The Witch of Hebron: a World Made by Hand novel - 978-0802119612 – hardcover – Atlantic Monthly Press – $24.00 (e-book edition available)
This is an unusual podcast for me as it covers two books, World Made by Hand and the next in what looks to be at least a trilogy for author Kunstler, The Witch of Hebron. I had heard of, but never read any of Jim Kunstler’s books before these two, which I read much the way I read science fiction and fantasy novels when I was young, voraciously, entering and imaginatively inhabiting the world the author has created, joyfully, and always wanting more.
These two books are set in a fictional town in a real region of upstate New York, near the Hudson River, several hours north of Albany, in a period that Kunstler has dubbed The Long Emergency. That is the title of his most recent and best-selling work of nonfiction, a book I subsequently read and now believe is one of the most important books of our time.
In The Long Emergency, Kunstler describes why our current civilization is inevitably going to collapse. This is by no means a joyful prediction, but as his novels illustrate, the world ahead as we might imagine it, is not completely grim or devoid of joy and earthly human pleasure either. It is a post-fossil fuel world, and therefore much, much larger – humans do not travel thousands of miles in a day any longer. Governments have, for the most part, collapsed along with the great powerful corporations that have come to dominate our landscape. There is effectively no interstate commerce. Agriculture based on human and animal power is the dominant feature of daily life for most people.
There is a rise in human suffering, but a massive decline in human population, and during the period in which these novels are set, relatively soon after the collapse of modern civilization, there is a great deal of rediscovery of the tools and methods on which human life was built over the many centuries preceding the 21st. There are still many who remember how things were, and their beings are marked by what they knew, and lost, and now, as they are relearning how to live, by rediscovery of a different set of values. The younger generations know nothing directly of the world we now take for granted. Their lives have always been slower than ours, more physically challenging, and much more about adaptation to one’s direct physical environment. In addition to the daily necessities, it is personal relationships, family, community and local culture that this world revolves around. It is a world made by hand, and sometimes much rougher and more painful for being so, but there is a palpable sense of redemption and concern for what is good and right that underlies the world that Kunstler has imagined, that gives meaning to the struggles his characters must face throughout these two books.
Kunstler is a terrific writer and storyteller. These are fully imagined characters living in a plausible future. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, and since it won’t be published for some time, I have been reading Kunstler’s older novels (most of which are sadly, out of print). When we talked, I had not read The Long Emergency, so our conversation is focused solely on the two novels which followed it. I’d recommend to anyone who has not read these books to start with the fiction as I did, and then go back to the nonfiction. It’s important for us to have an understanding of where we are headed, and I think it helps us to face the difficulties ahead if we can imagine ourselves into a better place, just as Jim Kunstler has done with A World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron.
Do visit Jim’s website, which continuously presents valuable information about where we are and what we can do about it. Make sure you take a side trip to the mini-site for these novels, which is a beautifully put together experience in and of itself. A great author biography here. We had a fantastic wide-ranging conversation about the novels, the world they are set in, and how these characters and their stories illustrate the future Kunstler has so beautifully imagined and portrayed.
Writerscast is proud to present the fourth in a series of authors reading from their work, called AuthorsVoices. I hope you will agree that hearing these works read aloud by the original authors adds to your experience of the writing.
I definitely enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit. Corinne Demas is a very fine writer. I think the word that comes to mind for me is “deft.” There are a number of characters here, all of whom are important, and the way the story is told reminded me of an ever tightening spiral, as we start from the seeming mundane outside and move ever closer into the lives of these people around a series of events that provides the structure of the book. This is a very well put together novel.
Corinne Demas is a talented and accomplished writer – she’s written adult novels, short stories, children’s picture books and chapter books, a play and she writes poetry as well. In addition, she teaches full time at Mt. Holyoke.
This selection from The Writing Circle should give listeners a good sense of the writing of a book I’ve been enthusiastic about recommending to readers. My recent interview with Corinne is here at Writerscast. And Corinne’s own website will tell you much more about her and her excellent body of work.
