A new two-and-a-half-minute trailer for the first installment of “The Hobbit” arrived online this week, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the publication of the book, which will be celebrated on Friday.
The preview features the reappearances of several “Lord of the Rings” characters, including wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), elves Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Gollum (Andy Serkis), whom Bilbo encounters and must engage in a battle of riddles.
The character of Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of the company of dwarves which Bilbo joins in an attempt to take back the dwarves’ home from the dragon Smaug, also makes several appearances.
The trailer begins with Gandalf explaining the dwarves’ quest, after which the dwarves show up at Bilbo (Martin Freeman)’s home.
“I like visitors as much as the next hobbit, but I do like to know them before they come,” Bilbo complains. But soon after, he’s seen running through Hobbiton, clutching a map.
“I’m going on an adventure!” he hollers.
Gandalf also explains to Galadriel, co-ruler of Lothlórien, why he chose Bilbo for the quest.
“Perhaps it is because I am afraid and he gives me courage,” he says.
A character who appears to be the wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) states that “a dark power has found its way back into the world,” perhaps referring to the ring that jumpstarts the plot of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
The character of Gollum is seen entering into the battle of riddles with Bilbo, discussing the terms of the game.
“If Bagginses loses, then we eats it whole,” he informs Bilbo, with a head tilt suggesting this is a perfectly fair deal.
Various battle and adventure scenes are also shown, including wargs (wolf-like creatures) attacking, the dwarves and the trolls which the party encounters around a campfire as well as the dwarves braving a rockslide.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first movie in a planned trilogy, is scheduled for a Dec. 14 release. The films’ director Peter Jackson originally stated that the book would be adapted into two films, but recently announced that a third movie will be released in 2014, with the second installment coming in 2013.
Check out the full trailer below.
“Goodnight iPad”? Maybe not quite yet.
According to a new study, parents still overwhelmingly choose print books over electronic ones when reading together at night. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that more than 70 percent of parents still choose print books to read for their children. More than 50 percent of children selected print books over e-books.
The results came with a caveat – if a family is on vacation or if a parent is busy with some task and needs to sit a child down with something to keep the child occupied, parents preferred giving a child an e-book over a print version.
The survey was conducted among iPad users and did not take other devices into account.
"Haunting." "Atmospheric." "Harrowing." These are the kinds of adjectives readers are applying to "The Light Between Oceans," the debut novel by London attorney M. L. Stedman. Set on an island off the coast of Western Australia (home territory for Stedman), the book tells the story of a World War I veteran and his wife, a childless couple with a loving marriage but no child to share the remote outpost that they call home. This couple – with a single breathtaking decision – set into motion an unimaginable course of events. I recently spoke with Stedman about her book.
Q: The story of "The Light Between Oceans" is so atmospheric, intense, and – in several senses – remote. How did this story come to you?
A: I write very organically – a picture or phrase or voice turns up in my mind, and I just follow it. For this story, I closed my eyes and could see a lighthouse and a woman. I could tell it was a long time ago, on an island off Western Australia. A man appeared, and I sensed he was the lightkeeper, and it was his story. Then a boat washed up, carrying the body of a dead man. I kept looking and saw there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see who all these people were and what happened next.
Q: Several of your characters face difficult ethical dilemmas. Some make poor decisions, but in the end, as we come to understand them, most turn out to be quite sympathetic people. Would you say that this reflects your world view?
There’s a great deal to be said for that old expression ‘walk a mile in the other person’s shoes’, don’t you think? I believe that people are born with a strong instinct for good. Of course, views of what ‘good’ looks like differ wildly. But I think it’s usually possible to find compassion for even the most misguided of individuals: that’s different from condoning harmful behavior. It’s just recognizing that the business of being human is complex, and it’s easy to get things wrong. Compassion and mercy allows society to heal itself when we do.
Q: Much of the story involves either loss – or fear of loss – of love. Would you say that you see this fear as the great driver of much of human experience?
You probably only fear losing love if you already have it, so I’d say that the driver starts a step earlier – satisfying a basic human need for love in its very broadest sense: that includes giving as well as receiving it. In its infinite variety of forms, it plays a role in bestowing life with meaning.
Q: The plotting in this novel is tight and neatly crafted (almost like a ship, I kept thinking as I was reading). Do you think that your work as a lawyer has impacted your writing style in terms of attention to details, an ability to cross all the "t" and dot all the "i"s?
I love the idea of the plot being as sound as a ship! I think the greatest impact of my legal background is that it allows me to write freely and spontaneously, without meticulously plotting in advance. Lawyers are probably hard-wired for structure, so it’s a reflex rather than something to spend a lot of conscious thought on. And yes, the legal training helps on the detail, too, making sure that things are consistent.
Q: When it comes to the setting, the book seems to be written with much love. Is that coastal setting close to your heart?
Definitely! I’m always happiest beside an ocean. I grew up with the West Australian landscape, and I so enjoyed putting it on the page – describing the place I’ve loved all my life.
Q: Who are your own favorite writers? Do you think any of them have had an impact on this novel?
A few favorites who spring to mind (in no particular order) are Graham Greene, George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Gardam, Andre Gide, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield... I suppose what they have in common is an unflinching eye, a profound understanding of the human heart, and a mastery of language. Those are the qualities I find most rewarding in books, so they’re the ones I’d like to bring, in however pale a reflection, to what I write.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.
