The Boston Marathon bombing brought together two disparate worlds: Cambridge and Chechnya. And at the same time it reasserted a connection between two great writers: Leo Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace.
In the United States, many people became focused on the strife in Chechnya only last week. Tolstoy beat us by more than a century. His 1912 novel "Hadji Murad" (written years earlier) tells a story of violence between Chechens and Russians that was historic even then.
This slim novel – a sapling when compared to the oaks of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" but with a theme as weighty – tells the tragic story of the eponymous Avar warrior, who, after a falling out with a Chechen chief, turns himself over to the Russians, escapes from them, only to find himself trapped like an animal in a ditch between the Russian militia and his own people. Finally, another tribesman cuts off his head. It is a brutal story but softened with touches of great tenderness and empathy, both for the ordinary Chechen as well as the ordinary Russian soldier.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Long before the Boston Marathon bombing, "Hadji Murad" seems to have left its imprint on the troubled and capacious mind of a writer who made Boston his home for three years: David Foster Wallace, author of the peculiarly brilliant novel "Infinite Jest." It is not in "Infinite Jest," however, that we see the striking influence of Tolstoy. Instead, it is found in Wallace's last work, "The Pale King" – an unfinished novel completed and published in 2011, three years after Wallace's 2008 suicide.
Theme-wise the two novels are completely different. ("The Pale King," set in Illinois in the 1980s, satirizes the Internal Revenue Service.) The similarity is found in the form and style of the first chapter. The opening paragraph of "The Pale King," in which the weeds and wild flowers in an Illinois field are described with a forensic clarity, is an unmistakable bow to the first page of "Hadji Murad," where the flowers and weeds of the Chechen mountains are evoked with the rustic lyricism that Tolstoy did so well.
Consider the opening of Tolstoy’s novel:
"I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers – red, white, and pink-scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plantains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly."
And David Foster Wallace’s:
"Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek."
"The similarity in the passages certainly is striking," notes D.T. Max, author of "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story," the first biography to be written of Wallace.
Both Tolstoy and Wallace use the floral setting as a metaphor for what will elapse in the novel. In Tolstoy’s novel, a particularly hardy red thistle called the Tatar, clearly a floral stand-in for the hardy Chechen tribe, catches the narrator’s attention. At the end of the novel, when Hadji Murad is slain, he falls on his face into the mud like a “scythed thistle”. The narrator tries his best to pluck the plant, but it pricks his fingers even through his handkerchief, making him admire its tenacity. He then comes across the plant again but this time it is badly damaged, leading him to pointedly anthropomorphize its mutilation:
“Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it….”
In Wallace’s case, the key to unlocking the metaphorical meaning lies in that first phrase “the flannel plains.” The use of the word ‘flannel’ is just superb. Flannel plains evoke an image of a grey and weed-filled tract of land, but closer scrutiny reveals a plain bursting with foliage that is medicinal, edible, poisonous, pretty, and, like that prickly Tatar thistle, sturdy. It is like the men in grey flannel suits who populate the IRS and the novel. Dull government types, they are in fact highly individualistic and even idealistic, including a former “wasteoid.” These taxmen who spend their lives handcuffed to boredom are civic heroes like policemen and firefighters but perhaps even more so given that "true heroism is a priori incompatible with audience or applause or even the bare notice of the common run of man.” There is something stirring in all that weediness because this is how Wallace ends that paragraph:
“Quart and chert and schist and chrondite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”
He is seemingly describing Midwestern American soil but in the burst of short and abruptly ancient sentences that follows, it’s clear that he is talking about Earth before there were countries. That last and unexpected observance – “We are all of us brothers” – takes the reader by surprise. It is nakedly sentimental, curiously so for a writer who had a terror of being sentimental, but also tellingly so, for a writer who fought against the tedium of fresh-faced irony.
In the wake of the Marathon bombing in which two terribly misguided young men wounded their adopted country and, in their uncle Ruslan Tsarni’s anguished words, brought shame on their family and community, it also has an inconsolable pathos.
"Hadji Murad" was Tolstoy’s last novel and one close to his heart. He understood why the Chechens, oppressed for years by Russian czars, hated his countrymen and called them dogs and swine and poisonous spiders, but he also did not underplay the ruthless violence they unleashed on the ordinary Russian soldier. The only time Wallace appears to have made a direct reference to Chechnya was in his essay on John McCain’s first presidential campaign. The senator, he wrote, got all kinds of questions including those by “Talmudically bearded guys asking about Chechnya.”
