I’ve been interested in Canadian writer Johanna Skibsrud’s work for several years, in fact since interviewing independent publisher Andrew Steves of Gaspereau Press. The small Nova Scotia based press was the original publisher of Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists, selected for the prestigious Giller Prize in 2010. It was a major literary event in Canada for such a tiny press to be recognized for publishing a fine novel that ultimately became a commercially successful book.
Skibsrud is a prolific and multi-talented writer. Her short story collection, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories was published in 2011 and shortlisted for Canada’s Danuta Gleed Award. She has also published two books of poetry: Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (2008), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being (2010), which was short-listed for the 2011 Atlantic Poetry Prize.
Skibsrud now teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, returning to Canada with her family every summer. Since I had the good fortune to be visiting Tucson in January, 2016, I interviewed Johanna there about her newest novel, The Quartet for the End of Time.
This book is inspired by and structured to follow Oliver Messiaen’s chamber piece of the same name (Quatuor pour la fin du temps). Messiaen’s piece was composed and first performed in 1941 while he was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp. His beautiful and haunting composition was in turn inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….
Skibsrud’s novel is centered on a single moment of betrayal and how it affects the four characters whose stories are woven together during the period of the Bonus Army march and the 1930s, leading up to and then through the period of World War II.
The novel’s beginning is about Bonus Army marcher and World War I veteran Arthur Sinclair, who is falsely accused of conspiracy and then disappears. The mystery of this event will affect his son, Douglas and also Alden and Sutton Kelly, the children of a U.S. congressman who become connected to Arthur and Douglas while the marchers are camped in Washington, D.C. The book then follows these characters as they live through the period of massive social change that took place during the period leading up to and during World War II.
This novel is thoroughly compelling, beautifully written, complex in form and lyrical in language. I think Johanna has succeeded in her effort to imagine a story of loss and love through the lens of a complicated period of modern history. Tim O’Brien said this about the book, praising “…its intimate and completely compelling portraits of human beings struggling to do the right thing under ambiguous moral circumstances.”
I very much enjoyed talking with Johanna Skibsrud about this book and her work as a writer. She is as intelligent and interesting to talk to as she is to read. This interview was recorded in her office at the University of Arizona. If you want to learn more about this author’s work, I recommend visiting Johanna’s website.
And if you’re interested in the Bonus March, which is a far too little known, and truly disheartening episode of American history, you might also be interested in Georgia Lowe’s novel, The Bonus. I talked to her about this book and the Bonus March story for Writerscast in 2012.
Joy Harjo has been one of my poet heroes for a really long time. I have been reading her poems for so many years I have lost count. Her writing is inspiring, mystical, deeply human and politically explosive. The perfect word to describe Joy’s work is “unflinching,” which she is with herself and with her commitment to following poetry and spirit wherever it takes her.
Recently I read her very personal memoir of self becoming called Crazy Brave, and was stunned by the language, heart and soul of this book. This is the story of Joy Harjo’s becoming a person, unfolding into poetry, and discovering her true self.
The writing in this book is literally transcendent, as Harjo recounts the her earliest memories and family life.
Here are the basics: Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her mother remarried a deeply abusive man, and Harjo was lucky to escape to an Indian arts boarding school and from there went on to get her BA from the University of New Mexico and eventually an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Crazy Brave is about all of this, but it is really the telling of her path into poetry, the words that saved her, the voice that enabled her to become. It’s a beautiful, power-full, magical book I urge you to read as soon as possible. This is a book whose inner song will stay with you for a long time. Joy Harjo once said this about her own work: I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.
It was a heartfelt pleasure for me to speak to Joy Harjo about this book and her work as a writer. If you’ve never read her poetry, you can find some of her work online, including reading her fine poem, She Had Some Horses.
And here, a poem I really love:
Perhaps the World Ends Here
“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo
Ursula Le Guin has had a long and wonderful career as a writer. Her extraordinary work has influenced many other writers, particularly in science fiction, for which she is probably best known, but Ursula has also written extensively about the art and craft of writing, as well as children’s books, and books for young adults. She is also a poet of some note, with four poetry collections published. Altogether she has had published almost fifty books and more than a hundred short stories.
Ursula was born and raised in Berkeley, California, where her parents were the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer Theodora Kroeber, author of the very famous book, Ishi. She went to Radcliffe College and did graduate work at Columbia University. Ursula married Charles A. Le Guin, a historian, in 1953; they have lived in Portland, Oregon since 1958.
