The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seven Seals, the Whore of Babylon: These stunning images alone would have turned the Book of Revelation into one of the most memorable chapters in the Bible.
But they're just part of an even more fantastic vision of a prophet thought to be John of Patmos. He introduces readers to a seven-eyed lamb, locusts with scorpion tails, horrific beasts, and a demonic number.
The author wouldn't have called himself a Christian. In fact, he violently disagreed with those who wished to pull his faith – Judaism – in new directions. Essentially, he was a fundamentalist fighting against the encroachment of fresh ideas that disturbed him deeply. But while he couldn't stop the evolution of his faith, his words lived on to intrigue and confound dozens of generations.
Are they the fever dream of a man with a remarkable imagination? Scenes of what he thought would happen in a matter of weeks or months? Or a vision of the far-away future, perhaps even of our own time?
In an interview, Pagel talks about the eternal appeal of the Book of Revelation, the common ways that people misunderstand its meaning and its moving message about what we find in faith.
Q: The images of the Book of Revelation remain major touchstones in our culture. Why do you think that is?
A: It's very visceral. It doesn't appeal to the brain. It appeals to the bloodstream, as the Muslims say of the devil. It's a book of dragons, seven-headed beasts, monsters, whores, armies of insects fighting, angels and demons, and pits of fire.
Q: What was going on in the author's mind?
A: A lot of people say, "Is this guy on hallucinogenics or what?" But it's not an individual's fantasy. These are imaginatively transformed versions of ancient prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.
It's a book of prophecy. It's supposed to inspire people who have given up hope on any justice in the world. John wants people to hold onto that hope.
Q: He wrote the Book of Revelation at a time when there was intense debate over the future of the church and whether it was something different from Judaism. Where did John of Patmos fit in?
A: He's not somebody who'd call himself a Christian. He's somebody who's very proud of being a Jew – but one who knows who the messiah is – and sees himself in the line of the prophets.
He's a fierce, angry, conservative, passionate prophet. He's ferocious, with a kind of puritan sense of the importance of sexual purity and ethnic purity, compared to Paul, who's willing to eat unkosher food and eat with Gentiles and open up the movement to everybody. John doesn't think so.
Q: What do people misunderstand about the Book of Revelation?
A: A lot of liberal people think it's just crazy, and they can't understand how people have ever taken it seriously. They don't see that it is about war and politics, full of imaginative images of the political world of that era.
We'd have to think of ourselves as people whose families have been slaughtered to see how this author is seeing the forces of good and evil.
Q: Was he living in an era akin to our modern Holocaust?
A: The Romans weren't trying to kill all the Jews, but they did destroy Jewish resistance to Roman rule. Jerusalem was turned into a Roman army camp, and it was a total devastation.
Q: How long have people been interpreting the Book of Revelation as predicting events of their own lifetimes?
A: What's amazing to me is that for 2,000 years, people have been reading the signs of their own times into it: It was about the explosion of Vesuvius, it was about Nero. Because the images are so open-ended, it's been possible to reapply it again and again.
Q: You mention that both sides in the American Civil War turned to the Book of Revelation for support, as did those in World War II.
A: The Book of Revelation is such a dream landscape that you can plug any major conflict in it.
Q: What did you discover about "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," from the Civil War era?
"The lord is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored." It's full of battle imagery, and it's literally straight out of the prophecies of Jeremiah and the Book of Revelation. [In the King James version, Revelation 14:19 reads: "And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast [it] into the great winepress of the wrath of God."]
Q: Tell me about the Antichrist. He doesn't actually appear in the Book of Revelation, but we think of him as being part of the apocalypse and the end times.
A: The Antichrist is often identified with the second beast in the Book of Revelation that arises from the land, the beast that tries to make everyone worship the power of evil.
Q: We do find the numbers 666 in the Book of Revelation, and they've been an eternal source of fascination. What do you think they stand for?
John is a Jewish prophet, and he hates Rome. Maybe he doesn't want to indict the Roman Empire publicly, even though he does that plenty.
He puts the number in the code called gematria, which equates a number with every letter: 666 is most plausibly read as the imperial name of Nero. He was understood by everybody to be the epitome to be the worst you could get as far as evil. People would have understood that.
Q: What is the ultimate value of understanding the Book of Revelation?
