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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

Jonah Lehrer – author of three books, including the bestselling "Proust Was a Neuroscientist" which he published at the age of 26 – had been lavishly praised by the press and described as a "wunderkind."

Jonah Lehrer: some blame media adoration for his fabrications

By Husna Haq / 07.31.12

It’s like déjà vu all over again. Another bright young writer. Another esteemed publication. Another rapid ascent to the pinnacles of the literary world. Another chance discovery of some missteps, followed by a deeper investigation, followed by a devastating admission of fabrication, and a humiliating resignation from said esteemed publication.

It was once Janet Cooke. And Jayson Blair. Stephen Glass. James Frey. Q.R. Markham.

And now Jonah Lehrer. The 31-year-old bestselling author, popular speaker, and staff writer for The New Yorker resigned from the prestigious publication Monday after admitting to fabricating quotes in his most recent bestselling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

It was, as the New York Times put it, “one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds,” in which Lehrer fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most reclusive and closely studied musicians in history – not to mention one who is still alive. (What’s more, a good portion of “Imagine” relies on Dylan’s approach to creativity. The first chapter of the first section is titled “Bob Dylan’s Brain” and centers on the singer-songwriter’s hesitation to parse his own creative process.)

By now, we know the story. Self-described Dylan obsessive and writer for Tablet Magazine Michael C. Moynihan puzzled over the origin of some of the Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s book, quotes like, “'It’s a hard thing to describe,' Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. 'It’s just this sense that you got something to say.'" He communicated with Lehrer, received bogus lies in response, and finally, an admission to fabricating the quotes. The falsification was revealed on Tablet’s website, Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker under editor David Remnick’s advice, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt pulled every copy of “Imagine” it could find from bookstore shelves and e-book sites, and statements were issued all around.

“The lies are over now,” Lehrer said in a statement to the New York Times. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”

Editor Remnick said in a statement, “This is a terrifically sad situation. But in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said Lehrer had committed “a serious misuse” and promised to “explore all options” and recall print copies of “Imagine."

The 31-year-old Lehrer graduated from Columbia University with a degree in neuroscience and received his masters at Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He began his popular “Frontal Cortex” blog at Wired, where he explained complicated scientific principles and processes in a snappy, culture-oriented approach in the fashion of Malcolm Gladwell. His popular blog then moved to The New Yorker’s website, where Lehrer commenced to write six articles for the magazine. Along the way, he wrote three bestselling books: “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” a surprise hit published when Lehrer was just 26, “How We Decide,” and the now-marred “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Lehrer had just become a staff writer for The New Yorker in June 2012 before his late July resignation.

Monday’s revelation wasn’t the first. In June, Lehrer was criticized for the awkwardly named offense of self-plagiarism, recycling his own past material in blog posts for The New Yorker. And according to Moynihan’s article in Tablet, questions were raised as early as Lehrer’s first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” in which the young writer was accused of plagiarizing a paragraph from Malcolm Gladwell. Even “Imagine” was criticized for “many elementary errors,” for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser, and for its “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic” exegesis of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” according to the Tablet article.

The question, of course, is what leads a person, and a bright, promising, successful writer at that, to commit such colossal misjudgments, such bald-faced lies, such stupid audacity? Even as he saw his predecessors – similar rising stars – fall for the same lies?

As Jayson Blair, of New York Times fabricating fame, wrote for The Daily Beast, “Part of Jonah Lehrer’s problem had to be his success … success, of course, brings with it the pressure to make each new publication better than the last.”

And for this pressure, writes Roxanne Gay of Salon.com, the media and its breathless adoration of the boy wonder, is to blame. “Consider,” she writes, “how journalists have referred to Lehrer. At NPR, he is a “superstar science writer.” At Tablet, Lehrer is referred to as a “celebrated journalist.” In a Boston Globe article, Lehrer is a “rising star.” The New York Daily News refers to Lehrer as a “promising young pop-science writer.” In the Chicago Tribune, Lehrer is a “seemingly prodigious young writer.” The Atlantic calls Lehrer a “wunderkind writer.” The lavish descriptors go on and on and on as journalists try to find just the right words to capture Lehrer’s promise, his genius, his place as prodigy, to remind us that in that young man, there is (was) greatness.

“The question isn’t really why did Lehrer fabricated those Dylan quotations and then lie about it nor is the question why did he plagiarize himself time and again in his highly visible position as a staff writer for The New Yorker,” Gay writes. “The question that intrigues me most is how this happened at all, how Lehrer was elevated to a position of such prominence. Are we that enamored by bright young things that they can act with impunity?”

