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.
I seem to have an inordinate interest in books about the Holocaust, doubtless because I think about my unknown relatives who perished in Lithuania and Poland during WW II, and feel somehow that knowing what happened to other Jews in that awful time will help me imagine the story of what happened to my own relatives. It’s difficult not to wish that there were more accounts of heroic escapes from the Nazis and their allies in every country they occupied, but more often than not, the stories we do get to know are deeply sad, frustrating, or horrific.
Martin Goldsmith’s parents came to the United States in 1939 from Germany, having survived the Nazi regime only because they were classical musicians who played in the Kulturbund, a special group of Jewish musicians that entertained other Jews in Germany (that was the subject of Martin Goldsmith’s last book, THE INEXTINGUISHABLE SYMPHONY: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany).
This new book, Alex’s Wake, is principally the story of Goldsmith’s grandfather and uncle, who tried to escape Germany in 1939 on the ill-fated journey of the German luxury liner, the SS St. Louis, which took more than 900 Jewish refugees (at their own expense, paying high prices to the German steamship company) across the Atlantic, first to Havana and then, having been turned away by the Cubans, to the USA and Canada, which also refused the refugees entry to their countries. This meant that the ship had to sail back to Europe, where amazingly and after great effort, the refugees were accepted by England, Holland and France. Only those who went to England truly escaped, however, as soon after the Germans overran both France and Holland, and these forlorn, long suffering escapees were once again under the thrall of the Nazis, who now could kill European Jews without restraint.
Goldsmith’s father suffered lifelong guilt for not being able to rescue his father and brother (and one must imagine, also his mother and sister, whose stories are really not told here, but who also were murdered in the war). That guilt was ineffably passed on to the grandson, and this book is Martin’s attempt to expiate that guilt, and to understand as much as it is possible, the story of his family’s travails more than 70 years ago.
Goldsmith and his wife traveled to Europe, spending six weeks retracing the journey of his antecedents, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt. That journey forms the structure of the book, around which is built the narrative of his family’s formerly happy and successful life in Germany, their struggles to escape the Nazis, the terrible journey of the SS St. Louis , and especially moving, the detailed tracking of Alex and Helmut’s terrible time in occupied France where their hopes were truly lost, and where, after great suffering, they were transported to Auschwitz and finally their deaths. Along the way, Goldsmith learns a great deal about his family’s life in Germany, meets many interesting people, and in fact helps to change the lives of others as well as his own.
This is a fine example of narrative nonfiction and while at times painful, well worth reading. Goldsmith’s improbable effort to expiate his family’s guilt and suffering brought forth forgiveness and a sort of transcendence both for himself and others involved in the story, and the book’s honesty and beauty in the face of pain enables us to overcome the sorrow that inevitably arises when experiencing a story of deeply felt pain and loss. He’s an engaging writer and memoirist, and a fine storyteller.
Martin Goldsmith has been a radio host for public radio and Sirius XM, where he now is director of classical music programming and appears on the Symphony Hall channel. Goldsmith has also sung with the Baltimore Opera Company and the Washington Opera. He has also acted in Washington-area theaters, including Arena Stage. His music reviews have appeared in the Washington Post and he is the author now of three books, including Alex’s Wake.
Website for the book is here. Alert – we had a really good conversation so this interview runs slightly long at almost 42 minutes.
Doing this podcast has been great fun for me. I’ve gotten to read some wonderful books, and have met and talked to well over 200 interesting and intelligent writers. Now I can add having a conversation with one of my favorite baseball pitchers to the rewards of being a literary podcaster not long after having the honor of interviewing a Man Booker award winning author (Anne Enright).
Jim Kaat was a Major League pitcher from 1959-83 with the Washington Senators (1959-60), Minnesota Twins (1961-73), Chicago White Sox (1973-75), Philadelphia Phillies (1976-79), New York Yankees (1979-80) and St. Louis Cardinals (1980-1983).
Kaat was an amazingly durable left-handed pitcher, winning 283 games against 237 losses, with an ERA of only 3.45 (that’s average runs allowed over nine innings) and 2,461 strikeouts in 4,530 innings. Kaat had his best year in 1966 while with the Twins, going 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 304 innings over 41 starts. Jim was a three-time All-Star and a winner of 16 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards for best fielder at his position, 12 of which ran consecutively from 1962-73. Both Gold Glove marks were long-standing records for pitchers until being eclipsed by Greg Maddux (13 consecutive from 1990-2002, 18 overall).
Kaat’s career spanned four decades and seven U.S. Presidential administrations, and at the time of his retirement in 1983, his 25 years of Major League service were a record. Since then, only Nolan Ryan (27) and Tommy John (26) have logged more seasons.
