cool, interesting facts about the 20th century ice cream industry:

Ice Cream Queen Cover1. No less than five different people claimed to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Four of these were Middle Eastern immigrants. One of them, Abe Doumar, called his invention "Syrian ice cream sandwiches." Using a waffle iron, he developed a cone machine after the fair; he later donated this to the Smithsonian Institution.

2. Prohibition proved to be a godsend for the ice cream industry. What were tavern-owners to do with their now-illegal barrooms and beer halls? They converted them into ice cream parlors. In 1920, one Brooklyn brewery even began selling ice cream in place of beer at Coney Island to make up for its lost revenue. By 1929, 60% of the nation's drugstores had installed soda fountains.

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great Depression was devastating for the ice cream industry. It gave rise to "ice cream bootleggers," who produced a cheap, terrible product pumped full of air -- that did not adhere to the government's minimum manufacturing requirements -- and sold it under-the-table to ice cream outlets for less than the popular, mainstream brands.

4. In World War II, the United States government became the largest ice cream maker in history, producing 800 million gallons a year. Most other countries could no longer produce ice cream, due to shortages of milk, sugar, and infrastructure. But the U.S. military deemed ice cream "an essential item for troop morale" -- and so it dedicated all available resources to manufacturing ice cream on a grand scale for the military. It even commissioned two "Ice Cream Barges" -- dubbed "the world's first floating ice cream parlors." The ships' sole responsibility was to produce ice cream for the U.S.military. Their machines and crews pumped out almost 1,500 gallons every hour for distribution to troops across the Pacific theater.

Susan JaneGilman5. Even though Italy is thought to be the home of modern-day ice cream, during Wolrd War II, Benito Mussolini declared that ice cream was "too American" and banned the sale of ice cream throughout Italy, accusing the Italian people of being a "mediocre race of good-for-nothings only capable of singing and eating ice cream."

6. When rationing was lifted after the war, American began consuming ice cream in record amounts -- 20 quarts per person in 1946 alone. Today, the amount is even higher, though only slightly. Americans now consume about 22 quarts per person per year.

7. In the late 1940s, before there was a polio vaccine, public health experts in America noted that polio cases increased in the hot months of summer. Since people naturally ate more ice cream and drank more soft drinks in hot months, scientists jumped to the conclusion that sugar -- and particularly ice cream -- caused Polio. Eliminating sweets was recommended as part of an anti-polio diet. For several years, ice cream was erroneously believed to cause polio.

8. Baskin-Robbins originally conceived of their famous "31 Flavors" so that they could offer a different flavor for every day of the month.

9. Only New Zealanders consume more ice cream than Americans -- 27 quarts per person, per year.
The first ice cream to be certified kosher was Carvel Ice Cream, founded by Thomas Carvelas, a Greek Orthodox immigrant.

10. However, if you go to a Carvel Ice Cream store to research your novel, and you secretly believe that "research" means dipping your head beneath the soft-serve ice cream dispenser and letting as much chocolate ice cream as possible pour directly into your mouth, you will be disappointed. The proprietors actually won't let you anywhere near the soft ice cream machine unsupervised... even if you are the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies.

The Paris Wife meets Margaret Mead: Paula McLain and Lily King in Conversation

EuphoriaThe best thing you can say about a novel based, loosely or otherwise, on historical characters is that it sometimes makes you want to go out and read biographies and other nonfictional accounts of the people and places you met in that novel. Euphoria is just such a book, and if I say it will make you think differently about the anthropologist Margaret Mead -- or think about her at all, in fact -- it will have more than done its job. Brainy and romantic all at once, Euphoria, our Spotlight pick for June's Best of the Month, is a special kind of novel, and a bit of a departure for its author, Lily King (Father of the Rain). Here, King sits down for a chat with Paula McLain, author of another little historical you might have heard of: The Paris Wife.

Paula McLain: I've been a fan of your work for years, Lily, but this book is dizzyingly good. It's also a big departure for you creatively. How did the idea come to you?

