Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream – 978-0062282668 – It Books (HarperCollins) – Hardcover - $26.99 – ebook versions available at lower price, paperback to be published March 17, 2015.
What a wonderful read this book is! The first thing you need to know is that I love old cars. I love stories about the people who love them, and rebuild them. But I also know that most old car stories are of limited interest to most people who don’t love old cars. Still – and yet – Auto Biography is much more than an old car story. Earl Swift is a terrific writer – trained as a journalist, which shows in his writing. He is clear and to the point. He never buries the lede. He gets close to the characters he writes about and portrays them brilliantly. And it’s impossible to put this book down once you get into the story, which just keeps going and going to a startling and rewarding end.
So yes, the book is about a car – a 1957 Chevrolet (one of the most iconic cars of our time) that Swift was able to trace from its first owner to its last. But it’s really about all the people who ever owned the car, and most crucially, it’s about Tommy Arney, the owner of the car when Swift begins his story. And Arney is a dream character for any writer, larger than life, complex and compelling. He is impossible to resist and Swift goes all the way in bringing us up close and personal with this incredible all-American character.
It was an incredible joy to read this book. As it happened, I was simultaneously reading a history of the automobile industry and for me, this book was by far the better book. It tells the story of what cars mean to our lives, how the cars we drive can capture our hearts and become our souls. I really enjoyed talking to Earl about this book and the story of how he came to write it is well worth listening to.
If you are interested in the way Americans live today, this book is one you must read. And if you just like a good story and you liked the way Hunter S. Thompson told them, this book ought to be perfect for you. Author website here, worth a visit.
“The story he tells of the car’s owners and, in particular, anti-hero protagonist Tommy Arney, is so detailed and informed by such thorough reportage I had to use Google to make sure Swift wasn’t embellishing — and I mean that as a compliment . . . . It’s the best contemporary book I’ve read about automobiles since A.J. Baime’s Go Like Hell, and I enjoyed the hell out of that.”
Matt Hardigree, Jalopnik.com
Longtime journalist Earl Swift wrote for newspapers in St. Louis, Anchorage, and for 22 years in Norfolk, where his long-form stories for The Virginian-Pilot were nominated five times for a Pulitzer Prize. Since 2012, he’s been a fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia.
He’s also the author of four other books of narrative nonfiction–THE BIG ROADS, a lively 2011 history of the interstate highway system and its effects on the nation it binds; WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, for which he accompanied an army archaeological team into the jungles of Laos in search of a helicopter crew shot down thirty years before (2003); JOURNEY ON THE JAMES, the story of a great American river and the largely untold history that has unfolded around it (2001); and a 2007 collection of his stories, THE TANGIERMAN’S LAMENT.
I think of Malcolm Margolin and Heyday Books as one of the iconic independent publishers of the modern era. Founded in 1974 in Berkeley, then and now a hotbed of independent publishing, Heyday began because Malcolm had written a book about walking in the East Bay called East Bay Out and wanted to publish and sell it himself as a locally based book. Its somewhat unexpected success led to his work on a book called The Ohlone Way, about native Americans of California, and by then Heyday was on its way to becoming an important cultural node that over its forty years has produced more than 350 titles.
The history of Heyday is documented in its newly published The Heyday of Malcolm Margolin: The Damn Good Times of a Fiercely Independent Publisher. The book, compiled by Heyday editor Kim Bancroft, is a wonderful collection of oral histories told by Margolin, his family, authors, friends, current and former staffers and some of the many Californians that have been involved with the press and its cultural work for so many years.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of independent publishing and especially the inspiring Bay Area publishing movement of the last half century. Malcolm is truly one of the great story tellers of our time. Unassuming and irreverent, he is now experienced enough to have become an elder statesman, much loved by all who have worked with him.
Heyday is now a well-run and highly respected nonprofit organization. It has produced a significant body of work, and as an ongoing operation, it reflects the values and beliefs of its founder. Heyday, like Malcolm, is committed to the voices of authors, the beauty and power of California as place, and valuing culture as lived by individuals, more important than institutions. And the quality of the work has always been paramount. Every book produced by Heyday displays a high level of care and attention, learned and practiced over many years.
Heyday board member and former staffer Patricia Wakida describes the quintessential image of Margolin getting into his 1997 Volvo to drive to California’s high country to hear yet another story around the campfire. ”That’s what it’s all about,” she says. “Forty years of listening.”
I’m proud to offer this conversation with Malcolm, which gives you the singular opportunity to hear his wonderful voice and persona, to get a sense of why Malcolm and Heyday are so important and meaningful to so many – and what an impact a truly independent publisher can have.
