Thursday, October 31, 2013

The 10 Scariest Books You've Ever Read



It-CoverIn the lead-up to All Hallows' Eve, we asked our Amazon Books Facebook fans to cast their vote (via comments) for the scariest book they'd ever read. Out of nearly 500 votes cast, 38% went to Stephen King. Fans split on which of his books were the freakiest, but there was one clear winner.

1. It by Stephen King: King's story of seven friends from a small Maine town who are drawn back as adults to vanquish the evil they fought as children got twice as many fan votes as any other book. Several said they were too scared to finish it, reported nightmares, and were never able to look at a clown the same way again ("hate those creepy clowns!").

2. The Shining by Stephen King: The Torrance family’s attempt at a fresh start caretaking the off-season Overlook Hotel goes horribly awry as sinister forces gather. Fans recalled being especially unnerved by the woman in the bathtub ("scared the crap out of me") and the playground scene ("Danny in the tube with something else! Terrifying!"). And one cited the Friends episode where Joey was so afraid of this book, he stored it in the freezer.

3. 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King: Senior Editor Jon Foro calls this "King's creepy riff on Dracula, shifting the angst from Victorian repression to the secrets of a small town that come out of the cellars after the sun goes down." One fan reported, "I could only read it during the day so the vampires couldn't get me," while others foiled the fangs by sleeping with a cross or blankets around the neck. Yet another swore off scary books for good after this one: "I haven't read a Stephen King book since. Or any other scary book, really."

4. Pet Sematary by Stephen King: "Heroin makes junkies feel good when they put it in their arms, but all the time it's poisoning their mind and body--this place can be like that and don't you ever forget it!" Fans insist the book's even scarier than the movie, and for those who were able to finish, its necrotic claws have left some scars: "Still can't look at cats!"

5. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty: One of the most terrifying, controversial novels ever published, The Exorcist became a phenomenal best-seller soon after its release in 1971. Several fans who read this book report being unable to watch the movie (out of self-preservation). Another explained simply, "I don't read scary books anymore."

6. The Stand by Stephen King: When a rapidly mutating flu virus escapes a U.S. military facility and wipes out nearly all the world's population, the stage is set for an apocalyptic showdown. For many, this book terrified because it's so plausible: "It just doesn't seem to be out of the realm of possibility." One fan reports, "I think of it every time I pass through a tunnel."

7. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: Speaking of real, Capote’s "nonfiction novel" about the brutal murder of the Clutter family by would-be robbers invented a new genre, creative nonfiction, and his scenes of bloody walls and the "thud-snap" of rope-broken necks terrified readers. One fan said, "it bothered me that there are people in the world like that," while another agreed, and noted that "I thought it would be a dull read, but really the creepiest thing out there."

8. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill: Amazon Senior Editor Robin Rothman notes that "while King is clearly supreme, I still can’t stop thinking about N0S4A2 by his son, Joe Hill. The apple doesn’t fall far from the twisted tree." Our Facebook fans favored Hill's creepy Heart-Shaped Box ("scared the bejesus out of me!"). One gave this testimonial: "I've read horror all my life, practically--the only book that gave me nightmares is Heart-Shaped Box."

9. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski: Our reviewer John Ponyicsanyi said, "Had The Blair Witch Project been a book instead of a film, and had it been written by, say, Nabokov at his most playful, revised by Stephen King at his most cerebral, and typeset by the futurist editors of Blast at their most avant-garde, the result might have been something like House of Leaves." One of our fans described the experience of reading it: "I felt like if I took my eyes off the page and looked up, the room would suddenly and inexplicably have acquired a new door or unfamiliar hallway. Terrifying."

10. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson: In late 1975, the Lutz family moved into a Long Island house, knowing that a year earlier, Ronald DeFeo had murdered his parents, brothers, and sisters there. Less than a month later, they fled in terror. Whether it’s true or not, the story of a house possessed by evil became a huge best-seller, and it scared the pants off many fans, one of whom called it "absolutely the most frightening book I've ever read!" Another said, it "just made me feel unclean inside."

If you've already read everything on this list and want another jolt of pure literary fear, have you succumbed yet to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House? Jon Foro calls this classic of the genre a "ghost story superbly crafted and unnerving as hell, a book best read alone."

Thanks to all our Facebook fans who shared their scariest reading moments! --Mari

 



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Happy Halloween Comics!



Happy Halloween! This special collector’s edition of Graphic Novel Friday arrives on a Thursday—just in time for the greatest holiday of them all. With no familial baggage or end of year expectations, Halloween’s all party. In keeping with that sentiment, our Top 10 Halloween comics of the fall are less about the fright and more about the groovy monster mashed-ness of the evening. Raise a dark chocolate and let’s get spooky.Witchinghour_1_

10. Marvel Zombies: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1 by Robert Kirkman, Mark Millar, Sean Philips, and more.