Lily King: It came so unexpectedly and when I wasn't looking for an idea at all. I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, and a friend of mine took me to a used bookstore that was closing; I picked up a biography of Margaret Mead. I didn't really expect I'd read it, but I started it that night and got to this part when she's 31 years old and in the Territory of New Guinea doing fieldwork with her husband, and they meet another anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. He finds them a tribe to study nearby and they have this five-month fiery love triangle in the jungle with malarial fevers and intellectual breakthroughs.

Lily King
Lily King

It was impossible not to think, "Wow, this would make a great novel!" But my next thought was, of course, "I can't do that. I don't write novels like that." But Father of the Rain was an emotionally draining book and I had to take long breaks from it, so I started reading more about Mead and Bateson and anthropology and the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea and started taking notes and getting ideas. Once the other novel was done, I started to think maybe I could take a stab at it.

PM: I have to confess I fell completely in love with Andrew Bankson. Did you? What spurred your decision to tackle his voice as well as Nell's? Any challenges or particular pleasures?

LK: I was massively in love with him, too--his Englishness, his tragic youth, his vulnerability and lack of confidence yet a very clear moral compass, and his complete obliviousness to his own sexiness… My kind of man.

I originally meant the book to be Nell's story, in her voice alone. But after I finished the first chapter I needed to go back in time a few days and write the scene of Bankson's suicide attempt, which she wasn't there to witness. I remember exactly where I was and what I ordered when I wrote that chapter (Walter's in Portland, Maine; tea and tiramisu) because I was so surprised by how close I was able to get to him, much closer than I had gotten to her in that first chapter. I felt I could hear his thoughts so clearly. I knew then that the novel was really his story, and everything I had thought about how I'd tell it and what would happen would have to change.

Paula McLain
Paula McLain

PM: The fictional New Guinean tribes you track in the book are fascinating, and the details so richly layered and convincing. The Sepik River in 1933 isn't a place that essentially exists anymore, if you know what I mean. How did you "get there" imaginatively? Were there any breakthroughs or signposts along the way that helped you feel you really understood this exotic world?

LK: Thank you so much for saying that. It was scary and daunting and most of the time I feared I was failing. But there would be small details I'd find in the research that I could latch onto. I remember reading in one of Mead's letters that she was happy because she had been given a crocodile egg and could make a loaf of bread. And that a big delicacy for one of the tribes was a certain kind of raw bat. I don't think either of these details ever made it into the novel, but I had them in my head and they made the place feel real to me, and allowed me to make up other details that felt compatible.

In the Museum of Natural History in New York I saw a navigation tool made out of sticks and shells that people held up to the night sky to find their way on the water, as well as a few other things that really brought me closer to that world. Also the vocabulary of the time--the kiaps and pinnaces, the awful term blackbirding (for recruiters from western corporations who lured young men away from their villages to work in the mines and on the plantations)--all served to bring me back to that era. Sometimes the power a word or two can have on the imagination is incalculable.

For me the research really stimulated ideas for plot. I'd read a good detail and then a whole scene would unfold.

PM: Nell and Fen's marriage is thorny and complex, and it was sometimes hard for me to glean why such a strong woman would put up with his cruelty. How do you understand their connection? Did you find ways to sympathize with Fen's character?

Father of the Rain

Father of the Rain
by Lily King

Paperback | Kindle

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain

Paperback | Kindle

LK: I had a lot of sympathy for Fen. Like all angry and abusive people, he was terrified. He was scared he wasn't as smart as Nell, as hard-working as she was, or as committed and inspired and just plain good at it. He was scared he was going to lose her. He feared that the intellectual life that he had gravitated towards was not masculine enough. He was confused by Nell and her modern ideas, and while he wanted to be a part of that conversation and her unconventional world, his upbringing and everything he had known before her was in direct opposition to it.

Nell and Fen met in the most romantic of circumstances, on a ship as they were both returning from their first field trips. They were both wide open emotionally, experiencing similar re-entry feelings, and full of hope about their lives. Nell got to see Fen at his very best, and he saw her at her most relaxed and least compulsive. They spent a year apart, writing letters, then married just before sailing back to the South Pacific for another field trip together. Once there, they are stuck in the jungle together for two years under very difficult and isolated circumstances. It is a lot of pressure on a new marriage. I didn't feel that Nell had any other choice but to stay with him and try not to trigger his rage if she wanted to finish her work, which depended on his research as well as her own.