When Rushdie published “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, it was immediately met with controversy. Many Muslims objected to the novel's plot, in which the devil tries to convince the Prophet Muhammad to add extra verses to the Koran accepting three goddesses as deities. Some in the Muslim community also charged Rushdie with blasphemy because several characters in the novel who are prostitutes have the same names as Muhammad’s wives.
The book was banned in several countries, including Kenya, Indonesia, and Singapore, and Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, asking “all valiant Muslims” to attempt to kill Rushdie and any editors or publishers associated with the book.
Several bookstores were bombed, including Dillons in London and two stores in Berkeley, Calif. The office of The Riverdale Press, a community paper based in New York, suffered damage from firebombs after the newspaper ran an editorial supporting Rushdie.
Hitoshi Igarashi, the translator who rendered the book into Japanese, was killed in 1991, and other translators were injured in or narrowly escaped assassination attempts. Some citizens were killed in the violence that broke out around the globe.
After the UK broke diplomatic relations with Iran, Iranian government leader Muhammad Khatami stated in 1998 that it would “neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie,” but some in the country still embrace the fatwa, including Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who stated in 2005 that the fatwa is still in place.
Rushdie’s letter thanking independent bookstores for their support has been made into posters that will be hung at various locations.
“The independent booksellers of America put the book in windows, mounted special displays, and courageously stood up for freedom against censorship, refusing to allow the choices of American readers to be limited by the threats of an angry despotic cleric far away,” Rushdie wrote. “The bravery of independent booksellers influenced other stores to follow their lead, and in the end a key battle for free expression was won…. I’m glad to be able to honor your courage and give you all your due…. It was a privilege to be defended by you, and I have been trying, and will continue to try, to be worthy of that defense.”
The author was recently the subject of another threat when the head of a religious organization in Iran, Hassan Sanei, told the Iranian Students' News Agency that he was increasing a reward for killing Rushdie to $3.3 million, adding $500,000 from its previous standing.
“I'm not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention,” Rushdie told the Los Angeles Times.
A new novel by Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay, titled “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” was discovered by a Columbia University graduate student and recently declared to be authentic.
The novel, which focuses on Harlem during the Great Depression, was found by Jean-Christophe Cloutier in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia in 2009 when Cloutier was sorting through materials belonging to writer Samuel Roth. The manuscript was discovered inside one of the boxes. Cloutier worked with a professor at Columbia, Brent Hayes Edwards, who was also his dissertation advisor. The two examined materials at other schools as well as McKay’s personal correspondence to try to determine if the book was actually written by the author. They also asked three experts to help them verify that the manuscript was genuine.
The novel pokes fun at Communists and also depicts Harlem night life, with the book’s characters visiting salons, night clubs, and other establishments.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and one of the experts asked to examine the novel, said the discovery is an impressive one.
“Because it was written in the second half of the Harlem Renaissance, it shows that the renaissance continued to be vibrant and creative and turned its focus to international issues – in this case the tensions between Communists, on the one hand, and black nationalists, on the other, for the hearts and minds of black Americans,” Gates said.
Writer Claude McKay was born in Jamaica and is the author of such works as “Home to Harlem.”
The Civil War unleashed a tide of grief and mourning that remains unimaginable today when American wars are fought by the few.
On Tuesday evening, Sept. 19, PBS's "American Experience" documentary series will try to help us understand the toll – which for some would last well into the 20th century – by airing a new film titled "Death and the Civil War." It is based on the 2008 book "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" by historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University.
In a review for The Christian Science Monitor, Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe called the book "a harrowing but fascinating read" that "makes a convincing case that since the heartbreak of the Civil War the US has never been the same."
I talked to Faust last week about the Civil War's legacy of immense grief and mourning, the ways the war changed perceptions of American citizenship and government, and the evolution of her own beliefs as a child of the South.
Q: How did the death toll of the Civil War – an estimated 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians and perhaps even more, according to a new estimate – change us as a nation?
A: We learned about our obligations to the dead. If we are to understand ourselves as a nation made up of citizens, and if we ask people to fight in defense of that democracy, there are obligations owed to them.
Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries, no processes for identifying the dead in the battle. There weren't any dog tags, and there was no next-of-kin notification.
You didn't necessarily even hear what the fate of your loved ones had been. It was up to their comrades to write and inform you.
Those kinds of practices were transformed by the recognition of what the country owes to the citizen in the way of an honorable death and the responsibility for the remains and for the kin of those who have died in war.
Q: How was the government itself transformed by its new responsibility to take care of soldiers who lived and those who died?
A: It had never had so much work as was represented by the bureaucracy necessary to rebury the dead, with more than 300,000 Union soldiers relocated and buried in national cemeteries.
That was an enormous logistical undertaking. And the pension system that was set up to take care of the relatives required a level of engagement in the lives of citizens and bureaucracy that didn't exist. Before, the government was very small.
Q: What did the loss of these lives mean to the nation's understanding of itself?
A: The war is captured in the Gettysburg Address: these honored dead died that a nation might live. The nation itself becomes the product of the sacrifice. There is a sense of the obligation of the nation to the principles for which the war was fought.
This was a war about citizenship, about equality, about emancipation, and the values that define us.
Q: How did it change people's views of death itself?
A: Human beings were confronted with death in what they called particular circumstance and necessities: Young people were dying in ways that wouldn't have happened outside of war.
A lot of individuals found themselves asking questions. What does death mean? What is heaven like? Do I really believe in a benevolent God if He allows these things to occur? What does it mean to be a human being and confront this level of inhumanity?