I can’t say enough good things about Jaimy Gordon’s writing, up to and including Lord of Misrule, this year’s winner of the National Book Award. Although she has been writing for the past 40 years, producing five wonderful, interesting novels and a number of smaller works during that time, for the most part Jaimy’s audience has been small. Perhaps this is fitting for someone whose work does not easily fit the standard categories of commercial fiction, as the structure of the publishing and bookselling machinery has not provided much room for many writers and books outside the mainstream for quite some time.
That said, Jaimy Gordon is simply a terrific writer and Lord of Misrule may well be her best book yet. It’s set in a mythical down-and-out racetrack Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia. There are five main characters, all from disparate and desultory backgrounds, but all connected by their wishes, dreams and aspirations, which drive them and the novel forward. And the book is constructed of four sections, each named for a particular horse in a particular race. The story unfolds almost magically, and it’s one of those books that is literally impossible to put down. I was hooked early on and loved the ride the author took me on, peopled by wonderful down and out Runyonesque characters who speak amazing dialogue in the voices of Appalachian region horse people, and of course beautiful horses throughout.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the book that gets across a bit of the style of the book (and you can download a PDF excerpt of the novel at the publisher website here):
“They were all looking for a van like a Chinese jewel box, like no horse van that had ever been seen on a backside, something red and black and glossy, with gold letters, LORD OF MISRULE, arched across each side. All the same when a plain truck with Nebraska plates rolled in . . . they knew who it was. They were watching, though the van was unmarked and dirty white, one of those big box trailers with rusty quilting like an old mattress pad you’ve given to the dog. The van bounced and groaned on its springs along the backside fence, headed for the stallman’s office. Red dust boiled around it. They blinked as it dragged two wheels through the puddle that never dried, the puddle that had no bottom. . . . They peered through the vents when the van went by and saw the horse’s head, calm, black and poisonous of mien as a slag pile in a coal yard . . .
The van stopped, woof, down comes the ramp and a kid, unhealthy-looking like all racetrack kids, worm white, skull bones poking out of his skinny head, stood at the top of the ramp with a small black horse that couldn’t even stand right: Lord of Misrule . . . rocked on the flat floor of the van like a table with one short leg. And those legs – they were so swelled out from long-ago bowed tendons on both sides that they were one straight line from knee to ankle, drainpipes without contour. ”
I’ve been reading (and admiring) Jaimy’s work for a long time, since her first published work Shamp of the City-Solo was thrust into my hands by her publisher Bruce McPherson probably in 1975. It’s a thrill to see her work recognized more widely and gratifying to know that this excellent writer will now always have a much larger audience for her writing. She and this new book are getting great coverage in all sorts of media. Here’s an excellent profile of Jaimy by Chip McGrath in the New York Times: Writer Races to Victory From Way Off the Pace. There have been many others, many of which have focused more on the storyline of “obscure writer finds sudden fame” than on her book and writing career.
I wanted to spend a good amount of time talking in detail with Jaimy specifically about this book, Lord of Misrule, along with something of the story of how this book came to be published (it’s a good story, reflecting much about the nature of independent publishing and serious fiction – discussed in more detail in my companion interview with publisher Bruce McPherson).
Luna Park is an outstanding first graphic novel by historian and novelist Kevin Baker. Baker is certainly well-known for his best selling New York City based trilogy of historical novels (Paradise Alley, Dreamland and Strivers Row). And recently he was the consultant for the History Channel’s extremely fine mini-series, America: The Story of Us, as well as being the author of its companion book.
Luna Park is centered on a former Russian soldier, Alik, who fought in Chechniya now living in Coney Island, working as the enforcer for a small time Russian mobster. He is addicted to heroin, and haunted by his memories of the horrors of the war and his own part in it. He desperately loves the prostitute Marina, whose daughter is held captive by the mob boss as a way to keep her under his control.
Alik comes up with a desperate plan he has convinced himself will save Marina, her daughter and himself. It’s at this point that the story takes a turn, as Alik discovers he is destined to repeat his past lives repeatedly, including a few pasts the present Alik does not know he had. There are flashes from present- day run down Coney Island to the Russia of 10 years ago during the Second Chechen War to an earlier time period in Coney Island, when the area was at its peak as an amusement park that really was amazing to behold.
