Tag Archives: WIRoB

Book Review: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 16 October 2017.

In Unbelievable, Katy Tur had me at her dedication. Rather than “For Mom” or “For Pooky-Bear,” it’s “For the love of God.”

Amen, sister.

In life, timing is everything, for good or ill. (“If I hadn’t decided to turn right at the corner just then, I never would have [met my soulmate] [been hit by that dump truck].”) Tur was a young NBC foreign correspondent living the life in London and spending romantic weekends in Paris, when a quick trip back to the States just happened to coincide with NBC’s decision to put someone on Donald Trump’s improbable (“ridiculous,” “hilarious”) presidential campaign.

Learning she was about to be tapped to follow him full-time, she called a veteran of earlier campaigns for advice. He told her to accept. “If you hate it, at least it will be short.”

Sure, it was funny at the time.

Trump’s bizarre love-hate relationship with Tur reared its head at the first campaign event she covered, just two weeks after his entry into the race. In the rain in a donor’s back yard in Bedford, New Hampshire, she was startled to hear him call her out, mid-speech, with a telling complaint, “I mean, Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me.”

Tur covered Trump longer than any other reporter, despite never having done political reportage before; without wanting to, she became part of the story she was covering. By not backing down in the face of personal attacks from her assigned candidate, or from the resulting death threats from his followers, she earned the respect of her colleagues, her own hashtag (#ImwithTur), and equal footing with her hero, Andrea Mitchell, as one of the indomitable “road warriors” of the campaign.

Plus, unlike most of the seasoned political reporters she found herself among, Tur, living as she was on a steady diet of packed and screaming Trump rallies across the U.S., never discounted the candidate’s chances of winning.

Tur takes an inspired approach to telling a story that we just finished living through — at least from our view in front of the stage. She slingshots back and forth between accounts from the long campaign (“May 23, 2015: 535 Days Until Election Day”) to the minute-by-minute ticking clock of Election Day itself. The stomach-clenching suspense is unexpected.

Along the way, she fills in the backstory of her from-birth training as a newshound and pulls the curtain back on the less-than-glamorous life of a press-corps journalist.

For those who still experience the election of 2016 as a raw, open wound, Tur’s intimate recounting may need to be read through splayed fingers. The rest of us just want video of the drunk Trump press corps’ early-morning election-day plane ride, with CNN’s Jeremy Diamond attempting to sled in the aisle during take-off, and Jim Acosta and Tur taking selfies with a passed-out Mark Halperin.

The author’s storytelling is earthy and accessible, and — as in the chapter, “Pop the Trunk. I’m Going to Run for It,” about dragging a couch-sized suitcase a mile through the snow to LaGuardia to beg her way onto an already-closed flight to Iowa — helps us to laugh through some of the otherwise truly chilling episodes she recounts of Trump’s whipping up his crowds against the “lying, disgusting” media, which often included his pointing out “back there…little Katy.”

In one telling episode, at a rally just days before Christmas in 2015, Tur spends a lovely, impromptu half-hour in the ladies room with a hair dresser and Trump supporter who offers to help her get her hair TV-ready. During the rally, Trump ruminates on the idea that Vladimir Putin kills reporters, and considers whether he might do the same. “I hate them, but I would never kill them.”

As usual, Trump’s press corps is corralled together behind barricades, as Tur observes, “caged in the center of the arena like a modern-day Roman Colosseum.” She notes the poinsettias, the wreaths, the holiday sweaters, “and the crowd is cheering about the idea of killing journalists…[T]o the lady who curled my hair in the bathroom, who is now somewhere in the crowd that is laughing at the idea of Trump killing me: Thanks, my hair looks great.”

Tur proved her mettle during a long and painful campaign, surviving that and much more — not the least of which was Trump’s grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her, apparently because he liked her relatively softball coverage of him moments before on “Morning Joe.”

Unbelievable.

Book Review: The Complete Ballet

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 October 2017.

Chances are good that you’ve never read a book quite like The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in FIve Acts, a genre-bending mix of dance criticism and novel/fictional memoir that is unique in concept and execution. It is by turns engaging, illuminating, ridiculous, funny, heart-wrenching, and educational.

Each of the five acts of the subtitle is focused on a famous ballet, the themes of which author John Haskell ties into his running story. The ballets are La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka. Not only does Haskell describe the stories the ballets relate, he discusses the history of their creation and famous productions, as well as the outsized personalities who brought them to life.

All the big names are illuminated here: Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov, and Sergei Diaghilev, the latter of whom “brought ballet into the twentieth century with the Ballets Russes, which he founded in 1909. Pavlova danced for him and Coco Chanel designed for him and Balanchine choreographed for him.” And he was paired for many years with the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Where did the author’s own interest in ballet originate? Page one introduces the writing of Arnold Haskell, the renowned ballet critic and force behind the Royal Ballet School. Coincidence? If there’s any relationship, it remains unacknowledged, though it would be interesting to know whether something about the shared last name prompted the idea for this intriguing project.

The unnamed first-person narrator, on the other hand, explains almost immediately that his interest in ballet began when his young daughter fell in love with The Nutcracker, and the two began reading ballet stories together.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re not hearing directly from the author. Repeated references to Arthur Haskell’s writing convey the sense that John Haskell and his narrator are alter-egos:

“Unlike Haskell, I’m not interested in writing a guide to dance. I’m trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing, like the moving body thinking itself into existence.”