Q: When I think of this era, the modern violin tune "Ashokan Farewell," popularized by the landmark Ken Burns "Civil War" documentary series, comes to mind. It's so tremendously sad and mournful. Does the music ring true to that era?
A: The mournfulness you describe is very much at the heart of so many individuals.
When I was growing up in Virginia, the Civil War was presented to me as glorious with dramatic courage and military honor. Later, I realized how death was central to the reality. It was at the core of women's lives. It's what they talked about most.
Q: How did writing this book change your own perception of the war?
A: As a kid, I was growing up in an era of celebration of the Civil War centennial, with a lot of "Lost Cause" emphasis on the Confederacy.
I used to play Civil War soldiers with my brothers as a child, and my older brother always insisted that he got to be Lee, and I got be Grant. I never knew that Grant won until quite some time had passed.
As I became older, I began to recognize what the war was fought about.
I also grew up in the era of civil rights. My perspective was one that led me to feel proud that I'd gotten to be Grant.
Q: How did people of that time get through the pain and agony of loss?
A: That was in my mind every minute. Some people didn't cope.
There's a story of a young man from South Carolina named Oliver Middleton. He goes off to war at age 18, he's killed, and his father, a very wealthy man, scours the battlefield to find out what happened. The parents are grief-stricken, and his mother dies within a year. She just dissolved and disintegrated.
I'm also struck by how many soldiers write about what they were seeing. Henry Taylor from Wisconsin writes to his parents saying, "I don't know what to say, my mind is all jumbled up. I can't explain it, I can't talk about it."
I see what we might regard today as post-traumatic stress.
Another factor is the powerful role of religion in enabling people to cope. Thomas Hampton of Georgia, who dies in the absolute last month of the war, writes to this wife, two years before, that he'd already gotten to Heaven. He writes about a better place. It's as if he's living parallel lives, one in his religion that allows him to survive the fighting.
There's a Biblical verse that says "as thy days, so shall thy strength be." This is a sense that you won't be called upon to do more than you're able. God will get you the strength to put you through what is in front of you.
Q: What sort of emotional scars would linger?
A: There's a quotation from [author] William Deal Howell, talking about President James Garfield. His experience in the war made him lose a sense of the sacredness of life that never returned to him. It came from seeing dead men whom other men had killed, seeing human beings killing one another. This level of destruction and inhumanity affected him in ways that lasted his whole life.
Q: What does the documentary add to the book?
A: The film can capture of the dimensions of the experience. The letters that are so familiar, but having an actor read those words with the visual accompaniment of the film is very powerful.
One letter to a soldier's parents says: "I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son." The letter is shown on the film and read by an actor. The camera can focus in on these words, each of which is so forceful about what it communicates. It can also focus on the bloodstains on the letter and have the words articulated at the same time.
It has people in tears who watched this movie.
Q: What else touched people about the film?
A: Just the human experience of coping with death and what it means to confront death and what it means to do the work of death, preparing for it, contemplating it, understanding it, and mourning. This happens to all of us.
I've had many people reach out to me who have said they've used the book in bereavement groups and in hospices. It's about war but also a larger problem: We're all going to die. How do we relate to that?
The other response has been from soldiers about what it's like to die in war, what sacrifice for one's country means, what one's country owes in return.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Interview conducted by Miwa Messer for The Barnes & Noble Review
Between the two of them, Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman have produced some of the most mesmerizing literary fiction today – vibrant and soulful, often screamingly funny, and always searching. Each of their debuts was selected for the Discover Great New Writers program – Díaz's "Drown" in '96 and Goldman's "The Long Night of White Chickens" in '92 – and since then, both have published to ever-growing acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Díaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."
Goldman's most recent novel, the haunting "Say Her Name," is now out in paperback, and "This Is How You Lose Her," Díaz's long-awaited follow-up to "Oscar Wao," was released today.
The longtime friends generously agreed to let the Barnes & Noble Review eavesdrop on their conversation, one that I kicked off – and closed – with some questions of my own. – Miwa Messer
The Barnes and Noble Review: Which comes first, voice or place?
Junot Díaz: For my first three books the setting (or place if you will) has always been a given – NJ and the Dominican Republic and some NYC – so from one perspective you could say that the place in my work always comes first. But really what comes first is something even more basic – my desire to write about the Dominican diasporic experience, to write about a movement of people, a set of experiences, a history, which I witnessed firsthand and which shaped almost every part of my life, and yet which was largely ignored, erased, and misunderstood by the larger culture. That was the first impulse, certainly. But with all three of my books there were other very specific evolutionary conditions that made them possible. "Oscar Wao" or example cohered in a period of terrible distress. All the novels that I wanted to write were not happening. I was living in Mexico City, next door to you, Frank (in fact you were the one who enticed me to come down to the DF [Distrito Federal], thinking the distance and the city would inspire me.) My apartment had almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades – I definitely wasn't taking care of myself. I was going nuts from my lack of success, and I kept playing the "Conan the Barbarian" soundtrack over and over thinking that it might spark something.
Now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that in all the failed books I was attempting to write about the deepest sh*t in both my life and in Dominican history. I was trying to tackle the traumatic after-effects of dictatorship, specifically the afterlife of the Trujillato, starting with my own family and projecting that out to my fictional characters. This was not an easy thing to do. Not for me certainly. I grew up in the shadow of the Trujillato, saw how the regime had ravaged so many families. The sexual violence that the Trujillato deployed to terrorize the Dominican people was one of my principle concerns and given all the silence and shame that surrounds it – no wonder I was having trouble with the material.
