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She’s already begun interviews for what would be her eighth biography. By Carol Ross Joynt

Kitty Kelly. Photograph by Philip Bermingahm.

DC-based author Kitty Kelley, known for her usually searing, controversial, and best-selling biographies of the famous and powerful—the royal family, the Bush family, Oprah, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, the Kennedys—has cut a deal for her next book, and this time it won’t be about a person. It will be a biography of a place, Georgetown, one of the most storied sections of Washington, and where Kelley lives.

Revealing the news exclusively to Washingtonian, Kelley said that with this as-yet-untitled book she plans to capture the “verve and dynamic of the loveliest 12 square blocks in Washington.” Her publisher is Grand Central (previously Warner Books), which also published her book The Royals. The target publication date will be at least a year after she completes her interviews. She has started on what she anticipates will be the “800 interviews it will take to tell” the story. She says she will give the royalties “back to Georgetown.”

She calls the Georgetown book a “delight” because she is already based “in my favorite place.”

The author recognizes that Georgetown, which is an insular community, could get its feathers ruffled about undergoing the Kitty Kelley treatment, but that’s never been a deterrent in pursuing her subjects. She wants to explore the history of the village and its people, illustrating its story beyond the Kennedys and the “Camelot” era of the 1960s. The onetime riverfront port and Civil War hub is home today to some of DC’s wealthiest and most powerful residents.

Coincidentally, her first blockbuster did touch on Camelot. Jackie Oh!, published in 1978, was a biography of Jacqueline Onassis that examined in particular her life after the White House. Praised and slammed nearly equally by critics, her books often hit the market high up on the best-seller lists.

One of the last big books to focus on the mystique of Georgetown was the late C. David Heymann’s The Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club: Power Passion, and Politics in the Nation’s Capital. It was published in 2004.

Posted at 10:41 AM/ET, 05/05/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Some of May 2014's best new releases, both fiction and nonfiction. By Bethanne Patrick

May is perhaps the loveliest warm-weather month in the Washington region, a few weeks of respite before humidity ascends its steamy throne and a break between the cherry-blossom tourists and the school’s-out tourists. My recommendation? Enjoy your porch, hammock, or just a blanket laid out on the Mall and read something meaningful, interesting, and entertaining. In my opinion, the books I’ve selected as this month’s must reads fulfill all three of those criteria. Got something else that’s got you turning pages? Tell us all about it in the comments!

FICTION:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

A miniature model of a Parisian neighborhood, a fabulous jewel, and a radio used to keep tabs on the French resistance--sign me up! Fortunately, Doerr (About Grace, The Memory Wall) goes way beyond wonderful details and constructs an intricate, compelling story about a bind girl and a curious boy whose lives will intertwine during World War II in ways that lead both to meaning and madness. Its brief chapters are themselves studies in miniaturism, great for all time-challenged readers.

The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman

"In CIA parlance, those who knew were 'witting.' Everyone else was among the 'unwitting.'" When, in 1963, Nell Benjamin discovers her literary-journal editor husband was actually working for The Agency, it turns her world upside down--and that sentence makes Feldman's book sound a lot like the current televsion show "The Blacklist." But Feldman's finesse with both moral and emotional ambiguity makes her book a lot more like Thomas Mallon's Fellow Travelers than anything tube-based.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Post-apocalyptic novels are a dime a dozen, but interesting post-apocalyptic novels are always welcome on my shelves. Malerman's book ups the ante by never allowing readers to know what the actual threat is--a bomb? A pox? A war? A natural disaster?--while ratcheting up the tension for narrator Malorie, who is pregnant and alone with her two four-year-old children. It's one of the eeriest, most original psychological thrillers I've read in quite a while.

Night Heron by Adam Brookes

Author Brookes, who has been the BBC correspondent from the Pentagon and is currently "The Beeb's" DC correspondent, has spent his share of time in Asia, and all of that shows to good effect in his first spy novel that pits a MacGyver-y Chinese escaped convict nicknamed Peanut against his own government as well as British and American intelligence forces. All of them are grappling with a new world order in which China has a great deal of power, but much less savoir-faire.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

If you're looking for a novel to simply fall into, look no further: Prose's latest sets the reader right down in the middle of a Paris that wants to forget where it has been and has no idea where it is going, although most readers and plenty of the characters are aware that something dangerous lurks around the corner. In the meantime, meeting photographer Gabor Tsenyi, crossdresser Lou Villars and their coterie (all based on real people) will fascinate you so much that you may even be shocked to realize what's happening.