A: You can look at the 2,000 years of the way it's been read, in Europe and ancient Italy and from Augustine through the Middle Ages and beyond, and write the whole history of western Christendom by the way they're reading the Book of Revelation.
What's important to me is how it shows that the religious understandings of history and meaning are really not going away. They're very durable. They have to do with emotional responses to conflict, to ambiguity, to trauma like war and natural catastrophe.
The book says, okay, there is a lot of suffering and there's a lot of terrible things are happening, but they're all under God's control. It'll only last for a certain amount of time, and justice will prevail.
It shows religion is less about believing in a bunch of things than it is about having hope.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.
A new documentary airing on PBS will examine the universe of romance novels – a genre so beloved that one is sold every four seconds somewhere on the planet – by talking to those who write them, love them, and (in one case) poses for them.
While they’ve made headlines recently with E L James’ phenomenally popular trilogy “50 Shades of Grey,” romance novels have been a booming industry for decades and are unique in the fact that most of them are produced by two companies (which have ties to one another), the publishing company Harlequin in the U.S. and Mills & Boon in Britain. The documentary “Guilty Pleasures” originates in Britain.
The documentary focuses on are three devoted romance novel readers: women from different corners of the globe who are major fans of the books. Shirley is a British mother who is married but turns to the romance novels to find excitement she feels is lacking in her own relationship, while Indian Shumita married her husband young, but is now separated from him. Japanese wife Hiroko yearns for the fantasies depicted in the novels.
“Guilty Pleasures” also follows romance author Gill Sanderson, a British citizen whose real name is Roger and who takes pride in his craft as a romance writer, and a model named Stephen who has appeared on more than 200 covers released by Mills & Boon and Harlequin but wants a relationship of his own.
The movie will premiere on PBS on July 12 on the series “POV.”
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.
Certain laws, whether of the natural world or otherwise, never fail. Where there’s road kill, there’s vultures, and in the publishing world, where’s there’s an election, there’s bound to be a book – or a dozen – attempting to destroy the candidate.
Among Klein’s sometimes unsubstantiated claims: Barack and Michelle almost divorced after his crushing Congressional defeat in 2000, an Obama “friend” unsuccessfully attempted to stop the Rev. Jeremiah Wright from preaching until after the November election with a $150,000 bribe, an “unusually jealous” Michelle Obama orders women close to her husband watched lest he cheat on her, and Oprah and Michelle have an ongoing feud.
Obama and his advisers have “gone to elaborate lengths to hide his dark side,” writes Klein, dubbing the President an “Amateur.”
It’s a bold claim, one perhaps made too easily in today’s political publishing world, and one any responsible reader ought to examine more closely.
Thus far reviews suggest Klein’s book is long on accusations, often caustic, and resoundingly short on specifics – or sources.
“The personal accusations – that Mr. Obama is aloof, that he has not learned from experience, that he has snubbed former supporters – are nasty but vague,” writes Janet Maslin in a stinging critique in The New York Times. Earlier, she writes, “And although the book repeatedly calls him a failure and a disappointment with regard to domestic affairs, Mr. Klein has no capacity for explaining specifics.”
A Tuesday New York Magazine blog post titled “There’s a Glaring Factual Error on the First Page of Edward Klein’s New Anti-Obama Book,” found fault with “The Amateur” before the writer turned the first page. (He found fault with this line, “No American politician had attempted to usurp a sitting president of his own party since Ted Kennedy failed to unseat Jimmy Carter more than thirty years before.” Pat Buchanan, Dan Amira, pointed out, attempted to unseat George H.W. Bush in 1992.)
What’s more, Klein’s book appears to suffer from a severe shortage of sourcing, a surprising oversight from a journalist who once edited The New York Times Magazine.
Certain accounts, like a supposed shoutfest between Bill and Hilary Clinton about the latter’s campaign against Obama, have been roundly denied by all parties involved. Others are so thinly, or distantly, sourced, as to cast doubt on entire episodes in the book.
After quoting a particularly nasty tidbit Michelle supposedly said about Oprah, New York Magazine’s Andre Tartar writes, “Though it should be mentioned that it is not entirely clear if this is coming straight from one of the First Lady's staff or if this is second-, third-, or even eighteenth-hand information.”