9. The Walking Dead, Vol. 19: March to War by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard. 

8. The Witching Hour #1 by Various.COFFIN_Cv1__

7. Creepy Presents: Steve Ditko by Steve Ditko and Archie Goodwin.

6. Creepy Archives Vol. 17 by Various.

5. Revival: Deluxe Collection, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton

4. Hellboy: The Midnight Circus by Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo.

3. Coffin Hill #1 by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda. 

2. The Halloween Legion: The Great Goblin Invasion by Martin Powell, Thomas Boatwright, and Diana Leto.

1. Colder by Paul Tobin and Juan Ferreyra. 

By now it’s almost sunset, Omni readers. Take a peek outside the window. Do the pumpkins look mischievous tonight? Are their grins a little grim? Maybe save a piece of candy in case the doorway darkens once more.

--Alex



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Toby Barlow Reveals His Ultimate Evil Darlings



BabayagaHalloween... as they say, it must be the season of the witch. And Toby Barlow, author of one of our Best of the Month picks from decidedly unspooky August (and one of my personal faves of this past year), Babayaga, knows a little something about that. Though as much a dark comedy, a love story, and a spy thriller as anything else, Barlow's genre-defying Babayaga is chock full of curse-spouting ancient crones--named as it is for the mangled witches in Slavic folklore.

We asked Barlow about the other end of the spectrum: about what books had spooked him as a reader and left him spellbound. It should have been no surprise that he'd add a delightful twist to his response.


BarlowLooking through the various lists of great suspense books, I'm surprised at how few women there are to be found. To me, female authors have always had had a much greater sense of what is disturbing and wrong in this world. There are good strong men writing about the dark stuff, guys like Charlie Houston, Max Brooks or, I suppose, Stephen King. But to me men mostly shock while women truly haunt. Four of the most frightening authors I know of were women, and while the following list may seem terribly obvious to many, in my opinion they still aren't mentioned nearly enough and, just like our evening prayers, these are names that should be recited over and over again. They are my dark angels. Even thinking about their work now sends the chills creeping.

Patricia Highsmith Pick any novel by Patricia Highsmith
One of the truest things I've ever heard about literature was Jeanette Winterson's great quote from her mother (who was, by Ms. Jeanette's account, quite a horror in her own right) "The trouble with a book is you never know what's in it until it's too late." This is certainly true of Highsmith's work. Here was a woman with such a cold perspective on things that she manages the fine feat of making the reader fear the author. What is she going to do now? My god, does this woman have no limits? Oh where are the lessons, the morality, the nice, tidy ending? At least Dostoyevsky had his existentialist heroes pay for their sins; with Highsmith you crack the spine knowing that any devilish thing can happen.
And Then There Were None And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I came across this when I was young and, for many reasons, was beyond frightened by it. Who knew sweet Agatha Christie could be such a serious horror? She put aside the quirky Hercule Poirot and the quaint Miss Marple for this dark, hero-less tale of people being picked off, one by one, on some distant island. The fact that all the people are guilty of one crime or another doesn't really help alleviate the sense of very bad things happening to people who can do nothing about it. Christie's tone is -- as always -- simple, proper, and efficient, but that only makes it more effective. She planted seeds of fear that stay with me to this day. The double edged combination of justice and horror clearly struck a strong note, because it's Christie's most successful novel, actually according to one source it's the best selling "mystery" of all time. But it's not a mystery. It's horror.
Rebecca Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The most psychological frightening novel I ever came across. The character Mrs. Danvers is HAL the computer, Darth Vader, and the classic Grimm's evil stepmother all rolled into one very dark creature. Seriously, without being gory or gross, the book's as scary as the movie Alien. This is a novel that ultimately unfolds into a different genre, one that's more procedural than horror, but the lurking evil remains there throughout, looming, nesting, nibbling at our guts. The novel plays skillfully with the sense of entering, shyly, tentatively, into a completely unwelcoming world and it remains one of the best books of the last one hundred years.
Interview with the Vampire Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Okay, yes, this one is mentioned a lot. And I feel a little bad for even including it, seems kind of like saying "Oh, you're interested in God? Have you ever heard of The Bible?" But this is still mandatory reading, and not only for the crazy adventures of ol' Louis & Lestat but because the novel succeeds at drawing a tense thread between the very real gothic spookiness of New Orleans, Paris and San Francisco. It's also rife with original twists of horror, the most notable being the introduction of Claudia, the prepubescent vampire. That's the sort of thing you come across and say "Geez, ew, why'd she do that? Ugh. Yikes." But you keep turning the pages. You gotta turn the page.
Ayn Rand Ayn Rand
Finally, the most frightening novelist of all time was probably Ayn Rand, because she actually made monsters come to life; awful, demented demons we are still all plagued with today. But then that's another story to tell.


