Award-winning author Lee Smith is back with her 13th novel, Guests on Earth, which follows heroine Evalina Toussaint from her childhood in Depression-era New Orleans to her stay in Highland Hospital in North Carolina (where one fellow patient is Zelda Fitzgerald) following the death of her mother. Our reviewer gives the book high praise, proclaiming that it "delivers on all counts, entrancing readers with a brilliant tapestry that falls inside the confines of historical fiction, yet defies genre with a hypnotic narrative." Read the full review here.
We were curious about the books Smith has been reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites:
A huge cloud of migrating butterflies makes a surprise landing on an Appalachian mountaintop, forever changing many lives. . . . It’s hard to write a strongly thematic novel like this without letting the meaning overtake the characters, yet Barbara Kingsolver succeeds brilliantly, with fully developed characters, wonderful dialogue and close observation of daily life—right down to daytime TV shows and home cooking! The serious ecological implications of this fine novel do not obscure the pleasures of getting to know the main character and her family—and watching her come of age as a woman fulfilling her own possibilities. Flight Behavior is both suspenseful and very moving—a great read.
THE REASON I JUMP
By Naoki Higashida
This extraordinary little book is the inner voice of a 13-year-old Japanese boy with autism, born in 1992 and still in junior high school when the book was first published. Here he interviews himself, asking simple questions such as “Why do you line up your toys so obsessively?” “Why won’t you make eye contact?”—all the things I have naturally wondered about in dealing with my own beloved autistic granddaughter.
Naoki graduated from high school in 2011 and lives in Japan, where he is an advocate, the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, and a motivational speaker even though spoken communication is very difficult for him even now, according to his translators KA Yoshida and David Mitchell, parents of an autistic son themselves. David Mitchell is the author of many novels including Cloud Atlas. In his introduction he says, “The three characters used for the word ‘autism’ in Japanese signify ‘self,’ ‘shut,’ and ‘illness.’ My imagination converts these characters into a prisoner locked up and forgotten inside a solitary confinement cell waiting for someone, anyone, waiting to realize he or she is in there. The Reason I Jump knocks out a brick in the wall.” Amen—it certainly does.
Jill McCorkle’s great gift for voice is on display in this lively novel which moves from speaker to speaker in an old folks’ home where romance and laughter abound . . . along with a gathering mystery which makes it a page-turner by the end. By turns hilarious, moving, surprising, and thought-provoking, Life After Life will resonate with every reader as it has with me, I’ll bet—since we are all dealing with just these situations in our own lives, whether it’s taking care of our parents or thinking ahead ourselves. But let me assure you that there is nothing depressing about this wonderful novel. Written in language which mixes poetry with down-home grit, Life After Life sings and soars above its subject with originality and grace.
If, like me, you spent much of your childhood consciously avoiding uttering the phrase "I don't know," or boasting to your friends that you could most definitely climb up an oil-slicked slide in less than five seconds, our next Nostalgia Week book is just for you.
SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age is the wondrous result of author Mathew Klickstein's hundreds of interviews with the folks—both behind the scenes and on camera—who brought us such beloved TV show gems as "Double Dare," Clarissa Explains It All," "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and, of course, "You Can't Do That on Television."
In this guest post, Klickstein shares what it was like writing the book, as well as some fascinating tidbits he discovered along the way:
When I first signed with a major publisher to write the Nickelodeon oral history, I was uncontrollably besotted by champagne-colored visions of estranged friends and long-lost girls from my past contacting me out of the blue: “Matt! I saw your book in the store!”
It’s only now, after publication and while navigating the circuitous machinery of the publicity foofaraw, that I’ve come to understand who the audience for SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age really is.
It’s not only us. It’s also them—the people this book is about. In truth, I’ve realized only recently that the main reason I wrote a book on this most grand era is this: In revealing to all of us the more than 250 Nick VIPs who contributed to SLIMED!, I’ve also revealed us to them.