Although Wallace often spoke passionately about his admiration for the other great Russian, Dostoevsky – whom he called a writer with “balls” – he once declared in an interview that “I'm the only ‘postmodernist’ you’ll ever meet who absolutely worships Leo Tolstoy.” After poking fun at Tolstoy’s “wacko, fundamentalist Russian Orthodox Christian” world view, Wallace said that if one “edited out the heavenly Christian stuff," he agreed with Tolstoy that “the purpose of art was to communicate the idea of Christian brotherhood from man to man and to pass along some sort of message.”
It is the spirit of late Tolstoy – the late Talmudically bearded Tolstoy – that passes over that tragically childlike thought expressed in a flannel field: “We are all of us brothers.”
Nina Martyris is a Monitor contributor.
While the original cover (you remember it from high school – that blue backdrop and the two huge eyes) is still available, a new version of the book is also available with a movie tie-in image. That one has much of the cast of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaptation – Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby; Carey Mulligan as his love interest Daisy; Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband, Tom; and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway – all gracing the book's front. Actress Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson and Elizabeth Debicki as tennis player Jordan appear as well.
But some readers – and booksellers – aren’t happy with the new edition.
“It's just god-awful," Kevin Cassem, a bookseller at New York indie bookstore McNally Jackson, told The New York Times. McNally Jackson isn’t carrying the new version of the book. “'The Great Gatsby' is a pillar of American literature, and people don't want it messed with,” says Cassem.
Meanwhile, Cathy Langer, the lead book buyer at Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore, said the two covers mean readers just have more options.
“It really depends who you are,” Langer told the Times. “If you think it's cool to have the movie star on the cover, then that's what you'll buy.”
“Gatsby” is currently number two on Amazon’s overall bestseller list (the original cover version holds the spot) and is also number two on the Trade Paperback Fiction IndieBound list for April 22. In addition, sales of “Gatsby” e-books have spiked sharply this year. According to the Times, 125,000 copies have been sold so far this year, compared with 80,000 in all of 2012.
Seen any romantic comedy with two squabbling leads lately? Then you have William Shakespeare and his play, “Much Ado About Nothing,” to thank.
And director Joss Whedon’s take on the play – modern dress and setting, but original language and in black-and-white – recently got a new trailer, which debuted in the UK.
The film stars Alexis Denisof as playboy Benedick and Amy Acker as stubborn Beatrice. The two argue whenever they see each other until their friends hatch a plot to get them together. Actor Fran Kanz plays Benedick’s friend Claudio and Jillian Morgese is Hero, whose engagement to Claudio goes smoothly until bitter Don John (Sean Maher) interferes.
The cast is full of Whedon regulars and arguably the most recognizable name in it is actor Nathan Fillion, who will be portraying bumbling constable Dogberry. "Ado" has already played at several festivals and received positive reviews.
The trailer includes glimpses of Denisof and Acker each overhearing their friends discuss the love each supposedly has for the other (Acker is so startled she drops a basket of laundry and falls down a flight of stairs), the wedding where Claudio jilts Hero in the most public way possible, and the ultimate happy resolution to both relationships.
Check out the full video.
We’re not sure what we’re more excited about, the nation’s newest book prize or the novelist who received it.
Dubbed the “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction” by the New York Review of Books, DeLillo is known for “paint[ing] detailed portraits of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” writes Goodreads.
“Like Dostoyevsky, Don DeLillo probes deeply into the sociopolitical and moral life of his country,” Billington said in the Library of Congress’s official announcement. "Over a long and important career, he has inspired his readers with the diversity of his themes and the virtuosity of his prose.”
Author of more than a dozen novels, DeLillo is best known for his critically acclaimed works including the National Book Award winner, “White Noise,” a satire on the effects of mass culture and technology; “Underworld,” on the effects of the Cold War on American culture; and “Libra,” on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“When I received news of this award, my first thoughts were of my mother and father, who came to this country the hard way, as young people confronting a new language and culture," DeLillo told the Library of Congress. "In a significant sense, the Library of Congress prize is the culmination of their efforts and a tribute to their memory."