Le Guin’s best known fantasy works, the six Books of Earthsea, have sold millions of copies in America and England. Her first major work of science fiction was The Left Hand of Darkness, whose radical investigation of gender roles and literary complexity have made the book a classic and a must read work of literature. Among her books for children, the Catwings series has become extremely popular. She also published a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, after forty years of working on it and practicing Taoist principles in her life.
Three of Le Guin’s books have been finalists for the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and among her honors are a National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, SFWA’s Grand Master, the PEN/Malamud Award, and in 2014 she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
While Le Guin is no longer writing fiction, she continues to write poetry, as she has done virtually her entire life. With the appearance of this new collection of poems from 2010-2014, Late in the Day, published by the excellent PM Press, I had the opportunity to speak with her about her writing and her recent writing. In these poems she explores a variety of poetic forms, all of which she easily masters. The poems are most often about relationships, connecting to the natural world, to myth, story, and of course, other humans, always with a careful eye and a deft understanding of the complexity of all things.
And the Afterword on poetic form and free verse is itself a small masterpiece of explication and joy. Ursula Le Guin is truly one of the great writers of our time. It is my great honor to have had the chance to speak with her here for Writerscast. If you are not aware of Ms. Le Guin’s work as a poet, this new collection of sharp and compassionate compressed expression is definitely worth your time to read. We talked about many subjects, including writing, her career, Oregon, the recent occupation at Malheur, a place with which she is very familiar, and of course the poems in this book, one of which she was kind enough to read aloud for us.
I’ve been a subscriber to Jesse Kornbluth’s excellent newsletter, HeadButler, for awhile now, and have very much enjoyed his approach to books, music and art (politics and culture too). In many ways, he represents to me the quintessential New York intellectual: smart, well read, opinionated and caring about the future of humanity and our civilization. He’s a writer of screenplays and a number of interesting and successful nonfiction books, and he has long been involved in the emerging forms and formats of online digitally-based culture, going back to his days as editorial director at AOL.
Married Sex is his first novel. It is short, extremely well written, and completely compelling. Jesse has brilliantly portrayed his characters, both male and female, and pinpoints them for the reader in very few words. It’s also a fun book to read. Sex with intelligence, you might say.
Without giving away very much of the story, let’s just say that the focus is on a couple who have been together a long time in a committed, deeply sexual romantic relationship. Then something happens that changes everything. You have to read the book to find out more. I think you will enjoy this book a lot. I love this line about it from Kirkus: “A libidinous fairy tale with an unusual Prince Charming.”
And I also think you will enjoy listening to my conversation with Jesse as well. He’s funny and trenchant, and we had a great time talking to one another about the book, his work, and how this book fits into his life. And oh yes, let’s get this settled right away – it’s a novel, not a memoir.
I often recommend Jesse’s newsletter and website to friends, HeadButler.com, what he calls “a cultural concierge site.” I’ve discovered and sometimes rediscovered a number of books and records through his literate and intelligent recommendations. It’s all free, based on the perhaps dubious concept of readers buying things he recommends from Amazon.
Jesse Kornbuth was the Editorial Director at AOL, was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and New York magazines and is the author of four nonfiction books, including Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken. He has written several screenplays for ABC, PBS, and Warner Bros.
I suspect many of us take Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll for granted, assume we know all about the book and its eccentric author from what we read when young and subsequently have picked up over the years. This beautiful and wonderfully produced book is the corrective – for most of us, everything we could possibly want to know about the author and his work will be found here – and more. Charles Dodgson – Lewis Carroll’s real name – was a thoroughly interesting man, mathematician, scholar, an odd Victorian whose fascination (obsession?) with the young Alice Liddell prompted him to invent a strange and compelling world that has fascinated so many of us. And that, of course, included Martin Gardner, himself a brilliant thinker, writer, and mathematician whose own oeuvre is incredibly rich and diverse.
Annotated Alice was first published in 1959, and since then it has sold over half a million copies worldwide. Gardner worked diligently through the text for many years, and decoded many of the mathematical riddles and wordplay that lay ingeniously embedded in Carroll’s two classic stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
The Definitive Edition of The Annotated Alice, published in 1999, combined the notes of Gardner’s 1959 edition with his 1990 volume, More Annotated Alice, as well as additional discoveries drawn from Gardner’s broad knowledge of the Carroll works. It was illustrated with John Tenniel’s classic art—along with many recently discovered Tenniel pencil sketches.
