Jesse Kornbluth: Married Sex

November 18, 2015 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

25378531._UY475_SS475_978-1504011259 – Open Road Media – paperback – 246 pages – $12.99 (ebook versions available at lower cost)

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,, 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.

Married Sex is Kornbluth’s first novel. He lives in Manhattan with his family. I am looking forward to reading his next book.Kornbluth headshot

David Wilk talks with Carmen Giménez Smith of Noemi Press at Woodland Pattern

November 11, 2015 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks, The Future

Carmen Gimenez Smith visits NPR headquarters in Washington on MondayPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context of civilization and economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing. I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

I recently had the honor of interviewing editor, writer and teacher Carmen Giménez Smith at the renowned Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Carmen is the current editor of the now 50 year old literary magazine, Puerto del Sol, sponsored by New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She is also the co-publisher and co-founder of the very fine literary publisher, Noemi Press.

Our conversation took place in on Friday, October 16, 2015 at Woodland Pattern in front of an active and interested audience. This live recording will enable listeners to learn a great deal about two dynamic literary organizations. Happy 50th birthday to Puerto del Sol, and congratulations to Carmen and her colleagues at Noemi for building a long lasting press that has been purposely constructed so that it will continue as a dynamic, living organization long into the future.

More about Carmen Giménez Smith here; she is an extraordinary poet, writer and teacher in addition to her work as editor and publisher. Her newest book is called Milk and Filth from the University of Arizona Press. She is a brilliant writer whose writing I have been grateful to discover. She is tough and politically engaged, her heart and soul showing through the words at every moment. I am sure she is a terrific teacher as well.

Length alert: this conversation is about 53 minutes. I hope you can find the time to hear it through to the end.

And special thanks to Chuck, Mike, Karl and Anne at Woodland Pattern for the opportunity to conduct this conversation in their space. It was really fun and I hope to be able to do this kind of thing again.

More about WP in this Writerscast interview with founders Anne Kingsbury and Karl Gartung from earlier this year.DeepCity_coverpuerto50cover-231x300WP Logo


Mark Burstein: The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

November 2, 2015 by  
Filed under Children's Authors, Fiction, WritersCast

Annotated Alice_mech 4p_r1.indd978-0393245431 – W.W. Norton – Hardcover – 432 pages – $39.95 – by Lewis Carroll (Author), Martin Gardner (Editor), Mark Burstein (Editor)

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.Mark Burstein 51rosEa1tLL._SX150_

Courtney White: Two Percent Solutions for the Planet

October 22, 2015 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

two_percent_solutionsTwo 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.courtney_bio



Janice P. Nimura: Daughters of the Samurai

October 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast


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.Janice Nimura31subBENFEY-facebookJumbo

Mia Alvar: In the Country (Stories)

September 30, 2015 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

alvar_11-10978-0-385-35281-9 – Alfred A. Knopf – Hardcover – $26.95 – 356 pages. Ebook versions available at lower prices.

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.JCkMunBB

David Wilk talks with Lise Quintana of Lithomobilus

Lise Quintana headshotsmallPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context of civilization and economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing. I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

As many listeners here know, I have an ongoing interest in experiments in technology that expand the writing experience for creators and of course then the reading experience as well. Honestly, while we have seen many attempts, thus far, not very many have captured the greater imagination of writers or readers.

The latest undertaking I have run across is Lithomobilus, founded by writer Lise Quintana, whose “online writing software gives authors the power to expand upon their existing works, create new works with built-in expansion opportunities, and craft amazing nonlinear works….Readers can then download the reader software and enjoy the first e-book reading experience that values words without slavishly following the format of a printed book.”

I’m ready to see what happens and I thought it would be fun to talk to Lise to find out more.

Creating compelling “interactive” fiction and new forms of storytelling is a hugely challenging undertaking. I found a comprehensive review of Lithomobilus by Emily Short, who knows a lot about new narrative forms, her blog is well worth reading. “There’s a core problem of interactive fiction design here: if you design a narrative where the intention is that the reader will read as much as she’s curious about and then stop, but you don’t communicate that she’s allowed to do that, she’ll continue exploring the story space past the point where she’s started to feel bored and then blame the author for that boredom. This is genuinely not easy to resolve, and it’s at the heart of what Lithomobilus appears to be trying to do: to offer stories that aren’t consumed completely, but yield more and more content in response to a reader’s desire, inexhaustibly, never saying that your experience is complete.”