DeLillo is known for his postmodern novels that explore that mess and madness of modern times: mass media, terrorism, political violence, corporate corruption, and consumerism.
Here’s what Philip Roth, the great American writer who recently announced his retirement, said of DeLillo at the Saul Bellow Award: The “combination of terror and comedy and sheer song” in his writing means that “everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award."
And now, of course, he is the first recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.
The prize honors American literary writers “whose body of work is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but for its originality of thought and imagination,” the Library said in a statement. “The award seeks to commend strong, unique, enduring voices that – throughout long, consistently accomplished careers – have told us something about the American experience.”
The prize was inspired by the Library’s prior award, the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction, as well as the Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award, which was previously awarded to John Grisham, Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth.
The Library’s new inaugural award will be presented to DeLillo in September at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, where attendees will enjoy a rare treat: the chance to hear DeLillo, who rarely participates in public appearances or book tours, speak.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Comedy star Jason Segel is turning his attention to children’s books.
“The Muppets” and “How I Met Your Mother” star Segel has signed a deal with Random House Children’s Books for a three-part series titled “Nightmares!” that he will write with author Kirsten Miller. The books will be aimed at a middle-grade audience.
“Both scary and funny, NIGHTMARES! is an adventure story about a group of kids who realize it’s up to them to save their town from fear, which has manifested itself in the form of nightmare creatures that have slipped into the everyday world,” the statement from Random House read.
“Ultimately, it’s a story about learning that we can accomplish anything, as long as we are brave enough to try,” Segel said of his books in a statement. “These are the types of stories that always inspired me.”
The first book in the series will hit shelves in the fall of 2014.
The idea first took the form of a script, according to CBS News, but Segel then decided to turn the storyline into a book series.
The US title of the first section of the two-part biography will be “Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands” (as opposed to the “Margaret Thatcher, The Authorized Biography – Volume 1” UK title). The book will be released in America on May 21. It was acquired by Knopf for US publication from publisher Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin which is releasing the title in the UK.
The book came out today in the UK.
The new biography "sheds much new light on the whole spectrum of British political life from Thatcher’s entry into Parliament in 1959 to what was arguably the zenith of her power – victory in the Falklands in 1982," Knopf said in a statement. The publisher said of Moore's writing that he is "convincingly clear-eyed, conveying both how remarkable she was and how infuriating she could be."
Thatcher authorized Moore’s biography with the condition that it only be released after her death. In doing so, she gave him many interviews as well as access to some of her private papers, according to Penguin.
The former prime minister had not read the final draft of the biography before her death, according to Penguin. Thatcher died April 8.
There's been plenty of talk about “Top of the Morning,” journalist Brian Stelter's inside look at TV's morning news shows. But when it comes to book critics, not all of the words have been kind.
“Top of the Morning,” which hit bookshelves today, aims to examine the “cutthroat world of morning TV,” according to the book’s subtitle. Grand Central, the book's publisher, calls the exposé “a gripping look at the most competitive time slot in television, complete with Machiavellian booking wars and manic behavior by the producers, executives, and stars."
The book is released following the firing of “Today” co-host Ann Curry by NBC. It also details “Good Morning America”’s attempt to defeat “Today” in the ratings struggle as well as “GMA”’s Robin Roberts’ battle with MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome).
Stelter is a New York Times reporter, but even the NYT wasn’t enamored of the book, with reviewer Ed Bark complaining that it “ends up being like a breakfast made not quite to order” and saying that the book has “more than a little overblown prose, some of it just plain silly.” Bark does suggest, however, that Stelter is “just 27, so there’s ample time really to get the hang of this.”
Bark also notes that both “Today” anchor Matt Lauer and Curry declined to be interviewed, which necessarily limits the access to the story of Curry’s departure.
Entertainment Weekly reviewer Henry Goldblatt also found the lack of direct quotes from Lauer and Curry disappointing, opining that while the book's jacket compares “Top of the Morning” to writer Bill Carter’s books about TV, including “The Late Shift,” there's a big difference between the work of Stelter and that of Carter.
“In Carter’s books, you get the sense that the author was in the room when big decisions were made,” Goldblatt wrote. “In Stelter’s debut, you get the sense that he was staring at his smartphone.”