This newly released 150th anniversary edition includes a great deal more – especially wonderful are the brilliant Alice illustrations by a wide range of artists and illustrators, including Ralph Steadman, Salvatore Dali and Beatrix Potter, among others. Also included are more than 100 new or updated annotations collected since the publication of the Definitive Edition of The Annotated Alice, a preface by Mark Burstein, president emeritus of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and all of Gardner’s introductions to other editions plus a really interesting filmography of Alice-related films compiled by Carroll scholar David Schaefer.
This is an eye opening collection for those of us who have not studied Carroll’s work closely before, and a rich trove for those who have.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the entertaining and knowledgeable Mark Burstein about this book. Mark is the president emeritus of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and the editor of or contributor to fourteen books about Carroll. Burstein owns some 2,000 editions of Alice in Wonderland in sixty languages, and around 1,500 books by or about Lewis Carroll.
Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change – 9781603586177 – Chelsea Green Publishing – 240 pages – paperback – $24.95 – October 2015 (ebook versions available at lower prices)
It’s my belief that climate change and its consequences are the single most important issue of our time. I am almost continuously upset by the responses of our society to environmental and planetary matters, which usually range from denial to despair.
Part of the problem is simply its scope. Solving planetary scale problems is simply beyond the ability of most of us to comprehend, much less to try to accomplish anything meaningful for us.
When I ran across this book, published by my friends at Chelsea Green Publishing in Vermont, I knew it would be a book I would like. And having read it, I continue to be inspired by its simple practicality. I’ve learned a lot from author Courtney White and can recommend this book to all, regardless of whether you are actually in a position to apply any of the ideas here. Even if you are a couch potato or a city dweller, this book will help you understand what is possible and practical for us to do in order to make a meaningful change in how we live on this earth.
I lifted the following paragraph from Courtney’s website, A West That Works, because it best explains what this project is all about, and places it meaningfully in context.
We live in what sustainability pioneer Wes Jackson calls “the most important moment in human history,” meaning we live at a decisive moment of action. The various challenges confronting us are like a bright warning light shining in the dashboard of a speeding vehicle calledCivilization, accompanied by an insistent and annoying buzzing sound, requiring immediate attention.
I call this moment the Age of Consequences – a time when the worrying consequences of our hard partying over the past sixty years have begun to bite hard, raising difficult and anguished questions.
How do you explain to your children, for example, what we’ve done to the planet – to their planet? How do you explain to them not only our actions but our inaction as well? It’s not enough simply to say that adults behave in complex, confusing, and often contradictory ways because children today can see the warning light in Civilization’s dashboard for themselves. When they point, what do we say?
As a parent and as a writer, this anguished question created a strong desire to document the sequence of events that I was witnessing as well as attempt to explain our behavior as a society. Hopefully, we would manage to turn off the warning light in the dashboard, but if we did not I was certain that future generations would want an accounting of our behavior.
So, in 2008 I began to write, blending headlines, narrative with travel and research into chronological installments, crossing my fingers.
I think he has done an admirable piece of work toward giving us a better future. Our conversation should add to an understanding of what is possible. Do go buy this book!
A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the ‘conflict industry’ in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement was included by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. Island Press published Courtney’s book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West and Courtney co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.
978-0-393-07799-5 – W.W. Norton – Hardcover – 336 pages – $26.95 (ebooks available at lower prices, paperback edition to be published in May 2016)
Janice Nimura’s Daughters of the Samurai is a wonderful book about an extraordinary and little known episode in modern Japanese history. In 1871, soon after the Japanese civil war that led to the modernization of the country, the Japanese government decided to send five young girls to the United States to educated. They were sent along with a delegation of diplomats and civil servants, with a very specific mission to be educated in modern Western ways and then to return to help create new generation of men and women to lead Japan. While each of these young girls had been raised in very traditional samurai households, they were all displaced from their families and clans. Three of the girls stayed the course, while the other two girls went home.
On their arrival in San Francisco, and later, traveling across the country, the Japanese girls became significant public celebrities, written about by newspapers across everywhere. It’s incredible to imagine what it must have been like for the girls as well as for the American public, who had never seen anyone from Japan before.
Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai, and Ume Tsuda all were raised in middle class or upper middle class homes in the United States and grew up in many ways as typical American schoolgirls, despite their obvious differences from their American friends and family members. Within the families and then in the various schools and colleges they attended, they developed lifelong friendships and connections, and after their ten year sojourn was completed, they returned home to Japan almost as foreigners.
They had started their sojourn in America in radically cross-cultural environments and experiences, then learned a completely new culture, only to return home as yet again out-of-place foreigners, this time in the culture they actually came from. Their unusual experience gave them an incredibly unusual perspective on Japanese culture. As adult women living in a still male dominated society struggling with the tension between modernity and tradition, they each determined to revolutionize women’s education and lead their country forward. Ume Tsuda, in particular, made a significant impact on Japanese education that continues into the modern era.
It’s impossible not to be captivated by these incredible women and their life stories, both in the United States and in Japan. Nimura’s narrative is fascinating and compelling; she brings to life what was once an obscure piece of history, and through the lens of these interesting women, a period in both American and Japanese history of great change in every aspect of culture.
After reading Daughters of the Samurai, it’s impossible not to want to share the story with anyone who will listen. I am fortunate that I was able to talk about it with the author herself. This is a book I am happy to recommend to readers.
Janice Nimura graduated from Yale and then moved to Japan with her new husband, where she lived for three years, became proficient in Japanese, and later earned a Masters degree from Columbia in East Asian Studies, specializing in 19th century Japanese history. At one point she stumbled across a book written by Alice Mabel Bacon (originally from New Haven) called A Japanese Interior, which is about Bacon’s visit to Japan in the 1880s. Alice Bacon’s story captured Nimura’s imagination. She learned about Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama, Bacon’s foster sister and Vassar’s first Japanese graduate; Ume Tsuda, whose pioneering women’s English school Alice helped to launch; and Shige Nagai Uriu, the third of the little girls who arrived with the Iwakura Mission in 1872 and grew up in America, and then took up the challenge of researching and writing about this amazing episode in modern Japanese and American history.
Author website here.
Mia Alvar is a young writer who was born in Manila. She grew up first in Bahrein and then her parents came to America, so from her pre-teen years onward, she was raised and now lives in New York City. She went to Harvard and got an MFA at Columbia.
These bare facts don’t tell you much, but the stories collected in her first book, In the Country, most of which are well written and compelling, dig deeply into the Philippine diaspora experience. There are many different characters, different settings from Manila to Bahrein to America. Narrative voice changes depending on who Alvar wants you best to understand. There are a couple of interconnected stories, but otherwise, each piece stands alone, and as all good short stories, they are worlds unto themselves.
I liked each of the nine stories, and was struck by Alvar’s love for her characters and sympathetic to their predicaments and foibles. Each of the stories is fine, but I do have a favorite and will wonder if listeners who take the time to read this book will agree that the strongest story here is The Virgin of Monte Ramon.
It seems that every writer who publishes a collection of short stories, no matter how brilliant and powerful the stories may be, will be expected to be working on a novel. I can’t understand why being a great short story writer is not more respected in literary culture. So I feel the need to encourage writers to be comfortable continuing to work in short form if that is what they want to do. Nonetheless, Mia is indeed working on a novel and I expect it will be as good as her stories are. I just hope she will not leave behind the short form in which she excels.
Mia is smart and self possessed, and has alot of good things to say about writing and other things; our talk together was rewarding for me and I hope as well for you.
I think this author is going to be an important writer, so recommend you find this book and buy it.
I have to mention that this is a beautifully produced book, props to Knopf for continuing to make books you want to hold in your hands and read. And I also must mention that the book’s cover, which completely captures the ethos of the book, it is terrific work that both captures and equals the writing inside the book.
Author website here.
I happened across this young, tattooed writer sitting in a publisher’s exhibit space at Book Expo earlier this year, and since it was Counterpoint, a publisher whose work I deeply respect, I shook his hand and took a copy of the book.
It took me a couple weeks before I started reading this novel, and then I was immediately captivated. Our Town is a great story, interestingly constructed, and really well written. The author plays with voice and perspective throughout, there are shifts in narrative viewpoints, and as it is telling a story through time about a number of different characters, all that prismatic dancing really worked for me.