After all those years of playing baseball at a really high level, Jim went on to become a talented and skilled baseball announcer. He worked first in the minor leagues but showing a natural skill as an observer of the game, he quickly moved up to the big leagues, broadcasting first for the Minnesota Twins and later many years for the New York Yankees. After he retired from his second career, he made another comeback and is still working today as an announcer for the MLB network. For his broadcasting work, Kaat won an Emmy in 2006 for “On-Camera Achievement” after being nominated for two Emmys the previous year for “Outstanding Live Sports Coverage.”
If These Walls Could Talk is an enjoyable collection of anecdotes and stories, organized loosely around the positions on a baseball team. It’s mostly about the Yankees, and New York fans will love this book, of course. But there is much more in this book than Yankees stories – in it, Kaat tells his own story in his natural and appealing manner. Anyone who appreciates baseball will find these stories told from the perspective of a 60 year veteran of the game to be compelling and engrossing.
It was great fun for me to have the chance to talk to one of my heroes, Jim, “Kitty” Kaat. Thanks Triumph Books for publishing this fun book. And to those Hall of Fame voters on the Golden Era committee – please vote Jim Kaat into the Baseball Hall of Fame – he deserves to be there!
Anne Enright is an Irish fiction writer who has been widely praised for the lyrical quality of her prose and for eccentric characters and heartfelt renderings of modern family life, received the 2007 Man Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary award, for her novel, The Gathering (2007). In that year’s competition, her book was considered a longshot for the prize, but nonetheless was was selected unanimously by the panel of judges. The Gathering was also named “Irish Novel of the Year” at the 2008 Irish Book Awards.
Subsequently, Enright wrote and published more novels, including The Forgotten Waltz (2012) which won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, about which Francine Prose said in her NY Times review, “a nervy enterprise, an audacious bait-and-switch. Cloaked in a novel about a love affair is a ferocious indictment of the self-involved material girls our era has produced.”
Enright went to college at Trinity College, Dublin, and took an MFA in writing at University of East Anglia in England, but soon after ended up working in television production in Ireland, which she did successfully for several years. She then turned to writing, first short stories, and then novels, at which she clearly excels. Since the Man Booker prize raised her profile exponentially, she has won numerous awards and traveled widely in support of her novels.
Enright’s newest book, The Green Road, is about a very modern Irish family, splintered and scattered, but always focused on the mother, the unhappy and complicated Doraleen. The family lives in County Clare, the farthest eastern shore of Ireland, as Enright says, the last stop before America, a place of immense beauty and also loneliness and struggle for those who continue to live there. And there is a real green road there, the old path along the water.
For the first half of the book, Enright alternates voices and scenes, from County Clare to New York to Africa to Dublin as she introduces us to the children in the Madigan family. And then the scene shifts back to the home turf of the family, as the children return for their mother’s birthday, together for the first time in many years. And this is where the heart of the novel lives.
It’s a beautiful book, one that has stayed with me after I read it, and even after I had the opportunity to talk about the book, the characters and the writing process with author Enright. She is an incredibly accomplished writer, able to convey immense depth about characters, a places, or events, with an economy of language and a piercing eye. We had a lively and interesting conversation while she was in New York on her book tour. And I am really pleased that she was willing to read two sections of the book, as hearing the author’s voice in this particular instance is terrifically important as her tone and intonation helps us feel the book more deeply.
I also had the pleasure to welcome her to the United States as she is now the first official Irish Fiction Laureate. This recording is of a wonderful conversation with one of our best living novelists, about a novel I am happy to recommend to all readers. And here is a terrific piece she wrote about the writing of the book for The Guardian (which we did talk about in our conversation). While I could not find a website for Ms. Enright but here is a pretty nicely done fansite for her work. And for those of you who have become fans of Enright’s work, this interview in the Paris Review about The Forgotten Waltz will be of interest as well. Publisher WW Norton has a page for the author here.
Jeffrey Lewis has had a really interesting life and career path. He went to Yale, where he was the Class Poet, graduating in the mid-sixties, and went to law school at Harvard. His first career was in law enforcement – he was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. Then he left New York to work on the now famed television show, Hill Street Blues, embarking on what became a terrifically successful career in television and film writing. And then he more or less left television to write serious literary fiction.
In the past few years, Lewis has published a total of six novels. The four that make up the “Meritocracy Quartet” were originally published between 2004 and 2008 – Meritocracy: A Love Story in 2004, The Conference of the Birds in 2005, Theme Song for an Old Show in 2007 and Adam the King in 2008.
Before writing fiction, Lewis won a number of awards including two Emmys, the Writers Guild Award, the Humanitas Prize, the People’s Choice Award, and the Image Award of the NAACP, as a writer and producer of Hill Street Blues. His work for television and film includes projects for HBO, Showtime, the BBC, TNT, and many of the major film studios. His last screenplay, before turning full-time to writing fiction, was Paint, set in the New York art world, and is the last unfinished project of the great director Robert Altman.
He lives in Los Angeles, California and Castine, Maine.