This, we imagine, is only the beginning of the agonizing soul-searching that will follow. For writers like Gay, for Lehrer’s readers, for The New Yorker. And of course, for Lehrer himself.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig gave 'Hunger Games' star Jennifer Lawrence lessons in how to handle her bow and arrow. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Olympics + 'Hunger Games' = a big boost for archery

By Staff Writer / 07.31.12

The blockbuster young adult trilogy “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins is being credited as one of the factors behind the rise in popularity of archery at this year’s Olympic Games.

US Olympic archer Khatuna Lorig, who trained “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Collins to use her bow and arrow to play Katniss Everdeen in the film version of Collins’ first book, said she has seen a huge rise in public awareness of the sport.

“When I train in North Hollywood, you have to get there two hours early to get a chance to shoot,” she said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

American archer Brady Ellison, who is competing in the Olympics, said that he had seen a rise in the sport’s popularity in the US after “Hunger Games” and the release of “Brave,” the new Pixar film about a Scottish princess who loves using her bow and arrow.

“I do feel like this year that with all the movies and stuff that has come out, especially in the States, we are getting a lot more recognition for the sport,” Ellison told the Tribune.

Archery USA, a national group, even wrote a letter to author Collins, thanking her for bringing the sport into the limelight.

“When Katniss Everdeen started brandishing her bow and arrows on movie screens across America, our phones began (literally, began) ringing nonstop,” the letter read.

Peter Jones of the Governing Body of the sport of archery in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, told the Guardian that in the United Kingdom, “Hunger Games” hasn’t had as much of an effect on the sport’s popularity, but that the breaking of two world records by South Korean athlete Im Dong-hyun was bringing archery to the public’s attention again.

“It's a great sport for the family to do together,” he said of the activity’s appeal. “Absolutely anyone can do it.”

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Irish writer Maeve Binchy was known for her stories of life in small towns in the country. (Ben Garvin)

Maeve Binchy is remembered by Ireland's leaders, fellow writers

By Staff Writer / 07.31.12

Popular Irish writer Maeve Binchy died yesterday at the age of 72, prompting tributes from her country’s leaders and fellow writers.

Binchy, who published her first book, “Light a Penny Candle,” in 1982, wrote most often about life in small towns in her native country. She was born in Dalkey in County Dublin and worked as a teacher and journalist before becoming an author, working as a writer, columnist and editor for the Irish Times and later working as the London editor. “Penny Candle” was followed by 14 other novels and various short story collections, plays, novellas and nonfiction works.

“We have lost a national treasure," Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said in a statement.

President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins noted Binchy’s versatility.

“She was an outstanding novelist, short story writer and columnist, who engaged millions of people all around the world with her fluent and accessible style," he said in a statement.

Writer Ian Rankin said he considered her a huge literary presence.

“Maeve Binchy was a gregarious, larger than life, ebullient recorder of human foibles and wonderment,” he tweeted.

Binchy was often self-deprecating about her work, according to the Telegraph.

“I was very pleased, obviously, to have outsold great writers,” she said. “But I'm not insane – I do realize that I am a popular writer who people buy to take on vacation.”

In an interview with the Guardian, she stressed the importance of simplicity in writing.

“Always write as if you are talking to someone,” she said. “Say someone cried – don't say: 'tears coursed down her face.' Take it nice and easy, don't try to impress.”

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Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are among the stars of 'Cloud Atlas,' a movie based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell which weaves together six different stories that range from the South Pacific in the 1800s and to a dystopian future.

'Cloud Atlas': 6-minute trailer stokes excitement – and book sales (+ video)

By Husna HaqMonitor correspondent / 07.30.12

You thought it couldn’t be done?

The extended movie trailer for “Cloud Atlas” was leaked online – and though it may yet be too soon to tell – word is, the motion picture adaptation of the intense, centuries-spanning novel is extraordinarily stunning.

IndieWire called it “staggeringly ambitious” and “visually impressive.”

The Wall Street Journal noted that the nearly 6-minute trailer, which debuted on Apple’s website Thursday, was such a hit it bumped “Cloud Atlas” from 2,509 on Amazon’s best seller list to No. 7 in record time. Random House has ordered 25,000 new paperbacks to meet the renewed interest. Not so unusual for a movie version of a book to stimulate fresh interest in an old title. But a mere trailer? Now that’s impressive.

As is the trailer.