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JFK: 50 Years Later



On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet as his motorcade rolled through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, violently ending the era of American self-assurance. It is the quintessential Where were you? moment, maybe the most written about event ever, but the moment and circumstance were pivotal, so let’s revisit: America’s post-WWII supremacy was being challenged on multiple fronts as communism crept into her backyard, and the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion indicated that while America might be the planet’s most powerful and influential nation, it couldn’t control events just 90 miles south of Key West. Not long after, the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba, and while that crisis was “won,” Americans became fully aware of the stakes of an escalating Cold War. Ich bin ein Berliner. At home, the country edged toward the cultural seachange of the ‘60s and Vietnam War backlash. Everything won seemed to be crumbling into chaos.

CamelotsCourtJFKConservativeAt the top of it all sat one of the most charismatic (or at least photogenic; ask Nixon) president the country had seen, at a time when media, especially television, was coming into its own as tool to spread (and homogenize) information on a mass scale. He was the first president who wasn’t dad (or at least an inscrutable uncle), the first president to bring an aura of glamour to the White House, with his attractive family and rumored dalliances with famous blondes. Oswald’s ringing shot heralded a new world, one in which all rules seemed destined to be broken and America’s future hung in the balance.

  So there’s no mystery why Kennedy, his brief administration, his personal life (both secret and otherwise), and—of course—the assassination have inspired tens of thousands of books, including several new novels and children's books. The 50th anniversary of his death has spawned dozens more, several taking fresh looks at the inner workings of Kennedy’s White House. Robert Dallek—author of what many consider the definitive JFK biography, An Unfinished Life—penned the best of that bunch: Camelot’s Court shifts focus to Kennedy’s trusted advisors and their influence on the administration’s successes and failures, revealing the often sharp fractures sustained in the arena of clashing ambitions and ideologies. It's an ambitious Team of Rivals approach, but Dallek provides a fascinating, one-of-a-kind look inside the messy mechanics of policy.

LettersOfJFK KennedyYearsNYTFor a lively, challenging reconsideration of that policy, Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative examines Kennedy’s legacy through a red lens, concluding that the liberal lion had more in common with Ronald Reagan than many liberals would prefer—or remember. While Democrats point to his progressive stances on health care and education, Stoll notes that his positions on tax cuts (for) and communism (staunchly against) would have rung like church bells in conservative ears.  It’s a clever and audacious spin.

Beyond governmental nuts and bolts, The Letters of John F. Kennedy collects correspondence from the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, spanning notes to and from cultural and world leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Truman, and Nikita Krushchev) as well as children and private citizens that demonstrate a warmth not often associated with Commanders in Chief. Those looking for salacious details of his private life best look elsewhere, but editor Martin W. Sandler’s selections track Kennedy’s development as a leader in an insightful, personal, and unprecedented way.

LIFEJFKFKennedyYearsMemoiror some, it’s the image of Camelot that endures. Like so many rock stars, JFK died before he got old, before his legacy was tarnished or torn down, and well before the shriek-cycle of modern “journalism,” which builds and destroys political careers sometimes within weeks. Several new volumes revisit the Camelot years in pictures. The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of The New York Times reprints many of the newspaper’s articles and photographs from its coverage of the administration and the events that surrounded it—fascinating for real-time assessments of historically significant events. For a glimpse behind Camelot’s curtain, The Kennedy Years: A Memoir captures unguarded “off-camera” moments through the snapshots of JFK’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe, accompanied by his personal account to provide a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective, independent of political spin. JFK: A Photographic Memoir by influential photographer (and selfie pioneer) Lee Friedlander poignantly captures public reactions to JFK, from impromptu celebrations of his election to despairing memorials following November 22. For a dramatic record of November 22, 1963, LIFE: The Day Kennedy Died presents its coverage of that fateful day in Dallas, including the recollections of many celebrities, as well as reproductions of every frame of the infamous Zapruder film that launched countless conspiracy theories about the assassination.

Dallas EndOfDaysSpeaking of which: the grassy knoll. Magic bullets. Castro. LBJ. Jack Ruby. CIA. JFK assassination theories are a roiling alphabet soup of plots and motives, and rather than diminish the hysteria, the fifty years since the assassination have given them room to multiply, becoming ever more convoluted.  Those books are well represented in 2013’s new crop, including wrestler/governor/actor/special-ops bad-ass Jesse Ventura’s  They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK and the Little Book of JFK Conspiracies, available in a deluxe edition for the discerning conspiracy theorist. Then again, maybe it was LBJ, after all.

