The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I bought The Accusation for the same reason I bought The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Nothing to Envy: I want to know what life is like in North Korea. I did not expect that Bandi's stories would also be great literature, but great literature they are. These seven stories shine a light onto life in North Korea, but they are also incredibly well-crafted, and remind me of the power that literature has to illuminate grave wrongs, and, ideally, to change the world.
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The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden was a book I couldn’t put down. Non-stop narrative momentum takes us from Macon to 1930s Harlem to 1940s Paris to Buchenwald to 1950s Trenton and beyond with many stops in between. Lives centered on blues and jazz elicit passages of pure poetry: “On Saturday nights, white hankie in hand, Lizard showcased his gift--blowing high notes that scraped the ceiling, notes so low people half-expected to see clefts and trebles scuttling across the floor. Happy notes, sad notes, sexy notes, deep-in-the-bone weary notes. Notes that recounted stories so primal, Lizard couldn’t have had an earthly acquaintance with them--but there they were, streaming from his trumpet like ribbons.”
Harlan builds a life out of his music that takes him places, though his parents’ home in Harlem remains the heart of it all. In Harlem he meets his “brother from another mother,” Lizard, brushes shoulders with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, drinks endlessly, smokes pot, sleeps with women, plays his guitar.
In the midst of all this living there’s tragedy. In youth and in adulthood come events so shocking and sad (and so brilliantly, memory-searingly written) that I had to put the book down and take deep breaths and wait for the numbness to fade before I could resume. Fortunately, McFadden has a deft touch when it comes to injecting humor into the story, and there were countless times where I found myself grinning or chuckling.
The Book of Harlan is a book about a life. A man and those who live in his orbit. The story of Harlan but also the story of his mother and father and friends and lovers. From the Harlem Renaissance to World War II to the Civil Rights Movement, here is the American history of a man and those who loved him. Read it.
And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East by Richard Engel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A solid mix of historical context and on-the-ground narrative. I've read a few books on the modern Middle East, but this is by far the best. He does an excellent job of spelling out the myriad reasons why the region is a mess, sharing a history stretching from the Crusades to the Wahhabi to the indiscriminate carving up of lands after WWI to the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Though don't think you're buying a solely historical account. At some points it's a travel book--the charms of the marketplace, the antiquities of Egypt, the dusty apartments. Mainly, though, it's the story of a journalist who's worked non-stop in the region since 1996, there from the height of the "big men" to the current chaos. Shot at, nearly bombed, kidnapped. Bearing witness to the atrocities like so many great journalists before him have (William Shirer kept coming to mind since I recently read his Berlin Diary). I cannot recommend this book enough--for the understanding you'll get of events central to our world, and for the addictive narrative that keeps you turning the pages.
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Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-41 by William L. Shirer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A wealth of information from a talented writer. From the Nuremberg rallies to the Nazi invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and France to midnight bombings in Berlin to the slowly unfolding story of the murder of the disabled, with brief respites with his wife and daughter (born in the madness in Vienna), Shirer battles censors and shrapnel, dicey flights and rationing, blacked-out streets and bomb craters, all to get the story of Nazi Germany back to the U.S. All of it ends with Shirer onboard a ship, watching Europe fade away: "For a time I stood against the rail watching the lights recede on a Europe in which I had spent all fifteen of my adult years, which had given me all of my experience and what little knowledge I had. It had been a long time, but they had been happy years, personally, and for all people in Europe they had meaning and borne hope until the war came and the Nazi blight and the hatred and the fraud and the political gangsterism and the murder and the massacre and the incredible intolerance and all the suffering and the starving and cold and the thud of a bomb blowing the people in a house to pieces, the thud of all the bombs blasting man's hope and decency." God, it's frightening what the Nazis did, the world they envisioned. Thanks to William Shirer for being brave enough to tell the story.
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Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
60 Minutes recently aired a report titled "Heroin in the Heartland" about the opiate epidemic in Ohio.* A long-time resident of Dayton and Columbus, it was an eye-opening report for me, and I wanted to know more. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones, is a well-researched, well-written, wide-ranging work of journalism about the opiate epidemic in the United States. Quinones tracks the black tar heroin trade from Xalisco, Mexico to communities all over the U.S., including Columbus and Portsmouth, Ohio. We hear the stories of dealers and doctors, addicts and law enforcement officers, parents and therapists. We see the human cost as teens and pain patients becoming addicted to Oxicontin after pharmaceutical salespeople sell doctors on the drug with the promise that its slow-release formula makes it hard to become addicted to. The evidence to back this claim? A letter to the editor--letter to the editor!--published in the New England Journal of Medicine and known as Porter and Jick. The letter highlights the findings of a single small study, but it was pitched as rigorous fact by pharmaceutical company Purdue as they marketed their opiate painkiller. Pain clinics that were nothing more than pill mills and a black market in prescription drugs followed, and when the price became too high, the black tar heroin was there to fulfill an economic need--cheap and high quality and as easy to get as ordering a pizza (as Quinones makes clear again and again). It's astounding the toll all of this has taken: ruined lives, impossible to kick addictions, and overdose deaths. Quinones covers all of this and more in a book that's important to read no matter how far removed from this problem you believe you are.