This is a wonderful novel, set in a period and place I have long been drawn to, the northern plains of the late 19th century. In The High Divide, Enger tells the story of a family – father, mother and two young sons – who are living a typical hard life in Minnesota. One day Ulysses Pope, the father walks out and when he fails to return, his family must try to cope, and of course, try to understand why he left and where he has gone. Driven by a desperate need to know more, the two sons set out to find him, leaving their mother, Gretta, at home to worry about her family, and then herself to set out on her own journey, now to search for her missing family.
Their searches lead them to the rough frontier country of Montana, that still reverberates with the terrible era of conquest of American Indians and destruction of the buffalo, massive changes in land and culture. Gretta must grapple with the possibility of losing her husband to another woman, and the boys must decide where their loyalties lie, and what they must do to save their family. Ultimately, the father’s secret must be uncovered, his story told, and the family come to terms with their history, in order to be able to go on. In my discussion with Lin, we covered alot of interesting territory. I very much enjoyed our conversation and the opportunity to talk to him about this excellent book and his thinking about writing.
The High Divide is a confidently told and powerful story, set in a period when modern terms of psychological awareness and emotional understanding did not exist. All the characters are ultimately trying to come to terms with the damage done by war and violence. Enger is fully in command of his story and characters, and pulls the reader through to a well earned climax. I really enjoyed this book, and am happy to have discovered a writer whose work I will now be following with interest.
I grew up in Minnesota, have spent most of my life in the state, and now live in Moorhead, where I teach English at Minnesota State University. Over the years I have received several awards for my fiction: a James Michener Fellowship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, a Jerome travel grant, and a Lake Region Arts Fellowship. I have an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. My first novel, Undiscovered Country, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2008. My short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ascent, Great River Review, American Fiction, and other journals. During the 1990s my brother, the novelist Leif Enger, and I had a great time collaborating (as L. L. Enger) on a series of mystery novels for Pocket Books.
“The High Divide is a deeply moving, gripping novel about one man’s quest for redemption and his family’s determination to learn the truth. Written with lean, crisp prose, Enger seamlessly blends historical events with the personal, and deftly pulls the reader into America’s Great Plains during the 19th Century. The narrators’ voices are captivating, and I was spellbound by the author’s ability to express the human condition and especially the complicated bonds between fathers and sons. Layered with meaning, this remarkable novel deserves to be read more than once. The High Divide proves Enger’s chops as a masterful storyteller.” —Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise
“The High Divide, a novel about a family in peril, is haunting and tense but leavened by considerable warmth and humanity. Lin Enger writes with durable grace about a man’s quest for redemption and the human capacity for forgiveness.”
—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon
“Lin Enger sets out from the conventions of the traditional Western and brings the reader into new emotional territory, that of the soul of an exquisitely drawn, American family. Told with caring patience and precise language, The High Divide is a novel to get lost in.”
—James Scott, author of The Kept
Castle McLaughlin: A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic “Autobiography of Half Moon”
A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic “Autobiography of Half Moon” (Houghton Library Publications)- 978-0981885865 – Paperback – Peabody Museum Press – $50 (no ebook version of this title!)
I was so excited by this book, I had to read Castle McLaughlin’s A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn several times over, studying the brilliant and beautiful reproductions of a nineteenth-century ledger book of pictographic drawings by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors that was found in 1876 in a funerary tipi on the Little Bighorn battlefield after Custer’s defeat. There is so much richness in McLaughlin’s story of the almost miraculous discovery of this document in Harvard’s Houghton Library and her subsequent years-long study of the book, together with Butch Thunder Hawk, historian of the Lakota Sioux, it was, for me, completely engrossing.
Nineteenth century journalist Phocion Howard acquired the book from one of the soldiers who took it from the battlefield, and later added his own illustrated narrative to the original pages, and had it bound in new leather with his own invented interpretation of the illustrations made by Cheyenne and Lakota artists.
Howard’s fabricated story had the seventy-seven Native drawings made by a “chief” named Half Moon, but McLaughlin persuasively argues that these beautifully made drawings, mostly of war and courting exploits, were drawn primarily by six different warrior-artists, some of whom she is able to identify with some certainty as historical figures who fought the invading settlers during Red Cloud’s War in 1866-1868.