The book’s reception has reinforced the fact that, yes, even as (slightly more) sane and (slightly less) loudly sentient adults, we do still care as much as we did back when these people were wildly running around onscreen as our heroes during their formative years. We’re here, we’re not going away and neither will Nick’s Golden Age.
Along the craggy path to figuring all of this out, I picked up four breadcrumbs that definitely surprised me about Nick’s foundational years that may surprise you too:
Green slime was at one point dangerous. Aside from the truly disgusting and likely toxic provenance of green slime that you’ll have to read about in SLIMED! to believe, it’s worth noting that a “sliming” was initially categorized as having the same television “violence rating” as a decapitation, according to a report by media specialist George Gerbner. Additionally, green slime’s “secret ingredients” in the early years included baby shampoo in order to help facilitate the cleaning-from-the-hair process. Even though it was baby shampoo, it could still burn one’s eyes, especially if one were to take his/her sliming incorrectly. And, yes, there was a Right Way and a Wrong Way to be slimed.
Yes, Christine Taylor (“Melody”) and David Lascher (“Ted”) from "Hey Dude" did date during part of the series’ production. "Hey Dude" director Fred Keller explains in SLIMED! that for two adolescents, Christine and David handled the typical vicissitudes of young love very well. Immediately after that quote in the book, however, Christine avers that it’s actually surprising how poorly they dealt with it. And therein lies the whimsical contradictions of an oral history.
Marc Summers is not a total douchebag. In fact, just the opposite is true. One would assume a wildly famous game show host would be the kind of Bad and the Beautiful jerk-off. But with Marc, that perennial smile is not an act. He really does love what he does, and he really does love his fans. There was not one person I spoke to in this book who didn’t bring up Marc as a friend, a collaborator, a mentor or a partner in crime.
Joey Ramone was almost on an episode of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." In the episode, Little Pete decides to start up a band of his own after hearing the first and only song he’s ever actually liked. Singer-songwriter Syd Straw (who played numbers-obsessed math teacher Ms. Fingerwood) was actually a staple of the ’80s music/punk/art scene of ’80s New York City. When she was asked by producers to help fill in the band, she immediately called up her good buddy Joey Ramone. Joey had never seen the show before, but Syd made the premise of being on this hip and wacky kids’ show sound so appealing to the punk progenitor, that he nearly agreed . . . until he remembered he was leaving for a full European tour the next day with his “bruddahs.”
What do hippies, surfers, up-and-coming rock bands and cross-country road trippers all have in common? Often, it's their choice of vehicle: a VW Camper Van. In the nearly 70 years since its inception in the 1950s, the reliable and roomy vehicle has become a pop culture icon with a devoted cult following. One of these enthusiasts is Mike Harding, author of The VW Camper Van: A Biography. Part history, part memoir, the book is sure to delight the most diehard of devotees—and fully entertain those who are merely curious.
In this guest blog post, Harding writes about his love affair with Molly—his orange 2001 Type 2 Transporter—their adventures together and some interesting tidbits he learned while writing The VW Camper Van:
Like Toad in The Wind in the Willows, I have always been fascinated by the open road, the road that goes ever on and leads away from the world of work and taxes. And, to me, the VW Camper Van, with it’s blush of hippie-dom, looked like a magical key to that place of adventure and freedom.
But I had a family and lots of commitments and although I did travel the world—from trekking in the high Himalayas to lone Buddhist temples, crossing the Hindu Kush and singing for my supper in the mining camps of the Australian deserts—I never made that final leap and bought myself a Camper.
Until one November day filled with dark, Wuthering Heights weather, when I followed an ad in a VW mag and bought Molly in the back streets of a Northern England industrial town.
Since then Molly and I have traveled Britain, staying in forests and by the seashore and visiting lonely moorland pubs and friendly village folk festivals. With my banjo on the back seat and her little fridge full of food and wine, we trundle along the backroads shouting “Poop poop!” to the world.
