As we offer you our 60th issue, I am often amazed at how often the book reviews, personal essays, comments and conversations we publish, become part of the day’s headlines.
This reminds me, and I sometimes need reminding, why serious authors, both non-fiction and fiction, are the world’s finest assets.
Hollywood and big media has said no. For them it’s chattering newsreaders not real journalists facing real danger and doing real reporting. For example, legendary newsmen, like Edward R. Morrow, who made his bones with the sounds of sirens and bombs as background falling all over London, and a brave Ed Bradley, who ducked and dodged bullets flying everywhere in Vietnam, have gone the way of the Dodo bird.
Alas, the two-fisted war correspondents, with a long, distinguished pedigree, are no longer with us, just when we need them most.
So, it’s going to be the novelists that save us.
Because real reporting, whatever the source, can help us prepare and cope for what, in all probability, is coming our way. For example, a few issues ago I noted that the real story that will soon force us all to deal with is the never-ending flow of migrants from South to North all over the globe.
Is global warming slapping us in the face and running amuck? Is it just the tempting pleasures we are constantly showering migrants with—through our never-ending movies, music videos, picture magazines and television shows, now available throughout the world?
This is a glamorous world, filled with swells everywhere.
Who wouldn’t want to go north!
Or, take Robert Fleming’s excellent review in this issue. We’ve all heard the cries of, where are the voices of thoughtful Arab Muslims? Fleming reveals the names of many Arab, brave thinkers, who have faced Fatwas, but are still writing, still speaking out against the clerics.
But, how would you know this? Not by watching CNN or Fox, or, for that matter, any of the networks. It’s Hollywood all the way. There’s no longer any such thing as reporting.
So, my readers, there’s still ample amount of information available. Read some books and not just the thrillers, self-help and romances that many of you have become used to.
Thanks for clicking on neworldreview.com and enjoy issue number 60.
Madison Smartt Bell is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, musician and someone I’ve known with long, intermittent pauses in between, since 1981. A mutual friend who had attended Princeton University with him first introduced me to Madison. This is how he remembers that first time in Hoboken:
“We were at 98 Willow, a kind of sinkhole below the train station, and then a Hispanic ghetto. Y'all were in the more civilized part of town, like five blocks north. The building had been built by a photographer with a little apartment on one side and that fantastic studio with a sort of filtered glass barn wall and roof-- amazing but impossible to heat as we didn't have wood for the stove and a lot of glass was broken out anyways.... ah, to be young again! It was fun no matter what...”
Honestly, while I was initially intimidated by Madison’s intensity and brilliance, he proved to be a supportive and generous fellow artist, blurbing my first novel, inviting me to Goucher College to meet with his creative writing students and introducing me to his agent.
Bell’s Soul in a Bottle, a memoir about contemporary Haiti, Amy Wilentz describes thus: "Soul in a Bottle, Madison Smartt Bell’s memoir of his visits and his commitment to Haiti, is both a rollicking adventure story and a profoundly spiritual enterprise. It offers not just a short testament to its author’s questing mind but also a smart and lucid tour d'horizon of recent Haitian political ups-and-downs, all of it inflected by Bell’s commanding knowledge of early Haitian history. When you read Soul in a Bottle, you can feel the real Haiti surround you, vivid, palpitating, breathing, and smoldering with ancient energy and contemporary ambitions.”
Bell’s biography is both impressive and eclectic. He is....Read More
Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given a gift to the literary world with his retelling of Albert Camus’s 1942 classic, The Stranger, in The Meursault Investigation—told from the point of view of the brother of the Arab killed in the original book.
From the moment Daoud’s debut novel begins, the reader knows this is not a carbon copy of Camus’s landmark volume but a disturbing reflection of Arab culture and politics, with a stinging indictment of colonialism.
As Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation flashback to Harun’s memories of their childhood together while sitting in a bar in Oran in 1962, recalling the oppressing dominance of the colonists, warping the existence of the French, as well as those whom they crushed under foot. The Arabs, the dead man’s brother says, have not fared well upon their independence, noting that “the country’s littered with words that don’t belong anymore.”
He also wonders what kind of man was the killer of Musa, the boy he knew as a child.
Daoud’s prose penetrates the tortured soul of a grieving sibling, as he tries to make sense of Meursault’s motives when he took the life of his brother, much as a family member would try to rationalize the garbled meaning of any slaying: “Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by ‘the Arabs,’ blurred, incongruous objects left over from ‘days gone by,’ like ghosts, with no language except the sound of a flute.”
The bitterness of the tears over the death of Musa, his brother, is not enough; it all goes back to the expatriates lording it over Arabs, controlling their days and breaths. As our narrator expertly puts it, Meursault, the murderer, represents all foreigners, all those piloting the madness of colonialism, saying: “I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves.”
Glad to have someone’s ear, Harun tells his story in fits and starts, recounting a dream of his fallen brother arising from the Land of the Dead, the disappearance of his father, the tension stemming from Musa’s grudge against their mother for supposedly driving him away.
His brother rarely acknowledged Harun, looking upon him “as a piece of furniture requiring nourishment.” So why is Harun obsessed with his passing? After the murder, Musa’s body is never found. Harun’s conscience is seared because....Read More
The more I read this book, the more I felt that the real story was not that we have become a Plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) but are rapidly becoming an Aristocracy (rule by a privileged class.)
Professor Ronald P. Formisano, who is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky, informs us that the world I was born into, “from World War II to the late 1960’s the benefits of a growing U.S. economy percolated from the bottom through the middle to the top of society. For three decades after 1945 a relatively equally distributed prosperity built a strong middle class that was the envy of the world. As John F. Kennedy put it, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ Those in the lower classes gained as much or more than those in the higher ones.
“The current state of disequilibrium in....Read More
The literary event of the summer season has been the publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s second novel, about the Finch family of Maycomb, Alabama, the first being the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960.
Thus, fifty-five years separate these two publications, yet Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel in the usual sense of the word, as it was the first written of the two books. One cannot speak of the latter publication without speaking about the former, but perhaps first we should discuss the life of the author herself, Harper Lee. She was born in 1929 and grew up in the Deep South, in Monroeville, Alabama, where, as it turned out she was a close childhood friend of Truman Capote, who would come to Monroeville every summer to stay with his aunt.
The characters in both books are patterned after her own family and the people of her home town. Like Atticus in the books, her own father was a lawyer, and her mother, who was mentally unstable, died young, leaving Lee and her brother to be raised by their widowed father.
She attended Huntington College in Montgomery during 1944/45 and then studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949, and then she moved to New York City to work for an airline. Like Capote, her foremost desire was to be a writer.
First she wrote Go Set a Watchman, but she was unable to publish it as it was seen as a series of anecdotes rather than a fully conceived novel. Perhaps she was cutting her teeth on this book, in preparation for the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, which when published in 1960 rapidly became so popular that it won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 1962 was made into an equally....Read More
That’s where polymath author Bernard F. Conners now resides. Not only in the ultra-wealthy realm of his self-described Xanadu, but also in the realm of those whose lives are on the cusp of 90 years of age. His autobiography is remarkable.
Here’s a man who is no stranger to the world of books, having published a slew of successful novels decades ago. Not only did Bernard F. Conners earn bestselling status with Don’t Embarrass the Bureau in the 1970s, but also with Dancehall and The Hamptons Sisters in subsequent decades. He also authored Tailspin, a work of nonfiction. Did I mention that Conners has also been an FBI agent of distinction?
His noir-inflected, subtly Gothic, and highly readable novels did very well with many reviewers and legions of book-buyers, while at the same time Conners sustained for himself a varied career as a top-tier corporate executive (his fortune was made at the Canada Dry soft drink conglomerate), a real estate mogul, and more.