Lana and Andy Wachowski – the sibling duo behind “The Matrix” – and Tom Tykwer are behind the “and-you-thought-it-couldn’t-be-done-transformation” of David Mitchell’s acclaimed bestseller. The film, which weighs in at 164 minutes, stars an eclectic cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Hugo Weaving.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book and why this trailer is so impressive, consider this: “[A]uthor David Mitchell’s dense, centuries-spanning novel ... tells six separate but interlocking stories starting in the South Pacific in the 1800s and progressing to a dystopian future with genetic clones,” writes the Los Angeles Times. Among the “disparate worlds that the directors have created,” writes IndieWire are “a Pacific sea expedition in the 19th century, Belgium in the 1930s, San Francisco in the 1970s, London in the present day, Korea in a dystopian future, and Hawaii at the end of time.”

The 2004 novel tells the mind-bending stories of six narrators across time and space whose stories and histories are connected and whose actions impact one another’s destinies. The novel won the British Book Award’s Literary Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize.  

“As big fans of the book, we've wondered for some time if the filmmakers would be able to come anywhere close to its material, but we have to confess that this is pretty stunning, for the most part,” writes IndieWire. “The production values look incredibly high, the scope and ambition and variety is like nothing else we've seen in a long time, and the cast, aided by some excellent make-up, look to be rising to the occasion.”

If the trailer generates this much interest, we’re eager to see the impact of the actual film – on audiences and of course, in the resurgence of interest in the original novel.

“The experts all said it was too complicated,” Lana Wachowski told the LA Times.

So far, it seems the adaptation has exceeded all expectations.

 “Cloud Atlas” will makes is world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and hit US theaters Oct. 26.

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The most recent book in the 'Magic Tree House' series by Mary Pope Osborne (l.) is 'A Perfect Time for Pandas,' which finds protagonists Jack and Annie traveling to the mountains of China. (L: By Elena Seibert)

'Magic Tree House': Author Mary Pope Osborne looks back

By Staff Writer / 07.27.12

A tiny wooden structure just for you, filled with books and toys, nestled in the branch of a big sapling with the wind rustling through the leaves. What could possibly improve a treehouse?

Just ask children's fiction protagonists Jack and Annie. The stars of Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House series are the possessors of just that, a magic structure that they use to travel through time and space and embark on adventures. The series currently consists of more than 40 books, including the newest, "A Perfect Time for Pandas," which was just released on July 24. The first 28 books follow Jack and Annie and their travels through time, while the rest center on the characters meeting up with famous wizard Merlin, who gives them tasks to accomplish as they go to each time period.

The series also consists of Fact Tracker books, nonfiction titles which delve into topics covered in the books such as dolphins and ancient Egypt.

The "Tree House" books have been adapted into a stage musical, co-written by Osborne's husband Will Osborne, and the book "A Good Night for Ghosts," in which Jack and Annie meet jazz musician Louis Armstrong, will be the basis for a musical titled "Magic Tree House: A Night In New Orleans," also co-written by Osborne, that will premiere at the James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival in Newark in October.

Author Mary Pope Osborne, who recently donated 28-book sets of the series to every third-grade student and teacher in Newark, N.J., discussed how she settled on a treehouse as a mode of transport, how she hopes to inspire kids about history, and which of the books young readers love the most. Here are excerpts of the interview.

Q: How did the idea of a magical treehouse come to you?

A: I'd tried many things to get kids back in time: a magic cellar, magic whistles, magic artist's studio, magic museum. Nothing was working and I was really about to give up after a year. I was walking through some woods in Pennsylvania near a cabin that Will [Osborne] and I used to have, and we saw an old treehouse that was all rickety and pretty well run-down. We started talking about, "What if I put the characters in a treehouse?" Because then it would always be hidden up in the trees and they could travel anywhere with stuff in it. Finally, that night, we thought it'd be cool to have the treehouse filled with books, because books are magic. The moral of the story is the simplest ideas are the hardest to find.
 
Q: After graduating college, you traveled with a group of other young people to various locations like Iraq and Pakistan and India – how did doing that traveling affect your writing of the series?

A: I was a vagabond, and what I realized was it was a lot safer to stay at home and be a vagabond. By writing the series, I got to indulge all my travel passions and still be home in time for dinner. [Through the books] I had been to or will travel to a lot of the places, but without a backpack anymore and without risking my life.
 
Q: What do you think it is about Jack and Annie that appeals so strongly to children?

A: Jack and Annie are ordinary kids, but they're really good kids. They're always trying to help others and they're very supportive of each other. They have a sense of humor, but they love reading and learning and they have great compassion for animals and people who need their help. The series is in over 100 countries, 33 languages, and [the kids] all identify with Jack and Annie. I find that so encouraging.
 