In its barest outlines, Ballet’s “story,” set in the L.A. of the 1980s, relates, in bits and pieces, how our hero plunges deeply, desperately into debt to some truly dangerous characters, and where he goes from there. At the time, his life is shambles anyway, though he still seems hopeful enough to be seeking that version of himself and his life that might think or move or will itself into existence.

A case in point is the guy he thinks of as his best friend: Cosmo, a good-time schmoozer who owns a strip club. Though Cosmo is not a great role model, our hero keeps trying to act like him, hoping that it will stick and he’ll become that guy, but no luck. “Although his self-sufficient relaxation was worthy of emulation, when I tried to sit like he sat…I didn’t feel what sitting like him felt like.”

At the same time, the object of his hazy affection is one of the club’s dancers, Rachel, who also happens to be Cosmo’s girlfriend. It’s a classic ballet plot.

The narrator uses the stories of the ballets to echo his own, and to weave in details of his life, though it’s the story from an opera, Rigoletto (inspired by a Victor Hugo play, just as Giselle was inspired by a Hugo poem), of a father’s failed efforts to protect his beloved daughter, where he draws the closest parallel to his own life:

“And I don’t know if I ever had a curse laid on me but I remember watching my daughter, on her blue scooter, scooting along on the sidewalk in front of me, and she was a cautious person but don’t take your eyes off her for an instant, that’s what I told my wife and she told me but all it took was that one time she didn’t stop at the corner, and it was like a curse.”

The entire narrative has that breathless, stream-of-consciousness quality to it, helped along by the fact that, though there are section breaks, there are no paragraph breaks. In relating his story, our hero approaches and then backs away from various subjects, then returns to them later from another oblique angle. You can almost see the corps de ballet advancing, retreating, advancing, like waves on the shore.

In virtually every ballet, someone dies tragically. Often it’s the heroine, and very often she dies through the obtuse blundering or fickle-heartedness of her beloved. Sometimes both lovers die, but sometimes there’s a happiness to it, a transformation that allows them finally to be together on some other plane. It may not be as satisfying to the audience as a corporeal happy ending, but finding a measure of fulfillment at the ragged end of tragedy is hardly the worst outcome.

When, in The Complete Ballet, our hero finally achieves his own transformation, paradoxically willing himself into existence by disappearing into a different character, it’s more satisfaction than he or we might reasonably have hoped for.

The Joys and Sorrows of (Writing) Historical Fiction

This post originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 September 2017.

A friend of mine is an author whose favored genre is contemporary noir fiction—hard-boiled, edgy, dark. Since that’s what he writes, that’s also what he reads. Without prompting, though, he read my novel of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Washington, D.C., a story that could never be described as “edgy”. Graciously, he told me what he liked about it, but concluded by saying, “I write fiction so I can make [stuff] up. Historical fiction seems like way too much work.”

He’s got a point. Fiction is supposed to be fictional, right? Why go to the effort of having to do a ton of research and ensure detailed accuracy (because you know how those historical fiction fans are about that) when the story is supposed to be invented?

Sometimes I do find myself envying my contemporary fiction peers, who seem to have a much easier job of it. Historical novelists could pump out books a whole lot faster if they didn’t have to slow down for all that pesky research.

But even contemporary writers need to do research depending on the subject. If they’re writing about an unfamiliar field or area of expertise, or a different culture or geographical region, all of that takes investigation to get it right. But putting any of those issues two hundred — or two thousand — years in the past increases the extent and complexity of research by orders of magnitude.

Consider Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, a bestseller that received the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Leonard Award for a debut, along with many other accolades. The novel is astonishing in its sweep: not only does it span three hundred years, it spans three hundred years in parallel on two continents, inhabits multiple cultures on both continents, and changes the characters it follows with each new chapter. Even for an historical fiction writer, that’s an exceptionally tall order. But that scope was critical to the book she wanted to write, which shows the reverberations and repercussions of slavery across time, geography, culture, social fabric, and — most importantly —people.

When it comes to research, the danger for writers of historical fiction is knowing when to say when. Most learn to let the story drive the research, doing just-in-time homework to understand historical context or events, and to fill in the details.

The other peril of research is the author’s being so proud of what she’s learned (or having spent so much time learning it) that she wants to shoehorn it all in. The mark of a talented writer is that the story is infused with a sense of the time and place, and that any details are organic to the story and placed correctly in time — so that a character in 1920 would button a garment rather than zip it.

The trick for authors is to understand for themselves what something looked like, how it worked, or how it was used at that time so that the words they choose are appropriate. No contemporary fiction author would describe what a telephone looks like, and neither should an historical fiction author, but he needs to be capable of picturing the phone his character is using, and to be aware, for example, that the phone is connected to a party line.

Historical fiction tends to go in and out of popularity over time. Twenty years ago, when Richard Lee established the Historical Novel Society (HNS), he says, “it was a genre everyone said was dead. Or if not dead, it was at the nadir of fashion.” Now, a reader can find historical fiction in every single sub-genre imaginable: romance, mystery, horror, thriller, YA, LGBT, sci-fi, and fantasy. Westerns are by definition historical, as is Steampunk, a relatively new addition to the histfict cannon. Of course, there is also the “alternative history” sub-genre of historical fiction.

I write reviews for the Historical Novels Review, HNS’s quarterly publication. Each issue contains hundreds of reviews, organized by general time period, beginning with prehistoric, and moving through biblical, classical (that is, ancient Greece or Egypt) into the centuries from first through twentieth, then on to the hard-to-categorize, such as “timeslip” — think Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. A committed reader could read nothing but Edwardian or Regency-era fiction and never run out of books; I’ve heard (but have no evidence myself) that books of U.S. historical fiction, particularly early to mid-twentieth century, are especially “hot” right now.