Conners also published The Paris Review and generously funded everything from one of its distinguished poetry prizes (established in his name) to a handful of its ancillary endeavors in the literary milieu.
All this sounds like Walter Mitty on steroids. But it’s merely a portion of the unique, world-class, and multifarious resume of Bernard F. Conners. Wait. It gets better.
Once upon a time, before all of the above, Conners was a gangly misfit and awkward social outcast who then morphed into an excellent athlete with superb boxing skills. We’re talking Golden Gloves caliber, through and through. We’re also talking some seriously impressive gridiron exploits as a quarterback for St. Lawrence University.
As for those boxing skills, they were so....Read More
Thank God for the army, Father. At least it gave my life shape and meaning for the months we searched desperately for someone to attack.
Now look at them, Father! Our formidable enemy! Capable of killing millions in a single blow. Capable of bringing almost to a standstill, not only the mightiest nation the world had ever seen, but the entire world itself—a bunch of nondescript college professors from Vermont.
Colonel Bird never had a chance to see who it was that destroyed his life. He blew his brains out shortly after our outfit returned to reserved status.
He took a shiny, silver, old fashion Army issued Colt 45, that his father, a retired Tanker, a Brigadier, had given him when he graduated from West Point, and spattered bone, blood and gray matter all over his bedroom.
His neatly pressed, dress Army uniform, complete with the yellow ribbon of the mighty Calvary, and all the many medals he had won, was totally ruin.
In our first and only real “Trial of The Century” we all watched closely these ordinary looking three white men and one lone woman, and just stared as closely as the television cameras would allow.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the trial, Father. Or the endless horror stories of grief, broken lives and near total despair. Almost every single person in the country knew of someone who had died that day, or died days, or months later. It was if a large gray blanket had been thrown across the land.
Needless to say, the five were easily convicted, and promptly executed. But you know what, Father, they won. In the end, they had their day in court. They wanted to talk to the world. And they did, and the entire world listened. That was all they wanted. That was what all of this was all about.
They explained in cool, frightening detailed terms why they did what they did, and what they hoped would spring forth from their actions. And they were right; it was never the same again.
I remember this one guy because he was so different from the rest. He didn’t speak calmly in a high-toned, professorial manner. He was tall, super-intelligent, a little on the fat side. He had large bulging, light blue eyes, and an unruly....Read More
Maggie Mitchell has chosen an idiosyncratic slant on this too-common tale of abduction. Two twelve year-old girls blithely go off with the man in the car, despite knowing better, offering themselves up as easy prey, figuring anything’s better than spending another day on the Nebraska plains or holed up in Connecticut. The Nebraskan, the Pretty One (who’s also smart) has an evil stepmother who escorts her around to beauty pageants; the Smart One (who’s also pretty) wins prizes at spelling bees, which she loves, but feels ignored by her parents who are too busy serving stuffed French toast to the patrons of their bed and breakfast to spend time with her. The girls feel chosen by this handsome enigmatic man and compete with each other for his attentions. What his intentions are remains unclear. From the beginning we know that the girls are rescued after a few months and appear to be unharmed.
But the kidnapping is only one layer of the novel. Eighteen years after the kidnapping, the Smart One is an English professor and a novelist and her first book, Deep in the Woods, is about to be made into a movie. The Pretty One, a mildly successful actress is going to be in the movie, playing a fictional character, and for the first time since the kidnapping, the women will get to meet.
Peel back another layer: the Smart One is writing a sequel, an unhinged student knows her secrets and is stalking her. Will the girls be victimized again?
I’m sorry to confess that I’m not sure what would have motivated me to keep turning pages, other than my commitment to reviewing this book. Make no mistake: Pretty is is skillfully written. Mitchell generates a fair amount of suspense by having us follow the increasingly ill-advised movements of the Smart One. (“No,” you mouth, “do not go to that disreputable area of town, at night, where no one can hear your screams, to rendezvous with your unbalanced student!”)