<>NONFICTION:

American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution by Walter R. Borneman

We're so used to the idea of the American Revolution that we've forgotten it, like all revolutions, had a beginning that was as fragmented and uncertain as all other revolutions in human history. Into the scene strides an unlikely and little-known figure, General Thomas Gage, A British general whose keen observations may have been what prompted his government to incite the Bunker Hill massacre--and thereby birth a revolution now seen as different from all others. A fascinating book.

The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1945 by Nigel Hamilton

Weighty but worthwhile, Hamilton's account of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wartime leadership has information about all aspects of his World War II years. However aficionados of the era may be surprised by the new emphasis and perspective Hamilton provides about the proposed invasion of North Africa in 1942 and the portrait of a president who relied more on his own instincts than on the advice of his cabinet--a real contrast to the Team of Rivals Lincoln we've come to love.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan

Simply learning about how deeply literary our sixth president was made me want to read all of Kaplan's beautifully researched and written biography, but there's more to love about JQA. An ardent abolitionist (hopefully you haven't forgotten his role in the Amistad case), he was also an ardent thinker and planner who wanted to keep Americans from simply reveling in the nation's growth and good fortune without considering its future and foundations. Biography fans, don't miss this one.

The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas by Anand Giridharadas

If you're looking for a story about the American dreams and American ideals, you may find it in this riveting tale of an immigrant pardoning the bigot who nearly took his life. The story begins in Dallas but roams around the nation and afield, including to a chicken-farm in Karachi. You'll have to read if you want to understand, but I urge you to take a chance on a fat new book and learn something about what has remained even as American population has changed so much.

JFK Jr., George, and Me by Matt Berman

Oh my goodness, remember George Magazine? (And let us take a moment to remember its founder JFK Jr., who died such an untimely death in 1999). It was going to be the publication of the 1990s, and even though it couldn't last (can anyone say Internet?), in this book about its hectic apotheosis, Matt Berman (who was hired by JFK Jr. as the magazine's creative director) gives less a primer in the life of a young magazine than a portrait of a young man whose family legacy continue to haunt the American culture. 

 





Posted at 03:33 PM/ET, 05/02/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A meditation on Vanity Fair's Salman Rushdie piece--more specifically, its photo spread--from the May 2014 issue. By Bethanne Patrick

It's been a weird couple of weeks for oh so many reasons. There were changes here at Washingtonian. I had a big disappointment that I'll recover from--but it required a couple of GBD doughnuts to assuage. Maybe it's just that I returned from a fabulous spring-break getaway, and re-entry is hard. 

But last week got even weirder when I saw this photo spread in the May issue of Vanity Fair. I hate that you have to negotiate a paywall in order to see all four pages in their full glory, for this is a photo spread the likes of which I have not seen in some time. Photographer Annie Leibovitz seems to have had some sort of vendetta against the entire crew. At first glance, I thought perhaps Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter was reverting to his (now almost antique) roots at SPY magazine and poking fun at the literary establishment.

Let me take a moment to explain what the photo shows, for those who can't get the full monty: It is a carefully staged lineup of creative types who played a role in Salman Rushdie's publication of and subsequent fatwa for The Satanic Verses. Included are longtime (and, in some cases, no longer) friends like novelists Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, his American publisher Nan Graham, agent Andrew Wylie, and British agent Caroline Michel, and others. The reason they have been gathered for this photo spread is compelling:

Twenty-five years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, Vanity Fair writer Paul Elie hears from Rushdie himself and authors including Stephen King, Ian McEwan, E. L. Doctorow, Gay Talese, and Martin Amis, as well as editors from Viking and Penguin, the book’s respective U.K. and American publishers, about how the prophetic and provocative book made its author a hunted man and unleashed a fury around the world. Bombs exploded in bookshops in the U.S. and the U.K.; the book’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator was stabbed, its Turkish translator was attacked, its Norwegian publisher was shot, and two clerics in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia who spoke out against the fatwa were shot and killed. In total, Elie writes, more than 60 people died in the controversy.

Stephen King went so far as to intervene on Rushdie’s behalf when a number of bookstores in the U.S. announced plans not to sell the book or to remove it from their shelves. At the behest of two Viking editors, King called the chief of bookstore chain B. Dalton and gave him an ultimatum: “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” The store reversed course. “You can’t let intimidation stop books,” King now says, recalling the episode. “It’s as basic as that. Books are life itself."