But the most interesting new angle isn’t a conspiracy theory at all. Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis casts the city as a character in the plot, a place made inherently dangerous to JFK by so many enemies of the administration—political, religious, criminal, and in the media—that the environment itself was hospitable to tragedy, and perhaps invited it. It’s a dramatic cautionary tale about how extreme ideologies can combine to create a toxic brew. While Dallas 1963 takes in the view from on high, James Swanson hits the streets for a blow-by-blow account of events. End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy begins three days before Dealey Plaza through Oswald's shocking, audacious murder at the hands of Jack Ruby on November 24. Like his previous book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, End of Days reads like a thriller while providing meticulous detail--the true-crime counterpart to Don DeLillo's masterful, speculative novelization, Libra.

JesseVentura LittleBookJFKKennedy warned that “those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” As it turns out, this is not true for Kennedy himself. There are still lessons to be learned within JFK’s story, lessons about tragedy and resilience, dogma and pragmatism, and what can be achieved when politics of inclusion are chosen over exclusionism. The books will keep coming as long as interest in Kennedy’s ideals and achievements—real or perceived—persists, and as long as we ask What might have been?

 

See more new JFK titles in:



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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

YA Wednesday: Cory Doctorow and Terry Pratchett: Authority and Underdogs



CarpetPeopleBest-selling author Terry Pratchett wrote The Carpet People at the tender age of 17.  Now, many years later, Pratchett has re-written the story and it's being published in its new version on November 5th.  In the author's note for The Carpet People, Pratchett refers to the novel as a joint effort between his 17-year-old self and his 43-year-old self. I couldn't help but picture a sci-fi moment after reading that...

When Pratchett sat down for a chat with one of our other favorite authors, Cory Doctorow, the result is as funny and interesting as you might expect from these two, as they discuss The Carpet People, authority, and the underdog:

CoryDoctorowCory Doctorow: The Carpet People was your first novel, and now the fortieth book in your Discworld series is about to be published. Do you think you could have kept us in the Carpet for anything like forty books?

PratchettTerry Pratchett: I was about to say, “No,” but right now I wonder. . . . If the idea had taken, I don’t know. I really don’t. But how would it be? People in the Carpet are more or less tribal. What would happen if I . . . You’ve got me thinking!

CD: You took a bunch of runs at building a world where a million stories could unfold—The Carpet People, Truckers, and, finally, Discworld. Is Discworld’s near-total untethering from our world the secret of its staying power?

TP: It isn’t our world, but on the other hand it is very much like our world. Discworld takes something from this world all the time, shows you bits of the familiar world in new light by putting them into Discworld.

CD: You write a lot of feudal scenarios, but you also seem like a fellow with a lot of sympathy for (and suspicion of!) majority rule. The Carpet People is shot through with themes of who should rule and why. Where does legitimate authority spring from?

TP: The people! The only trouble is the people can be a bit stupid--I know that; I’m one of the people, and I’m quite stupid.

CD: What should the writer’s relationship with authority be?

TP: My personal view is that you look askance at authority. Authority must be challenged at every step. You challenge authority to keep it on its toes.

CD: The Carpet People concerns itself with many questions of infrastructure and public works. Now that we’ve arrived at a time of deep austerity, what do you think the future of infrastructure is?

TP: To crack and fall away, I sometimes think. From what I see around me, it’s people doing it for themselves. We know the government is there, but we know they have no real power to do anything but mess things up, so you do workarounds.

CD: Ultimately, it comes down to the builders, the wreckers, and the free spirits.

TP: Sometimes things need tearing down—and that might be, as it were, the gates of the city. But if we talk without metaphors, I would say that building is best. Because it is inherently useful. My dad was a mechanic; maybe it starts there.

CD: One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your books with feudal settings is that it seems you get something like the correct ratio of vassals to lords. So much of fantasy seems very top-heavy. Do you consciously think about political and economic considerations when you’re devising a world?

TP: I’ve never been at home with lords and ladies, kings, and rubbish like that, because it’s not so much fun. Take a protagonist from the bottom of the heap and they’ve got it all to play for. Whereas people in high places, all they can do is, well . . . I don’t know, actually: I’ve never been that high. If you have the underdog in front of you, that means you’re going to have fun, because what the underdog is going to want to do is be the upper dog or be no dog at all.

CD: Damon Knight once told me that he thought that no matter how good a writer you are, you probably won’t have anything much to say until you’re about twenty-six (I was twenty at the time). You’ve written about collaborating with your younger self on the revised text of The Carpet People. Do you feel like seventeen-year-old Terry had much to say?