(That reminds us of playing telephone in third grade with 18 other friends arranged in a circle passing around a phrase that eventually got so botched we dissolved in giggles when it was finally mouthed aloud at the end.)
Earlier, Tartar writes, “Some of Klein’s past practices have been questionable at best, so please bring your oversize salt shaker.” (This is the man, after all, “whose previous book alleged that Chelsea Clinton was conceived when Bill Clinton raped Hilary Clinton,” another New York Magazine post reminds us.)
Indeed, the brash claims and past blunders were enough to cause The New York Times’s Maslin to start her review with this zinger: “ ‘The Amateur’ by Edward Klein is a book about an inept, arrogant ideologue who maintains an absurdly high opinion of his own talents even as he blatantly fails to achieve his goals. Oh, and President Obama is in this book too.”
Who, exactly, is revealed to be an amateur in “The Amateur?” It may not be the man whom Klein has targeted.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
George, who wrote more than 100 books, was known especially for “My Side of the Mountain,” which tells the story of a boy who resolves to live in the forests of New York's Catskill mountains [Editor's note: this article originally mistakenly said the boy went to live in the forests of Canada] for one year, and the book “Julie,” which centers on a young Eskimo girl who runs away from her village and befriends a wolf pack with whom she learns to communicate.
“She knew her own mind, and [that] was the best thing you could say about anyone,” Friedman said. “She was her own woman.”
George was an animal lover who often featured them in her books and was exposed to wildlife early in life, sometimes accompanying her entomologist father on jobs. After she married ornithologist John George, she encouraged the same love for all creatures in her children, and the family welcomed 173 pets (not counting the cats and dogs) into their home, according to her memoir.
“Remember me as somebody who talked about nature, who awakened [readers] to a new world, and helped them restore it,” George told the School Library Journal in a 2009 interview.
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.
Bookselling giant Amazon released its yearly rankings of which cities are the most well-read on Tuesday and the city of Alexandria, Va. took the top spot, with Cambridge, Mass. coming in at number two and Berkeley, Calif. following behind at number three.
According to Amazon’s press release, the company determines which cities have the most bibliophiles by looking at the number of magazines, newspapers and books sold in areas with over 100,000 residents since June 1 of last year. The company includes both paper and Kindle versions of the materials in the number-crunching.
Amazon releases the top 20 cities that made the cut as well as trends that caught the company’s eye.
Other areas that made the top 20 were Ann Arbor, Mich. at number four, Washington, D.C. with its spot at number nine, Pittsburgh, Pa. at number 11, and Orlando, Fla., which came in the fourteenth spot. The state which appeared the most times on the list was also Virginia, with Arlington occupying the seventh spot and Richmond squeaking in at number 20.
The company also found that Alexandria bought more romance novels than any other city and Boulder, Colo., which came in at number five, ordered the most health-related books, among other trends.
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.
Thanks to Julie Andrews, we know that a doe is a deer, a female deer. Animal fans might also be aware that roe is a species of deer.
Here's one you haven't heard: "roe" may be the closest that we've ever come to the first English word. That's the verdict of British linguist David Crystal, one of the world's top word experts.
His evidence? The ankle-bone of a roe deer that was discovered decades ago in Norfolk, England. Someone wrote what seems to be the equivalent of the word "roe" on it back around the fifth century or so, possibly to show where it came from. The bone seems to have been used in a game, so maybe the word helped people figure out the role it would play. (I like to imagine that kids back then played "Chutes and Roes" or "Monopo-Cave." But I digress.)
From roe and its kin flowed millions of words. In his lively new book "The Story of English in 100 Words," Crystal begins with the "first word" and works his way through the centuries from "bridegroom" to "skunk" to "Muggle."
In an interview, Crystal talks about our language's promiscuous borrowing of words from other languages, explains why brand-spanking-new words like Twittersphere fascinate him, and tells me I really need to get a life when it comes to being a language cop.
Q: Among languages, what makes English stand apart? What can it do that most other languages can't or don't?
A: Every language expresses a unique vision of the world, and I find them all equally interesting. Having said that, English does have a larger vocabulary than other languages, because of its history as the primary language of science and its global reach.
Q: Now to the reverse question: What can most other languages do that English cannot? In what ways is English distinctively limited?
A: There are innumerable differences. One notable feature is that English doesn't have much of a system for expressing relative social status.