So when people tell me, “Oh, I love historical fiction,” it’s a natural impulse for me to ask, “Yes, but what kind?”

For anyone asking why an author would bother with the extra labor that comes with historical fiction, part of the answer may be that there is a huge market for it. But for most writers, I think, it’s that even the most cursory glance backwards can generate a lifetime of compelling story ideas. So often, a writer will catch a snippet of an historical account and just know there’s a great story in there, with just “a little” digging. Author Carrie Callaghan saw a seventeenth-century self-portrait of Dutch painter Judith Leyster hanging in the National Gallery of Art. Carrie’s debut novel, A Light of Her Own (due out next November from Amberjack Publishing), is a direct result of that encounter.

I look for ideas everywhere.  I review a lot of non-fiction, both for HNS (yes, even the fiction guys read non-fiction sometimes) and for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Often, I choose books because I think I’ll find interesting historical information that might be useful later, such as in Greg Jenner’s A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, and Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic, by William M. Fowler Jr. — and, yes, I did, in both cases.

For myself, I write historical fiction to remove myself — and, I hope, my readers — from the clutter of the known, everyday “here” and to go to a different place, to be, as it were, transported. I also find that it’s sometimes more effective to make an observation about the lives that we live today by approaching that point from a remove, through the reflection of history. My current project takes place in the U.S. of the early twentieth century, but I’m drawn to the specific topics because of the parallels to today’s social, cultural, and political climate. Writing a contemporary story about these same issues, while we’re in the midst of them, would, to my mind, feel too raw, and would overshadow the story I want to tell. Coming at a subject obliquely allows readers to put their guard down and simply let the story seep in.

And no matter what kind of fiction an author is writing, any reader knows: we just want a good story.

The Datum is Clear: Language Shifts in Real Time

This Write Now column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on  24 August 2017.

Back in June in this column, I ruminated about the decline of editing as a valued element of the book-publication process. That column anticipated by about ten days the brouhaha that erupted at the New York Times when its management decided to eliminate a copy desk and spread its duties out among the remaining editors.

A scathing open letter from editors to Executive Director Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn was followed by a walkout on June 29th by what even the Times characterized as “hundreds” of newspaper staff.

(Lest we think that the term “copy desk” denotes one or two rumpled, ink-stained grammar curmudgeons, the desk under discussion consists of more than 100 editors, who are now forced to compete, gladiator-style, for about 50 editing positions.)

Social media loves to find and skewer the burgeoning examples of copyediting fails, such as the East Oregonian’s now-famous “Amphibious Pitcher” headline (even funnier that the word the headline writer was casting about for appears in the second sentence of the article), and the Kennebec Journal’s headline trumpeting, “Trump warns of ‘fire and furry.’”

The same day as the “furry” headline, I was heartened to see the Washington Post headline, “Data shows an unabated opioid crisis,” not because I’m happy about the crisis, but because I welcome the common acceptance of data as a collective, singular noun. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read articles whose authors and editors have the most tenuous grasp of proper usage but remain punctilious in treating data as plural.

I don’t have the Post style guide in front of me, but I’m guessing they’ve gone all in on data-as-singular, while both The Chicago Manual of Style and language god Steven Pinker (who describes himself as being in the “fussy minority” on this point) sigh wistfully in acknowledging the gradual shift from plural to singular.

Really? Why?

Yes, of course data is the plural of datum, but can anyone define what a datum is, or cite the last time it was ever used meaningfully? (I wonder if Steven would shudder at my use of media as a collective, singular noun a few paragraphs back.)

This is an instance where I’m all for the language shifting to what makes sense, not remaining frozen in etymological purity.

These gradual but somewhat predictable shifts are being replaced, courtesy of that pesky all-connectedness of social media — and, perhaps, a lack of editing — by sudden, surprising leaps. I’ve been watching one of these with personal fascination.

For many years, I have wondered about a word that, as far as I can tell, is missing from the English lexicon: one that means the worst, basest form of cynicism, the kind that uses naked manipulation to achieve a morally corrupt end. Given the number of times in modern history that such a phenomenon begged to be described, you’d think that our ever-elastic language would have evolved one.

I kept circling back to craven as having exactly the right sound and feel of the word I’ve been searching for, but, of course, craven — though its origins are cloudy — means cowardly, defeated, abjectly fearful.

A few years ago, however, I was pulled up short in reading an article in which the author used craven in exactly the way that I wanted to use it, even though there is no support for such usage. Sure, great minds think alike, but where was the editor saying, “Wrong word, buster!”?

Suddenly, though, the somewhat archaic word craven has begun popping up in mainstream usage all over the place, and it’s quite the education to watch its usage and implied meaning shift in real time.

Let’s take a walk through just a few instances over the last handful of weeks, ordered to illustrate a shift in meaning (all of these are from my go-to daily, the Washington Post, except where noted):

“Others on the GOP side have as well, but they are — how to put this delicately? — too cowardly in most instances to do anything about it. But McCain? Why should he now — of all times — suddenly stoop to their level, the level of craven politician?” — Jennifer Rubin, 25 July, “Why has McCain returned?”

“There was craven, cover-your-behind politics at work that had high costs and promoted anxiety worldwide.” — David Rothkopf, 9 August, Global Opinions, “A rogue state squares off against a rogue head of state.”