TP: That’s the best question you’ve asked all day! I think that he had a go at it, and it wasn’t bad, but that when I was younger I didn’t have the anger. It gives an outlook. And a place from which to stand. When you get out of the teens, well out of the teens, you begin to have some kind of understanding: you’ve met so many people, heard so many things, all the bits that growing up means. And out of that lot comes wisdom—it might not be very good wisdom to start with, but it will be a certain kind of wisdom. It leads to better books.



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Introducing the "Day One" Journal of Short Stories and Poetry



Those of us who love to watch writers' work develop over years have much to celebrate today, namely the unveiling of a new, high-quality digital publication devoted exclusively to short fiction and poetry, and with a focus on new and undiscovered authors. Aptly named Day One, this weekly journal features previously unpublished short fiction and poetry by tomorrow's literary luminaries.

DayOne

Day One's first issue starts with a strange and wonderful short story by University of Michigan M.F.A. Rebecca Adams Wright. "Sheila," the robotic dog that lends the tale it title, will certainly the charm puppy-lovers among us, but it's her owner, a loyal and elderly widower, whose emotional register marks the key thrust of this gentle tale and drives it forward to its surprising conclusion.

Wichita State University M.F.A. candidate Zack Strait provides the inaugural issue's poetry. "Wrought" offers a cascade of memorable imagery that, like the tobacco smoke that the speaker's grandfather renders into various shapes, evinces an emotional trajectory that propels the poem toward its startling and resonant conclusion.

And Day One looks as good as it reads, thanks -- in the first issue -- to a cover image by artist and writer Forysth Harmon, whose rendering of a mechanical heart ties the written work of the issue together, resulting in an arresting and relevant whole.

Available to read on Kindle and free Kindle Reading Apps, Day One enables readers looking to find "what's next" to do so in far less time (and for less cost) than taking out a pile of subscriptions to the many literary journals out there today

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

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



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Monday, October 28, 2013

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



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Friday, October 25, 2013

An Autumnal Treat: Roasted-Pumpkin Ice Cream Recipe from "Bountiful"



Bountiful_Ice_Cream-FB

Photographers and foodies Todd Porter and Diane Cu have a phenomenally popular blog, WhiteonRiceCouple.com, where they share their love of cooking seasonally with veggies and fruits from their lush Californian garden. Their first cookbook, Bountiful, boasts 100 seasonal, flavorful, and approachable recipes (90 never-before-seen) with a vegetable or fruit in a starring role. We especially love this ingenious roasted-pumpkin ice cream (with simple and complex variations), a supremely autumnal indulgence, either alone or with your favorite fall pie. --Mari

ROASTED-PUMPKIN ICE CREAM

MAKES ABOUT 1½ QUARTS (1.5 L)

It seems as if just a few years ago it was almost impossible to find pie pumpkins, even in October, but now we are seeing them everywhere. Yay! Roasting a pumpkin for puree is one of the most minimal-effort-for-maximum-gain-over-store-bought things you can do in the kitchen. Make sure to use pie pumpkins or sugar pumpkins, not the jack-o’-lantern behemoths—those big boys don’t have the best taste or texture. If you are roasting a large heirloom pumpkin, cutting it in half and roasting it on an oiled sheet pan, cut side down, will shorten the cooking time.

1 small pie pumpkin (makes about 2 cups / 480ml puree)

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¹⁄8 teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup (55g) packed brown sugar

1 quart (1L) Vanilla Rum Ice Cream (see recipe below) or store bought vanilla ice cream

NOTE: There is a long way and a short way to make this ice cream. Go crazy and make your own vanilla rum ice cream, stirring the puree and spices into the ice cream just after you finish churning. Or for the short version, let a container of your favorite vanilla ice cream soften up, then stir in the pumpkin and spices.

1 Turn the oven to 375°F (190°C); you do not need to preheat.

2 Place the pumpkin on a sheet pan and roast for about 1 hour, until it feels soft when you press its sides. Remove it from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle.

3 Split the pumpkin open and remove all the seeds and stringy bits, then scrape out the flesh. Puree the flesh in a blender or food processor until smooth.

4 Stir the vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and brown sugar into the puree.

5 Allow the ice cream to soften and stir in the puree. You may either serve the soft ice cream immediately or allow it to harden up in the freezer before serving.

Boutiful-CoverVANILLA RUM ICE CREAM

MAKES ABOUT 1 QUART (1L)

1½ cups (360ml) heavy cream

1 cup (240ml) milk

½ cup (100g ) sugar

Pinch of kosher or sea salt

1 whole vanilla bean

5 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons dark rum

SPECIAL EQUIPMENT: Ice cream machine

1 In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar, and salt. Split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the cream mixture, then add the bean pod as well.