These wonderfully evocative and powerful first-person illustrated scenes reflect a native view of the historic events of the plains tribes’ war for survival in this terrible period of American history. For the Lakota and other Plains tribes, art played an important role in recording and preserving their narratives of events of pre-reservation, pre-conquest tribal life, so books like this one provide a uniquely meaningful record of their lives.
McLaughlin tells the long story of the Howard book, provides detail and analysis of its cultural and historic significance, and places it within the context of Lakota and Cheyenne culture of the Plains during their fight against the invading Europeans. There is so much exciting work here for anyone who wants to know more about the events in the American west, where cultures clashed for nearly two centuries. During this time, Lakota, Cheyenne and other Plains tribes created a war based culture whose actual nature has not been fully understood. Most of our view is colored by images of that era framed by dime novels of the time and romanticized films of the 20th century. The ledger books give us an opportunity to see and experience this fraught period through actual Lakota and Cheyenne eyes, which is complicated and challenging. They also illustrate how warriors of that time appropriated the physical objects of their opponents as a way to capture their power as well.
The illustrations themselves are incredibly beautiful, and the stories they tell us, as interpreted by McLaughlin and Thunder Hawk, are completely engrossing. Getting a chance to talk to Ms. McLuaghlin about this book and her experiences as a social anthropologist was a great honor for me.
There is a great review of the book by Thomas Powers in the NY Review of Books, which is accompanied by excerpts of the art here.
Original exhibit of the book materials described here.
Castle McLaughlin is actively involved in the Nakota Horse Conservancy, which preserves some of the descendants of Lakota and Cheyenne horses. More about that here.
My good friend, long time publisher and poet Allan Kornblum passed away November 23, 2014. He was only 65, and will be missed by many. Coffee House Press, which he and Cinda Kornblum founded as the successor to the earlier and more informal Toothpaste Press, has been in Minneapolis for over 30 years now, and has become a hugely important literary organization in its local community and far beyond, with national and international reach.
Allan and I first met in the mid-seventies when we attended a range of small press bookfairs around the country, and we shared many interests, both in poetry and in book production. Toothpaste was an early participant in the tiny midwestern literary project I started in 1976 called Truck Distribution Service.
When I traveled to Iowa to sell independently published literary books to local bookstores, I would stay with Allan and Cinda in their house in West Branch (proudly known as the birthplace of Herbert Hoover). They taught me alot about the local literary community and history, and as Allan became more involved in letterpress printing, Allan beautifully produced books and ephemera for my Truck Press (and later for Jim Sitter’s Bookslinger, the successor to Truck Distribution, Allan turned out a long list of beautifully produced broadsides and small books). The list of great books published by Allan and Coffee House is pretty incredible. Visit the press’ website to learn more about what Allan and his colleagues have accomplished, and to see the vibrant work the now well-established nonprofit press is doing today. Some really excellent publishing is going on there, and has been for a long time; no better legacy for Allan could be imagined than the books this press produces.
In later years, we I did not see Allan much more than once a year at the annual booksellers’ conventions, but we kept in contact, did business together, and always shared news of each other’s work and family. I interviewed Allan for Writerscast as part of the Publishing Talks series as I think the history of independent publishing needs to be documented, and first hand accounts by those involved seem to me the best way to preserve some of the knowledge and experiences of an important era in publishing. You can listen to it here if you want to get a feel for Allan and his work.
One moment with Allan still stands out for me. Probably six or seven years ago, when Amazon was first promoting digital conversion of print books, they put on presentations to publishers and distributors to convince us to convert as many of our books as possible to digital formats. I was perhaps naively convinced aready that the reflowable ebook format would be a great boon to reading. But Allan stood up and asked the pointed question – “What happens to the carefully designed pages we create for our books in this new digital format?” The Amazon representative bluntly stated something to the effect that “designed pages don’t matter in our ebooks.” That answer did not satisfy Allan, and somewhat presciently, he told me that this lack of interest and concern for design would be a big problem for e-readers and e-reading. How right he was then, and sadly, his views then about ebook design matters are still meaningful today. As he knew so well, the interaction between the reader and the word is where the magic of reading comes alive.
This is a very fine mystery set in an unusual locale – rural Pennsylvania (fracking country). I don’t usually read mysteries, but one of the pleasures of doing interviews with writers has been that I have been sent books by publishers that I would normally never have even looked at on my own. It’s fun to pick up a book, to start reading a few pages and then to be thoroughly hooked. That happened for me with Tom Bouman’s fine first novel. I really liked the portrayal of his main character, the local policeman, Henry Farrell. He’s terrifically drawn and is a compelling, complicated, extremely human character. And I liked the way Bouman worked his way slowly into the depths of the story. And I really loved the way he wrote about the people who live in this isolated rural county in Pennsylvania.