“The least respected of today’s leaders are, of course, politicians. The public largely views them as craven and cowardly, pandering to polls and focus groups.” — Fareed Zakaria, 17 August, “The mealy-mouthed cowardice of America’s elites after Charlottesville.”

“It was a day of craven ignorance and cynicism that moved the presidency of the United States away from global leadership into a narrow little niche of ideological, political self-preservation.’’ — John Kerry, quoted by Matt Viser in the Boston Globe, 2 June, “Kerry says Trump’s decision was ‘a day of craven ignorance’” (on the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord).

“Such a cravenly cynical quote — with its tacit acknowledgment that a major change in social policy was announced with partisan advantage in mind — is both breathtaking and scandalous.” — James Hohmann, 27 July, the Daily 202, “Growing GOP backlash to transgender troop ban underscores Trump’s political miscalculation.

“But because the Trump Organization and related companies haven’t seen fit to produce their own goods in the United States, that means either their products aren’t the best or Trump is engaged in a craven manipulation of his fans. Or both.” — Sarah Posner, 17 July, the Plum Line, “Trump’s ‘Made in America’ week is a hypocritical joke.”

It’s Posner’s use of craven in that last instance that nails the new definition (“cynicism manifest in naked manipulation to achieve a morally corrupt end” — J. Yacovissi), but it’s easy to sense the flavor that the word is taking on as it steeps in its new favorite-word status. Certainly, with politics squarely at the center of every one of these uses, the shift in meaning is not a big leap, since so much of politics appears to involve an abject fear of defeat that leads to all sorts of twisted manipulation.

(For an entire article that embodies this new definition of craven, read Amy Davidson Sorkin’s 24 July New Yorker article, “When Anthony Scaramucci fell in love with Donald Trump.”)

What’s most fascinating to me is that we’ve all been drawn, somewhat independently, to the same word. Development of language is much like the development of case law: Once the first instance appears, subsequent ones point back to it as their definitive source.

I do wonder whether this particular shift has been made with the consent of, or due to the absence of, copyeditors. Will language change faster now that editing is less prevalent? Hmmm. Before we can say, we’ll need to collect another datum or two.

Book Review: The Shark Club

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 12 July 2017.

Here is a book that commands its readers to sit above the tide line, toes idly excavating sand divots, beneath an umbrella throwing deep shade under a cloudless blue sky. The sun-drenched Florida locale is so strong that if you’re not somewhere comparable, your longing will make it tough to concentrate.

This ultimate beach read is the debut novel of Ann Kidd Taylor, daughter of acclaimed novelist Sue Monk Kidd. The two previously collaborated on a bestselling memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, in which young Ann ponders her direction in life. Apparently, her direction is to go into the family business.

It’s not a bad choice. The Shark Club is a beach read with a brain, anchored as it is in its first-person narrator, Dr. Maeve Donnelly. Maeve is a marine biologist who specializes in sharks, and who spends as much time as possible pursuing their research the world over. Maeve has loved sharks from the time she was bitten and nearly killed by one — coincidentally, seconds after her first kiss with her first love, Daniel.

Maeve’s backstory is related through a combination of straight-up exposition and occasionally a more nuanced revisiting of crucial episodes. Before the shark incident, at age 6, Maeve and her twin brother, Robin, were suddenly orphaned when their parents’ small plane crashed in the Everglades.

Since then, they have lived with their grandmother Perri in the literary-themed hotel she owns on an island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Daniel, three years older, befriended them both soon after they arrived. He is a kindred damaged spirit since his father simply up and left one day, abandoning Daniel and his mother.

Taylor has good impulses, but she needs to give this story more room to breathe and let things play out organically. Her tendency to tell rather than show speeds the narrative along but stymies our ability — or desire — to invest in the characters. The formative things that happen to these people feel more like convenient plot points than critical elements that shape who they become.

The most fully realized character here, the one that Taylor gets pitch perfect in three dimensions, is Hazel, Daniel’s 6-year-old daughter — and the overt reason Daniel and Maeve are no longer together. Silly, serious, and completely unselfconscious in that way of young children who haven’t yet been molded into conformity, she is the rare child character for whom the term “precocious” isn’t code for “irritating.” Hazel is a fan of prehistoric sea creatures and carries around a dinosaur messenger bag filled with supplies for whatever adventure she’s currently on.

She and Maeve meet on the beach just as Maeve arrives home again to the Hotel of the Muses for a few months in between a long research stint in Bimini and an upcoming trip to Mozambique to study whale sharks. Just as she was leaving Bimini, Maeve struck up a nascent romance with fellow researcher Nicholas.

It only takes a few minutes for Maeve to realize that she’s talking to Daniel’s daughter, the product of a fling that Daniel had while Maeve was away on her first big research trip — a trip that caused her to postpone their wedding.

After learning of his dalliance and impending fatherhood, she cancels the wedding and never speaks to him again. But here is Hazel, and with her, Daniel, now an acclaimed local chef running the hotel’s restaurant. He’s moved them back in with his own mother now that Hazel’s mother has — honestly? — recently died.

In with all of this, Maeve discovers that someone is running a local shark-finning operation, the horrifying and illegal practice of catching sharks, slicing off their dorsal fins and tails, and throwing them back in the water to die in order to supply the black-market demand for shark-fin soup.

And last, Maeve’s brother, Robin, a charming ne’er-do-well who’s been a failed writer for years, has a book contract. Only Maeve doesn’t clue into why Robin is so gravely insistent that she read the novel he’s written.