Here are some little known facts about the VW Camper Van:
• The early VW vans featured the filler cap for the fuel tank in the lockable engine compartment because of the rampant cases of fuel theft from vehicles in postwar Europe.
• If it weren't for an Englishman from Northern England—Major Ivan Hirst—there would be no VW Beetle or Camper Van. (You'll have to read the book to find out why!)
• President Johnson’s “Chicken Tax,” which effectively stopped the import of VWs into the U.S. in the late '60s, has still not been repealed.
• VW vans have been used for everything from funeral hearses to camping vans, from fire engines to mobile chintzy English tea rooms complete with fragile china cups and fairy cakes.
• Sadly, the production of VW Camper Vans came to an end this year.
[All photos from The VW Camper Van, used with permission.]
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Little, Brown • $26 • ISBN 9780316322409
Published October 8, 2013
On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai was on her way home after school when she was shot in the head at point-blank range. This was no random act of violence. Her hometown of Mingora, in the Swat Valley, had recently come under the control of the Taliban, who are known to vigorously oppose the education of girls. Malala—whose parents had always encouraged her education, her father even founding her school—did not shy away from publicly speaking out about her belief in the right of all girls to go to school. Doing so made her a target, leading to that fateful October afternoon.
Defying all odds and expectations, Malala survived the shooting, making a full recovery and more determined than ever to fight for the right of girls around the world to be educated. I Am Malala is her story—a story that is simply incredible, simply unforgettable, simply inspiring. Here are her eloquent and powerful opening words:
I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.
One year ago I left my home for school and never returned. I was shot by a Taliban bullet and was flown out of Pakistan unconscious. Some people say I will never return home, but I believe firmly in my heart that I will. To be torn from the country that you love is not something to wish on anyone.
Now, every morning when I open my eyes, I long to see my old room full of my things my clothes all over the floor, and my school prizes on the shelves. Instead I am in a country which is five hours behind my beloved homeland Pakistan and my home in the Swat Valley. But my country is centuries behind this one. Here there is every convenience you can imagine. Water running from every tap, hot or cold as you wish; lights at the flick of a switch, day and night, no need for oil lamps; ovens to cook on that don't need anyone to go and fetch gas cylinders from the bazaar. Here everything is so modern one can even find food ready cooked in packets.
When I stand in front of my window and look out, I see tall buildings, long roads full of vehicles moving in orderly lines, neat green hedges and lawns, and tidy pavements to walk on. I close my eyes and for a moment I am back in my valley—the high snow-topped mountains, green waving fields and fresh blue rivers—and my heart smiles when it looks at the people of Swat. My mind transports me back to my school and there I am reunited with my friends and teachers. I meet my best friend Moniba and we sit together, talking and joking as if I had never left.
Then I remember I am in Birmingham, England.
So far this week, we've indulged our nostalgia for toys and candy, and now it's time for reminiscing over another cultural obsession: movies! Infographic Guide to the Movies by Karen Krizanovich is sure to delight film buffs with its clever, bright graphics illustrating a bookload of facts, tidbits and trivia about the movies. A map detailing the zombie outbreaks depicted in films, a timeline of apocalyptic movies and an illustrated analysis of Judd Apatow's secret for success—these and more make this fun book a visual feast for movie lovers of all kinds.
Author Karen Krizanovich describes what it was like compiling the more than 100 infographics of the book and even shares couple of them to whet your appetite:
Everyone loves films, trivia and graphics. As a film writer and author of Infographic Guide to the Movies, I can say that this 160-page book is so engaging that people will forget they’re learning things while reading it. As I say in the introduction, research shows that infographics can help almost anyone grasp difficult concepts more easily. (That’s almost everyone. Bear that in mind.)
I'll avoiding further grandiose epistemological statements. It took more than 30 designers to make Infographic Guide to the Movies as alluring as it is. Some designers supplied their own ideas; others illustrated our concepts. Our biggest problem was, to paraphrase Amadeus (1984), “simply too many notes”—we had too many great ideas. My suggestion to determine editorial content by arm-wrestling was quashed, so this book is not the work of me as auteur. It’s more a case of, as Mel Brooks once said, “We are all singing but I have the mouth.”