So one night we were all at a party with some Mexican actors, and I was drinking beers and listening to the chatter, and one of the actors came up to me and said that his favorite writer was Oscar Wilde, but of course I heard it as Oscar Wao and that was how it all started. With a name misheard. As soon as I heard Oscar Wao the title came to me, and then this vision of Oscar and his sister and their crazy mother and over them all the shadow of Trujillo. I wrote the Oscar section of the book very fast; the rest of the novel came much slower. What kept me going even in the darkest periods was that strange third person first person voice that mixed the nerdish with the historical, which was so vibrant and flippant and yet so dark. "Oscar Wao" more than any of my other works was a delicate balancing act – keeping the voice from becoming too funny or too bleak, too historical or too nerdish. "Drown," my first book, was something else altogether. I was an immigrant kid who grew up in a neighborhood that I never saw depicted anywhere, who remembered a Dominican Republic that was very much alive and kicking. I wanted to write stories about both these worlds. I floundered for years until I hit upon Yunior's voice. Then suddenly the pages started flowing out of me but before Yunior's voice crystallized in my head nothing was working. Nothing at all. Even stories I was dying to tell were flat on the page.
Francisco Goldman: And what a creation Yunior's voice is, one of the great literary character voices of our time! Some people probably believe that Yunior's voice must be close to your own, a directly autobiographical voice. But it's something, as you imply, that you developed. I'd love to know more about what went into your discovery of that voice. Are there earlier versions of that voice filed away somewhere that make you cringe?
The sources of most of my novels have been a mix of things. What is interesting to me is the question of what finally sparks the writing, how do you get to that moment when, as you say, Yunior's voice crystallized and the writing took off.
My first novel, "The Long Night of White Chickens," grew out of my immersion, beginning in 1979, in the war and nightmare repression in Guatemala. Sure, I had a Guatemalan mother, but I'd had a mostly typical suburban middle-class New England upbringing. I was so innocent that I thought that our old family cottage on Lake Amatitlán, just outside Guatemala City, would be a perfect place to hole up and write the stories I needed for my MFA applications. When I arrived and told my uncle my plan, he freaked. Don't you know there's a war on in this country! The cottages are shut down, the night watchman who looked after them was murdered, the police station was attacked by guerrillas, etc. So I was forced to live in my uncle's house. That's where it started: when, miracle of miracles, a short story I'd written for the MFA applications was accepted by Esquire magazine, the editors invited me to write non-fiction, and I asked to be sent to Guatemala, and just like that I became a freelance journalist, that's how I (barely) supported myself, working out of Central America until 1991. One of the reasons I was so committed to this was that I thought it would make me grow as a writer. In that grand tradition, I was after experience.
But I didn't know how to write fiction about violence, suffering, injustice, absolute evil, the inevitable political and moral entanglements, didn't really understand my place in all that as a human, never mind as a would-be fiction writer (Me quedaba grande, as they say here in Mexico.) I was obsessed with writers who'd written novels that were also rooted in historical tragedy and violence and that somehow managed to balance light and darkness, the all too real and the mysterious. How did they do that? One of those was Faulkner of course and when reading that he described Caddy from "The Sound and the Fury" as his heart's darling, something clicked. Flor de Mayo Puac was partly born in that moment, but she was still only an idea for a character. In 1986 Morgan Entrekin offered me a modest advance. I escaped to Madrid, worked on my novel every day, failed every day, had stupid fist-fights with Spaniards who thought I was a moro, and a few months later returned to Guatemala having blown my advance, and without a single page of the novel.
One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became "The Ordinary Seaman." I'd done a ton of research for "The Divine Husband," but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.
"Say Her Name" was different. I began it six months after Aura's death and was helpless to do anything else. Now I've gone back to a novel that I was working on when Aura died. It's a different novel now, just as I'm a different person. I failed at it for much of this summer. The difference is that this time, the weeks of failing didn't panic me, I'd been down this road before and knew that sooner or later it would resolve.
So Junot, my question to you is up at the top. Related to it is another question: how do you find your way forward when you write a novel? Did you know where you wanted the novel to go when you began "Oscar Wao?" How radically different was that process for you than when you write short stories?
Junot Díaz: I have hundreds of pages filled with failed versions of Yunior's voice. That's how I roll; I always have to write a lot of crap before anything useful emerges. I don't necessarily cringe. I just shake my head, amazed that I have to sow so much to glean so little.
But I totally agree with you – my unconscious mind does better work than my conscious mind. And it was without question the best guide to get me through the earlier stages of my novel-writing process. In the first abortive stages of "Oscar Wao," I was trying desperately to write a Rushdie-esque encyclopedic novel about contemporary Dominican history. I wasn't listening to what the writing was telling me – I, Junot, was trying to be in charge. I wanted an encyclopedic novel for no other reason than I wanted it. The arrogance of our executive selves. I lost years chasing that lame dream. Turns out that Rushdie-esque is just not my bag, but I still persisted, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of junk. All the while my hidden brain was putting together a different kind of book, one that was more fractured and more filled with silences, an archipelago of a book, whereas the usual Rushdie novel is a god**** continent. Honestly if I'd not insisted, if I'd not been stubborn, I probably could have finished "Oscar Wao" in half the time. But I kept trying to push my agenda, and boy did my agenda suck. But every now and then I'd put the encyclopedic novel crap down and just play around on the page, and that was when the real work would come out, the sections that make up the novel today. But between each of those sections was always a massive time-consuming battle between my pride and my creativity. Between my conscious and unconscious selves. Hopefully I've learned a lot since that time, but we'll see. Right now the book I'm working on is not going well at all, and I fear I might be falling into the same bullshit pattern. I keep telling myself listen to the work, but you know how hard that can be.