Q: You've said before that Jack and Annie's relationship is in some ways based on your own relationship with your siblings?

A: Yes, I have wonderful siblings. They're still my best friends. We were all raised in the military so we had to rely on each other. We moved almost every year or two, so we really bonded, and one of the things that we most enjoyed doing together was games of make-believe. We were reenacting Peter Pan and creating forts and spy networks – whatever. Of course, we didn't have computers, watched minimal TV. We read books, but we just lived outside. I think a lot of the impulse from the treehouse comes from an attempt to relive some of that joy, that freedom that we had.

Q: Is there a particular Magic Treehouse book that your fans bring up often when they meet you?

A: Of the first 28, "[Tonight on the] Titanic" is popular, and also "Dolphins at Daybreak." Of the next 20, the one that was so immensely popular was "Dragon of the Red Dawn." That had a great cover with a dragon. We spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about covers and titles and sort of trying to get the kids over the bridge into some meaty subject matter, but still sensationalize the covers a little bit to try to bring them in.

I just want the books to be a stepping-off point. I just want [readers] to go, "I now know a very little bit about Leonardo Da Vinci, I'm going to go learn more." And one way they can learn more is our Fact Tracker series, the nonfiction. My ideal is they read our fiction, read our nonfiction, and then, if they still are interested, they go and read more difficult books about the subject. And they'll always own it. When they really hear about Shakespeare when they get to their teens, they'll feel they're already friends with Shakespeare, or any of these – Mozart, Louis Armstrong. That imprints so much when you're seven and eight.
 
Q: When you recently donated the 28-book sets to every third grader and teacher in Newark, how did that idea come to you initially?

A: We're going to do a show in Newark next year based on the Treehouse on Louis Armstrong. It's going to premiere at the Jazz Festival. So it was my plan to give one book to every child – then every fourth grader – and probably try to do it before school was out, so they could read it over the summer. And then I came across a report, and I was so stunned by the need for third graders to read that I thought breezily to myself, I should give 28 [books]. So I called someone and said, "How many third-graders are there?" and there's like 4,300 third-graders. Will loved the idea and we said, "Let's just do it."
 
Prior to that, in the winter, we launched our new Classroom Adventures [program]. We spent the last two years, almost, with a team of teachers – we hired them ourselves – of giving teachers free information on how they can use the books in the classroom to enhance their core curriculum, and then we have a component of that, the Gift of Books, for Title 1 schools. We started giving away books in January through this program, and we were giving 2 or 3 sets to a classroom, any that applied and met the requirements. We'll get some feedback, hopefully by autumn, about whether this did work, whether it raised the scores, and if there's any way to quantify if it really helped the kids. If it didn't, this was still a joyous thing to do. We would do it all over again.
 
Q: Will the "Night in New Orleans" musical have a life beyond the Jazz Festival?

A: It'll go to all the fourth-grade classrooms in the city, and it'll be at the Performing Arts Center. And then beyond that – we haven't even looked beyond that, but we want it to have a long life. And our dream is that, of course, it gets to New Orleans, and that'll probably be the next big stop.
 
Q: Is there any news about the Magic Tree House musical?

A: We're planning to take it out again in 2014. Meanwhile, we'll be running the Louis Armstrong show and we have a wonderful new partnership with a group called MTI that's turning Magic Tree House plays into school plays that just kids can do. We'll be launching a lot of theater projects in the next two years. Live theater ignites imagination as much as reading books does.
 
Q: What do you have planned for future Tree House adventures?

A: I do them in quartets. The next four are "Crazy Day with Cobras," "Dogs in the Dead of Night," and then "Abe Lincoln at Last!," and then the one that's coming out late this summer is "A Perfect Time for Pandas." And then after that is "The Stallion in Starlight." And my sister's working on the nonfiction [Fact Tracker book] to go with that. She's done the nonfiction for the last 19 or 20.
 
Q: How did that collaboration come to be?

A: It started with my husband Will – he wrote eight of the nonfiction. And then he wanted to turn his attention to the theater projects. So we called up my sister, who's a wonderful writer, and we handed the nonfiction over to her. And they do it totally by themselves, even though my name's on the cover, because I'm working so hard on the fiction. And we just have so much fun because we do book tours together, and the three of us are sort of a wild trio on the road. It's just so much fun. It used to be kind of lonely to go on these book tours by myself, and now I always have one of them with me. It's just a vacation.
 
I owe everything to teachers, the ones who really got this series off the ground years ago by using it in classrooms.
 