Bouman’s interest in the outlaws and eccentrics who inhabit this world, his appreciation and even love for those who have kept to themselves, and to older forms of relationships among family and neighbors is palpable and powerful.
The book revolves around a body found in the woods and the search, naturally enough, for the killer. This novel is well worth spending some time as the story unravels. Great characters and fine writing make for a terrific read.
Author website here. Bowman used to work in publishing – he was an editor – and now lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with his family. As of this writing, he is attending law school, so it may be a little while yet before he publishes his next book. And here is a terrific piece that Bouman wrote for Modern Farmer about rural crime fiction (that is a genre I did not know even existed!) I am hoping we’ll see a new book from Tom Bouman before too much time passes.
What an incredible book. Tough, loving, uncompromising. So much power in this book, admittedly at times, very painful to read, and stunningly honest to the point of extremism. But Jowita is such a fine writer, it is impossible not to admire this book and despite all the terrible things she tells us about herself, that she is alive, and able to speak her truth is incredible.
You know that any book with a title like this is going to be amazing, but there is no way to get through this book without being thoroughly bowled over, and depending on one’s tolerance for witnessing someone else’s painful mistakes, perhaps more than in any other book you will ever read. And yes, Jowita is completely and terrifyingly honest about herself and her misadventures throughout.
It’s valuable to understand that when Jowita first wrote this story, she wrote it pretending it was a novel. She had to get through that ironically deep denial as part of her ability to understand herself, one assumes. And that is part of the power of this book, that the author is able to uncover layers of denial, fear and guilt to get to a place where she can be honest with herself, and by telling that story to the world, reach a kind of absolution, a place in herself where she can be able to reconstruct herself, not forgiving, but finding the parts of her persona that are who she is not drinking. This is very powerful reading and a book I recommend no matter what you feel about yourself or others who are drinkers, addicted, lost, or found.
Short summary: Three years after she gave up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself drinking again – at the party celebrating the birth of her son. Thus begins the harrowing tale of her descent, once again, into full blown alcohol and substance abuse. You have to read this one for yourself. Go buy this book, prepare yourself for a powerful experience, and read it now. Another good interview with the author on NPR here. And Jowita’s website, worth a visit – “I was born in Warsaw, Poland. I moved to Canada as a teenager. I live in Toronto with my little family in a little house. I write, write, write (compulsively, happily, unhappily, obsessively)” here.
Ladette Randolph is both an editor and a writer; she is currently the editor of the fine literary magazine Ploughshares, whose founder, DeWitt Henry, I interviewed about that magazine’s history, and she’s written a total of four books and edited three more. She was previously an acquiring editor at University of Nebraska Press and earlier, the managing editor of Prairie Schooner. She has received four Nebraska Book Awards, a Rona Jaffe grant, a Pushcart Prize, a Virginia Faulkner award, and has been reprinted in Best New American Voices.
Ladette grew up and lived much of her life in Nebraska. In this really well written and beautifully composed memoir, Leaving the Pink House, she tells the story of her life through the houses she has lived in. At first, the book appears to be a relatively straightforward memoir of buying a dilapidated farmhouse to fulfill a dream of country living (the day after September 11, 2001), and the complication of leaving the pink house she and her husband had already turned into the house of their dreams.
But Randolph is writing to understand herself and where she comes from. Leaving one beloved house for another that is full of potential (for good and bad) spurs her into exploring her past life through the houses in which she lived. And she essentially tells herself – and her readers – where she came from, and how she became the person who is able to love and inhabit her own being in the present by exploring her life through the houses in which she lived from her early youth onward.
Randolph grew up in small towns in Nebraska; her father took his family with him as he worked to become an evangelical minister. Randolph tells us what it was like for her to experience the world through the lens of fundamentalism as she grew up and then into her early adult years. She experiences a series of awakenings, tragedies and struggles, all told without over dramatization and alternating with the mundane and always challenging work of remodeling the old house in the country and preparing to move from the pink house.
It’s an engaging and perceptive form of storytelling and much like a remodeling job itself, we learn with her as she goes through the work of tearing down and rebuilding the structure of her life. I greatly enjoyed reading this book, vicariously experiencing her challenges and accomplishments, and learning about her life experiences. Then having the opportunity to talk with Ladette about it only amplified my interest in her writing. Her active and informative website is here (and worth a visit).