2 Heat to a bare simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and cover. Set aside for 30 minutes.

3 In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly whisk the cream mixture into the yolks, then pour everything back into the saucepan.

4 Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom as you stir. Cook until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spatula or wooden spoon, 1 to 2 minutes after reaching a bare simmer. Remove the vanilla bean pod.

5 Pour the custard through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container. Place the container in an ice bath and stir the custard occasionally until it is cool, about 20 minutes.

6 Stir in the vanilla extract and rum. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

7 Freeze according to the ice cream machine directions. While churning the ice cream, place the container in which you will store the ice cream in the freezer to chill. Store the ice cream in the freezer until ready to serve.

Find more deliciously seasonal recipes in Todd Porter and Diane Cu's Bountiful: Recipes Inspired by Our Garden.



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Kate DiCamillo: Turning Squirrels Into Superheroes



FloraI was really excited about meeting Kate DiCamillo in person recently, but also kind of nervous in that way that happens when you are finally going to be face-to-face with someone whose work you have long admired. Then I hit the lobby of our building, and there was this tiny woman with a big smile, and all my anxiety just fell away.  DiCamillo is as warm and kind in person as her books would suggest and I had the best time chatting with her about donuts, squirrels, superpowers, and of course, her new book, Flora and Ulysses, in which a squirrel is sucked up by vacuum cleaner and comes out of it with powers befitting a superhero, and a cynical girl finds a reason for hope.

About the book...

Q: Tell me about Flora & Ulysses, it's very different from your previous books

KD: It is different! I think it’s different because I think it’s funny and sometimes I’m accused of being a downer in my books, so I thought “man, here’s a funny book” but it’s also different because of the graphic elements... It’s also very much a book you could pick up and know that it’s me even if it didn’t have my name on it--it’s got all of my same old concerns: love, friendship, forgiveness. All those things I seem to keep on writing about, and never get tired of writing about, even though I think I’m just writing a funny story, those things are in there.

Q: In Flora & Ulysses, Flora is an avid reader of comic books and then Ulysses brings poetry to the table, were you a comic book or poetry reader as a kid?

KD: I was a Peanuts reader. My brother and I were both obsessed with Peanuts, and at our local library there were Peanuts anthologies, giant collections of every strip and all the Sunday strips, and we were the only ones who checked them out and then we’d check them back out again.  Poetry?  I came very late to poetry.  Probably about 2006-2007 I started reading it myself and fell in love with it. So a lot of that passion for poetry got transferred to the squirrel.

Q: Do you have a favorite poet or poem?

KD: I have favorite anthologies, and Garrison Keillor has done a blue book called Good Poems and a yellow book called Good Poems for Hard Times, and then a red book and I love those anthologies and I finish one and start the next one and then re-read them.  I also love what he does on Writers Almanac with a poem a day.

About the donut...

Q: I love that in your book, Ulysses [the squirrel] is obsessed with a big donut...

KD:  Yes, the giant donut--sprinkles, stuffed with chocolate, cream, jelly...

Q: Do you have a favorite [donut]?

KD: Well, I grew up in a house where when we were at the movies, my mother would ask “are you hungry?”  And we would go “oh, boy” and then she would pull out some dried apricots.  And these weren’t the ones that are all plump, that come in Christmas-time gift baskets, but the wizened ones that you had to hold them in your mouth for a long time until you could start chewing them.  So I never got a giant donut, is what I’m saying.  I had a mother who loved me very much and fed me accordingly. 

I have to say I laughed really hard when she told me the above anecdote, especially her description of the wizened apricots.  And we then digressed into a discussion of the deliciousness of Krispy Kreme donuts and the local Top Pot donuts that is near the Amazon offices, and how donut makers must be happy people, spreading the joy…  We also decided that maybe Top Pot should do a Ulysses donut--perhaps their chocolate with maple frosting and peanuts on top? Perfect Ulysses donut… "Donuts are vital." says Kate DiCamillo. 

About the squirrel...

Q: Have you always loved squirrels?

KD: I love all creatures, but there was this--it must be said--a squirrel, who was expiring on my front steps and he didn’t look like he was suffering but he also looked very much like he was dying and I was like “what am I going to do?” so I called one of my best friends who lives about a block and a half away, and this is the sweetest and kindest of all of my friends.  And she said “do you have a shovel?” and I said, “well, yeah, I do have a shovel”--and I’m still out there with the squirrel--and she said “well, get the shovel and an old t-shirt and I’ll come over” and I said “what are you going to do?” and she said “well, I’ll whack him in the head” and it’s like, “are you kidding me?! You’re going to brain the squirrel on my front steps?” and so at this point I left the front steps because I didn’t want the squirrel to hear what was going on, and I’m so undone that this gentle person is offering to come over and whack the squirrel, so I said “well, let me just think about what to do here.” And the squirrel must have caught wind of what was going on because he was gone when I went back out there. Which was great, but I think I started thinking on a subconscious level, how could I save a squirrel?