This is McEnroe’s first novel, and there are inevitably some rough patches, and maybe even some missing pieces (I would have liked a bit more writing about the main characters’ children, for example). The novel traces the life of a minor Hollywood actress, Dorothy White, her husband Dale, and their children, Dylan and Clover. It’s a feat of imagination on the part of author McEnroe, to inhabit place, time and people whose lives he could never possibly have experienced in any direct way. I thought he captured that hazy, sometimes glowing world of Hollywood in the fifties and sixties quite brilliantly.
There is an incredible amount of sadness and pathos in this novel, unavoidably, as the lives that are traced here are broken in so many ways. These are people who are trying to be real but who are trapped in the imagery of pop culture, not strong enough themselves to find themselves in the trappings of fame and celebrity, unable to be self aware enough to become whole, or even close to whole. Their tragedies are inevitable by products of impossible aspirations.
McEnroe captures the desire, and the striving and the power of hope throughout. From what I can tell, he has his own demons to wrestle with, but as they motivate him to go deeper into his own understanding, his sure handed talent will serve him well. Our Town is a terrific novel – I resisted the hackneyed impulse to say “first novel” by the way – demonstrating that the author has a terrific set of writing skills and the promise of much more to come. Definitely a book to read and ruminate on.
Kevin Jack McEnroe lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. He received his MFA from Columbia University.
“From Lou Reed to Joan Didion, the tale of the young and the not-so-young Hollywood starlet has been treated with a gimlet-eyed intelligence. What makes Kevin Jack McEnroe’s Our Town so striking is not just his fierce intelligence —although there is certainly that— but his masterful flexibility of tone. Written with both razor-keen irony and surprising, startling depth of sympathy, Our Town is magnificent.” —Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine
I have been reading and enjoying Lorna Landvik’s wonderfully funny books for a long time. I can’t remember how I discovered her writing but am guessing it might be the fact that she is from Minnesota that got me to try out one of her early books. And then since her books so perfectly capture the Minnesota social landscape and ethos, I kept going and read most of her novels. I come by my Minnesota interest because part of my family is from Minnesota, and I lived in St. Paul for a few years in the seventies, and I maintain a strong interest in the North Country and especially its literary life (oh and their baseball team too — see my recent interview with former Minnesota Twin Jim Kaat).
I suspect Landvik gets typecast by many readers as a “women’s” writer – her books are rich with female characters and speak to and for women’s social ethos. And in a book business that lives and dies by book categorization, maybe she is typecast also because her books are funny, and have titles that sound like they come from a female centric universe (Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Your Oasis on Flame Lake, Patty Jane’s House of Curl). But it’s a mistake for any reader to overlook Landvik as there is a lot going on in these books. Landvik is certainly entertaining – her background as a stand up comedian and actor informs her writing and her stories. But comedians and comedic novelists are usually mining something deeper, and Landvik’s humor leverages a clear understanding of human nature and both our fallibility and the strength that allows us to live through pain and grief and the difficulties of daily life.
Best to Laugh is Landvik’s most recent novel, published last year by the adventurous University of Minnesota Press. It’s her most autobiographical novel, for sure. Her main character in this book, Candy Pekkala is half Korean and half Norwegian (unlike Landvik). She goes to Hollywood to follow her dream to be a stand up comedian (as Landvik did). The book follows her adventures in La-La land as she falls in with her neighbors in Peyton Hall, a class LA building that houses a cast of interesting and compelling characters, who all become Candy’s family as she becomes the success she has aimed to become. The combination of “old Hollywood” and less romantic 70’s era Los Angeles makes for a terrific backdrop. And the characters are picture perfect. Candy, her friends and family are impossible to resist.
In real life, Landvik did work as a stand up comedian in Los Angeles, temping at places like Atlantic Records and the Playboy Mansion (writing film reviews for Hugh Hefner’s private VHS tape collection) while pursuing her showbiz dream. Despite her success as a comedian, Landvik eventually turned to writing, which she turned out to be pretty good at doing. She still likes to perform – her ‘Party in the Rec Room’ is performed once a year at the wonderful Bryant Lake Bowl theater in Minneapolis (yes, theater in a bowling alley!) This is an all-improvised show based on audience suggestion. Landvik describes it this way “While I enjoy a meaty, dramatic role, to me there’s nothing more satisfying than making a roomful of people snort beer up their noses as they laugh.”
You might find yourself doing the same while reading Best to Laugh.