Taylor gives her characters significant baggage, but provides only cursory follow-through in illustrating what it means to them. She needs to signal to her readers that at least she understands that Maeve and Daniel (or, for that matter, Maeve and Robin) in their 30s have no greater capacity or willingness to hold an adult conversation than they did seven years earlier, and that perhaps this is one of the common effects of their shared abandonment. It’s only in considering Hazel that they demonstrate real maturity.

Perhaps it’s not fair to demand that level of depth; after all, this is vacation reading, and Taylor absolutely knows how to keep the pages turning. It simply feels that with a little more investment, she could have delivered a whole cast of believable, well-rounded characters to go along with her young star.

 

Book Review: G-Man

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 23 June 2017.

Bob Lee Swagger is getting older these days. It’s to be expected, of course, given that we’ve known him now for almost 25 years, ever since meeting him in Point of Impact (possibly better known to folks by its movie title, “Shooter”).

In this 10th in Stephen Hunter’s popular series, Bob is now 71 and taking inventory of the many ways his body is starting to betray him. Puttering around his Idaho homestead, he obviously needs a project. One lands in his lap when he hears about the strongbox that’s been unearthed on his family’s old place back in Arkansas.

The contents obliquely point to Bob’s enigmatic grandfather, Charles, but present a puzzle. In part, the box holds an old-but-mint-condition gun, an uncirculated $1,000 bill, an apparent treasure map, and a badge from the Division of Investigation — the short-lived name for what soon became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was only called the Division for a single year, in 1934.

That year was both formative and legendary for the brand-new federal organization. In the teeth of the Depression, notorious bank robbers were using jurisdictional boundaries to evade local law enforcement, which demanded the use of a new federal force charged with the pursuit of these public enemies across all borders, to capture or kill.

A small problem, though: “Our Director…envisioned a scientific national police force, incorruptible, untainted by ego, vanity, and politics. Alas, as we have learned, that also meant untainted by experience, toughness, cunning, and marksmanship. Lawyers make poor gunfighters.”

Enter Sheriff Charles Swagger, steel-willed marksman who has already made his chops in battle during the Great War and by singlehandedly taking out three bad guys in a gunfight earlier in his career. Charles is a no-nonsense man who keeps a low profile, and G-Man inserts him into the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde in May 1934.

His desire to stay out of the papers puts Charles on the radar of the Division, which — after a disastrous gun battle with John Dillinger’s gang at Little Bohemia that April — understands it is in desperate need of men who know how to shoot.

Shooting, of course, is what the Swagger men know how to do. Bob grasps this well, though he never knew his grandfather, or even very much about him, since his own beloved father Leon never talked about him.

Bob finds the thought of Charles vaguely frightening; the one thing he does know is that his grandfather ended up a hopeless drunk. But the strongbox is a direct link to the man, and, really, who could resist trying to solve this mystery?

Hunter has some fun with the structure of the story, which follows three primary characters: Bob in the present sleuthing through scant clues to piece together what happened with his grandfather in 1934; Charles as he joins Melvin Purvis and Sam Cowley in the manhunt for Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and the rest; and Lester Gillis himself — devoted husband and father, and gun-crazy killer, who usually punched or shot anyone who dared to call him Baby Face, a nickname he despised.

Those three characters, along with their author, share an appreciation for well-made firepower, and parts of the book read like a dreamy-eyed love letter to the massive, manly guns of old — a Thompson machine gun with a full drum weighed something like 50 pounds — and readers are treated to an apprenticeship in gun-smithing and craft.

For the Swaggers, they find beauty in the precision engineering and craftsmanship, joy in the working of the instrument. For Les, holding a gun simply brings on a blood fever to use it. He is the most dangerous man among the outlaws.

Bob is a fascinating guy, but his detective work — and his being trailed by two nasty fellows who want what he’s got — can’t compete with our experience of riding shotgun with both the G-Men and the gangsters, which is where the story sizzles.

Our interest in the present is further hindered by the fact that we end up knowing far more than Bob does about what went on with Charles, so we can feel a little smug as we sit back and watch him try to piece it together.

Ultimately, there is something unsatisfying in how Bob finally learns the full story, on top of which we know he doesn’t learn the full story. Bob never gets to know Charles the way that we do — his principles and moral code, the high standards that drove him and the demons that plagued him. Only Charles knew that, and he wasn’t talking.

Perhaps, though, that unfinished business lays the groundwork for the next Bob Lee Swagger story. After all, there’s still plenty of Swagger left.

Too Big to Edit?

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 June 2017.

As a member of the National Book Critics Circle, I had both the privilege and pleasure of reading all six of the finalists for the 2016 John Leonard Award, given for an author’s first book.

Of the six, I felt that five were exceptional, while the sixth was merely well done. When I mentioned my reading assignment to a friend — a successful author — he made a face at the idea of having to read a bunch of debut authors.

His reaction made me laugh. Some of the best novels I’ve ever read are debuts. To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone? (We will leave a discussion of the travesty of Go Set a Watchman for another time.)

One book that is as close to a “perfect” novel as I’ve experienced won the first Leonard prize, in 2013: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (reviewed for the Independent by Rimas Blekaitis). Marra’s triple-threat command of plot, character, and language is breathtaking.

The writing strength of debut authors is one of the primary discoveries I’ve made since starting to read as a reviewer. These days, if I’m looking for topnotch literature and the choice is between a veteran and a newcomer, I’ll take my chances on the newbie.

As I noted in a column for Late Last Night Books on a similar subject (“When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”): “Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically ‘showed promise,’ and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command.”