About superpowers...

Q: You also have ordinary people who possess superpowers in this book, if you were to choose a superpower outside of invisibility or flight, what would you pick?

KD: I would like to not be able to worry.  I’m so sick of hearing myself worry, and it’s so pointless, so I would like to be a superhero who is like the squirrel--I’d like to be happy.  There’s that point in there [Flora and Ulysses] where Dr. Meescham is examining him [Ulysses] and he thinks he’s dead, but so many things have happened to him at this point that he wasn’t even going to get upset about it, it’s just interesting.  I’d like to have that superpower to just be happy and not worry and think, “well this is interesting, too.”



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Thursday, October 24, 2013

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]



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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

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

 



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David Laskin: Journalist Turns Geneologist



The Family Journalist David Laskin has spent his career researching other people's stories, but it wasn't until he got talking to his mother a couple of years ago that he realized the best story was the one right in front of him.

The descendant of Jewish immigrants from the western fringe of what was then Russia, Laskin traced three distinct branches of his far-flung family, branches that spread from Russia to the Holocaust to the founding of Israel and to the American Dream. What he discovered and how he discovered it are the subject of his fascinating book, The Family.

Laskin sat down with me in New York to discuss its genesis.


Sara Nelson: Before you wrote this book, you didn't know much about your family except that you had one rather glamorous great-aunt, Itel (Ida) Rosenthal, who founded the Maidenform company. How did you go from that knowledge to a history of three branches -- one in Israel and one in Russia during the Holocaust?

David Laskin: I always knew I had this glamorous, very successful aunt. When I was 7 or 8, I went to my Aunt Itel's mansion on Long Island Sound, and they had a picture of Versailles; that that's what it looked like to me. They had a private beach, a ball room. It's not like we were paupers but ... Itel was someone I would brag about. It was maybe a little weird for a little boy to brag about his aunt, the bra tycoon, but I remember thinking it was cool that this was my family. And she was very generous. She would send us $10 for Hanukkah, which, back in 1957, seemed like a lot of money.

SN: Still, you say in the book that the whole story opened up for you when you went to Israel for the first time and talked to your relatives there…

The Family DL: I knew I had some cousins in Israel, and maybe I'd met them once or twice, but when I got interested in writing a book about the family, I contacted them and they sent me a link to a Web site in which there were pictures of their parents and them as kids and then all of the relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. And it was really when I was looking at that Web site, at these pictures of little boys in sailor suits and little girls with ribbons in their hair who were the same age as my mother -- who is alive and well -- and I thought, "Whoa!" It was one of those moments -- and maybe all books start this way -- when the lightbulb goes off and I thought, "Oh, wow, there are the three major strands of 20th century Jewish history in my family tree..."

SN: A lot of writers say it can be tricky to write about family, that people have reactions you didn't intend or expect. How has the reaction been with your relatives?

DL: Fantastic for the most part. My wife read the manuscript first, and came downstairs in tears. I don't like to see my wife cry, but that was a good sign. My mother loved it. I had never been that close with my [extended] family when I was growing up. But now ... Meeting my cousin Benny in Israel was the happiest surprise of this book; I've made a lifelong friend. We had this great bond: our love and passion and obsession for family history. Benny's wife says he was waiting for me pullquoteall his life, that I was the trigger to tell the story. He had 281 letters from family members, but he'd never read them because they were in Yiddish. He had interviewed the family, but had never written up the interviews. After I came back from Israel, where I met him for the first time, I wrote a story about it and I think he was just so honored, so enraptured by the project. I had made a friend who became a partner.

SN: You seem to have struck a nerve with the book; it comes at a time when the whole country, it seems, is obsessed with its roots, a time when Ancestry.com is booming...

DL: I think what motivates me as a writer is trying to capture the insides of people when they're in moments of historical crisis, the decisions they make in those moments and the grief or the triumph that they feel. I think the best books are really, really particular but also have a universal appeal. I'm a geneology-crazy person, but if I can research my family history, you can research yours. We're a nation of immigrants. My greatest hope is that when people finish the book, they'll say: "I want to research my family history." Whether you were in WWII or in the Irish Potato Famine. Whether you are Native American or were slaves. That's what makes this a universal story.



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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Some More Sacred Cows



DavidAndGoliathMalcolm Gladwell has made a career out of seeing the world in unexpected, often unprecedented ways. Starting with 2000's The Tipping Point, which explored the often unseen ways cultural tides ebb and flow at the influence of seemingly minor events, he has published a series of best-sellers forming a distinctive Gladwellian world view of counterintuitive and insightful analysis--the kind that often leads to forehead slapping and exclamations of "Of course!"