The teachers have done so many incredible projects with the books. I have volumes of pictures and projects. That's why we have a "Magic Tree House" teacher of the year every year. The teachers are the key to this.

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Classic novels such as 'Northanger Abbey' are getting makeovers in the Clandestine Classics series.

Literary classics get the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' treatment

By Husna Haq / 07.27.12

Watch out, bibliophiles, the classics are getting revamped with a fresh shade of grey – make that Fifty Shades of Grey.

Forget stuffy Victorian customs; Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Captain Nemo have been taking lessons from Christian Grey of "Fifty Shades" fame in the latest example of erotica-obsession to hit stores.

As the Wall Street Journal wryly noted in a piece titled “Oh Mr. Rochester! The Classics Get Naughty,” “As if being mashed up with zombies and transported to American high schools weren’t enough, Ms. Austen and several of her fiction-writing peers are seeing their novels morphed into erotica.”

The new series by electronic publishing house Total E-Bound is titled “Clandestine Classics,” and, starting Monday, takes readers of such classics like “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice” from polite parlor conversation to naughty bedroom banter. The series includes a sadomasochistic version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” a steamy bedroom take on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Northanger Abbey,” and even gay-love renderings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” and Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

Though the series was planned before “Fifty Shades of Grey” became bestseller gold, it’s certainly getting a boost from the erotica trend, Total E-Bound chief executive Claire Siemaszkiewicz told the WSJ.

For “Clandestine Classics,” Ms. Siemaszkiewicz hired five erotica writers to inject the original classics (which are in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright laws) with naughty banter, groping, and racy sex scenes. According to the WSJ, the original text is largely unchanged, simply supplemented with 10,000 or so words which take readers “behind the closed bedroom doors of our favourite, most beloved British characters,” as Total E-Bound’s website promises.

The books, which will be available for download Monday, retail for between $4.00 and $5.00. Each book comes with a sexometer and erotic rating (most are a relatively mild 2).

From the sounds of it, not all sauced-up text conforms to the vernacular of the time. In an excerpt from the R-rated “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth refers to Darcy as “hot, spicy, and all man,” as he “lifted her skirts quickly and removed her undergarments, then fumbled to free himself from the confines of his own clothing.”

"I was careful to make sure that I kept to the same language and the same tone so that it didn't sound anachronistic or jarring to the rest of the book," Desiree Holt, a 76-year-old retired music publicist who penned the racy scenes and shares co-authorship with Jane Austen on the book’s cover, told the WSJ.

(The WSJ also consulted with Austen scholar Devoney Looser, who said it was improbable Ms. Bennet and Mr. Darcy would be able to slip in and out of their clothes time and again so efficiently, given the strictures in clothing at the time.)

Would Austen or the Bronte sisters be turning in their graves? Or, as the WSJ put it, “turning fifty shades of red?”

Siemaszkiewicz doesn’t think so. “I like to think if the Bronte sisters were writing today, their books would be a lot racier,” she told the Journal. “But they were stifled by convention at the time.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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Stories read by the subjects of a "spoilers study" included works by Shirley Jackson and Agatha Christie.

Wait – you're saying spoilers are actually good?

By Staff Writer / 07.27.12

Spoilers – those little pieces of information that reveal a book's ending before you get there – are usually considered bad things. Fear of spoilers makes some readers avoid the Internet like the plague or clap their hands over their ears every time the subject of a book they haven't yet read all the way through comes up. It even led to the creation of a new phrase: “spoiler alert,” a polite signal sometimes inserted in book reviews to warn readers that they might not want to read on if they don't yet know how things finally work out.

But a new study done by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, says that people who know an ending ahead of time may actually enjoy a story more .

Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, members of the college’s psychology department, gave the subjects of a test various short stories. Some members of the group were told the stories' surprising endings before they began reading, while others were left in the dark. One short story used for the test was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, an infamous dystopian tale often assigned in high school English classes about a town that selects a person every year. (Selects a person for what? If you skipped that one in English class, we’re not telling.)

The findings indicated that those who knew the ending ahead of time enjoyed the story more.

“It could be that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier,” Leavitt said. “You’re more comfortable processing the information and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

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Author James Lee Burke says his protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, is seeing the end of traditional America as the series' villains degrade the environment. (L: Courtesy of Robert Clark/Simon and Schuster)

James Lee Burke discusses 'Creole Belle' and the end of 'traditional' America

By Erik Spanberg / 07.26.12

When readers last saw Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, in the final pages of the 2010 novel "The Glass Rainbow," he had just been shot in a bloodbath at his home on Louisiana’s Bayou Teche.