In addition, Goldblatt found Stelter’s prose distasteful, writing of his “Hemingwayesque sentences (in length, not substance), hackneyed analogies (Today is Coke! Good Morning America is Pepsi!), and antipathy for the medium he covers.” Stelter “seems to have a vendetta against Lauer,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Hollywood Reporter writer Andy Lewis said the book “flops.”
“Stelter is at his best when he lets the story carry itself, offering a fly-on-the-wall view of key moments (including the drama of Curry’s last day),” Lewis wrote. “Still, his enthusiasm often gets the better of him, and the purple prose, strangely dated analogies (the Today-GMA rivalry is like 1971’s Ali-Frazier fight) and fondness For Capitalizing For Emphasis overwhelm the story.”
Lewis was also displeased that the book’s hype presented some of the details inside as Stelter’s own.
“Stelter conducted about 350 interviews, but many details and quotes have been reported in the Times and elsewhere, including by THR,” he wrote.
The event is being held in America this year for the second year in a row. Germany also held its first Book Night last year, while the UK and Ireland kicked off their celebrations for the first time in 2011.
On World Book Night, volunteers hand out free copies of any of 20 pre-selected books to friends, family members, and strangers on the street, all in an attempt to get the public reading. A committee of librarians and those involved in the bookselling business choose the titles to be distributed each year, and for 2013, the books being handed out include titles as varied as “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis; “Bossypants” by Tina Fey; “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood; “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova; and “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Joining in the 2013 celebration will be a Broadway show. At tonight’s performance of the current Broadway revival of the musical “Annie” – which tells the story of a plucky orphan living during the Depression – books will be given to each audience member with a ticket. The books' recipients will be encouraged to pass them along to someone who isn’t necessarily drawn to reading. The three books chosen for distribution at "Annie" – “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster; “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan; and “Looking for Alaska” by John Green – were picked because they were viewed as titles capable of luring in wary readers.
Naturally, however, different titles appeal to different types of readers. In St. Louis, bookstore worker Katie Stepanek of The Book House told the St. Louis Dispatch that volunteers who were coming in to pick up books to distribute were most often asking for “Good Omens” and “The Lightning Thief.”
Volunteers took to Twitter today to express their happiness about the celebration.
User @jenriosburns tweeted her support for her fellow participants.
According to World Book Night’s website, hundreds of kick-off events and celebrations of those who are giving out books will be held today all over the world.
Wondering what’s going on in your area? Check out World Book Night’s events page.
Just after World War II, Texas City – next to Galveston and not far from Houston – was the boom-iest of boom towns. The population was zooming skyward thanks to an influx of workers seeking jobs in the gritty worlds of oil, gas, metal, and chemicals.
"Everyone who lives here," a local priest said, "is a refugee steered to Texas City by a rising tide."
But the sea itself brought horror 66 years ago last week. A ship full of ammonium nitrate exploded in the Texas City port, setting off a disastrous chain reaction that left the city in ruins. Hundreds died, and thousands were wounded.
Ammonium nitrate appears to also be responsible for the deadly explosion last week at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas.
Why is this chemical compound so dangerous? How does the 1947 disaster compare to this week's tragedy? And what is the legacy of Texas City? No one may know the answers better than Texas journalist and historian Bill Minutaglio, author of 2003's well-received "City on Fire: The Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle."
Q: When I think of fertilizer, manure comes to mind. How does ammonium nitrate fit in?
A: Ammonium nitrate can be used to fertilize farms and fields because it is high in nitrogen. In large amounts, given the right conditions — including heat and fire – it can explode. People intent on malevolence have long known about the compound's explosive capabilities.
Q: What was ammonium nitrate used for in 1947?
A: The ammonium nitrate that blew up in 1947 in Texas City, which what some say is the greatest industrial disaster in the most industrialized nation in the world, was intended to be used as fertilizer. It was packed in bags that were stamped with the word "fertilizer" and was going to be sent from Texas City to Europe, on freighters, in order to assist in the revitalizing of farms in Europe.
Q: Why was the Texas City disaster so widespread and deadly?
A: According to official reports, 581 people died. Some believe the number to be higher. Some say as many as 5,000 people were wounded.