People aren't always strong in every area of their lives. Margaret Mead was also abused in the field by her husband Reo Fortune. There are several accounts of him hitting her. Latter in her life she admitted to a friend that he caused the miscarriage of a child while they were in Papua New Guinea. The one I find most poignant is from a letter she wrote him from the ship after their fieldwork there: "Oh dear—I wish you hadn't hit me where it would show that night over there. I wouldn't have had to go away from you." The words "where it would show" allows you to see that this brilliant, accomplished woman went away from him because of how she felt others would perceive the situation and not out of her own sense of self-worth or self-preservation.

PM: In many ways, the novel is as much about a brilliant woman's passion for her work as it is about the love and hypnotic connection between Nell and Bankson. Was that your intention?

LK: I was attracted to the idea of someone risking her life for her work, risking her health and safety in so many ways, and denying herself basic comforts for years at a time, all to get this information that could not be gotten any other way. And I wanted her to meet someone who lit her mind on fire, whose intelligence was as attractive to her as his tenderness and his physical presence.

PM: There's a wonderful scene early on in the book where Nell describes to Bankson her favorite part of immersing herself in a new tribe -- the brief and fleeting "euphoria" that comes when everything feels reachable, comprehensible, before the full scope of the work ahead sets in. Did you have such a moment with this book?

LK: Ha! No! Nell has much more confidence in her own abilities than I do.

Sara's Sleeper: "The Blessings" by Elise Juska

SaranelsonThe BlessingsAs Malcolm Gladwell so well explained in David and Goliath, sometimes the little guy is more powerful than he looks. And so it is with novels, too.

While I'm very much looking forward to We Are Not Ourselves, a big fat novel about Irish Americans in the mid 20th century, coming in the fall, I stumbled on a smaller book on a similar topic last month. That book is The Blessings, the fourth novel by the Philadelphia-based author Elise Juska.

What's so great about this book? It feels like it's about people you know -- even if you're not Catholic or from Philadelphia -- because Juska writes such particular and yet simultaneously universal characters. My favorite was Lauren, who becomes a widow in the book's first section, and stays the heart of the novel even if she's not usually center-stage. She's long-suffering, but not so much stoic as infused by a sane optimism and plenty of love for her children (of course) and also for her nutty in-laws.

This is a book for lovers of Elizabeth Strout's work (Amy and Isabelle) and the stories of Jennifer Haigh, (partly for the Pennsylvania-isms). It's kind of an update on the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a sibling to the less well known but spectacular Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy.

The Blessings is what I'm telling my smart friends to read on the beach.

An Excerpt from "Dear Leader" -- An All-Too-True Thriller About Life in Kim Jong-il's North Korea

Dear LeaderTo the Americans who are paying attention, the Korean government of Kim Jong-il seems like a particularly sinister cult. We’ve read news accounts of the oppressive propaganda, the silencing of those who dare to speak against it, and the fear under which many Koreans allegedly live. Dear Leader takes whatever we think we know one step forward. It’s a chronicle of how a poet became a member of the highly select "Admitted" group -- and how he eventually came to break with the man and the government that allowed him into their inner circle.

Read on for an excerpt from Jang Jin-sung's Dear Leader.


YOUNG-MIN and I arrived at the border town of Musan on January 15, 2004. We had traveled a distance of 288 miles. The journey by express train, which should have taken just one day according to the timetable, lasted four extra days. But despite this delay, every single person on board praised the marvel that was the arrival of any long-distance train at its destination. Someone yelled in a characteristically northern accent how, last month, the same trip had been delayed by more than ten days. Young-min and I glanced at each other and smirked.

They say that in January, up north in Hamgyong Province, icicles fall to the ground when you pee. When we city boys from Pyongyang stepped off the train, the sudden exposure to the brutal northern cold came as a shock. Young-min's ears turned bright red with cold. Unlike the large covered station in Pyongyang, Musan Station was a small building about a hundred feet from the tracks. The fencing around us, there to prevent those without travel passes from leaving the station premises, made more of an impression than the station building. The guards blew on their whistles and herded the passengers towards a booth where we were to show our train tickets and travel passes. Young-min and I remained silent, trying to appear inconspicuous, as we felt our true motives for travel would be obvious to anyone who looked closely at us. We communicated only with our eyes as we walked and, as we drew closer to the guards, we stopped even that.