This month, Robicheaux returns in James Lee Burke’s 19th book in the series, "Creole Belle." It picks up where the previous book left off, with Robicheaux in a recovery unit in New Orleans. Morphine clouds his head and, even more than usual, the self-aware detective struggles to separate the past from the present.

Burke, 75, creates lyrical mysteries with what can only be described as deceptive ease. Whether it’s Robicheaux, stand-alone novels, or separate series starring Texas cousins Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland, the themes remain constant. Every novel Burke writes delves into moral ambiguity, the menaces of greed and violence, the degradation of people and land, the juxtaposition of natural beauty and man-made horror and, finally, the sublime joy of human love and loyalty.

No matter his digressions, Burke’s stories retain tight plots amid the languid descriptions and observations of corruption and conceit. Robicheaux made his creator wealthy, taking readers into both rural and urban Louisiana (the detective is a former New Orleans cop who still ventures into the big city) and offering insight on a landscape that is literally disappearing.

Burke spent much of his early life on the Gulf Coast shuttling between Texas and Louisiana and later moved to New Iberia, La., the setting for the Robicheaux books. The author and his wife, parents of four grown children, including crime novelist Alafair Burke, have long split their time between Louisiana and Montana.

Both the author and his best-known character embody Faulkner’s maxim of loving a place “not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”

Consider this observation from Robicheaux in Creole Belle, told once again in his first-person voice:

“In Louisiana, which has the highest rate of illiteracy in the union and the highest percentage of children born to single mothers, few people worry about the downside of casinos, drive-through daiquiri windows, tobacco depots, and environmental degradation washing away the southern rim of the state.”

Burke never shies away from gritty crime patois or slashing violence, but he also slips in enough sociological observation to connect lowly street thugs with equally loathsome politicians and craven corporate executives. And, lest anyone get the idea the novels are preachy, think again. Robicheaux fights criminals, but he fights himself, his boss Helen Soileau and, as a recovering alcoholic, baser instincts and cravings.

If those aspects fail to grab a reader’s attention, the snap in the dialogue does the trick. Robicheaux’s longtime pal, Clete Purcel, offers a typical example in the new book, telling a shady character, “The day you’re honest is the day the plaster will fall from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

Burke has no such problems, as he made clear during a recent interview. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

On the origins of the new book: "The two books are actually one novel, one story ["The Glass Rainbow" and "Creole Belle"]. The antagonists represent the same forces, these guys who are degrading the environment. The story dwells on mortality. Not only the mortality of individuals but the end of an era, a generation. At least [from] Dave Robicheaux’s perspective, the end of a traditional America.

He, like me, was born in the Depression. And our generation is transitional one. We’re probably the last generation that will remember what people call traditional America."

On comparing Robicheaux with other characters: "I’ve written three novels about Hackberry Holland. I’ve written a number of books that are outside the Dave Robicheaux series and they don’t receive the same attention as the Louisiana books. I write many different things that maybe people aren’t aware of."

On what he plans to write next: "I haven’t thought about it. I don’t plan very far into the future. I’m writing a very different kind of a book right now. I see two scenes ahead into a novel and I don’t see anything else. I never know how a chapter will end, you see. So the notion of a long-range plan has never existed for me. I don’t mean that isn’t a good way to do things, but it’s never worked that way for me."

On the creation of Dave Robicheaux: "The themes of my work have never changed. I wrote my first novel in my early-20s. And I’m older, certainly, now, but I don’t think much wiser. My themes have never changed. The only thing that ever changed in my work, and it had enormous influence in terms of commercial success, was the use of a first-person narrator who sometimes is a police officer. That’s what changed everything.

But nothing else changed. The characters, the settings, the themes, they’re all, for good or bad, out of the same source. Something that’s in the unconscious, I’ve never quite understood it."

On the appeal of Robicheaux: "Well, Dave Robicheaux is the everyman. He’s a very successful voice in the series because he’s someone whom the reader trusts. And the person who wrote first about establishing this kind of voice in narration was Washington Irving. We don’t talk about him much anymore, but Washington Irving – and Nathaniel Hawthorne – essentially invented the short story. Edgar Allan Poe is usually given credit; they were contemporaries.

Washington Irving said something I never forgot. He said the narrator must establish a familiarity and a sense of trust between himself and the reader. It’s a kind of an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist outside literature. I always remembered that quote from one of his journals. And years later, the guy who originated the Bonanza series, he was being interviewed and he was asked, 'How did you accomplish a series that ran for 15 years on Sunday night television?' And he said, 'We created a cast of characters whom the American family felt comfortable inviting into their living room.' It’s a great line."