Infographic Guide to the Movies was a labor of love. Who am I kidding? It was an obsession! I have had a love-hate relationship with infographics ever since I failed my first quantitative methodology exam. (I passed the second one. Just passed.) For all completionists and "detail people" out there, please read the introduction before you email me with your thoughts, corrections, arguments and "what ifs." It’s a book, made by humans, printed on paper. It will have errors. The question is, can readers find them all?
Ryan Gosling is very close to the world’s most perfect man, so it’s good to see here that his skill makes us love him no matter what he plays. I look at page 31 and say to myself, “Hey girl,” and pretend he’s saving me from being hit by a bus in New York City. Like he once did for real. (Not to me.)
Attack Clint! is one of my favorite pages. In fact, you could do one of these for any action actor. How much does his character need to suffer for us to empathize with him? Lots.
[Illustrations from Infographic Guide to the Movies, used with permission.]
Yesterday, we got reacquainted with our favorite childhood toys. For today's Nostalgia Week guest post, we're turning our focus to another childhood obsession (for most of us, anyway): candy!
Samira Kawash's Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure is a scrumptious, sweeping history of sweet treats that includes the early days of mass production, its eventual entanglement with morality and how it became downright vilified by a diet-obsessed culture. This fascinating account of a candy crazed nation is certain to satisfy your craving for an entertaining and informative read. Here's Samira with more on the book and some interesting tidbits she learned while writing it:
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Candy: sometimes it seems like such an innocent pleasure. But then we worry: Will it rot my teeth? Make me fat? Ruin my dinner?
The ambivalence around candy really came home to me when my daughter was about three years old. Should I let her eat it? When and how much? I began to realize that I had grown up with a very confused message about how candy was both very desirable and very bad. My own confusion as a parent seemed reflected in many others’ experiences. It seemed to me that there was something interesting going on there, and I wanted to figure out what it was.
My research led me back to the earliest days of what I call “industrial candy,” that is, candy made in factories in mass quantities. Candy grabbed hold of the American imagination and stomach in the early decades of the 20th century, yet at the same time, there were many reasons Americans were suspicious about candy: It was a new kind of food; it was entirely artificial; and it offered pleasure and stimulation in ways that made some people who were influenced by religious moralism feel very uneasy.
Candy uncovers this untold history, both bright and dark. Here are some of the surprising stories about candy that I learned along the way.
• Early nutrition research in the 19th century identified sugar as a significant source of quick energy. The German military experimented with candy rations and discovered significant advantages for endurance and strength. By the early 1900s, U.S. and British forces were generously provisioned with candy. The number one favorite was lemon drops, which candy makers produced to a precise U.S. government formula.
• The quantity of inexpensive candy available to ordinary Americans exploded in the 1880s. Not everyone celebrated. Early candy critics warned that cheap candy was poison candy. Reformers alleged that candy routinely included noxious or toxic ingredients and fillers, including boot black, floor scrapings, glue, plaster of paris, arsenic and iron rust. Hundreds of alleged poisonings were blamed on bad candy. The evidence? None to be found.
• Candy bars combining ingredients like nuts, nougats, caramel, marshmallow and chocolate were an exciting new sensation in the 1920s. They were portable, convenient and affordable: the perfect food for a nation on the go. Classics like Snickers and Milky Way got their start in this era. But thousands more were offered to a candy eating public hungry for novelty. The bars are long gone, but the names remain. Silly names like Snirkles and Damfino. Salacious names like Fat Emma, Big Dick, Hot Liza and Love Nest. And even substantive names that evoked more nutritive meals: Denver Sandwich, Chicken Dinner and Spud.