With the authority granted to us by our Central Party identification papers, we stood at the back of the shortest queue, for Cadres, where only three people waited ahead of us. The other queues, for Military Personnel and Ordinary Residents, stretched far behind. However, the guards seemed to be taking more care over scrutinizing the cadres' passes, perhaps because they had more time to spare on a short queue. In the time the guards conducted one drawn-out interview with a cadre, four people in the line for Ordinary Residents had their documents confiscated without even being given a chance to explain. One of them, even as he was taken away by security agents, struggled to return for his luggage. A guard shouted and cursed at him and, when the man still did not stop struggling, began to kick him with his military boots. If my pass were declared invalid, my fate would be no better.

Finally, it was our turn. I took my identification papers out of my leather briefcase, making sure that the crest of the Workers' Party emblazoned on it in gold was visible. On seeing this, the guard, who had graying hair, tensed and saluted me. I was barely thirty. "Please show me your travel pass, " he said meekly. The special travel pass had already got us through several checkpoints. In North Korea, two types of guards check passengers' travel passes and identification documents every time the train crosses provincial boundaries or city limits; and this applies to both civilian and military passengers.

Although I had passed easily through these barriers, this final checkpoint was the only one that mattered now. As the guard glanced up from my documents towards me, I flinched. Even if my pass looked genuine, I feared that my guilt would show. When he handed back our documents without a single comment, Young-min and I walked as calmly as we could out of Musan Station.

We had chosen to cross the border from Musan, as the Tumen River—which forms part of the border separating North Korea from China—is at its narrowest there. The distance of this crossing determined our fate. If we climbed higher into the mountains, there might be smaller streams that fed the river, which we could cross with less difficulty. But there was no transport that could take us that far. We had been able to find a direct train to Musan because it was home to a large mining industry, and this was the closest we could get to the border.

When cadres miss three days of work, they are registered missing and a search warrant is issued in case of desertion. Even when you are ill, you must notify the relevant authorities about your whereabouts, because someone will be sent to verify that you are where you say you are. This would be our fourth day away from work, longer than we'd planned because of the delay to our train. Pyongyang must have issued a search warrant by now. We were in a race against time, and we were already losing.

Continue reading "An Excerpt from "Dear Leader" -- An All-Too-True Thriller About Life in Kim Jong-il's North Korea " »

Francesca Marciano Speaks "The Other Language"

Francesca MarcianoYou know how some collections of short stories are like a ring of perfect gems, each one honed and polished until it gleams with quiet moments, gentle apercus and reflected light?

The stories in Francesca Marciano's first collection, The Other Language, are not like that. They're rougher, messier, shot through with coincidence, a parable-like sensibility, and some final twists. Like stories a friend tells over lunch, they're less manufactured than experienced; these tales of displacement were forged in life, not a literary lab. And you need only spend a few minutes with their author to see where they come from.

A native Roman, Marciano is the very definition of a cosmopolitan European woman: she has lived many lives, in many languages, in Italy, New York, and Kenya (the setting of her first novel, 1998's The Rules of the Wild), among other places. Her mother tongue, of course, is Italian, but she writes her fiction in English, which she learned from an American friend when she was a teenager; her spoken English today is nearly perfect and only more charming on the rare occasions that it falters. ("When I came out here," she'll say, about coming to New York as a young girl; an American would more likely substitute "over" for "out") Best known in Italy as a screenwriter -- having worked on many films (including ones by Bertolucci) that are not distributed here -- she is both sophisticated and relaxed, a grown-up woman who sits in her publisher's office in a pair of loose jeans and a sweater and looks more at ease and put together than the stylish young New Yorkers in the adjoining offices.