Many Oriental languages, for example, have a complex system of honorifics, identifying the relative status of the participants in an interaction. English is much more egalitarian in this respect.
Another example is the use of a single second-person pronoun form, "you." Most languages make a distinction between a singular and a plural (and sometimes other) forms.
Q: Is English more likely than other languages to accept words from other countries?
A: Yes. It is simply a matter of language contact, and English - because of its political history -- has been in contact with more languages than any other, notably in its period of colonial expansion. Several hundred languages have "loaned" their words into English. And there is a general tolerance of loans which not all languages share.
Q: Despite all the anti-immigrant fervor that America has had back into the 19th century, we haven't gotten to the point where anyone gets upset about foreign words sneaking into the language.
How did we (Americans and more widely, people who speak English) end up not having as much of a purity streak as, say, the French?
A: Difficult to say. Certainly there was never much support for the notion of an Academy in Britain, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Dr. Johnson put his finger on it when he said that there was something stubborn about the British temperament, so that if someone suggested a set of rules, the British would be sure to go out of their way to break them! And I imagine the same temperament exists in America.
But these days the fact that English is a global language, with its remarkable diversity, makes it impossible for any notion of an Academy to exist.
Q: You mention lots of cool word phenomena, like portmanteaus and reduplication. Of all the ones that you mention, what's your favorite? And could you describe what it is for our readers?
A: Linguists don't really have favorites. Or, put it another way, every word to me is a favorite.
But I especially like to see new words, especially those which take the language in new directions and display real ingenuity or playfulness.
The final chapter mentions "twittersphere." I've been hugely impressed by the way that people have developed an extraordinary range of words beginning with "tw" -- an unusual consonant combination in English. Online twictionaries illustrate the range.
Q: Of the 100 words, which one that has the most unusual or unexpected origin?
A: Again, difficult to say, as so many of them have fascinating origins. But if I had to choose, then it would be 'matrix', widely known today for its scientific and science-fictional usage - but originally, from the Bible. The first use of "matrix" is in William Tyndale's translation of the Gospel of St. Luke, where it is used in the sense of "womb."
Q: Every word expert seems to have a usage or two that drives him/her crazy. What are yours?
A: Not every word expert. Only the popular pedants.
No usage drives me crazy. On the contrary: every usage, no matter how bizarre or nonstandard, fascinates me, as it tells me something about the way language is evolving.
Q: All right, but some words are so egregious, especially if I believe they are. What do you think of my pet peeve -- the use of "grow" in a sense like "grow the economy"?
A: I think you should worry about more important things!
But to be serious, there's nothing new about the transitive figurative sense of "grow." "Grow knowledge," for example, is found in the early 19th century. "Grow the economy" is simply one of the more recent examples of this construction.
Q: You mention a few words that aren't used much anymore, like "fopdoodle," another name for a fool.
What are some that make people regret they aren't still around when they hear them? And which ones would you like to see make a comeback?
A: People love fopdoodle when they hear of it, presumably because of its appealing sound.
I don't have any particular desire to see words making a comeback. They are of their era, after all, and that is their identity -- they form part of the linguistic color of a period.
But it's always possible for a word to return, if enough people want it to. "Shellacking," for example, meaning a beating or a defeat, arrived in the late nineteenth century, and had quite a popular slang use during the midyears of the twentieth. But then it died away, until Barack Obama used it a few months ago. Whether it will have a long second life remains to be seen.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.
If you think e-books have changed readers’ lives, consider how they’ve changed the lives of some of your favorite authors – if they haven’t already consumed them entirely.
According to a front-page article in the Sunday New York Times, the advent of e-books, instant downloads, and readers’ increasingly insatiable appetite for content translates into unprecedented productivity for novelists specializing in mysteries, thrillers, and romance, with some authors writing as many as 13 books per year to meet demand. It’s an e-revolution of sorts in which lightning-fast speed has taken over the traditionally snail-paced world of book publishing.
“[T]he e-book age has accelerated the metabolism of book publishing,” Julie Bosman writes for the Times. “Authors are now pulling the literary equivalent of a double shift, churning out short stories, novellas or even an extra full-length book each year.”