*Only after writing this review did I go to the author's blog, True Tales, and read his statements on the 60 Minutes piece and how he feels he should have received credit for his contribution to the story. He makes a strong argument and it's well worth checking out.
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How many times have you been immersed in a book when an author mentions a title and you have to drop everything to go find a pen and paper to scribble down a note to go hunt down the text? It happens to me all the time. Most recently, Anchee Min did it to me in her memoir The Cooked Seed when she talked about her love of Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre became the next book I read, and now I've got Wuthering Heights and Villette on deck. One brief mention of a book and I'm off in directions I never planned to go, and better off for it.
With that in mind, I have begun to create themed stores for my novels. The Ruin's Entrance store is up and running. Featured are books that inspired and informed the novel, books that characters read and were impacted by in the novel, and music that filled the characters' world. If you love Ruin's Entrance and want to get further into the history and literature that permeates it, you now have an array of works to choose from. It is my sincerest hope that you find something to your liking, and as has happened so many times to me, your curiosity takes you to places you'd never imagined you would go.
Back in high school when I had to share a car with my sister--it would have been the '83 Toyota Tercel that couldn't get to 65 even with the gas-pedal pressed to the floor--she wondered how I didn't fall asleep while listening to classical music as I drove. And I believe it was a Wagner cassette I had left in the car. Wagner! Come on, I mean, if it had been Debussy, maybe I’d understand. Maybe. But, anyway, fast-forward twenty-some years and my wife was playing an opera CD in her Odyssey when one of her friends asked, "How in the world can you stay awake listening to this stuff?" I think it's hard for some people to remember that Bach and Mozart didn't write background music for offices and studies. There's something going on here, and over the past two years, I've been on a mission to clear up some of my own ignorance on the subject. The good news and the bad news is that this mission will be a lifelong endeavor. There’s so much to know.
Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music isn’t a bad place to start. I found his self-admittedly artificial construct of three planes of listening enlightening. “For lack of a better terminology,” Copland wrote, “one might name these: (1) the sensuous plane, (2) the expressive plane, (3) the sheerly musical plane” (7). The school librarian who listens to Mozart while she catalogues new books and writes purchase orders is listening on the sensuous plane. Mozart as background music. Listen to the opening to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the romantic, rising, and ultimately unresolved dissonances (unresolved until Act 3, anyway), and you get the expressive (it’s about love--who hasn’t felt that much longing?) and sheerly musical (it’s done with dissonant chords that don’t resolve). Copland argues we spend too much time in the sensuous plane, but this isn’t so much a chastisement as it is a call to look a little deeper into the music.
Charles Ives, great American composer of the late-19th and early-20th century, is a composer who never bores me while I’m on that long commute to work. He confuses me. The first time I heard his Symphony No. 4 I wondered when it would begin--it sounded like an orchestra warming up. He makes me weak-kneed. Listen to the Michael Tilson Thomas recordings of the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 1, the third movement of his Symphony No. 2, and the third movement of his Symphony No. 4. Listen to "The Alcotts" in his “Concord” Piano Sonata. But what about something like the second movement of Ives’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano? Are any of the instruments aware of each other? It sounds like they’re all doing their own thing! I hear snippets of familiar melodies and then some raucous piano playing or stage fiddling diverts my attention. It’s like the ultimate ADHD nightmare--what the hell do I focus on?
Answer: Take your pick! Just focus!
It’s easy to imagine walking down a street at night in New York City with music leaking out of different establishments and coalescing into some glorious mess of different keys and rhythms and melodies. It’s the glorious mess that Ives captured so well. I’m nowhere near intelligent enough on the matter to explain how he makes it work (read the great Jan Swafford biography or check out what Michael Tilson Thomas has to say about the man), but it works.