Somewhat surprisingly, since I try to pay attention to music and songwriters who write fiction, I had not heard of Willy Vlautin before receiving a copy of The Free to read. I’m really glad to have discovered his work. Vlautin is one of a number of contemporary songwriters and musicians who have taken to writing short stories and novels. He’s the founder and writes songs for the Portland, OR based alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. And he writes songs and plays with another interesting band called The Delines. His songs tend toward storytelling, so it is no surprise he is also interested in long form fiction.
His four novels have gained an incredible amount of praise from a wide variety of sources. He writes really well, has a great ear for dialogue and tells terrific stories. Judging from The Free, which focuses on Iraq veteran Leroy Kervin, who came back from the war with a traumatic brain injury. He is unable to find a way to make a new life, and tries to commit suicide, but ends up in a coma – and much of the novel’s story takes place in an alternate reality story that goes on in his coma state.
There are other important characters whose lives are connected to Leroy; Freddie McCall, a hard working man who can’t make ends meet, and is trying to put his family back together, taking big chances to make things work under challenging circumstances. There is also the wonderful Pauline Hawkins, a nurse at the local hospital, who takes care of almost everyone in her life, including her very challenging father, And there is a young girl who connects with Leroy in some interesting ways as well.
The Free is an intriguing mix. It’s realistic, yet much of the book takes place in a fever state. Vlautin loves the hard working characters who inhabit the lower middle class of Washington State and Oregon, but the narrative arc of the story is entwined with a mysterious underground terrorist organization (called The Free) inside of Leroy’s unreachable mind. Vlautin also has a clear view of the politics and economic realities that shape their lives and their struggles to live in our post modern capitalistic world, so his stories are heartfelt and empathetic.
This is a terrific book, with great narrative drive. Vlautin knows how to weave a compelling story with characters that are fully drawn and captivating. Since reading this book, I’ve made a point to listen to a lot of his music as well, and am now a big fan. His other three novels are also on my list of books to read when time allows. And Vlautin has a lot to say, listeners to this podcast will find out. He thinks and talks about contemporary life in America, and so many of the people in it who are struggling just to find a way to live. Willy is a troubadour and a soulful, skillful writer who deserves to be widely read. I for one am ready to hear a lot more from him.
Alert: we had a good time talking, so this discussion runs slightly longer than usual Writerscast podcasts, almost 35 minutes. Enjoy!
The clerihew is a somewhat obscure form of poetry invented by the English writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley as an alternative to the limerick. It has a particular focus, which is to skewer or make fun of a famous person, is only four lines long, with irregular line length and meter. Rhymes follow the AABB structure with as much humorous contrivance as possible to do what needs to be done to accomplish the goal of the poem – fun at the expense of a well known individual.
I first was introduced to this form by my old friend and mentor, Jonathan Williams, whose quirky and creative sense of humor was perfectly fit for this fun form. He wrote a wonderful book called the Fifty Two Clerihews of Clara Hughes, which is well worth seeking out (produced in a limited edition and long out of print, but should be available in a few libraries, and I found a audio version of it online.)
Brits invented the form and seem to like it a lot. Auden wrote clerihews and so did Bentley’s friend G.K. Chesterton. One of Bentley’s earliest clerihews is still one of his best:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.
And now we have another great collection of clerihews, written by the hilarious and well read Iowa City based bookseller, Paul Ingram. Paul has been a friend of mine (and of hundreds of writers) for a long time. He’s known far and wide as one of the great booksellers and talkers about books and visitors to Iowa City seek him out at the wonderful Prairie Lights Bookstore* to talk to him about books.
As he tells us in the introduction to his book, Paul has been writing clerihews for more than twenty years, mostly as the spirit struck, often on tiny pieces of paper that seemed to disappear. Thus the “lost” in the title of the book. We can only be grateful that this packrat managed to keep and find most of the poems he wrote so that we can enjoy them here. As Roz Chast says “after you read it, you will need to put aside whatever important work you are doing and write several of your own.” Clerihews are like candy.
Almost all of Paul’s clerihews are fun, hilarious, some are political, and some are much more weighty than the form suggests, like this one:
Lost all of his luster,
And most of his pride
On his final ride
It is difficult to resist consuming this book like candy. I enjoyed having the chance to hear Paul about his own writing, poetry and book selling. You will too. This is a fun book with alot to say. Like the author himself.
Paul’s book has wonderful illustrations by the Chicago artist Julia Anderson-Miller. Publisher website here.
*I interviewed Jan Weissmiller, proprietor of Prairie Lights, for Writerscast a few years ago,