“They are trying to satisfy impatient readers who have become used to downloading any e-book they want at the touch of a button, and the publishers who are nudging them toward greater productivity in the belief that the more their authors’ names are out in public, the bigger stars they will become.”
“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers, told the Times. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”
According the Times, Ms. Scottoline increased her own output from one book a year to two, “which she accomplishes with a brutal writing schedule: 2,000 words a day, seven days a week, usually ‘starting at 9 a.m. and going until Colbert,’ she said.”
And then there’s James Patterson, a thriller novelist who wrote 12 books last year (aided in some cases by co-writers). This year his publisher expects to publish 13 Patterson thrillers.
Readers, it seems, are happy to consume the titles as fast as the novelists can write them.
But as we read the NYT piece, we couldn’t help but wonder, isn’t this trend concerning to anyone? Should books be produced a dime a dozen, with authors churning them out like widgets from a factory? And should we, as readers, encourage these insta-books?
It took Leo Tolstoy seven years to write "War and Peace" and it shows. There may be room for both Tolstoys and Pattersons on your shelf, but we’d like to encourage more of the former. After all, with an output of 12 or 13 books per year, who’s got space for all those Pattersons?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon, turns 20 this month, no small feat for an indie bookstore. We don’t usually feature individual booksellers here, but we were so touched by this tale of a local, independently-owned bookstore beating the odds that we had to share it here.
You may remember Broadway Books as the bookstore that was saved by a tweet in 2008. When Broadway was approaching the holiday season back in 2008, the economy crashed and sales slowed so dramatically that owner Roberta Dyer wasn’t sure her bookstore would make it through the winter.
When Dyer’s son Aaron Durand learned that his mom’s bookstore might not make it, he decided to do something about it. Durand wrote a blog post in a last-ditch effort to save his mom’s bookstore. The post read, “I have a credit card that has $1000 left of credit on it and I want to spend that money helping people get to my mom’s store.” He promised to buy a burrito for anyone who spent more than $50 at Broadway Books.
Once Durand tweeted the plea on Twitter, the story went viral and Durand’s blog, which normally got three or four hits a day, got hundreds of visits. The community rallied around Broadway – they were literally running out of books, remembers Dyer – and business boomed.
“It just exploded and we had the best holiday season we’d ever had,” said Dyer. “That was…years ago and every single year since we’ve done better and I think it all started with that one little tweet.”
Here’s to Broadway Books and 20 years of community support in Portland – and here’s to hoping many more like it can continue to survive and thrive.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Conducted by Quindlen Krovatin for The Barnes & Noble Review
Anna Quindlen -- whose new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, was published by Random House last week -- is a woman of many accomplishments. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Beloved novelist. Sought-after public speaker. The only author to ever have books on The New York Times' fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists.
She's also my mother, which she'd tell you is her greatest accomplishment (along with being the mother of my younger siblings, Chris and Maria). I thought, since her new book is filled with reflections on motherhood and family, who better to ask the right questions than someone who's been around for much of the journey her memoir describes?
So I asked if I could interview her about the book and the stories behind it, and she said yes (of course). But as we sat down to talk, she was the one with the first question: "Isn't this so weird for you? I mean, did you ever imagine that someday we'd be sitting here at the dining room table, talking about my life?" In truth, the experience was a little surreal -- and nerve-wracking. We've had plenty of conversations about her work before, but this was different; I felt the pressure any interviewer feels, to ask the right questions to get the interviewee talking. But it turned out to be so much fun that we both quickly forgot about the unusual occasion and the tape recorder between us.
The Barnes & Noble Review: I thought we'd start with the title because I know you had a lot of difficulty arriving at a title for this book. I was hoping you could talk about the different titles you went through prior to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Anna Quindlen: I'm not sure that any one title had traction for more than an hour when I first started writing this memoir. The problem is that the book is about so many different things. About motherhood, about friendship, about how we grow older, about how we care for ourselves and our families while we grow older. There wasn't one title that covered the waterfront. And what I realized at a certain point was that I wanted a title that communicated, for lack of a better word, the joyfulness of the book. The exuberance. I was walking across town to have dinner with my friend, the mystery writer Linda Fairstein, and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake just popped into my head. Full bore. I immediately e-mailed it to my agent. She loved it. She forwarded it to my editor. She loved it. We all felt that it really captured something about the book. It captured the age aspect, but also the joyfulness. And that was the duality that we really wanted to get front and center.