The four books in the “Meritocracy Quartet” take place in successive decades and are meant to document and explore what these periods meant to the post war baby boomers. Each novel in the series stands alone, but together, they are a powerful and really striking portrait of the inner and outer lives of the cultural elite of this generation.
Lewis is a wonderful writer. His work is clear, never over wrought and expressive of the emotional lives of his characters. The books all take place in environments Lewis lived in, periods he lived through. It would be all too easy to try to read these novels as romans a clef, but I think they are much more than that. As a true novelist, transforming the lived experience to find its meanings, both for himself and for his readers, Lewis becomes an alchemist of the soul, his words then, taking us to places far beyond. These books are really an impressive accomplishment, and well worth the effort to read all four together, at once, for a deeply rewarding experience.
“Lives are not seamlessly sewn together, but rather forged by coincidence, necessity, and expectation, a fact that Lewis brilliantly conveys. . . . Lewis’ memories portray a modern, American life.” (San Francisco Book Review)
I really enjoyed talking to Jeff about these books and his work as a writer.
I genuinely enjoyed this evocative coming-of-age novel. I thought it captured the current generation of almost-thirty somethings really beautifully. It’s well written and well structured and very sympathetic on a number of levels for a wide range of readers.
The book starts with the central character in this faceted story, Sam Turner, in the summer he is fifteen, the crucial and in some ways defining moment in his life. Just as he connects with Suzie Epstein, the gorgeous girl next door, his mother abandons his family without warning or explanation. While his older, hard working brother Michael, who is a freshman in college and their attorney father both appear to accept her absence as a matter of course, Sam cannot. He is confused, and more deeply hurt by his mother’s departure and struggles to understand how she could simply disappear and leave her family behind. And at the same time, Suzie’s family suddenly moves away as well. This sense of loss is something he will carry with him throughout the rest of the story.
From this opening, the rest of the book covers the years as Sam and his friends (and brother) grow into adulthood. As one might expect, life is complicated, shit happens, good and bad, and life goes on. Author Antalek navigates this territory brilliantly, telling the stories of the key characters in alternating voices.
Suzie has her own family issues, and remains separated from her old friends for many years. Then a chance meeting with Michael reunites her with Sam and her former best friend Bella, whose first love was Sam. The Grown Ups explores the complicated process of growing up in the modern world. And through it all, we come to understand and appreciate the way her characters handle what it means for them to take on the mantle of adulthood. For most of us, it seems this is how growing up really works, accidents mixed with intentions to create being, meaning, and love. This book is a rewarding read, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. And I felt the same way talking to author Antalek about her book. We had a very fun time talking together about the writing of this book, her characters and life in general.
Robin Antalek is also the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010) which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book. Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown and was been featured in several collections, including The Beautiful Anthology, Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema, and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-2013. Her short fiction has appeared in 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. Robin has received three honorable mentions in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters and New Fiction Writer’s contests as well as an honorable mention for the Tobias Wolf Fiction Award.
Brad Morrow is really an excellent writer, mainly of literary fiction, and as listeners of Writerscast will likely know, I have interviewed him twice before, once for the fine novel, The Diviner’s Tale (2011) and again for Publishing Talks about his now 25 year old literary magazine, Conjunctions.
The Forgers is a complex and finely crafted mystery novel. It is pretty clearly Brad’s homage to the form, one which I assume he loves, and the writing style demonstrates just how much in command of his craft he is.
I myself am not generally a reader of mysteries and detective novels, though I appreciate a good one. So I am not as familiar with the intricacies of the form as are those who read deeply in this genre. One reviewer I read observed that The Forgers follows the form of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels. Well it might. As I read the book, the writing style reminded me of early twentieth century English writers. Because its main character is a both a literary forger and a dedicated bibliophile, and much of the book’s action takes place in Ireland, it has a decidedly British feel to it.
But it is an American story, and as such a grisly murder that opens the book is at its center. The setting for much of the novel is the farthest reach of Long Island, an isolated area that is perfect for this sort of crime.
The main character is one of those quirky characters that inhabit mysteries and suspense novels. He’s very compelling, but he keeps his distance, to say the least. Morrow knows the world of books and collectors, as he is one himself, but I don’t think anyone would mistake his main character for an authorial stand in. At least I hope not. The narrator takes us through a tangled web of a story, and while we get to know him, much is left to mystery.
Readers will enjoy the slow, building pace of the novel, and the payoff that comes at the end. It’s a fun book to read, and as I said earlier, beautifully written by a masterful writer.
Brad Morrow has written a number of fine novels, teaches at Bard College, founded and still edits the literary journal, Conjunctions, and has won many awards for his work. If you have not read his work before now, you should! And The Forgers would be a good book to start with. Author website here.
It’s always a great pleasure to speak with Brad about his work. He’s a great conversationalist and very easy to talk to, and I think our discussion about The Forgers will be much enjoyed by listeners.