I agree wholeheartedly, which is why it's puzzling to me why this group portrait looks more like Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" than a modern take on the headline, which is "A Fundamental Fight:" "Paul Elie assesses the extraordinary impact of a prophetic, provocative book, which turned its author into a hunted man, divided the cultural elite, and presaged a new era." In the dimly lit, shadowy contours of these four pages, Rushdie et al appear as Dutch renaissance experts who might exclaim "My leeches will cure this man!" rather than people who might presage "a new era." (Full disclosure: I have met at least four of the assembled parties in person, including Rushdie himself; all of those parties are quite charming and affable in real life, not at all like their encased-in-amber avatars here.)

While I'm not interested, here, in analyzing the article as a whole, Elie does write towards the end that "The Satanic Verses is a world-changing book," and I don't believe he supports that claim. The book was definitely an eerily prescient view of a world in which fundamentalist Islam would play a larger and terrifying role, but does that make the book itself "world-changing?" I don't think so. I also think that while Midnight's Children was a fantastic whirlwind of storytelling, while The Ground Beneath Her Feet played well with space and time, while Haroun and the Sea of Stories was sweet and lyrical, The Satanic Verses was a pair of concrete shoes in book form. (I know this better than most readers because I wrote a paper about it in a grad school course on colonial literature.) 

Perhaps what Elie means is that the response to Rushdie's book from the fanaticists who declared a Muslim fatwa against him changed the world, in that it alerted us all to the post-Cold War threat of Islamic terrorism. If that's the case, then everyone so lugubriously portrayed in the Leibovitz spread did participate in something extraordinary, but it's not about the literature--it's about the reaction to that literature. 

Here's why that's important, and why it's too bad that Stephen King isn't in this photograph: It's not about the literature. It's not about literary fiction, or fine writing, or Manhattan publishing. It's about the freedom to publish and read without censorship. I won't say Vanity Fair missed the boat on this point (I said I wasn't interested in analyzing the article entire, after all), but I think Leibovitz missed an opportunity to make these people relevant to a new word of readers and writers. 

Posted at 12:42 PM/ET, 04/26/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A conversation with novelist Emma Donoghue, author of "Room" and the newly released "Frog Music." By Bethanne Patrick

 

The marvelous writer Emma Donoghue is, as I said in a recent tweet, "ever a delight, so smart, so witty, so thoughtful." Despite her literary heritage (her father Denis Donoghue is a well-known critic and academic, and Emma herself has a PhD in literature) and considerable writing chops (she's won and been nominated/shortlisted/longlisted for many a prize), Donoghue never veers into pretentiousness. Fans of her 2010 "Room" will be pleased to know that her latest novel, "Frog Music," is utterly unlike any of her other books, yet completely engrossing, readable, and fascinating on several levels. I spoke to Emma Donoghue while she was in Manhattan on her book tour.

Washingtonian Books: Many readers in our audience are still getting over or getting into your last novel, the bestselling Room, about a mother and son whose long confinement by a psychopath casts long shadows on their lives after rescue. Your new book, Frog Music, could not be more different, could it?

Emma Donoghue: Yup, yup! If you put it another way, it would actually be a terribly difficult challenge for me to repeat myself. It’s like going on a date. It only flows because I’m in a condition of enchantment for each book. It really helps to keep the spark! I’m a serial monogamist of book writing.

WB: Frog Music has received some incredibly positive reviews, but just recently it got a poor one from Janet Maslin of The New York Times. Your thoughts?

ED: Reviews of any novel are so entirely personal that I don’t worry about it. Fiction enthralls some and irritates others. But may I say one more thing about this? I’m so lucky to be getting reviews in The New York Times at all! I have friends who would kill for the same.

WB: You talked about a “spark.” What sparked this new novel? Was it a character? An idea? An event?

ED: It was the character of Jenny and her murder, which is revealed quite early in this book--that’s not a spoiler! In real life, a murder so rarely fits the character of the murdered, but in this historical case, it did, although it sounds a little cruel to say so. Jenny had a high-speed, incongruous life and a remarkable sense of humor. I think she would have appreciated these attributes in her death.

WB: Once you had the key to this book, what helped you to unspool its plot?

ED: I knew all of the characters--almost all of them based on real people--had all been performers. Jenny was a lapsed child actress, Blanche was a burlesque performer, and so on. It wasn’t just a murder mystery, but a mystery of unpeeling each person, finding those moments when a bit of truth peeps out of the masks people have put on for each other.

WB: You’ve written about sex workers before, notably in Slammerkin. How does your character Blanche Beunon’s reality differ? 