I was driving to work one day soon after reading an explanation of what is going on in the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 4 (titled Comedy, appropriately enough--composers have senses of humor) when it struck me Ives had captured life in the 21st century. Our environment is full of stimuli--sound stimuli like sirens, horns, bells, chimes. Tactical stimuli like buzzing notifications, the depressing of a keyboard key. Add to that all the screens we’re surrounded by--surrounded by CNN at the airport, teachers spending entire planning periods in front of a monitor, children staring down at tablets. It’s all in the Comedy --the confusion and brief moments of clarity and beauty that rise up out of the fog (or is it storm?) of our daily lives. And then there’s the beauty of the whole. This music, it’s a day-in-the-life of just about any person, anywhere. There’s enough complexity in Ives (and in life) to keep a mind intrigued for a very long time. If I don’t let it just wash over me. If I pay attention to what it all means and how it all works.
So we come back to the critics of classical listening in cars. If some people consider classical music as great accompaniment for bookstore browsing and nothing more, then I understand why it would put them to sleep. But if people are listening for depth--what does it mean (in a general sense)? how did the composer do that?--then classical music will put demands on their attention they never knew were possible. Cool! Cooler yet is the way this focus impacts other areas of your attention.
Take the medium I work in, writing. I read plenty of mysteries and thrillers for sheer escape (the sensuous level?). But I also read plenty of books at deeper levels. Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, of course, but also modern greats like Russell Banks and Toni Morrison. Read Dennis Lehane and get “lose yourself in it” stories but also tremendous thematic depth. I also find that Aaron Copland’s three planes apply to a way of looking at life in general. Like every generation that’s walked this earth, there’s a lot going on around us, a lot of change, a lot of distraction. Do we simply accept what is? Mindless acceptance of the march of progress? Adopt these slick devices, the constant connectivity, a world of information at our fingertips? Or do we stop for a moment and think about what all the change means, and how it changes us? (Nicholas Carr and James Gleick are good guides.) Dig deeper into one art and you end up digging deeper into everything. Dig deeper into everything and you’ll never find yourself bored.
Source: Copland, Aaron, Alan Rich, and Leonard Slatkin. What to Listen for in Music. New York, N.Y: Signet Classics, 2011. Print.
Jason Isbell released Southeastern in June 2013. I haven't stopped listening to it since. It's brilliant, and I warn you that I'm going to gush about it all the way down to the first divider line. Okay, still with me? Southeastern is the most complete album from top to bottom since... since... Achtung Baby. Well, maybe that's a bit extreme. I'm sure I've neglected to think of many brilliant albums that were released between 1991 and 2013 (including two particularly good albums by Lisa Hannigan and a number of good albums by David Gray and...). Long story short, I've had a year to put away this album and I can't. Most recently it served as the soundtrack for a drive through the Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia (hmm... "Traveling Alone" goes well with that drive if I could block out the fact that I had my three kids, my niece, and my lovely wife in the car with me--I guess I'm thinking about how the song mentions mountains). Brilliant lyrics, soulful singing, strong musicianship. "Elephant" will rip your heart out, and along with "Relatively Easy" and "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" (my favorite of the bunch), they all give me chills. Literally, I have to turn the air-conditioning down on these. This is a guy who studied creative writing in college and whose apartment is littered with books. Don't take my word for it, find out for yourself. Check out the way "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" begins:
On a lark, on a whim,
I said there's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them.
And his fist cut the smoke
I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke.
And in the car, headed home,
She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone.
With a steak held to my eye,
I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye,
And another brief chapter without any answers blew by.
Then go check out the song. Then go buy the album: Amazon / iTunes.
Okay. Gushing over.
With the upcoming publication of Stay, Illusion, the second novel in the Marius Besshaven series, I feel I need to write a bit about book series. You see, I've been reading Nick Hornby's collected essays from The Believer, and in one of the essays he addresses book series, mystery series, and wonders how they go on and on, how all these bad things can happen in the lives of the main character of the series. Point taken, and since I'm writing a series where a lot of bad things happen in the lives of my characters, I've been thinking about this and how it applies to Marius's story.
In a series where a law-enforcement agent is the main character (Harry Bosch or Dave Robicheaux), it makes sense that bad things happen. In a series where the main character is a private eye (Elvis Cole or Kenzie & Gennaro), it makes sense. Then we get Myron Bolitar, sports agent. I never worried about all the trouble Bolitar consistently gets involved in--the books are too good! Then there's Lisbeth Salander, hacker/investigator. A woman with a rather fucked up past that is the basis for much of her story in the Millennium Trilogy.
So where does my character, Marius, fit in? Like Lisbeth, he's got a fucked up past. But he's not a hacker or investigator or private eye or police officer or... sports agent. He's an astronomy professor. And he's not battling society and its twisted system of guardianship like Lisbeth did. He's battling his own demons, their origin covered in Ruin's Entrance, and he's going to meet a real bad dude in Stay, Illusion. There's one more book to come (at the very least, as you'll see when you get to the end of Stay, Illusion). And after that? Marius will either be left in a good place, a bad place, or just left. For a while. Maybe forever. What I'm trying to say is it would be disingenuous for him to continue to get in trouble. Can't the man find peace? Are we interested in his story without the external element of some crime to solve? I'm interested, but interested enough to pour out 80,000 words exploring it? I like stories--reading them, telling them, so I don't foresee a plotless novel in Marius's future. No, no, no.