In contrast, I’m finding more seasoned authors whose latest works lack focus and coherence, and instead become, frankly, self-indulgent. What’s going on? Is it that publishers believe people will simply buy based on a name, and the content no longer matters? Do the authors think they’re too good to be edited?

If so, they’re both wrong.

Consider, for example, Emily Jeanne Miller’s review of Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch: “I’ve wondered if these rapturous reviewers actually read the book’s second half…The problem is [Tartt] (or her editor) didn’t know when to say when; instead, the details and descriptions, often of places, people, or events that have no bearing on the plot, abound, weighing the story down and ultimately becoming irritating. I found myself flipping through the pages, skimming over conversations and scenes to see if anything would actually happen, which often it did not.”

David O. Stewart’s hilariously frustrated review of James Lee Burke’s House of the Rising Sun details a litany of authorial self-indulgence and editorial failings — though it’s hard to imagine that Burke would suffer anyone to edit him.

And it was obvious to me as I wrote my own recent review of David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama that the author had run out of time, word count, or both when he decided to compress nine years of campaign and presidency into a 50-page epilogue. “The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.”

As anyone associated with the publishing business knows, editing is increasingly the victim of shrinking margins and brutal competition. When anyone can publish anything at any time at little cost and thereby join in the elbow-throwing scrum for readership, editing gets left on the sidelines. Stories are rampant of how few editors remain on staff at the big publishing houses.

So why does it seem that debut books get the lion’s share of the editing? Possibly because the first book has to be strong in order to make the author’s name. Plus, rather often, the person who does the primary editing of a debut is the agent.

That’s certainly earning your 15 percent.

All of this is a bad strategy. Publishers may be saving money in the short run, and they may con readers into shelling out 25 or 30 bucks for that first poorly edited mishmash by an acclaimed author, but chances are those readers won’t make that mistake again. Life’s too short to read bad books.

As a committed reader, I want publishers big and small to embrace the mantra that good editing makes good books. In fact, I suggest a book that’s set to come out this October be required reading for any outfit calling itself a publisher. The book is What Editors Do (University of Chicago Press), and it’s edited by the inestimable Peter Ginna. (When you’re selected to edit a book about editing, you are officially the Jedi Master of your craft.)

I will totally own my word-nerd status by declaring I can’t wait to get a copy of this book. They had me at the first two sentences of the pre-pub synopsis: “Editing is an invisible art where the very best work goes undetected. Editors strive to create books that are enlightening, seamless, and pleasurable to read, all while giving credit to the author.”

Plus, there’s that acknowledgement of “the economic realities of publishing. What Editors Do shows why, in the face of a rapidly changing publishing landscape, editors are more important than ever.”

Can I have an “Amen!”?

By the way, if you don’t know, Yaa Gyasi won this year’s Leonard prize for her novel Homegoing (read Tara Campbell’s review here). Gyasi is a supremely talented young writer, and her debut is stunning in its scope and complexity. She deserves every bit of acclaim she’s received. Offhand, I don’t know who her editor is, but I’m sure hoping they stick around for her next book.

 

Write Now: Of Pitching and Publishing

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 11 May 2017.

Recently, I was listening to literary agent Malaga Baldi expound on the kind of books that pique her interest. What she described were not big-ticket thrillers, YA dystopian fantasies, or anything with “Girl” in the title.

She was talking about intimate, quirky books that had something unique to say in an appealing, engaging voice. As she spoke of what she finds exciting in the kinds of stories she represents, I thought, “Yes, exactly! I would want to read those books!”

Perhaps you were listening to Malaga, too, since she was speaking at the Friday night “How to Pitch an Agent” panel at the fifth-annual Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference, held at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center on April 28th-29th.

I had the pleasure (and — I won’t kid you — sleep-depriving terror) of being this year’s conference chair. I’ve been volunteering at the Independent since I signed up at the second conference in 2014 — first as an assignments editor, then as a reviewer, a conference committee member, the chair, and, starting today, as a monthly columnist. Taking advantage of that impeccable timing, I wanted to recap some of this year’s conference highlights.

As always, the big draw of the conference was a powerful combination of pitch opportunities and publishing luminaries. When every attendee has the chance to pitch a manuscript or book proposal to several agents selected from a roster of 20, the electricity around the pitch room is palpable. Independent president David O. Stewart likened the buzz to “being by a nuclear reactor, there is so much energy.”

This year, the lucky winner of our drawing for a free conference registration — whose enthusiasm was truly infectious — managed to schedule pitch sessions with seven agents over the course of the day, and all of them asked to see a few pages or his full manuscript.

We also understand that one of our agents offered an attendee representation on the spot. Success stories like this emerge from every conference, which is what keeps both our attendees and our agents returning year after year.

But as great as the pitch opportunities are, they’re only part of the story. With Judith Viorst as this year’s keynote speaker, and panelists who included Washington Post Book World editor Ron Charles, fellow longtime Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, legendary children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and 2017 PEN/Bingham prize winner Rion Amilcar Scott, attendees found themselves inspired, entertained, and motivated.

Panels this year included genre focus on ghostwriting, memoir, biography, children’s literature, and short stories, and on such topical issues as bridging racial and cultural divisions through literature, writing about war — with a focus on current ongoing conflicts — and on the use of illness or disability as a literary device.

In his discussion on “the State of Books” with author Susan Coll, Ron Charles remarked that simply keeping up with the onslaught of 150 books a day arriving at the Post is “like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory,” and, at best, the Post is able to review 1,000 of the approximately 55,000 books it receives each year. His advice is to market to women in book clubs, because that’s where the high-volume sales are these days.