I like Lise Quintana’s own piece of writing in the Lithomobilus app, it’s called The Strangely-Browne Episode, and even though it’s likely meant as a demonstration of the app’s capabilities, it is an engaging story. I know there are many who doubt that there is a “need” for new technology to create interactive reading experiences. It seems possible that even if it’s “better” storytelling, it may not be a mainstream sort of thing – recumbent bicycles come to mind here. They are demonstrably better riding devices than traditional bikes, but they will never be popular with more than a minority of riders, they take time to learn to ride, they look weird and they cost more. I think similar factors are at play with writing that tries to harness new technologies to tell stories differently. Too hard for most readers to learn, interactivity changes the reading experience from what is expected, and “costs” more time and effort than readers are willing to give. But for those who do want “something more”, apps like Lithomobilus do provide an opportunity that may be worth the effort to engage.img_0151

Lise’s publishing effort is called Zoetic Press, which publishes using the Lithomobilus app platform. She is Lise the CEO and founder of Narrative Technologies, which uses interactive and hypertext narrative tools to publish new kinds of literature.  Quintana was formerly the editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket, a literary journal of Antioch University Los Angeles. Previously she worked as a writer and project manager at various hardware and software companies in Silicon Valley. Quintana is on the Board of Trustees for Antioch University Los Angeles and formerly on the Board of Directors for Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Library.

Kevin Jack McEnroe: Our Town

September 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Our Town Cover978-1-61902-528-8-1 – Hardcover – $25.00 – Counterpoint – 229 pages
ebook versions available at lower prices

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

McEnroe, Kevin (no credit given)

David Wilk talks with Justo Hidalgo of 24symbols

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAI-AAAAJGU3OTczNDU2LTZjNzQtNDNlMi05NzI4LTVmZjllMjBkNDAxNgPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context of civilization and economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing. I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

24symbols is a service to read and share digital books in the cloud, working in any reading device that has an internet connection, and that gives users access to an international and multi-publisher’s catalogue – essentially a subscription model that competes with other subscription services like Scribd, Oyster and Amazon to provide readers with easy access to ebooks for a low monthly fee (currently $8.95 US) and of course provides publishers with access to readers outside of the traditional “buy one copy” model that is still the predominant form of book commerce. The offering to readers is pretty clearly described here. Of course, in terms of competition, it’s not just the other subscription services they are up against, but mainly the hegemony of dedicated reading devices and apps where readers are so used to shopping for ebooks.

24symbols, based in Spain, and strongest in Europe, has over 200,000 titles (and growing fairly quickly), and is now making inroads into the US market. It seems to me that a diversity of business models and ultimately some different ways for readers to read digitally is going to be a necessary groundwork for the growth in e-reading that so many in publishing have thought would have arrived by now.

Justo Hidalgo is a co-founder of 24symbols, a technologist and book lover, and someone whose thinking and energy I have long admired. I wanted to find out more about this company, and its plans for the future, as well as Justo’s current thinking about ebooks and digital reading. This interview will not disappoint those who are interested in different perspectives on the current digital book environment. Justo provides a broad range of stimulating ideas here.

Aside from 24symbols, Justo also teaches Product Strategy and Innovation at the Master’s Degree program in Industrial Design of Nebrija University, and Technology for Managers at the Nebrija Business School in Madrid, Spain. Justo is member of the Internet Society and Board Member and Mentor at Tetuan Valley.

Justo holds a Ph.D. from the University of A Coruña, Spain and a B.S. in Computer Science by the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. He has received training in Product Management, Product Marketing, Innovation and Creativity in the universities of Stanford and University of California Berkeley.

Some of his work and thoughts can be viewed on Twitter (@justohidalgo), his blog (in Spanish) and here (in English).

My apologies to listeners, as there were some recording difficulties with this interview, and while our fantastic tech team has done a great job cleaning it up, there are still some low level background noises during some parts of the interview.24symbols

Martin Goldsmith: Alex’s Wake

July 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

9780306823718978-0-306823-71-8 – DaCapo Press – paperback – 352 pages – $15.99 (ebook editions available at lower prices)

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 (1)

Next Page »