Short stories unfortunately are not a whole lot easier for me. I've never been able to jump from one story to the next, can never build up any flow or momentum. I'm like some shoddy warp drive that has to take long breaks between jumps. As a form, stories require me to be vicious in my discipline. I'm always trying to cut things, to pare them down – excess truly is the enemy. (Not for every story but just the ones that I find myself writing.) There's a spirit of restraint that guides my writing of stories that is not present at all when I'm working on a novel. The novel has always been a lusher process for me, less teleological, more generous. A novel can easily withstand any number of digressions, but rare is the short story that can sustain even one.
In all honesty I doubt I'll write any more stories. They're too damn hard. Besides, I find myself resisting the small canvas these days, wanting to test myself on the longer form. One should never say never but I feel like I've done enough of these bad boys to last me a lifetime.
So let's talk inspiration, Frank. Am I wrong to suggest that your complex relationship with Guatemala brings out the best in your work? Or maybe this is just how I think of my complex relationship with the Dominican Republic. From where did this new book of yours spring? Is it an old dream or something else altogether?
Francisco Goldman: But I don't really think of Guatemala that way, as bringing out the best in me, but maybe I'm taking Guatemala for granted now, because I did learn and see so much there. (I think Mexico City is the place that brings out the best in me, but not in the way you mean.) I mostly grew up in a mean, almost Shirley Jackson-type of New England town, that's how I experienced it, where my house offered no escape, where we all lived in fear of my father for one, always angry and often violent, and where my mother, like some kind of Tennessee Williams diva, was always holding Guatemala out as a lost paradise, where her family was respected, a loving and happy family, where we owned toy stores, where I could have a pet monkey. Never forget you're Guatemalan too, she was always saying. So home was also always somewhere else, and that home was this place that didn't really exist. In my twenties I really got to know Guatemala and I learned about fear, every kind of violence, the suffering of so many other people, and so much else, not all negative, far from it, but all playing out on that horrifying stage. The traumatic reality versus the dream of another reality, I think that's a fundamental conflict for me. The reality of death versus the dream of life, that more than anything else intrigues me now, though I think it's always been there. I'm probably pretty happy by nature, yet, as for so many others, the reality has often been cruel, incomprehensible, sad, overwhelming, whatever. I'd always dreamed of loving and being loved and had rarely experienced it, and when I finally truly did, it was taken away in an instant.
Anyway, that kind of conflict or incongruity or engaging of loss drives my writing (though if I'm going to be totally honest, maybe all this is just a guess, something that sounds about right to me today.) I partly mean the imagination as refuge and even rebellion, but mostly fiction writing as a way of making something out of words that has meaning and coherence in a world where it's hard for me to find it any other way, or that I could never express in any other way, or just as a way of making something that for some reason I really want to make, so that I think that it's actually writing that brings out the best in me, though obviously not in a social way, the discipline and conviction of it, the getting up every day and working hard at it, living with the mystery and insecurity of it, challenging yourself to be as brave and true and even ruthless as you can or need to be in the writing, and so on.
Bolaño said writers should leap head first into the abyss, but you really can't do that, you'd never come out alive, and anyway, I didn't have to leap into it, I was already there. After Aura's death, I wrote a book that is mostly about her, a very poor substitute for Aura, of course, but something to put back into the abyss so that it won't only be emptiness. The new book is something like that too, an unhappy person, the death of her essential loved one, and how will she live now? Things will happen to her and hopefully some of those will be marvelous and hilarious, but others will be awful. (It's set in a sort of Lovecraftian New England, but it does have Guatemalans in it, and also Mexicans.) I think you were suggesting something similar to all this at the end of your amazing short story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love." It's a story about Yunior's loss of his fiancée, which devastates him, the loss of his great love and his relentless remorse, and in the end his seeming answer to that loss is to return to his writing, and it is such a lonely solution and such a powerful and inspiring one, and I don't mean in a therapeutic way, it's actually kind of mystical. Why is that the answer, or the only way he can find? I know we're not supposed to confuse a character with the author, but now Yunior is a writer, teaching at a university in Cambridge, and so that ending seemed very revealing and hard-earned. You seemed to be saying something about what writing means to you and about why you need to do it. What does it mean to you and why do you need to do it and what is it that inspires you? Brotherito, take a few decades away from them if you want – more novels! – but please don't stop writing short stories.
Junot Díaz: Frank, no one could have said it more clearly or more beautifully than you so I'll just paraphrase: at the end of "This Is How You Lose Her," Yunior, who has lost about as much as he can lose, turns to the writing to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be loss and regret. In my mind Yunior re-engages with his writing to bear witness, to inform on his self. This bearing witness, this reckoning with self, with all his actions and lies, this shouldering responsibility for what he has done to his ex-fiancée and to the other women in his life, represents a tremendous step for Yunior. A movement towards recognizing the humanity of the women he has so persistently denigrated and in recognizing their humanity finally finding some of his own. This is not insignificant. Not every guy achieves that simple breakthrough in the imaginary that transforms women from objects into full human beings. This writing/bearing witness is a sign that Yunior is finally becoming the person he needs to be in order to find the intimacy that he so desperately longs for but was never able to achieve.