On his characters’ persistence despite witnessing constant crime and corruption: "Cynicism is really the stuff of sophistry. It’s simplistic in nature, it requires no insight and it requires no creativity. Anyone can, in effect, be negative. This, ultimately, is the world we live in. We’re all nihilists. It’s an easier way of doing things, simply to see hopelessness in the world but to, in effect, allow one’s self to not be a part of the herculean effort it takes to do as well as one can and leave the world a better place.

I think it goes back to the Old Testament, the contract made between Yahweh and Noah. That’s a great story. And the rainbow was the archer’s bow that Yahweh hung in the sky and made a contract with creatures and people on board Noah’s Ark. These guys would try to make the world a better place. We forget that in the Old Testament that man lived in peace with the animals. The first creatures on the Ark are the animals. Man was meant to be a steward of the earth. That’s a pretty large responsibility. Take care of the earth. That’s the job."

Erik Spanberg  is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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Author Dave Cullen, who wrote the definitive book on the Columbine tragedy, discovered last week that a friend's brother was injured in the Aurora shooting.

'Columbine' author Dave Cullen examines the Aurora tragedy

By Randy Dotinga / 07.26.12

Thankfully, mass murders are rare in the United States. But the ripples of these horrors can extend for thousands of miles and dozens of years.

Consider how two journalists – both experts on killing sprees – found themselves connected to other mass tragedies by pure chance within just the past few years.

This week, I interviewed author Arnie Bernstein, who uncovered the hidden history of a Michigan town devastated by a 1927 school bombing. Four years ago, he told me, Bernstein found himself comforting a student who had just lost two friends to a gunman at Northern Illinois University.

And then there's Dave Cullen, a journalist who wrote 2009's "Columbine," the definitive book about the killings there. A few days ago, he discovered that a friend's brother was one of the people injured last week in Aurora, Colo. The brother, fortunately, is recovering well.

I myself can remember being a teenager and sitting at home in a San Diego suburb on a July afternoon in 1984, watching the unfolding news about a nearby shooting spree. I desperately worried that my mother, who was out, might have gone to that McDonald's, just a few miles away in San Ysidro, for a bite. (She hadn't.)

Years later, I'd have another distant connection to a similar tragedy. A newspaper co-worker of mine would get a job in Denver and suffer emotional scars from the wrenching task of covering the Columbine attacks.

Cullen, who helps journalists recover from the trauma of reporting on tragedy, wrote a commentary for the New York Times last Sunday about the importance of not rushing to conclusions about the Aurora gunman: "Resist the temptation to extrapolate details prematurely into a whole."

I called Cullen to ask him about how we can best understand the horror in Aurora, what we can learn from Columbine and where we can find hope amid the senseless.  
 
Q: The perpetrators of these acts often seem to want to become famous. Is the media wrong to give them the very publicity they may crave?

A: Every case is different, and it's a little difficult to generalize. And I think "publicity" is the wrong word.

They are reaching for attention in a lot of cases, lashing out and wanting the world to see their pain. It's like "goodbye cruel world" – "you'll see now what you did to me and you'll understand." It's a different emotion than we get from the word "publicity." It's not so much a celebrity thing.

But I do like the idea of mentioning their names as little as possible. I'd like to see more people take that up and see where we can go with that.

Journalists have pooh-poohed it to me, saying the names are out there. That's misunderstanding the point.

We're not trying to hide their names, and we're not going to keep anyone from finding them out. The point is to use them as little as possible, so the act is known and talked about but the names are not recognized. That's pretty doable.

Q: Still, in this case, the Aurora suspect's face has been all over the media. I found myself staring into it intensely on the TV screen and trying to figure out what I could discover about him. Is that OK? When do we go too far in trying to comprehend someone like him?

A: That's national human curiosity and also intellectual curiosity, wanting to know. That's normal and there's nothing wrong with it.

When you start making guesses about what's going on in his head, that's OK at the water cooler and around the dinner table. But not so much on TV.

Q: You write in your book about how a myth of Columbine – that two young men were bullied and in turn targeted jocks – turned into the prevailing story line, even though it wasn't true. Why is that a problem?

A: Once the public believes something, there's a window where everyone is paying attention and they're riveted to the information, and after that they stop paying attention. It doesn't really matter what you tell them anymore.

Once we get it wrong, it's with us forever. There's no untelling the story.

Now, in Aurora, we're getting close to the end of the window of the first phase.