Baker keeps us traveling with him throughout, even though the story is complex, the pain palpable and the suffering of the characters in their struggles seems to never let up. The work of the artist Danilej Zezelj is perfectly suited for this story. His art is dark, powerful and energetic, and adds tremendously to the strength of the story. DC Comics deserves praise putting Baker and Zezelj together, it’s a terrific collaboration.
Kevin Baker and I talked at length about this, his first graphic novel, both in the context of his work as a fiction writer and historian, and of course his deep interest in the City of New York, especially its seamier areas like Coney Island, as well as how writing a graphic novel in collaboration with an artist is different from other types of writing. we were able to range widely about a number of other subjects, making this conversation one I hope listeners will particularly enjoy.
Dori Ostermiller’s Outside the Ordinary World is a very strong and compelling novel, hardly recognizable as a first novel. The novel’s main character, Sylvia, is an artist and teacher who is grappling with the messiness and unhappiness of her life. She’s distanced from and frustrated with her husband enough to risk an affair with the somewhat exotic father of one of her students. Since this is in many ways a reflection of Sylvia’s own experience as a child, when her mother spent years in her own affair, it triggers Sylvia’s memories and ambivalence about much of her own life and thus her unfolding story.
The story unfolds as Sylvia remembers her past and of course must reconnect with her family while she is trying to reconcile her own situation. We learn about her unusual upbringing as a Seventh Day Adventist, her father, the mercurial and unhappy doctor, who abused his wife and children, and her mother, so unhappy and conflicted that she allowed (or forced) her daughters to participate in her complex “other” relationship, a lack of boundary drawing that has long term ramifications for Sylvia in her own life. We also meet her grandparents and her sister in the present, for further complications to her situation.
It’s risky turf for any writer to take on love, marriage, trust, infidelity and family history with a story line and characters so close to her own. But I think imagination and creativity using the “stuff” of one’s own apparent life is precisely where the most powerful art comes from. Ostermiller writes beautifully about complex human relationships and tells a difficult story well. In many ways this novel defines how fiction really works and works best – taking the difficult journey of the soul to resolve difficult emotional and psychic issues (for both the author and the reader). I really enjoyed this book, as different from my own life experiences and situations as it was. And it was great fun to talk to Dori about her work, the issues of fiction and the mysteries of human love.
Dori Ostermiller teaches writing and literature in Western Massachusetts. She is the founder and director of Writers in Progress, a literary arts center housed in the Arts & Industry building (a refurbished old brush factory) in Florence. Many of her students have published books of their own, including Alison Smith, Kris Holloway, Ellen Meeropol, Kyra Anderson and David Lovelace.
Dori is currently working on her second novel in Northampton, where she lives. Her website is worth a visit. And I for one am looking forward to reading her next novel.
In choosing books for Writerscast, I have been trying to read as many books as possible from different styles, genres and viewpoints, to make an eclectic and interesting selection both for myself and for an audience of listeners. I suspect that if it had not been for that effort, I simply would never have discovered Corinne Demas and her new novel The Writing Circle.
It’s not so much that this novel is outside the scope of my literary tastes, as in fact, I really like well written novels that explore character and whose narrative is subtle and skillfully enough handled that I can’t feel ahead what is going to happen. I suppose in one way that just means I like to lose myself in a novel and not feel like I can feel the wheels and levers turning as I follow on. But I just may not have picked this book off of a book display in a bookstore to read, maybe because it’s a book about writers and that might normally seem sort of self reflexive to me. Thus the lesson, if there is one, is to remain open to surprises and to not make judgments about a book just from it’s title. A funny idea indeed.
I definitely enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit. Corinne Demas is a very fine writer. I think the word that comes to mind for me is “deft.” There are a number of characters here, all of whom are important, and the way the story is told reminded me of an ever tightening spiral, as we start from the seeming mundane outside and move ever closer into the lives of these people around a series of events that provides the structure of the book. This is a very well put together novel. After reading it, I wanted to rush out and talk to Corinne Demas about the book and how she imagined it, and all the characters (guessing of course that she had been in writing circles herself).
I always feel that when I am talking to a novelist it’s critical to balance between talking engagingly about a book I just read and that I feel excited about, and not giving away too much to anyone who might be listening and themselves eventually read the same book. That certainly applied in this talk, as we danced around the story outline while talking in depth about the book’s structure and her involvement with these very compelling characters. That was fun too and I hope listeners will enjoy that balancing act.