OK, I'll see what I can do about the short stories, but damn, Frank, these things have just about worn me out. These days I'd rather read the short stories than write 'em but let's see what the future holds. I guess I'd have the same reaction if you suddenly announced that you were going to abandon journalism. I'd be like: you better not. Every time I read your nonfiction works, whether it's the chilling "Art of Political Murder" or your excellent profile on Camila Vallejo, I am forcefully reminded that you are that illest kind of switch hitter: you are brilliant in more than one genre.
But before I lose the thread you asked about me and my relationship to the word: I guess we all have our covenants with the world (or at least we should have). For people like my mother, it's her religion. For other people, it's their children or perhaps their families. For me storytelling is my sacred. About the only covenant I have. As reader and writer I believe in the infinite worldmaking power of stories. I'm with Leslie Marmon Silko when she says in "Ceremony": "I will tell you something about stories, (he said). They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death." If I have a faith, that's it. Stories are all we have to fight off illness and death. I suspect Silko's words resonate with you too, Frank.
But there are many reasons, really. On the most selfish level I write to make sense of the universe, to make sense of my self, of my immigrantness, my Dominicanness, my New Jerseyness, my maleness. I feel like I've lived so many weird disparate lives, often simultaneously – DR, NJ, native, immigrant, first generation, Dominican, Latino, Black, Spanish, Black English, Official English, hiphop, nerd, military family, high school dropout, grunt worker, Rutgers, Cornell, activist, writer, professor – sometimes it's hard for me to fold them all into one coherent identity. But in my writing all the pieces of me come together, if not happily then at least beautifully. Writing allows me to be simultaneous in ways that the larger culture seems to resist.
Also: I grew up in a Dominican community that was totally erased, totally ignored by the mainstream. I grew up never seeing myself or my neighbors or my friends in any kind of literature. I grew up with no books or movies or TV shows that reflected my world, my identities, my struggles. The brief instances my community did appear in, say, the news or books it was always as monsters: either some drug-dealing pathology or illegal immigrant menace. The real us was never shown, totally elided. (In college I read books like "Down These Mean Streets" and "The House on Mango Street" and "Sula," which came close to showing us, but when it comes to seeing yourself in the representational universe close is never enough.) Growing up I felt that absence, that wound, viscerally – who the hell wants to come up in a hole, in a silence? It's astounding how little some of us have in this culture to build healthy selves from. The Jeremy Lin phenomena writ large – some groups have thousands upon thousands of athletes that reflect them – some groups have only one or two and when that one or two appears you suddenly realize how long you've lived with none. If I had to parse my first motivations for becoming a writer down to one it would have to be my profound desire to battle that f*cked-up erasure (which is really a violence) by singing my community out of that silence. I guess that's really what launched me into the words – I wanted to be part of that movement of artists that were insuring that the next generation wouldn't have to endure what I endured.
But ultimately I suspect what keeps me on the page, despite all my slowness and all my difficulties, despite the failures and the long doubt, is the same force that returns Yunior to his writing: the profound need to bear witness, to leave a trace, a record, an account of a people that many, including many of the people themselves, didn't know existed. For a people like mine, children of the abyss, of apocalypses without end – from slavery to dictatorship to immigration – bearing witness is sometimes all we had, like firing a flare up into the dark vault of the universe. Bearing witness in order (to quote you Frank) to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be silence and loss. In order to mark that we were here, we lived, we mattered. In order to have a little light by which to see ourselves and others with, a little light to carry us into the future, a little light to call our own.
Francisco Goldman: You witness a lot as a journalist, and what you witness becomes a part of you. "The Art of Political Murder" is about the nine-year Bishop Gerardi murder case. More than twenty people related to the case were murdered, and numerous others fled; throughout it I worked closely with some of the most wonderful, courageous people, but it brought the vilest people imaginable into my life too. The last two times I went to Guatemala I had to have bodyguards, and was taken out by a side exit at the airport. Just a few weeks ago I received a creepy anonymous Twitter message. I don't feel like I can go back to Guatemala right now, I don't want that stress. The Gerardi case was incredibly complex, and it could only be narrated with authority through the most devout attention to concrete detail and substantiated acts. I had to learn to write in a new way, to strive for a transparent style that would let those details and acts convey the story. You're always learning, with each book hopefully pushing ahead. "Say Her Name" wasn't a book, of course, that I ever expected to write, but one of my writer friends has pointed out that it's as if "The Art of Political Murder," with its forensic detail, and "The Divine Husband" too, which is about the yearning for love, prepared me to write it. Because, as you know, "Say Her Name" is framed as a sort of trial or investigation, conducted by myself against myself, seemingly in response to the legal dangers I was threatened with in Mexico after Aura's death. I knew that a journalistic examination of Aura's death would never reveal that I'd been legally culpable, and even though I did include those facts in the book, that's not, finally, the mystery I was "investigating." I was nearly finished writing it when I came across this sentence that I love, from Lydia Davis's translation of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way." "For one thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality."