If we think we don't know why [the shooter] did it, and we're waiting for the trial to find out, that's healthy. If we're collectively made up our mind that it's XYZ motive, we'll be stuck with that. And if it's wrong, we'll learn inappropriate things from it.

Q: As the parody site The Onion noted in a mock story with plenty of truth in it, these kinds of incidents follow a kind of protocol: calls for gun control, the presidential visit, inappropriate comments from dingbat politicians, and the slow fade of interest. It's clear that gun control isn't going anywhere. What else can we do as a society to make these incidents less likely?

A: The answer is in understanding why we got things like Columbine wrong so badly.

We never got to the understanding that there were two killers there: one was a psychopath and the other a deeply suicidal depressive.

We don't have a solution for psychopathy, and we don't have any treatment for it. We don't know what to do with these people except to lock them up. But we could listen to the people who study this who are clamoring for more research dollars so we can find some treatments.

As for depression, most of these killers are deep depressives, suicidally depressed people. That's something the public has not come to terms with.

That's the area we should be addressing: catching depression in the teen years. It's really easy to screen for it and diagnose it, and in that way stop the depressive mass murderers in the making.

Q: What lessons can we learn from the Littleton community and how it's dealt with Columbine for 13 years now?

A: The victims want you to know one thing: Don't rush to healing. Give the victims time and space. The longer it goes on, the more profoundly they feel that, and the more angry they are with the public and the media.

The first week, the whole country is in mourning for them. And within, say, six months, we hear these inspiring stories of the kid in the wheelchair who's learning to walk again. We want to hear the inspirational stories of overcoming adversity.

But the survivors feel like the public doesn't want to hear any more "whining." The victims start to hear that as "How can I make you shut up. I want you to get over this so you're done, and we're done with you."

The victims resent that. They feel, "I'm not ready to heal, I don't want to process this just to please you."

Some victims need forever to be sad about it. They want time to heal and space to do it in their own way, and they don't want a lot of well-intentioned help.

Q: It's amazing how victims are often so willing to talk to the media after these tragedies. Is that good for them?

A: The jury is still out on that.

We used to think it's healthy to talk about these things, and it can be, but it can also be really unhealthy to relive them.

We're just in the early stages of understanding post-traumatic stress. I went to Tucson to talk to journalists after the shootings there as part of the DART program (which helps traumatized journalists), and we were told that if people talk want to talk about it, then go with that, and let them. But don't ask them to go back and relive things if they're not volunteering.

Q: After years of studying Columbine, what gives you hope?

A: Patrick Ireland gives me hope.

He was known as the Boy in the Window. He went out the second-story window, and the SWAT team caught him. He had one bullet to the foot and one to the brain, he wasn't expected to ever walk or talk again. After the first night, the prognosis was really bad.

But he had other ideas. He had an incredible will, and he fought back. He was able to walk again, to water ski. He walks now with a limp, but he walks well.

He ended up graduating from college and going to business school and he loves it. He got married, he's really happy, he's living a full life. He forgave the killers and put it behind him.

He's an extraordinary guy, and there are several like him.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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Novels on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize include 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' by Rachel Joyce and 'Bring Up the Bodies' by Hilary Mantel.

Man Booker Prize longlist is announced

By Staff Writer / 07.26.12

The longlist for England’s Man Booker Prize was announced Wednesday, with 12 books – including “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel, currently a bestseller in the United States – making the cut.

The winner of the prize, which honors the year’s best novel, will be announced in October; the 12 nominees will be reduced to six in September. The Man Booker Prize is awarded to an author from Britain, one of the Commonwealth Nations, or Ireland.

The group of judges for the Man Booker Prize consists of editor of the Times Literary Supplement Peter Stothard; critic Dinah Birch; writer Amanda Foreman; reviewer Bharat Tandon; and actor Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley on the popular TV miniseries “Downton Abbey.”

Of the 12 nominees, only Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize before. Seven nominees have made the longlist for the first time.

“We did not set out to reject the old guard but, after a year of sustained critical argument by a demanding panel of judges, the new has come powering through,” Stothard, who is also the chair of the judges, said in a statement.

The nominees besides “Bodies” by Mantel the other titles on this list are: “Communion Town” by Sam Thompson; “Philida” by André Brink; “Skios” by Michael Frayn; “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce; “The Lighthouse” by Alison Moore; “The Yips” by Nicola Barker; “The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng; “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy; “Umbrella” by Will Self; “Narcopolis” by Jeet Thayil; and “The Teleportation Accident” by Ned Beauman.

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