Anyway, you're going to have to wait a while for the third book in the series. I'm lucky I wrote the second one as quickly as I did. You see, a year ago I got 40,000 words into a novel that contains many of the elements of Stay, Illusion, but with the characters involved, it just wasn't working, and I instead turned my attention to finishing The Footnotes (now there's a series opportunity, and the rough draft is done on the second book!). Ruin's Entrance wasn't supposed to be the beginning of a series, but I wanted to know what happened next to Marius. And he fit in perfectly with that 40,000 word manuscript I'd put aside, so what if... A good match, I think. And I see the trouble involved in the third book as a natural outgrowth of the first, perhaps a way of bringing resolution to the lives of some of the characters. After that? I don't know. Maybe he lives out his academic life and nothing much exciting happens to him. Meaning his story will forever remain a trilogy. I'll have to wait and see.
All of this being a long-winded way of saying, I think Nick Hornby had a point. Of course he did. He's also brilliant. Like Jason Isbell, though in a different kind of way (see how I clumsily tied the first two parts of this together?).
Part the Third, then, deals with what I've learned during the last year of writing and publishing. Up until last summer I was content to write and never share any of my stories (and travel journals--lots of that) with anyone--writing's a hobby, something I love (and have loved since I was quite young), and I have a day job that pays a decent wage and affords me some free time. So all is good. No illusions about making a living off of writing (though it would be nice to be paid well to do this--I can't lie).
So a little over a year ago I let my first fully revised novel go into the world. I was scared to death. It's a vulnerable feeling, putting something you've worked so hard on out there for other people, strangers, to have a look at, to respond to. People who have read it seem to have enjoyed it. I was a little more confident with Ruin's Entrance, and, again, people seem to have enjoyed that one. (Feedback involves people saying they couldn't put it down and one person saying, 'Wow, you're messed up--but in a good way. That's a compliment.' Thanks, I think.)
So what have I learned?
I don't know what the next year of writing will have in store for me, other than I'll continue to write. Next up is, sorry, not the third Marius book. I got inspired down in Charleston and am finally writing the horror novel I've long wanted to do. Marius #3 will come after that--the idea is there. So, yes, another year full of writing. And maybe I'll learn some more about selling myself without doing things that make me cringe. And reach a few more people. I'd quite like that.
Hey, Jason Isbell didn't reach so many people without a little legwork, right? Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has so many (a veritable series) of great albums, does it? Okay. Enough with the clumsy attempts to tie these three disparate topics together. Signing off.
Today marks the conclusion of the first and heaviest round of revisions on Stay, Illusion, the sequel to Ruin's Entrance. What better time to talk a little about writing?
Stay, Illusion is now the third novel I've taken through revision (a number of rough drafts, including the sequel to The Footnotes, remain messy accumulations of words and ideas). I feel like the process of revision is getting a bit easier. It's not like prepping a rocket for launch. Lives are not at stake. However, persistence is required. My writing day starts at 5:00 a.m., seven days a week. I get as much done as I can before the kids wake up and I have to engage with the real world--mouths to feed, Lego creations to admire, summer camps and piano and guitar lessons to drive to. Such is the life of a father.
Round one (finished!):
Round two begins now:
And that's a brief view of the revision stages I go through. Publication of Stay, Illusion is probably at least a month away.
Gearing up for summer reading. I have quite a stack of books begging for attention. These titles are high on the list.
I'm hoping to make it to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, and catch Antony and Cleopatra. I don't know if Shakespeare qualifies as beach reading material, but nothing like a heavy dose of humanity while looking at the waves, right? There are other classics on the list as well, including Henrik Ibsen and Kurt Vonnegut. I'm also going to hit some favorite genres hard.NOS4A2 and Mr. Mercedes will give me my King family fill. I'd like to see if I can finally finish Lord of Chaos and Quicksilver--I've been working on both for a long time now! I'm getting close to being caught up with Robert Crais.
This will be a dynamic list--with additions and books that don't get read. Writing will take quite a bit of my time as I'll be finishing up revisions on the sequel to Ruin's Entrance and maybe, just maybe, the sequel to The Footnotes. And there's also the World Cup, a trip to Charleston, and other adventures as yet unknown. Can it be June yet?
Ray Stickle reads a lot and writes daily. For progress reports, updates on any upcoming releases, and the occasional thought or two, check here.