I've been living in Mexico City and love it here, I have the best friends in the world and am only half-ashamed to admit that this summer I've carried on at times like a wild teenager. Mexico City has largely been spared the violence happening elsewhere in the country. None have it worse than the Central Americans who trek through on their way to the US, who get kidnapped by the Zetas and others, their relatives in the U.S. extorted for money, and often they get killed anyway; the Zetas rape the women and girls and kill them, or they take a young man and say, Okay kill those other two or else you'll die too, maybe he has to kill his brother or friend, and then they force him to become a Zeta sicario, or else he refuses and is killed anyway; the deserts of Mexico are filled with the graves of kidnapped migrants, no one knows how many have vanished. What, as a writer, do you do with that? I don't know, but I don't see myself writing about it in a documentary way. But it's something I know about, and that strikes close. After college I got a scholarship to a summer writing workshop where William Gass was a teacher. Gass is a philosophy professor, and when a student asked if his "philosophical ideas" inspired his writing, Gass answered no, that he knew he was "smart," and so he just worked on his sentences. You have to trust that who you are is going to come out in some way. You focus on your sentences or on the most daring and delirious narrative vision, and trust that you'll show up. In US discourse, immigrants are mostly represented as less than human, a policy problem, or as just that, a category, and categories are prisons. The novels I love are prison breaks – what you did, Junot, in "Oscar Wao," and Bolaño with the Ciudad Juarez femicides in "2666," Yuri Herrera with the narco war in "Trabajos del Reino" – the categories get smashed open and the unexpected, the unthinkable, the forgotten, the ignored, the unknown, the terrifying, the secretly beloved, the misunderstood and astonishing, the mesmerizingly human, it all breaks out.
Junot Díaz: That's what we dream about, what we long for, books like those. Certainly as a reader that's the kind of books I've loved. Of course what you end up writing is something else altogether. You're working on that new novel set in New England and I'm trying to imagine the world of a young teenage girl in Santo Domingo, a Third World striver, the kind of girl that wants to do everything right in a country where for poor people even that can't keep the catastrophe off you. I'm hoping she'll lead me through to my next novel. But who knows – it takes me years of patient scribbling before my characters ever deign to speak to me.
The Barnes & Noble Review: Before we finish, I can't resist asking you both the classic question: Tell us what books you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
Francisco Goldman: Desert island books, damn. How big is the island, and how long am I going to be there? Long books, I guess. "In Search of Lost Time." "War and Peace." "The Collected Shakespeare." "Moby-Dick"! "The Collected Borges." "2666," why not? Something immense that I haven't read yet, "The Man without Qualities." Emily Dickinson's poetry too, which I've been reading all summer. And definitively the "Guia Roji," which contains all roads, a Borgesian cartography of Mexico City, as immense and dense as the city itself, but all its maps packed into a single fat book. Currently, for a piece I'm writing, I'm using it like the I-Ching, closing my eyes, opening it to any page, and then trying to drive to the spot my finger touches down on. I've never driven in Mexico City before, and it terrifies me.
Junot Díaz: "Les Miserables" is perfect for the stranded. It's immense and has a lot of Melville-esque post-modern outbursts, and it's about justice – few books are about that anymore – and it always gets me crying. I'd also need something from my childhood. "Watership Down." Every time I read this line – "My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here." – my heart feels like it's going to burst. And I'd need something from real life. Maxine Hong Kingston's "China Men" or Edward Rivera's "Family Installments." And something from home (the Caribbean). Patrick Chamoiseau's "Texaco" or Cristina Garcia's "Dreaming In Cuban." And a book of poetry. Aracelis Girmay's "Kingdom Animalia." And a comic book. Katsuhiro Otomo's "AKIRA." And something for the ancestors: "Song of Solomon." And something I haven't read before, something that ain't out yet but that will be by the time I'm shipwrecked.
Miwa Messner is a Barnes and Noble Review contributor.
A new study by Bowker Market Research just served to confirm something that many of us already knew: Many of the readers buying books aimed at the teen market are no longer teenagers. But the numbers are more dramatic than we may have guessed. According to the Bowker study, 55 percent of customers who buy young adult books are 18 or older. In fact, the largest group of readers purchasing titles labeled "young adult" are actually 30 to 44 years old – hardly the target demographic for the books.
Of course sometimes parents or grandparents may buy books for young readers but according to the survey, 78 percent of adults who were buying the young adult books said they were buying for themselves, not someone else.
“The extent and age breakout of adult consumers of these works was surprising,” said Kelly Gallagher, Vice-President of Bowker Market Research, in a statement. “And while the trend is influenced to some extent by the popularity of 'The Hunger Games,' our data shows it’s a much larger phenomenon than readership of this single series.”
Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy isn’t the only one that’s gotten adults to wander over to the young adult section. The teen readers genre, which is officially slated for readers 12 to 17, has crossed age lines over the past decade as series like "Harry Potter," "Twilight," and "Hunger Game"s have appealed to adults as well as the younger readers at which they were aimed. The first "Harry Potter" book by J.K. Rowling was released in the United States in 1998, while “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer was released in 2005 and the first "Hunger Games" book appeared on the market in 2008.
One part of the appeal may be that young adult books are sometimes written in a less complicated fashion than adult books and may offer more of a literary escape than an adult contemporary novel, providing a relaxing experience for an adult reader tired from commuting, working all day, and taking care of kids.
Observers of the book world have been discussing this phenomenon for some time now. Angelina Benedetti, the Washington state librarian, wrote in a 2008 column for the Library Journal that it took her a while to catch on to the quality titles being released in the teen market but that now, when her friends come to her for reading suggestions, she points them to young adult titles.
“It was not until library school that I discovered the wealth of literature published for teens,” she wrote. “In my haste to devour the oeuvre of Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, and John Irving, I had missed 'Weetzie Bat'.... For years, my nonlibrarian, non-teen reading friends have come to me asking for ideas because teen books are shorter, faster-paced, and designed to appeal to discriminating readers. They are a quick literary fix without the padding.”
And there’s the simple matter of a book appealing to everyone if it’s written well. While Meyer’s vampire series has been less critically beloved, J.K. Rowling’s "Harry Potter" series and the "Hunger Games" books have been praised for their plots and social satire.