There were multiple explosions and fires. Enormous petrochemical plants and oil tanks were destroyed and the disaster resulted in untold amounts of toxic chemicals being released into the land, air and water.
Q: With the limited information we have now, can you compare the 1947 explosion way to the disaster this week?
A: I don't think it is entirely fair to compare these disasters because the time periods are different, the geography is different, and there has been significant attention paid to ammonium nitrate and combustible fertilizers since 1947.
That said, these incidents both occurred in small towns that were just horrifically overwhelmed, towns filled with hard-working folks, people who work with their hands in farms or factories or plants. Similar questions are emerging: Could this have been prevented?
Q: How is the Texas City disaster memorialized, and how has it affected that community to this day?
A: It is recognized in various ways – with a memorial area, with anniversary commemorations. The city is well aware of its history. The main library in Texas City is a wonderful repository of history, oral histories, photographs.
It's hard to say how the event affects the community now. I think, in general, people in Texas City are mindful of the giant, sprawling industrial complex that rings the city.
It is enormous, and the people in the city are very proud of the fact that large portions of America would not function as they do without the goods and services from Texas City. America would be radically different, probably malfunctioning according to some people, without the energy and petrochemical nexus of Texas City.
Q: Why do you think the Texas City disaster is largely forgotten? Does it just not fit into a wider historical narrative?
A: People remember Texas City when they want to, through the prism of the media that revives the story when events like the one in West occur. There have been other disasters in Texas City, by the way, including one in 2005 when 15 people died and 170 or so were injured.
Q: What lessons can we learn from Texas City that will help the community in West?
A: Greater attention has to be paid to safeguard communities, to provide oversight, to commit to government inspections, to err on the side of caution.
In Texas City, in 1947, people said they were simply not made aware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate. They wished they had been told.
Q: What is the ultimate legacy of Texas City?
A: Texas City is taught in emergency response schools. People who work at FEMA and other response agencies know about Texas City and study it. If they don't, they should.
Texas City offered manifest lessons on how to control chaos and how to manage emergencies. That's an important and enduring legacy, and many people in the United States are completely unaware of it.
Texas City also led to the first massive class-action filed against the federal government. It opened the door, in its way, for ordinary people to challenge the government on a legal basis.
Whether by accident or design, there have been far too many unfolding tragedies involving loss of life and large numbers of injuries. I hope that the lessons of West, Texas City, Newtown, and Boston will make us even more aware and make us think more about how to perhaps anticipate problems while still encouraging our children to meet the world with open arms.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Children’s author E.L. Konigsburg, a two-time Newbury Medalist for her books “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and “The View from Saturday,” died on April 19 at the age of 83, according to her family.
Konigsburg was perhaps best known for the 1967 book “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” which followed a brother and sister, Claudia and Jamie, who ran away from home and hid inside New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Konigsburg, whose full name was Elaine Lobl, grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Carnegie Mellon University, majoring in chemistry. Konigsburg began writing and illustrating books after her youngest child had entered school and published her first book, “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth,” in 1967. “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” came out later the same year.
The author’s other works included “Up from Jericho Tell” and “The View from Saturday,” which was released in 1996 and followed a group of middle-schoolers who enter an academic competition. “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” won the Newbery Medal in 1968 and “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth,” secured a Newbery Honor that same year, making her the only author to win both a Medal and an Honor in the same year. Konigsburg later won the Medal again in 1997 for “The View from Saturday,” making her one of only five authors to have been given the prize twice.
“From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” was adapted once as a 1973 film called “The Hideaways,” in which actress Ingrid Bergman starred as the title character, and again in 1995 as a TV movie in which Lauren Bacall took on the part.
Konigsburg wrote that she was inspired to create the story of “From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” after she and her family went on a picnic and her children complained of the discomfort involved.
“What, I wondered, would my children do if they ever decided to leave home?” the author said. “Where, I wondered, would they go? At the very least, they would want all the comforts of home, and they would probably want a few dashes of elegance as well. They would certainly never consider any place less elegant than the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
In Konigsburg’s novel, protagonist Claudia “knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away,” the author writes. “She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.”
The author’s last book, “The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World,” was released in 2007.
“I think most of us are outsiders,” Konigsburg told the Dallas Morning News of her characters. ”And I think that’s good because it makes you question things. I think it makes you see things outside yourself.”