• The Oh! Henry candy bar was one of the top sellers in the 1920s. The secret to success? Creative marketing, including a campaign to encourage women to use the bar in novel ways. One suggestion: to “slice and serve,” transforming the rugged bar into a dainty delicacy. Another idea: cooking with Oh! Henry candy bars. Recipes for desserts, breakfast treats and even savory and vegetable dishes enhanced with Oh! Henry bars were collected in “60 Ways to Serve a Famous Candy.” Candy salad, anyone?
• Candy’s popularity led inevitably to a dietary backlash. Lulu Hunt Peters was the first American author to popularize the idea of dieting by counting calories in her 1918 bestseller Diet and Health, with Key to the Calories. Candy was, for Peters, an especially pernicious temptation. She warned: “When you see a pound of candy you would like, don’t think of it as candy, but as a lump of fat annexed to your fattest spot. If you have any candy around, and can’t give it away, throw it away.” But more Americans were eager to follow the advice of the candy industry promoters: “Candy is Delicious Food! Enjoy some every day.”
[Images from Candy, used with permission.]
Journalist Wil S. Hylton has had stories featured in New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire and Rolling Stone, but did you know he has a new book in stores Nov. 5? In Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, Hylton follows a mysterious and perplexing story. On September 1, 1944, 11 members of the U.S. Navy disappeared during a 453 Bomber flight over the Pacific island nation of Palau. For 60 years, this sudden disappearance received little attention and little investigation, until Hylton decided it was time to dig in.
Using information from underwater archaeology, medical doctors, military historians, eyewitness accounts from island locals and even poignant insight from the families of the missing, Vanished proves to be a rewarding venture into the past.
Check out this neat trailer (with plenty of Indiana Jones-style flair!) and learn more about the upcoming book.
Is there a more nostalgia-inducing holiday than Halloween? Whether it's of a particularly creative (although slightly itchy, perhaps) costume or an impressively large candy haul, Halloween memories have a tendency to make us wistful for days gone by.
Welcome to Nostalgia Week on The Book Case. Each day this week, we'll be featuring a guest post by the author of a recent book that's sure to induce nostalgia of some sort–whether it's for candy, TV shows, movies or more.
Today's post is by Christopher Byrne, author of Toy Time! Brimming with color photographs, this super-fun book features profiles of the biggest toy sensations from the 1940s up through the 1980s, including Chatty Cathy, Slip 'N Slide, Lite-Brite, Hot Wheels, Transformers and dozens more. It's time to get reacquainted with your favorite childhood toys. It's Toy Time! Here's Christopher:
Toys have an amazing power—in childhood and, it turns out, throughout one’s life. We never forget the toys we wanted, the toys we had, the toys we didn’t get. These toys and the memories of them become part of our identities, and over the years I’ve had the pleasure of hearing many stories, both hilarious and heartbreaking about favorite toys.
For Boomers and beyond, toys are cultural markers that are very specific to their time, more so than any other product. Our toys have a totemic power, and revisiting or reflecting on them touches the deep and powerful connection each of us has to our childhood. I talked to hundreds of people in person—and hundreds more online—in creating Toy Time!, and I was always surprised and delighted by the power and vibrancy of these memories. How did we choose these toys? Well, the current buzzword is “crowd sourcing,” but really, we just talked to folks as we put this collection together, selecting toys that had cultural significance and shaped thousands of childhoods. Here are some things you may not know about some of those classic toys:
• Twister was about to be pulled by retailers for lack of interest—until Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor played it on “The Tonight Show.” On the game’s 30th anniversary, Regis Philbin and Dolly Parton recreated that legendary competition.
• Major Matt Mason, Mattel’s astronaut answer to Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, went into space for real in 1998 along with John Glenn on his final shuttle mission aboard the Discovery.
• Silly Putty was famous for being able to pick up images from newspapers. But it won’t do it any more. Not because Silly Putty has changed, but today’s newsprint uses different inks that don’t transfer. Hands stay cleaner, but Silly Putty has lost a little.
• Strawberry Shortcake’s friend Raspberry Tart got a new name—Raspberry Torte. Seems like there was a bit of sensitivity about whether or not her moniker could give her a questionable reputation, ushering in the age of hypersensitivity about things of this nature.