(Full disclosure: This is the second time I've talked with Marciano. The first was in 1998 upon the publication of The Rules of the Wild). It was a luncheon arranged by her publisher for mostly female magazine editors. True to form, we all arrived in our buttoned-up dress-for-success outfits, trying to look sophisticated. Marciano, in a sweater and peasant-y skirt, unselfconsciously casual in dress and manner: she made us all feel like rubes.)

Marciano exudes the same mixture of world weariness and humor that comes through in many of her stories, probably because those stories come almost directly from her life. In one, for example, a young screenwriter about to win a major prize buys a couture Chanel dress to wear to the awards ceremony; "It's almost an act of transformation," Marciano says. "She wants to become a person that she isn't."(Marciano bought just such a dress years ago, and found an ending to her story recently when she showed the dress to a vintage-clothing-store owner.)

Francesca MarcianoIn "The Presence of Men", a Hollywood actor -- she won't say whom he's based on -- comes to a small Italian town and charms a local seamstress into making him some fine suits. In "The Italian System," she again spoofs the modern tendency to equate "old fashioned" attitudes and styles with authenticity. The stories are "really about how cynical we are without even knowing it," she says. "We're projecting an image on the past that is entirely romantic."

If there's one other through-line in , The Other Language, it's that the characters, no matter their age or location, feel like outsiders. (In one story, a woman who moves only from the north to the south of Italy still feels as if she might as well have come from Mars.) And Marciano, for all her assurance and seeming ease, says she feels the same way: always "other." She says that for much of her life, her friends from Rome didn't really understand how she could travel so much (It's very un-European, she says. The more typical citizen stays in the same city or village through much of her life.) An Italian screenwriter who writes fiction in English, she's mostly "ignored" as a novelist in Europe. "The fact that I don't write in Italian has created a certain kind of distance from the Italian audience, so I'm a bit of an outsider in Italy. And, you know, in a way I wish that would change."

On the other hand, she now can see her otherness as a gift. "It's almost like, in these two languages, I seem to have two different personalities and two different careers," she says. "By embracing another language you can be like this new person. Here I have found a voice in a second language and that has made me strangely free."

Amazon Asks: Francine Prose on Advice from Mavis Gallant, Negotiating Her First Advance, and the "Ultimate Empowered Little Girl"

Chameleon Club Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is Francine Prose's 17th novel (and 27th book, counting nonfiction and young adult titles). And even this longtime fan considers it one of her very best. The story of bohemian Paris between the World Wars, it's bawdy and racy and not a little brave. Prose says it all started with a photograph she saw in a museum, a shot of two women at a table in a French bar: "one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in [male] drag." Et voila: a novel was born.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

First I hit the panic button so we stall between floors, giving me a little more time to say: It's about what Paris was like and how it changed in the 20 years between 1924-1944. At the book's center is a woman, a professional athlete/auto racer and cross-dresser who attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics and became a spy for the Germans. The book is about (and told by) the people around her: a baroness who fostered her racing career; the brilliant photographer who took an iconic portrait of her and her lover; an American novelist; a heroine of the French Resistance; the owner of a legendary nightclub for cross-dressers. It's about love, evil, history, and truth.

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

I'm rereading the complete works of Barbara Pym; some of the books are physical books, some are on my Kindle, and all of them make me purely happy….

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

I'd have to tell you the top 300-500 books of all time.

What's the most Important book you never read?

Anything by Trollope and Galsworthy, despite how often people I love and trust have told me I should. I start, and I can't go on, I just can't...

What's the book that changed your life?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

What's the book that made you want to become a writer? Alt: Favorite book(s) as a child?

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking --the ultimate empowered little girl. Nowadays I even put up with the horrendous '70s film version of the book, to which my 7-year-old granddaughter is devoted.

What's your most memorable author moment?

The day that the legendary editor Harry Ford called to tell me he wanted to publish my first novel. This was in the early '70s. He said he supposed I'd be wanting an advance. I said I did. He asked, How much. I asked, What did he think? He said, How about a thousand dollars? I said, Great!! I was at a friend's house. I was sure I'd be hit by a truck on my way home.

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

X-ray vision--the ability to see what people are really thinking. The ability to learn languages instantly and fluently.

What are you obsessed with now?

Syria. The Ukraine. Climate change.

What are you stressed about now?