Amazon, in its "best of the month" picks, has included a young adult title in its "Top 10 list" four times so far this year – not on a separate "young readers" list but as part of its overall survey of best titles available. “Every Day” by David Levithan was selected as a September pick, while “Shadow and Bone” by Leigh Burdago made the June list. “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green cracked the January list and “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” by Laini Taylor made it to the September roll call.
Amazon had battled with authorities for some time over the fact that it didn’t charge its customers a sales tax. The book giant argued that if it didn’t have a physical presence in a state, such as a warehouse or office, it was not required to do so, basing its reasoning on a 1992 Supreme Court decision which stated the same.
Senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Michael Mazerov said that the Internet companies were originally allowed to skip out on the tax because of a sentiment that Internet companies should be given a chance to get on their feet, an ironic sentiment now that Amazon is forcing many brick-and-mortar stores out of business.
"The original justification for this de facto tax exemption was that the Internet ought to get some growing space,” Mazerov told The New York Times.
However, after negotiations, Amazon agreed to add to its list of states where it’s charging the extra money, which already includes New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. It will begin adding the tax in New Jersey in July of next year, Virginia in September of 2013, and states including Indiana and Nevada in 2014.
The tax kicks in on Sept. 15 for California, and that prompted a flurry of purchases from Golden State customers who wanted to save money while they still could. Californian Derek Daniels ordered household items that included trash bags and Superman memorabilia as future Christmas gifts for his son.
“We are hoping he won't fall in love with Batman by the time November rolls around,” Daniels told the Associated Press.
Consumers who bought items off Amazon in California were technically supposed to send the sales tax they would have been charged to the state, but fewer than 1 percent have done it in the past, reported the Associated Press.
President of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Michael Barnard told The New York Times he thought it was about time Amazon started charging the sales tax.
“Oliver Wendell Holmes said taxes are the price of civilization, but Amazon did not want to pay,” Barnard said.
Meanwhile, as Amazon concedes and begins charging the sales tax, it’s eyeing another goal: same-day shipping. The company is already able to achieve it in cities such as Seattle and Boston and is now building 18 warehouses in all to try to make the dream a reality, including one in Patterson, Calif., one near Los Angeles and locations in New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia, among others.
“We want fast delivery,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told the New York Times.
The Patterson warehouse is set to add hundreds of jobs, if not more, to the area.
News of the sales tax is good for independent booksellers, but Amy Thomas, who owns three bookstores in San Francisco, said that there will still be problems.
“Amazon is so aggressive on so many fronts,” she told the New York Times. “It’s hard to keep putting out fires everywhere. They sell e-books. They’re becoming publishers. And now they want to do same-day shipping. They’re an octopus.”
If publishing is any indication, we’re experiencing a second wave of feminist sentiment. There’s Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina: A New Biography,” a provocative appraisal of female sexuality; Lynn Povich’s “The Good Girls Revolt,” about a 1970 class-action lawsuit female employees filed against Newsweek magazine; and Hanna Rosin’s “The End of the Men: And the Rise of Women,” a 21st-century exploration of how gender roles have evolved.
Rosin’s book has been described as a modern-day “Feminine Mystique” of sorts, as well as one that picks up where Maureen Dowd left off in “Are Men Necessary?” But Rosin introduces a new character in this post-recession landscape that, to some extent, changes everything: the economy.
In short, she argues, the recession has been harder on men and has been an unlikely equalizer in the gender games. Traditionally “female” fields like healthcare, education, and service work are strong, while traditionally “male” fields like manufacturing, construction, and finance have been hit particularly hard by the recession. What that means is that while women have returned to work, entered new fields, and surged ahead in their careers, men have largely been left behind.
“If Rosin has an overriding thesis, it's the need to adapt to a changing landscape, something that women have been able to do with greater nimbleness than men,” writes USA Today in a reflection of Rosin’s book.
In the Alabama town of Alexander City, spotlighted in a recent New York Times Magazine essay adaptation of Rosin’s book, the gender roles have so starkly reversed, with women becoming the primary breadwinners and men, the “househusbands,” that Rosin ventures, “These days the establishment is being marshaled to confirm our new cultural notion that men have become the frail dependents in need of a protector. That men need marriage more than women do. In fact, they need it to survive.”
It’s a bold assertion and one that’s certainly supported in some examples, but, writes USA Today, “...where is the statistical evidence to back up such a strong assertion?”
Rosin’s assertions and predictions are nothing if not intriguing, fresh, compelling, and bold. But critics assert the book is great at making attention-grabbing claims, less so at supporting them. “Not all her anecdotes cogently illustrate her points and her statistical evidence is often vague, particularly when tinged with hyperbole,” writes USA Today, adding, “…While her points are valid and bolstered anecdotally, her book sometimes feels like a long-form, and somewhat padded, version of her original essay.”
And then there are those who find the book’s premise itself unconstructive.
“Why are the relations between men and women still portrayed as a zero-sum game?” ask Erika and Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard administrator and professor, respectively, in a Time magazine essay. “So much of the coverage of gender issues — indeed the book’s cover title itself — pits women and men against one another. Why do we need to establish who is winning and losing the war?”
One thing’s for sure, Rosin’s book, and its incendiary title, has got people talking about how rapidly the recession has reshaped gender roles. We’re eager to read her exploration of the intersection of economics and gender, a fascinating topic about which we expect to read much more in the coming months and years.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.