BNR: But I know at one point you'd been thinking of calling it Later. Something that communicated the period of time in your life that you'd arrived at.
AQ: Right. And at one point there was some sense that we would call it Gray because of what was going on with my hair. But none of those titles seemed to cover all of the book. I mean, the book isn't just about the later years of my life. It's about how the earlier years have informed those later years. I remember at a certain point my agent seized on something in the book and said, "Why don't we call it Is 9:30 Too Early to Go to Bed?" [Laughs]
AQ: The answer, of course, being "No!" [Laughs] But that was just before I came up with Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and we were set.
BNR: Hadn't there been talk about using another line from the book, I'm Too Old to Die Young Now?
AQ: Actually, when I first wrote the proposal for the book, I called it Too Old to Die Young Now, which is what I said to your sister when she was worried about something happening to me. And I really do think that in some ways it's the quote that set me working on this. A tangible, spoken sense that I've crossed a line on the continuum of life. But, while I still think that's a pretty good title, there was a sense that having the word "die" in the title didn't necessarily work.
BNR: But even earlier, when you were first imagining the book, I remember you talking about it as Mistakes Were Made: A Memoir of Motherhood. When did…or how did you decide to move beyond motherhood to a more multi-faceted view of your life?
AQ: It was a combination of speaking that sentence to Maria -- I'm too old to die young now -- and then once I'd done the research that showed that in the year I was born, 1952, average life expectancy was 68. Every time I say that, even to people who pride themselves on being well informed, there's an audible gasp. Are you sure about that? Did you double-check that? The answer is, I am absolutely sure. I triple-checked. But the idea that that was how long you got to live then, and that you get to live twelve years on average longer now, made me think about the differences in the lives of people my age from those of the generations that came before. And that seemed to me to be broader and deeper than motherhood, although clearly that's a pivotal part of this book. It seemed to me to cry out for an explanation and an exploration of what we're doing with this time and how our lives are defined by the fact that we're going to live longer than any generation previously in history.
BNR: You may even live forever.
AQ: Not forever. Please, no.
BNR: Back to the title Mistakes Were Made. If you reflect on your time as a mother, what mistakes were you thinking of when you conceived of that title?
AQ: I can't even begin to count all of the stupid, ham-handed things that I did. I mean, there was the time when your first Easter came around, and I put soaps and washcloths folded in the shape of bunnies in a basket because I didn't want you to have chocolate.
BNR: Were you worried about my teeth?
AQ: It was a purist kind of thing. There you go. Purism often got in my way. I banned you all from watching The Simpsons for a number of years, which was clearly an error in judgment. There was the time your sister came running up to me and said she'd gotten a 98 on her test, and my response was, "Which one did you get wrong?" There was the time I ordered the food at the McDonald's drive-thru window and then drove through without it. And there were serious times when you all got older when I responded in stereotypical ways to situations. I think that's the biggest danger in being a mother: The impulse to massage your kids into some kind of homogenized, universally accepted form, which, if you're smart, you know intuitively will result in nothing much down the road. But in the moment it somehow seems easier than individuating, than giving them their head, than getting out of their way.
BNR: I forget which author we were talking about, but it was an author who said that all of the books she writes are really about one theme.
AQ: Amy Bloom.
BNR: Right. Of course. I actually forget what the theme was.
AQ: I think she said love.
BNR: And you said that yours was motherhood. I think that's absolutely true. I was going back through that box you assembled for each of us of the first editions of all of your books, and I was struck by how it's always motherhood troubled by violence, or illness, or even just circumstance like in Blessings.
AQ: I actually think my theme is a combination of motherhood and loss, and clearly anybody who knows anything about my personal history knows where that comes from. My mother died when I was 19. In novel after novel, that emerges as a theme, most dramatically in Every Last One. It's actually not a theme of the novel I'm working on now.
BNR: Is the protagonist a mother?
AQ: She is. But it's not as important a part of her character as it is for most of the women I've written about in the past.
BNR: Because I was thinking about how even in Rise and Shine, which is one of your more lighthearted novels, Meghan Fitzmaurice's relationship with her son, Leo, is fraught.