Same as above.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Three rainbow-loom rubber-band bracelets.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The brilliant Mavis Gallant, one of the great writers of our era, told me not to drink cheap wine, it's bad for the liver.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Karl Ove Knausgaard

What's the last dream you remember?

I dreamed I was wandering around a giant factory—lost. Confused, scared, running into weird and terrifying dead ends. I finally found some people who worked there and asked what exactly the factory manufactured. They said: Ball-point pens, and showed me one. I said, That's funny, those are the kind of pens I write with….Doctor Freud? Do we have to bother with this one?

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

Computer solitaire is the answer to all three.

What do you collect?

Vintage postcards. Masks.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

I got a beautiful letter from a woman who told me that she had been reading Blue Angel and felt, in the room, the presence of her mother, who had died, and who would have loved my novel.

Funny Business: Stanley Bing Explains It All For You

The CurriculumDo you have a crazy boss? Do you want to learn to be one?

Longtime Fortune magazine business columnist Stanley Bing (How to Relax Without Getting the Axe, What Would Machiavelli Do?) has mapped out for you -- in charts, graphs, ten commandments, and Power Point -- why people succeed in business, whether they're trying or not. His new book, The Curriculum, is a most serious spoof of what you could learn (or not) in an accredited b-school. Why pay a quarter of a million dollars in tuition, when you can buy that knowledge here for less than .02% of that.

Here, for example, is Bing's interpretive comparison of Lower, Middle and Ultra-Senior managers.

The Curriculum

We asked Bing some of our favorite questions. Read more about influential books, impressing his son, and predicting the future of technology here.

Amazon Asks: Stanley Bing on Influential Books, Impressing His Son, and Predicting the Future of Technology

Bing If you've read Fortune magazine anytime in the last 20+ years, or, for that matter, if you've cruised the business book world, you already know Stanley Bing: the funniest "business" writer on a very crowded block. Tomorrow, we'll unveil one of the riffs from his newest book, The Curriculum. But for now, we thought we'd grab him for a second, in between high level business meetings and attacks of corporate angst (is there a diff?), to get his answers to some of our favorite questions.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

The Curriculum is a rigorous course of study designed for business students or interested professionals who want to achieve power and success without enduring the tedium, stress, and expense of a traditional MBA.

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

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, because it's discursive and hilarious; Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks, because I can't, generally, and occasionally would like to; and Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune, because I loved it dearly as a child and get slightly lachrymose after a few drinks late at night and start ordering things.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Top Five (in no particular order):

  • Moby Dick, except for the long section on how to cook a whale;
  • The Metamorphosis, particularly the funny parts;
  • The entire History of Crime series, from Roseanna to The Terrorists, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which are the motherload of all subsequent Scandinavian crime fiction;
  • The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by George Simenon, an incomparably perfect little novel about what can happen to a conventional person when the structure of his life unravels;
  • The Shining by Stephen King, because it's the last book that I had to read with all the lights on.


Important book you never read?

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I tried. But there are now some mountains that my brain can no longer climb.

Book that changed your life?

There are probably quite a few, but I'll name two. The first is Crime and Punishment, because I read it at exactly the right moment in my teens sometime, and it seized me the way no other book had until that moment; it seemed like a whole world had opened to me that was in some fundamental way more real than my own. I loved it. I was also really influenced by The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, which took an anthropological view of the corporate organization, viewing it basically as a totalitarian bureaucracy, a perspective that is very useful to me in my own work, which makes me sound very serious, I know, but there you have it. Oh, and I should probably also mention that reading my way all the way through Sherlock Holmes gave me a lifelong love for crime and detective fiction.

Favorite book(s) as a child?

I already mentioned Albert Payson Terhune, and I inhaled his books about his elegant, preternaturally intelligent collies throughout my childhood. I had no idea at the time that he was sort of a Nietzschean crypto-racist, with all sorts of views about superior bloodlines and terrible stuff like that. I thought he wrote very moving and exciting dog stories, you know? Also loved Booth Tarkington's Penrod books, which were all about being a ten-year-old boy in a placid, lovely, small-town America when I was one. I also remember getting a tremendous kick out of a series about cave people at the dawn of time I got at my local library that I now cannot find anywhere online at all. They were big and fat and immersive and if anybody reading this has an idea of what they might have been, I'd be obliged to you.