His latest--David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants--turns the idea of the "underdog" on its head, exposing the ways we often misinterpret perceived advantages (and disadvantages) that produce surprising results which, upon Gladwellian inspection, aren't surprising at all. Gladwell spared a few minutes from a busy media schedule at Book Expo America to talk about his new book.

 

 

See more titles by Malcolm Gladwell.



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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]



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Monday, October 21, 2013

Helen Fielding: Mad About The Girl -- The creator of Bridget Jones is Back, as Real as Ever



Bridget Jones

It can be tricky, as a writer or a reader, to revisit the characters who enthralled you in your youth. Will they still have "it" –- whatever "it" was that made you pay attention to them in the first place? Helen Fielding, best known as the author of the game-changing novel Bridget Jones' Diary in 1998 and a follow up in 2000 has been lying low for a couple of years.

Until last week, that is, when she burst back onto the scene with Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy. Darcy-less and the mother of two, Bridget must find her way again in the world. To find out what re-entry was like, I sat down with Fielding in New York.

Or, as we hope Bridget would say:
Diet Cokes with Amazon: 2 Fun: boundless


Sara Nelson: Even after all this time, you say you're still "amazed" by Bridget's success -- and by extension, your own. How is that possible?

Helen Fielding: Well, I think if you're a writer, you're probably an introvert. And I suppose I'm most comfortable sitting with my laptop and a few close friends ... I like talking to people, but I'm not always confident about going on the telly, for example. I'm always afraid I'll do something straight out, like, lift up my skirt, or jump into a waterfall.

SN: You mean something more like Bridget, whom I don't think of as an introvert...

HF: Well, I think that what you get with Bridget is her diary, her perspective, so you don't really know how she's appearing to other people. I think that I didn't understand initially why she became so popular... and it was really only when I started going on book tours that I started to understand that all these beautiful, really attractive and successful women -- I remember discovering this in Japan, for example -- identified with the feeling that they were too fat and not good enough. So I think the books are about the gap between how people feel they're expected to be, how they present themselves and how they feel inside.

SN: The themes of this book are the same as the others: women finding love in a complicated world. How is dating different today than it was back when Bridget started?

Fielding

HF: One of the things that's different now is that there are more areas of echoing silence when you break up. There's no tweeting any more, there's no texting any more. There are no phone calls, no emails. There's nothing.

SN: Central to the new book is harried, fifty-something Bridget's relationship with a much younger man nicknamed Roxster, whom she meets on the Internet. Is this taken from real life?

All the characters are based on bits of people I know, in the way that Bridget is based on bits of me but not all of me. I like the relationship between Bridget and Roxter because I think they're just two people who found each other in the flotsam and jetsam of Cyberspace. They connect over their sense of humor and general take on life. They're both quite unpretentious and kind of childish and fun loving. I also like Roxter because he hates it when people refer to older women as "cougars" because it implies that a woman interested in a younger man is horribly cat-like, and she's going to eat him like a tiger or something. And Bridget and Roxter's relationship is quite equal: no one is exploiting anyone else. He's a real character and not an Abercrombie and Finch fiction. In a way I think they're like Daniel Craig and Judy Densch in Skyfall. I think she was the Bond girl, the one he really loved, and even though there's a big age difference between them, you can see that they really loved each other.

SN: At the end of this book, Bridget is still very much alive and active. Do you think she's going to appear in another book?

HF: We'll have to see. I care very much about my characters and about myself as a writer. I really wanted to write this book, to tell the truth about a woman, who, like a lot of women, let's face it, finds herself single and has to get back out there... As to what happens next in my writing ... well, before you can know, you have to live some life first and have some things to say.

SN: [People who haven’t read the book yet and are planning to might want to skip this next question in the interest of preserving a plot point... but, for the rest of you, here goes...]We learn at the very beginning of the book that Bridget is a widow -- her husband, Mark Darcy having died in a very noble way. That was a very brave thing to do, to kill off Mr. Darcy...

HF: I had a moment when I was in my pajamas watching the BBC news coverage of the Syria crisis and the next minute they were saying "Mark Darcy is dead" on BBC news! I couldn't believe it. I knew people would be surprised, but I wasn't expecting that level of reaction to a fictional character's death. In people's mind, Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice was merged with Colin Firth and Mark Darcy. People cared so much. I came out of a local restaurant in London and someone ran up to me shouting "You've killed Colin Firth." So I began texting with Colin back and forth about it -- he's the loveliest man -- because we both understood the irony of this situation: Nobody has died!



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