AQ: It's not so true in my first novel, Object Lessons, which is more of a young person's novel. But then once you get to One True Thing, it clearly takes hold, this dual theme of motherhood and loss. I think it was something I had to explore until I felt like I'd explored it to its fullest. And if you look at my novels, Every Last One, the most recent one, is about as far as I could go in exploring that, which is why the new one doesn't need to be about motherhood as much.
BNR: That makes a lot of sense. How do you think having your Mom die when you were as young as you were affected how you approached being a mother?
AQ: I think it made me bound and determined to be there as much as possible. It had a lot to do with why I quit my job at the New York Times when I did, when you and Christopher were small. Which turned out to be an opportunity in disguise because that's when I started to write my column, Life in the 30s. And it's why I quit that column when Maria was born and took a year off with the three of you before I started the Op-Ed page column [Public and Private]. I just felt like life was short and I needed to be there. And I was haunted by the fact that my sister, your Aunt Theresa, was nine when our mother died, and she literally remembers nothing about her. And so I would look at you three, who were so central to my life, and think, I'm not even written on their DNA yet. I've got to be there as much as possible. I think it made me a very engaged and attentive mother.
BNR: Did your Mom's style of being a mother, her approach to motherhood, inform how you raised us? Did you try to emulate her?
AQ: I did, but that was an interesting challenge. In terms of our characters and what was going on in our lives, my Mother and I were vastly different. Which was something that I struggled with because I loved her so much, and the idea of being different from her made me feel a little less in her eyes when I was younger. She was not a particularly educated woman. She wasn't intellectual. She was just really good at making all five of us feel like we'd hung the moon. And that was the thing that I tried to emulate. That sense of each of your kids at various times thinking that they're the favorite.
AQ: Not that there was no favorite. But that they were the favorite. I think I tried to be as patient as I could. On sort of a cursory level, there were things I clearly tried to emulate. Having what, for my time, is considered a large family. Cooking constantly. The laughter. As I've written before, making my mother laugh was the be-all and end-all of my existence. You guys have cracked me up so much over the years that I feel like that's a pay-it-forward kind of thing.
BNR: When we were growing up, she was an almost beatific figure, smiling out of black and white photos. Obviously, I never knew her, but she felt like a powerful force in our lives.
AQ: But that's actually an unfortunate thing that we do to the dead. We turn them into plaster saint versions of themselves. We almost take away their individuality in our quest to make them perfect. So instead you get Saint Prudence of Spaghetti and Meatballs. [Laughs]
BNR: [Laughs] That's so funny because the other day you had those old pictures out, and I don't think I'd ever seen a picture of Grandma Prudence old before. With glasses. Because the pictures around the house are of her at her wedding. Or her holding you when you're an infant. So seeing her as an older woman was very strange.
AQ: Well, that's one of the interesting things about our attitudes towards aging because my mother was 41 when she died. And at the time I was both hugely bereaved but also conscious of the fact that she had lived a rich, full life. And only when I got older did I realize that she had died incredibly young. Now that I'm almost 60, I just feel like it's tragic. I say in the book that ever since I was 19 I felt, at some level, like I was living for two. That I had to embrace every day of life because I knew that my mother would have killed to have it. And so I think my attitude about aging has been different from some of my friends because I knew the alternative.
BNR: And now that you're beyond the age that she died, who do you turn to as a model for motherhood.
AQ: Honestly, the people who teach you how to be a good mother are your children. And one of the biggest challenges of being a good mother is to listen to them. The trick is, you can't listen to their words. You have to read between the lines of how they're behaving, what they're saying, what they're doing.
BNR: One thing I remembered in my reading of the book was that when we were growing up you would bake these incredible cakes for our birthdays. And I wanted to talk a little about the most challenging of those cakes.
BNR: Was it from year one that it was important to you to make such a big deal out of our birthdays, or did that come about later.
AQ: Actually, the cakes were much more baroque when you were babies.
BNR: Like scalloped edges or…
AQ: Not the decoration. More the baking. Cakes with hazelnut mocha frosting. Very very complex cakes. Totally unnecessary.
BNR: And lost on the individuals eating them.
AQ: Although there always was that moment, because you know I was never a junk food mother, there was always that moment when one of you would dig into your cake, put a fistful in your mouth, and give me a look like, you've been holding out on me.