Corinne Demas is a talented and accomplished writer – she’s written adult novels, short stories, children’s picture books and chapter books, a play and she writes poetry as well. In addition, she teaches full time at Mt. Holyoke, which we also talked about a bit in this conversation.
I found this book, written by an author I had never heard of before, by doing something very old fashioned: browsing in a bookstore. There are many forms of discovery, but finding a book you want to read in a store is still a great pleasure. And when you take it home and start reading it, and find out you made a lucky choice to read an exceptionally fine novel, that is a true and deeply rewarding experience.
I was surprised to learn that The Turtle Catcher is Nicole Helget’s first novel – she doesn’t write like a first novelist at all. The opening of this novel is absolutely perfect, and is beautifully written, setting the tone for a complicated, very often painful, but also engrossing story. Helget’s novel is mystical and magical, but these moments of “magical realism” where she enters another plane counterpoint brilliantly with the almost plainspoken story she has to tell about immigrant families in a German-American community in rural Minnesota in the early 20th century. The book is set in the now little discussed period just before, during and after World War I, a time that was very complicated for communities of recently arrived immigrants from the old country, with Germany now the enemy of their new homeland. The tensions within the town provide a taut backdrop for Helget’s for the focus of her story.
The author weaves together the lives of two families living on adjoining farms in the small town of New Germany, Minnesota. Liesel Richter and Lester Sutter are at the core of the book, along with their fathers and deeply suffering mothers, and what happens to Lester, told brilliantly and painfully in the opening scene of the book is the capstone to a long, rich story of families and communities, hidden wounds and deep suffering transformed into a kind of stoic transcendence Helget’s characters embrace, almost because it is all they are capable of doing in the face of such pain.
In The Turtle Catcher, Nicole Helget has created a multi-layered family story whose characters inhabit (and illustrate for readers) a specific place and time, but as with all great novels, through their story, they are transformed into something deeply moving and powerful. I really loved this novel, and will read it again, I am sure.
I wanted to talk to Nicole about the emotional content of the book, how she came to create this novel (it started with a short story), and discuss some of the complexities of her really wonderfully drawn characters. I think we succeeded in exploring this writer’s work in a really interesting conversation I hope will encourage readers to seek this novel out and read it for themselves. I do think Nicole Helget is a terrific writer, someone whose work I am deeply gratified to have discovered.
I don’t often read mysteries, but a few weeks ago, right in the middle of summer, the season for entertaining novels (often known as “beach reads”) I decided to give this novel a try. The tongue-in-cheek title first caught my attention, and I really liked the unusual setting for the novel (small town Ohio) and the quirky but very believable cast of characters. So The Long Quiche Goodbye is definitely a fun read but not just a throwaway summer book. Avery Aames is a good writer and she has deft with her creation and handling of characters.
As I mentioned, I am not a steady reader of mysteries, so I may not be as experienced as some are with the various forms and formats of mysteries – they do fall into a set of recognizable patterns, I know. In The Long Quiche Goodbye, our main character is Charlotte Bessette, the proprietor of the family owned cheese shop called Fromagerie Bessette, in the small town of Providence, Ohio. At the gala re-opening of the store after a full scale renovation and modernization, the store’s landlord (whom we already know not to like) is found stabbed to death with one of the store’s knives, and Charlotte’s grandmother is the prime suspect.
We’re off from there, with a full cast of local characters, friends, family, police, and a couple of other prime suspects in town to make things interesting. And it’s Charlotte who takes the lead in finding out who the real killer must be, as clearly, she feels (and we come to feel as well) that it could not have been her wonderful grandmother (who is the Mayor of the town!)
Avery Aames had a lot of fun writing The Long Quiche Goodbye, I think, and her pleasure and involvement with her characters comes across in the way she writes their story. I also had a great time talking to her about this well written book, her work as a writer, and the next books in the series that this book inaugurates. It looks like this series will be successful, and deservedly so – this first in the “Cheese Shop Mysteries” is already a national bestselling mystery novel. You can visit Avery’s website to learn more.