On the panel “Across the Cultural Divide,” classics professor and epic poetry lover Carolivia Herron shared that her children’s book Nappy Hair is still banned in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland. On the same panel, Neely Tucker (a white man and Washington Post reporter) noted that many people mistake his byline as belonging to an African-American woman. “One reader wrote, ‘I can tell from your writing that you hate white men.’ I thought about it and wrote back, ‘You might be right. I can’t think of a single white man I’ve ever wanted to date.’”

Kelly Kennedy, author of They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq, told powerful, wrenching stories from her time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Jack Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life, alluded to where he believes the disgraced president is spending eternity when he said, “I envision Dick Nixon looking up at us all…”

Finally, beyond both pitches and panels, one of the most valuable and enduring outcomes of the conference each year is the connections that attendees make. In 2016, for example, a writers’ group formed as a result of the conference and has been meeting all year; four of the six members were back again at this year’s conference.

Certainly, my own experience has been that the Independent encourages and nurtures a community of writers and readers from which we all benefit, and there’s a lovely symmetry to a book-review site holding a conference focused on helping authors find a path to publication.

Consider the Washington Writers Conference trifecta of an author pitching at the event, garnering a book deal, and having the resulting work reviewed in the Washington Independent Review of Books. That could be you. So between now and next year’s conference, all of us at the Independent wish you a productive year of writing!

Want to hear more about the 2017 Washington Writers Conference? Veteran journalist and conference stalwart Gene Meyer offers a great wrap-up on his website, and you can see photos on our Facebook page, where the video summary will soon be posted!

 

Book Review: Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 May 2017.

On March 28, 1980, Wisconsin Steel of South Chicago, with zero prior notice, sent its workforce home and locked its gates. In many cases, the people who had labored at the mill their entire working lives — having built a comfortable middle-class life without benefit of a college or even high school degree — never found another job.

Recounting this economic catastrophe is the gripping first chapter in Rising Star, David J. Garrow’s practically day-by-day accounting of the pre-presidential life of Barack Obama.

That opening sets the stage to explain how the Columbia University graduate ended up in Chicago as a community organizer. Before we get there, though, Garrow pulls back into the fascinating pre-history of Obama’s parentage, and then moves forward through his upbringing, education, and gradual migration into politics.

Perhaps there is little here that is entirely new or revelatory; after all, there truly are no skeletons in the Obama closet. Certainly, the voting public heard and read endless reporting on Obama’s background and life story — some of which was even true — during his candidacy and two terms as president, but Garrow goes much deeper, provides far more detail, and connects all the disparate pieces in the detailed step-by-step of what went into, as his subtitle says, The Making of Barack Obama.

At 1,076 pages of narrative and 270 more of notes, this firehose of primary research will be foundational to future Obama biographers, but it is hardly the book for casual readers. Like many painstakingly thorough biographers, Garrow appears to have included any fact he uncovered, however tangential it might be. Nonetheless, it is a surprisingly compelling read and should appeal to political junkies and insiders.

Oddly, though, after the meticulous detail that carries the reader through a thousand-plus pages to the moment that Obama announces his candidacy for president, the next nine years are summarily dispatched with in just under 50 pages of an epilogue. The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.

Garrow, after spending nearly a decade on this effort, cannot be accused of harboring undue affection for his subject. The author telegraphs his disdain in ways both large and small, and nowhere more so than in that breakneck epilogue, which offers not only a scathing survey of Obama’s failings in office, but also an assessment of “the tragedy of Barack Obama.”

There is much to parse through, but it does sometimes seem that Garrow’s analysis strains in a molehill-to-mountain attempt to illustrate what he sees as Obama’s central lack of character or moral compass.

And yet: Here is a dark-skinned man who was essentially abandoned by his white mother to be raised by his white grandparents in thoroughly multicultural Hawaii, who, as a 10-year-old, met his African father exactly once, and who did not have a single adult black role model, but who entered adulthood in the mainland U.S., where skin color is white society’s sole arbiter of cultural identity.

Given that, how surprising can it be that Obama needed to forge his own identify and essentially will himself into being? Or that, once on a political path, he would carefully curate the image he wished to project and select the pieces of himself to share or to conceal?

More particularly, Obama’s political career was established and honed in what is certainly in the top handful of notoriously corrupt political systems in the U.S., and still he came out on the other side pretty clean.

To be sure, the portrait that emerges of Obama may be disappointing for his staunch supporters, if only in that it shows that he is not a paragon — though it’s hard to imagine what adult could withstand this level of scrutiny and remain admirable. Obama demonstrates himself to be thin-skinned and prickly, distant and aloof, superior and dismissive. He showed a disheartening penchant for leaving behind without a backward glance people who often worked harder than he did to get himself elected to statewide and national office.

The primary issue, though, seems to be his inability to keep to the right side of the point at which political pragmatism shifts from being a refreshingly balanced, bipartisan give-and-take to becoming a spineless or expedient sacrifice of principles.

There are many examples showing Obama’s willingness to thoroughly explore and listen to all sides of any issue, and to cogently argue positions that he was personally against. When the Democrats finally won the Illinois congressional majority while Obama was a state senator, and while he was preparing for his U.S. Senate run, he worked closely with Illinois law enforcement to address their concerns over his bill to videotape all police interrogations in possible capital cases. He didn’t need to, but doing so won the bill universal and enthusiastic support from all its constituencies, and burnished his reputation as a uniting figure.