What's your most memorable author moment?

I was with my son at a Bob Dylan concert. It was intermission and some guy who wasn't too old came up to me and said, "Hey! You're Stanley Bing!" and shook my hand. "That was cool, Dad," my son said. We didn't cry and embrace or anything, but it was a good moment. I'd also have to say that being on Charlie Rose a while back about one of my books was a real thrill. I felt like a real, authentic author the whole time. And I say that not only because it's true, but because it's possible that Charlie may be reading this and it would help get me on his show again.

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

"I would love to have the power to stop waking at 3 a.m. every night to check my e-mail."

BingWhat are you obsessed with now?

Two decades ago, around the time I started doing my column for Fortune, I believe, I wrote a humor column prognosticating a future where people would have cranial implants to replace all existing forms of electronic communications. I now believe it was a sort of Jules Verne moment for me, when I thought I was blowing sci-fi smoke, but I was actually predicting a likely future. I am now obsessed with the idea that very soon, before we know it, digital wetware will replace glassware to create surgically enhanced humans who will eventually form the genetic stock of the next iteration of humanity, rendering Homo Sapiens as defunct as our predecessor, Homo Neanderthanensis. I don't want to be around when that happens, by the way, but I would like to have my consciousness digitally preserved and housed in a pleasant place for later insertion into a fully functional cyborg when that's possible.

What are you stressed about now?


What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My Martin D-18, which was built the year I was born and bought in a pawn shop in Cincinnati as a present for me when I was eight years old for $90. It's just as nice as it ever was.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The best piece of advice I ever got was to stay one drink behind the most senior officer at the table or party. The worst piece of advice was to eat the worm at the bottom of a bottle of mescal one night at a boondoggle in San Diego.

Who's your current author crush?

Mark Bittman. He's actually convinced me to eat like a Marin County hippie before 6 p.m. It's the 6 p.m. part that's brilliant. Every day there's light at the end of the vegetable tunnel.

What book you wish you'd written?

Who Moved My Cheese. Not because of the message -- which is truly deplorable, viewing employees as tiny rodents whose masters may move their sustenance at will -- but because the book probably took 20 minutes to write and has now sold a hundred billion copies. It's the Quarter Pounder of business books.

What's the last dream you remember?

Just last night I dreamed that I was required to go back to the past and perform a certain task without upsetting the natural order of the future. I saw my boss when his hair was black. I saw several colleagues again, who I have missed, actually, since they left the corporation. I saw a 1995-era Cadillac stretch which seemed to be waiting for somebody more important than I was. It was very detailed and interesting. Then I woke up and realized that most of the philosophical issues in my dream have already been dealt with in The Terminator. I'm still thinking about it, though.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

My favorite method of procrastination is to do something else that needs doing, but not quite so imminently. Sleeping is also good, as is drinking until you really can't do anything very well anymore. And let's not forget about Amazon Prime. You guys have some seriously excellent content on there.

What do you collect?

Guitars, cameras, watches, yoyos, and comics. Some other things, too, but those are the main ones. Not all at once, of course. Sort of alternatively, never quite dropping any one, but focusing now and then on each. Right now there's a vintage acoustic guitar I don't need that I have my eye on.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

That's easy. A few years ago, a reader became annoyed at something I had posted on my blog. He shot off a note that was brief and to the point: "Your an idiot," he said. "Your" an idiot! I still feel wonderful when I think about it.

A Peek Inside "What Would Lynne Tillman Do?"

What Would Lynn Tillman Do?What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is a collection of 35 essays from a brainy, funny American thinker and writer--the kind of person able (and willing!) to dispense observation and advice on everything from great writing to Chet Baker to the Internet and how it has changed society. In other words, she's a know-it-all, in all the best ways: warm, wise, and, when it's called for, pointed in her criticisms. As someone said, she's not a malcontent, but she is discontented sometimes. She has also crossed paths with some of the greatest creative minds of the last several decades. (The book is introduced by Colm Toibin, after all.) Here we have Lynne Tillman's story of her interactions with the great 20th century expatriate writer, Paul Bowles.