But the book leaves you with too many unanswered questions.
The girls are never physically harmed in any way, aside from the initial act of abduction with which they seem all too happy to comply. Yet they live in an atmosphere of....Read More
How do you rate curiosity on a scale of human virtues – and would it ever occur to you to consider using curiosity as a centerpiece for a book? And would a reader stick to a book in which curiosity is the so-called hero?
You’ve come this far—stick with me for a short while.
Brian Grazer, a successful Hollywood producer has turned his “hobby” into "A Curious Mind," a highly readable book on that subject.
His hobby? Engaging in what he calls “curiosity conversations,” with the most accomplished people on the planet.
Just think about the following people, when you consider the value of curiosity: Salk, Euclid, Freud, Columbus, Jobs, Gates, Edison, Einstein, Guttenberg, King, (Martin Luther) Ford, and of course so many thousands of others.
We would still be living in caves and huntin’ and fishin’ and wearing clothes made of leaves and bark – had it not been for people who were curious. (and regarding that small voice I hear squeaking in the background, “Maybe we’d have been better off,” – I’ll take you on in another column)
“The goal of (my book) is simple,” writes Grazer, “I want to show you how valuable curiosity can be…and remind you how much FUN it can be and to show you … how you can use it.”
Grazer’s grandma encouraged his curiosity to the point where he was not averse to listening to (read that: eavesdropping on) other people’s conversations, which actually is how he became one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, a story he tells at the beginning of the book, that turned out to be the foundation of his career.
Interesting people make interesting stories—and Hollywood is nothing but stories. Grazer’s understanding of this concept sharpened as he moved from delivery boy at Warner’s studio to mogul-producer; A Beautiful Mind, Splash, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, and many more.
For over 35 years, Grazer has been tracking down people “in,” but mostly “out” of show biz with requests for a sit-down talk to last about an hour, calling them, writing letters, badgering assistants, often waiting years for appointments – in order to get their stories, to find out what made them who they are. Mostly, he used their “stories” for his own edification, but often they became the bedrock of his movie or TV inspirations.
“Over time, I discovered that I am curious in a particular way… in what I call ‘emotional’ curiosity. I want to understand what makes people tick. I want to …. connect with a person’s attitude and personality, their work, their challenges, their accomplishments.” And this is not to negate his broader curiosity about how things work.
The end of the book has a 27 page listing of people with whom Grazer has conversed, including well known and lesser known writers, artists, scientists, business moguls, politicians, “creatives,” (my word) sports figures, celebrities, academics,....Read More
When you look at a sequel, a reader must look at whether the book can stand on its own. Candice Fox’s new novel, Eden, manages not only to stand but shines in the shadow of its prequel, Hades, winner of the Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Novel.
Hades introduces us to Frank Bennett and his partner, Eden Archer. The events that bring them into Eden are touched on throughout the book giving enough info to catch us up on the dynamic and curious relationship Frank and Eden share, explaining how a pompous detective could be so close with Australia’s own Dexter, the homicidal Eden.
Eden begins with Frank near rock bottom. He’s drinking too much with little regard for getting his life back together after losing someone close to him. Eden needs her partner to get his act together because she desires to get back into action, and a case is coming down the pipe that has Frank and Eden’s names on it. Three girls are missing, the police believe they may be connected, and the partners are the premiere serial murder investigators.
As part of Frank’s recovery from depression, Eden sets him working for her father, the ex-crime lord and disposer of bodies, Hades. Frank reluctantly takes work from the known villain, but he feels trapped in the web of the murderous family. Frank agrees to investigate a stalker and finds himself diving into the past, a time when Hades’ word was law. Meanwhile Eden is undercover on a farm full of degenerates. Can Frank solve Hades’ problem before the old man takes matters into his own hands? Can Eden sniff out the killer? Or will she find herself the next,....Read More
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