As he moved up in political visibility, though, he became far more concerned about optics. Again during his run for U.S. Senate, he voted “present” (basically a “no” vote) on a bill he had co-sponsored, because he was attempting to garner an endorsement from the labor union on the losing end of that bill. Both winning and losing unions were furious at him — though eventually he got both endorsements.

More problematically, in that same timeframe, he let go of one of his longtime loyal staffers because she was a headscarf-wearing member of the Nation of Islam and he felt he couldn’t afford that association — and this was long before the Obama-as-Muslim firestorm.

The “tragedy” of Obama, if there is one, perhaps lies in his premature rise to national celebrity when he could have benefited from a longer period of political seasoning. From his days as a community organizer and with each race he ran, Obama said that he was searching for the spot from which he could truly make good, lasting things happen for regular folks.

And now here he is: a young, charismatic former president who never needs to run for office again. Perhaps with that freedom and national platform, he can prove his sincerity by returning to his roots as a community organizer and rallying a newly energized national community to make good, lasting things happen.

Book Review: At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 4 April 2017.

It’s an enduring if hoary image: With a steely eyed, thousand-yard stare, a man stands alone at the edge of a vast desert, rifle in hand, sun-bleached kepi hat casting a shadow across his rough-hewn visage. Perhaps he is replaying for himself the missteps in life that brought him here, for he is society’s outcast, a man without a country: He is a soldier of the French Foreign Legion.

If this were a scene in any of the dozens of cinematic treatments of the legion, at this point the camera might pan wide (as the music swells) so the audience sees the battalion of brave legionnaires arrayed behind our lone antihero, as a line of Arabian horsemen crests the sand dune and charges.

Author Jean-Vincent Blanchard dissects the facts and fiction behind the legendary outfit in this wide-ranging, heavily researched discussion of the history, culture, defining characteristics, and raison d’être of the French Foreign Legion.

In many ways, this is a biography of one of the primary sculptors of the legion’s character, General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey, who spent much of his army career in command of legion forces and was a principal architect of its longstanding presence — first in Vietnam and later in Morocco — in support of French colonial expansion.

The legion was born in 1831 when France found itself with a surfeit of unemployed immigrants and a nascent colonial enterprise in Algeria. Forming army regiments out of idle foreigners solved two problems: It gave those people jobs to keep them out of trouble, and it allowed France to avoid the political fallout of sending its citizens overseas to fight and die.

After Napoleon III’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, a sharp division solidified between the legion, as France’s force for colonization, and the homeland army, whose French citizenry stayed put to protect the borders from further German incursion.

In Algeria in 1841, Governor-General Robert Bugeaud gave the legion its first dose of true military discipline and leadership, as well as its first decisive victories over an entrenched foe, the Emir Abdelkader. At the same time, though, he introduced them to brutal, scorched-earth warfare. It was here that the strong bonds of legion tradition first took hold. Men likened joining the legion to joining a monastery, with less religion and more blood.

Enter Lyautey. A true believer in the value of French colonialism, he wanted to conquer by demonstrating the benefits of French civilization, to encourage Francophilia through a method dubbed tache d’huile, “oil slick”: a persistent, pervasive spreading of France’s culture in all the places it touched. The men of the legion included engineers, craftsmen, and artisans who could be put to use in infrastructure improvement and building projects in between pitched battles.

For a man of his time, Lyautey could be considered enlightened, since he had honest respect for Arab and Islamic traditions, and his protection of those traditions won him a measure of favor with Moroccans.

He was equally popular with the legionnaires he commanded, since he also treated them with an evenhandedness and respect that was otherwise often in short supply. He shared with them their tendency toward periods of dark brooding called le cafard — the cockroach — that burrowed into a legionnaire’s brain during long, lonely nights in the jungle or desert. In sympathy, he forgave them their hard drinking and carousing, knowing that a cry, anywhere, of “la legion!” would summon every legionnaire within hearing distance, no questions asked.

Still, for all the bonds of loyalty and brotherhood that made this a fighting force to be reckoned with, it is hard to square the activities of the legion with anything that can remotely be termed “heroic.”

Perhaps Lyautey viewed other cultures with some measure of respect, but he certainly led his share of slaughter at the pointy end of colonization. And despite the theory of a civilizing oil slick, the indigenous populations were never given to share in the riches of the folks who crashed in, guns blazing, to set up shop and milk the surrounding lands for the greater glory of France.

As Camille Pelletan noted in 1885, “We are told that we have this imperious need, as men of a superior race, to go about civilizing the barbarians of the world with cannonballs. If we asked those barbarians, I think they’d be just fine being left alone.”

In response to a comment that “superior races have a right with regard to inferior races,” Georges Clemenceau pointed out that the Germans resorted to much the same argument, since they believed the French were inferior to Germans.

(Ironically, Germans had long been favored recruits for the legion, even after the ugly 1870 war. Many of the best troops were thought to be from Alsace-Lorraine because they had French affiliation but were of Germanic build.)

It’s not as though the French were in any way unique among European and New World powers in their quest for colonial expansion, but it’s always interesting to pull the thread of historical cause and eventual effect. For example, the legion left its Algerian headquarters of Sidi Bel Abbès in 1962 after losing the fierce battle against Algeria’s independence.

Blanchard notes that “one of the most ardent fighters against the Algerians was a former legionnaire named Jean-Marie Le Pen.” He, of course, is the father of ardent French nationalist and current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Perhaps she can find some Algerians or Moroccans to commiserate with her over her abiding sense that her homeland is being overrun by uninvited newcomers.