In 1972, I was living in Amsterdam, and decided to edit an anthology of American writers abroad. Paul Bowles reigned as the preeminent American abroad. I told my Dutch publisher that his presence in the book was essential, and assured him that Bowles would definitely be in it. All bravado. I was a complete unknown. Anxiously, I wrote a letter to Paul Bowles, requesting his important participation. Shockingly fast, he wrote back, Yes.

I can't remember what Bowles first sent me. But soon the book's publication was delayed, and whatever piece it was, he had given it to someone else. I quickly and humbly asked for another piece; he amiably sent one along. I really didn't know what I was demanding of such a distinguished, sought-after writer. I knew nothing, I was a kid, and all my ideas about being an editor came from reading literary histories and writers' biographies. I had requested unpublished material from everyone. The long delays continued, and every piece Bowles sent me was eventually published somewhere else.

After the first publisher reneged—the novelty division was dissolved—a second publisher came forward to save the book, a friend with a small Dutch press who promised to bring the anthology out, fast. He didn't. I'm not sure how much time passed, but once again I needed to ask Bowles for new writing. Now he had no unpublished work at all, nothing to give; he was very sorry. Desperate, I wrote: Don't you have anything? I don't care what it is. Bowles kindly mailed a few poems he'd written in the early 1930s, noting that they weren't very good, but I could use them if I wanted. He didn't have anything else. Again, he was very sorry.

It never occurred to me that he might have been, with excellent reason, courteously bailing out of my long-sinking enterprise. But I was young, naive, hopeful, and these traits, mixed with others, allowed me not only to ignore that possibility but also to agree with his negative assessment of his poems. Yes, they're not very good, I wrote him. Of course I'll publish them anyway. You must be in the anthology. But, I pleaded, don't you have anything else? How about letters you wrote home from Europe?

Not long after, an airmail letter arrived, on onionskin as ever, but thicker than the one page he usually sent. He, or a helper, had typed copies of two letters he had written his mother on his very first trip to Europe. He had traveled there with composer Aaron Copland; Copland had been his music teacher, then a close friend. In one letter Bowles tells the hilarious tale of their sailing to Tangier. The second was written after he and Copland had settled in Tangier, about their travails with their piano, and also about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who were their friends. Use the letters if you want, Bowles wrote. I read them over and over, delighted with each line, and also by glimpsing his intimate and sympathetic relationship with his mother; I knew he despised his father. (In his autobiography, Bowles admitted to wanting to kill him.) Now it was worth it, every delay, everything—the letters were jewels.

Lynn TillmanOver those years, the anthology had gone through many transformations. Mostly I added people: it was hard for me to say no to friends, even those who weren't writers. When the second Dutch publisher stopped answering my letters, I finally gave up, though the book had been designed, typeset, and was actually on boards. I knew it would never be published. Curiously, I took this failure in stride, seven or eight years of work and waiting, making promises and breaking them. By then I was doing other things, living in New York and writing. Maybe more significant, the anthology had come to feel unnecessary to me, a leftover from an existence I no longer had or wanted. I'd done it, and was done with my romance of the American abroad—along with the rest of the world. Being in Europe had helped me unlearn some of what I'd been taught or unconsciously believed. Any writer knows that what's left out is as essential, if not more so, than what's there. Unlearning works that way. I unlearned the model of being an editor like Ezra Pound with T.S. Eliot, the unconscious belief that America was the center of the world, and that honesty meant saying what I thought and always being direct. (The Dutch and the English, former competitors for world dominance, taught me the wisdom of waiting as well as withholding.) As to new lessons: I learned I could be miserable anywhere in the world. I learned I really was an American.

Bowles and I continued corresponding, hardly ever mentioning the ill-fated anthology. He had suffered much worse fates than the ups and downs of publication, of course, specifically, the slow, sad decline of Jane Bowles and her death in 1972. In some ways I think he was forever amused by something invisible buzzing around him, and that something kept him going. Maybe he was amused just to be alive.

(c) 2014 by Lynne Tillman. From What Would Lynne Tillman Do? published by Red Lemonade

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