AQ: It was kind of magical. But I think the birthday parties were emblematic of something else. My birthday is July 8th, which meant that I didn't have much of a birthday celebration. If you can't take a box of cupcakes to school, it's almost like your birthday doesn't exist. And the irony is, my birthday cakes were almost always presented at a restaurant down the Shore where we used to spend the summers, and they always had a sparkler in them because it was right after July 4th, which is why the sparkler on the cover of the book is really apropos. So at some point I decided that you guys would have wonderful birthdays. And as I say in the book, I took it to the limit, far past the point where the people involved were enjoying it. There were those parties with the hayrides and the clowns. There was the party I threw for Maria where I took her and her friends to the beauty salon. And the cakes only became cakes again, and not art projects, when you guys finally said, "That's enough."
AQ: [Laughs] Definitely the Ghostbusters cake. Because I had to get Slimer in there in addition to the logo with that ghost in the red circle.
BNR: But who first asked not to have an elaborate cake?
AQ: You did. I remember one year I asked what you wanted on your cake. And I would always ask with trepidation because Maria would say something like, I want Belle dancing with the Beast in a ballroom with Lumiere holding a candelabra, and my heart would sink. But I asked you what you wanted on your cake, and you said you didn't want anything, and that felt like the beginning of maturity.
BNR: How tough is that as a mother, those kind of moments? Is it bittersweet or a feeling of relief or…
AQ: It's hard. Less hard when you have more than one child. Knowing that Christopher was still going to ask for vampires on his cake was some solace. Also, if you don't get mired in the moment, there's this incredible kick you get when you realize that your kid is becoming an adult. That they have really interesting opinions about books you've both read. That they have interesting insights into human behavior, even your own behavior, that hadn't occurred to you before. Unless you get too invested in power and control, that notion that your son or daughter is becoming an adult is thrilling.
BNR: Now Mother's Day is coming up soon...
AQ: What day is Mother's Day?
AQ: You have no idea!
BNR: No, no. I do. I think I do. May 12th?
AQ: May 13th. I actually have to fly to Traverse City, Michigan that day to do a gig for this book tour. And I'm trying to get them to change the travel itinerary so we can at least have brunch that morning.
BNR: Because it's one of the definitive Public and Private columns, right? "The Days of Gilded Rigatoni". When you were away for Mother's Day.
BNR: Now, just a little background, you were on book tour?
AQ: I was on book tour, and it didn't occur to me until the schedule was locked in that I would be spending Mother's Day in a hotel room in Seattle.
BNR: And it was upsetting for you.
AQ: Very upsetting. No mother should be eating a room service breakfast on Mother's Day.
BNR: Well, at least you got to eat all of the breakfast.
AQ: I got to eat all of the breakfast, and I got a column out of it. But I would have preferred to spend it with you guys. Even if that meant you ate all of the bacon before I even picked up my fork.
Quindlen Krovatin is an editor at The Barnes & Noble Review. He previously worked as a reporter in the Beijing Bureau of Newsweek Magazine. He loves his Mom and promises to get her something nice for Mother's Day.
“We’re absolutely delighted to have reached this agreement with Pottermore. This is the kind of significant investment in the Kindle ecosystem that we’ll continue to make on behalf of Kindle owners,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement.
There are restrictions. Pottermore remains the only place to purchase Harry Potter e-books. The Potter books can only be borrowed through the Kindle lending library, and only by Amazon Prime members who own a Kindle. Amazon announced that the deal was made through an “exclusive license” with Pottermore that allows Prime members to borrow one e-book free each month.
“Over a year, borrowing the Harry Potter books, plus a handful of additional titles, can alone be worth more than the $79 cost of Prime or a Kindle,” Bezos said in a statement. “The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library also has an innovative feature that’s of great benefit for popular titles like ‘Harry Potter’ – unlimited supply of each title – you never get put on a waiting list.”
The e-books will be available in many different languages, including English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish.
One more big reveal: Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne told the Guardian that he would be announcing new partners and new platforms for the Pottermore site “in the next few weeks.” We don’t yet know who those partners will be, but Apple won’t be among them.
“We’re not live with Apple,” Redmayne told the Guardian. “We’re having conversations with Apple, but there is no date, no agreement.”
In the Harry Potter Quidditch race that’s Amazon 1, Apple 0.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.