• Trivial Pursuit came about as a result of an argument between two friends, Scott Abbot and Chris Haney, over who had the better grasp of trivia. Between 1983 and 1985, more than 30 million games were produced, so it looks like they both won.
[Images from Toy Time! Used with permission.]
Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York
Edited by Sari Botton
Seal Press • $16 • ISBN 9781580054942
Published October 8, 2013
The love affair between writers and New York City goes way back. Taking its title from a 1967 Joan Didion essay, Goodbye to All That features musings by a stellar list of 28 women writers sharing their own experiences of NYC—discussing the initial allure, eventual disillusionment (for some) and everything in between.
Ann Hood writes about the magnetic pull she felt toward the city from an early age and how when she finally arrived "it felt as if all my cells settled into place . . . and I became exactly who I was supposed to be." Emma Straub writes about growing up in NYC, "my jungle gym and playmate all at once." And Cheryl Strayed shares how she eventually realized that "much as I loved it, I wasn't truly in love."
Reading these brief, intimate essays feels like you're chatting—commiserating, in my case, since I inhabited NYC for six years—with a friend over coffee. Here's an excerpt from Ann Hood's essay, "Manhattan, Always Out of Reach":
My first apartment was at 228 Sullivan Street, in a former convent painted pink, its Caribbean exterior a sharp contrast to all the grimy black around it. The day I moved in, I boldly left my 300-square-foot studio and walked the maze of Greenwich Village. The guy from 47F was going to show up that night, so the entire day stretched out before me without obligation or purpose. I wandered into Three Lives Bookstore to browse, into Café Reggio for a cappuccino, into the Third Street Bazaar and the Grand Union and every tiny store that sold earrings or posters or fruit or magazines. At some point on that journey, it felt as if all my cells settled into place, as if my body had shifted, rearranged itself, and I became exactly who I was supposed to be.
I will never leave here, I thought that June afternoon. That thought repeated itself almost daily as my first summer moved along. It was a very hot summer, relentlessly so. I would go to the Grand Union supermarket on Bleeker Street and stand in the frozen food section to cool off, or I would ride the Staten Island ferry for a nickel round-trip and stand at the front each way to catch a breeze thick with East River stench. On the Fourth of July, I joined the throngs on the closed FDR Drive to watch fireworks. I will never leave here, I thought as the neon colors exploded over the river.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Goodbye to All That? What are you reading this week?
Last year, Jennifer duBois' debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was met with widespread acclaim—and she's just won a 2013 Whiting Writers Award. Her sophomore effort, Cartwheel—"loosely inspired" by the Amanda Knox case—tells the story of an American student in Buenos Aires who's arrested for murdering her roommate. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that Lily's innocence (or guilt) is open to interpretation. (Read our interview with duBois about Cartwheel.)
We were curious about the books duBois has been reading lately, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites:
RABID: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST DIABOLICAL VIRUS
By Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Rabid maps the history of rabies—from its earliest depictions (and most dubious treatments), to its source as inspiration for the monsters of mythology and literature, to its modern defanging by the rabies vaccine. Part pop science, part cultural anthropology and part ghost story, Rabid is eminently readable and surprisingly funny—I read it like a person possessed.
By J.M. Coetzee
The "disgrace" in J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel begins with the professional ruin of South African academic David Lurie, and grows far more harrowing from there. The prose throughout is elegant and restrained, and haunted at its edges by all that David does not see—but the book quickly teaches you that it is not afraid of ugliness, and that its gaze is keener than its characters’.
By Tom Grimes
This memoir draws a tender portrait of the late Frank Conroy, the award-winning author of Stop-Time and former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, tracing his role in the author’s life—from formidable stranger to teacher to mentor to, finally, friend. Mentor offers a candid investigation of talent, and the mixed blessings that come with it.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Cartwheel or any of duBois' recommended books?