I love reading really good historical novels. I’m actually not sure how I found out about this book, but I knew I wanted to read it when I learned that the author, Kamran Pasha, is a Muslim writing about the Third Crusade from a Muslim perspective. That’s definitely a fresh concept. It turns out that Pasha is a terrific writer, and a deft story teller.
It’s almost impossible for Western readers not to think about the Crusades from the Christian side. The Third Crusade, headed by Richard the Lion-Heart, is one of the best known stories ever told, and our knowledge and understanding of the great Muslim ruler Saladin is without doubt cast by the Western version of the story. In Shadow of the Swords, we see things very differently, and not just the Muslim side, there are intriguing Jewish and female characters who are integral to the storyline in many fascinating ways.
Some of the characters and events in this book are based in reality, others are made up, but they are always consistent and believable. By inserting the fictional Miriam, daughter of the historical Maimonides into the story of Richard and Saladin, Pasha is able to link their personae and the real historical events of the battles between them into a much more personal context, which helps bring these complicated characters to life. We realize as the story unfolds that through their opposition, the two main characters will come to know, understand, and appreciate the other, both literally and figuratively. Which is a lesson our modern society could stand to learn too.
Kamran Pasha is a prolific writer. He has created novels (his first book was Mother of the Believers, another historical novel), television (Kings), video games (Blood on the Sand), and is now currently working on a theatrical film as well. He came to writing through an interesting career – he holds a JD from Cornell Law School, an MBA from Dartmouth and an MFA from UCLA Film School. He spent three years as a journalist in New York City before he went to Hollywood to become a full time creative writer.
I really enjoyed reading this book, and talking to Kamran Pasha was a terrific experience I hope you will also enjoy. And do enjoy this serious, well written and very compelling novel. It’s literate, well written and packed with interesting ideas that lives up to its billing as an “epic novel.” Pasha blogs passionately about many current issues at his own website, well worth a visit.
This is an amazing novel. Consider it a work of “ecological science fiction” as some have called it. I found it captivating, terrifying, incredibly emotive and reading it becomes almost a spiritual exercise. Pendell posits a worldwide collapse of population from a biological war gone amok. More than 95% of humanity disappears, almost overnight. He actually does not spend much time on this part of the story, horrific as it is, because that catastrophe is really just the lead in for the much bigger story of what happens next.
Aside from the critical principle of understanding, that modern human society will simply collapse, that going back to prior technologies becomes impossible because people no longer have the knowledge or skills, to live the way our ancestors did, and critically, cannot relearn them overnight in the face of societal collapse, the central tenet of this novel is that climate change will have been unleashed by what modern society *has already done* to the natural world. The computer models of planetary climate change are simply not able to fully contain and predict the massiveness of what is about to happen to the planet and the natural world that inhabits it.
The novel is essentially a brilliant imagining of what might or could be the future of the planet over the next hundreds, thousands of years, based on the supposition that humans have already begun this process of change. It’s a rich set of interlocking stories, mostly focused on the area that is known today as California, a bio-geographic landscape that author Pendell knows well, and imagines changing in profound and sometimes painful ways for the reader of his story.
This is a very unusual novel – really the main character is the planet and there are no traditional heroic human characters at its center. While we might search for and find labels for it (“dystopian” or “utopian,” “science fiction” or even “parable”), I’d rather think of it as a kind of vision-telling, a myth in the making, that seeks to change the way we think about ourselves. Indeed, there is a great deal of suffering and difficulty in the book, and at the same time, a powerful sense of continuity, what truly sustains. As the great poet Gary Snyder (who is a fictionalized character in the book, as it happens), says about the novel: “Civilizations and technologies die or are lost, but human ingenuity–families, tribes, and villages, the musicians, shamans, philosophers, and people of power–live on.” I’d add that not only does human ingenuity live on, so does Gaia, our planet home, adjusting and re-adjusting its inner and outer being, regardless of which or how many humans may be hanging on for dear life.
In my conversation with Dale, we talked about his background as a writer, poet, biologist, and how this brilliant vision of a book came into being. It’s an interview and a book I’d recommend to all my friends and colleagues – it’s impossible to read and not do alot of thinking about the future, as well as what we need to do about it – right now.