ED: One of the reasons I wrote Blanche as I did, with great amounts of humor and exuberance, is that I didn’t want to do the numbing prostitution thing again, in which a woman is ground down by the patriarchy. I find the ways in which Blanche’s world falls apart more ethically interesting. One of those ethically interesting things is her feelings about motherhood. In both Room and this new novel I’ve attempted to defamiliarize motherhood, to take it out of its usual context and explore whether somebody like Ma [in Room] or Blanche has it in herself to protect her child. To anyone who says “No! It’s banal! Everyone’s felt these things!” I respond: Yes, in every house on every block people are feeling these things. I try to put characters into odd enough situations that they’re not always in a position or mood or what have you to put someone else first.

WB: Let’s talk about your title, which has quite a few layers, including French popular music, animal husbandry of a sort, and cuisine.

ED: The frog thing just fell into my lap. When I found out that there were frog hunters, like Jenny, I just thought it was the most interesting job. The frog is also such a rich sort of trickster figure in folktales, but the animal has a serious side, too: Frogs transform from one shape to another. They’re slippery in every way...and an environmental barometer...and also a foodstuff. One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is how seriously the French take their pleasures--including food.

WB: In your novels, clothes often make the woman--or, in the case of Jenny, clothes often make the woman, a man. Are you obsessed with people hiding behind costumes? Or is it something else?

ED: In a way, if you look at the external facts of Jenny’s life, quite a few bad things happen to her and you could choose to tell hard-luck way, but I find it's much more interesting to present her “free wheeling” in on her bicycle. She keeps hiding--if that is indeed what she is doing by dressing like a man--because sometimes instead of telling everyone your business, it's better to shove all that behind you and remake yourself. Both Jenny and my character in Slammerkin unfortunately overestimate what clothes can do. I think clothes are terribly important, but there are also limits. As the mother of a son and a daughter, I think about these things all the time. When I write contemporary fiction, I write about a world in which men and women really do live alongside each other. But when I write historial fiction, as in the case of Frog Music, I enter a world in which our Western culture and the patriarchy influence so much. 

WB: What comes next for you, Emma?

EDI’ll trying to write a children’s book. I’m so nervous! I’m just gritting my teeth. I think it'll be a middle-grade novel. Tackling a murder mystery gave me new confidence. But I'm still nervous!

Posted at 12:11 PM/ET, 04/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A bookish take on a new television series that’s based on . . . a book. By Bethanne Patrick

The reviews are in on AMC's new Revolutionary War spy drama, Turn, and they're mixed. Hollywood Reporter waggles a so-so hand, saying "Thrill or be killed"; Entertainment Weekly thinks AMC has committed "storytelling revolution"; Variety says it "lacks the vigor of a first-rate spy thriller," yet the New York Times calls it "clear and exciting."

My favorite review came from much closer to home: In the Washington Post, Hank Stuever notes, "Outfoxing the Redcoats is one thing, but launching a drama takes time." Twenty-first-century television viewers accustomed to whomp! bang! boom! thriller action may start yawning when they realize 18th-century spies used petticoats hung on washing lines to alert one another, and heavily costumed British officers at first remind us more of jolly tin soldiers than mortal enemies. 

All of which made me think about how Turn might be like reading a certain kind of book. Many books begin with a bang—but can also then end with a whimper. Other books and stories involve a great deal of careful scene setting so that once the action starts, it doesn't have to be interrupted for background. Turn, of course, is based on a book: Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose, which gives the full story of the Culper Ring, as this group of spies came to be known.

I plan to interview Rose soon and get his take on Turn, but first, I want to ask you: Have you watched the first episode? Will you keep watching? Have you read the book? If not, did the show's premiere get you interested in doing so?

After all, I know there are plenty of you, close to home, who know a great deal about intelligence gathering and spies. . . .

Posted at 10:40 AM/ET, 04/10/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Top of titles released in April 2014, including fiction and nonfiction. By Bethanne Patrick


Spring, at last! We Washingtonians have endured quite a bit of “weather,” as they call it, this winter. As you clean out your gardens, why not clean out your bookshelves and make a little space for a few of these newly released titles? This month’s crop includes fiction from a true master (Ward Just), as well as from an author so new he still uses a skateboard (Maxwell Neely-Cohen); in nonfiction, we’ve got a masterful intellectual examination of compassion (The Empathy Exams) and a masterful practical memoir of compassion (Run, Don’t Walk). If I could just box up and send avid readers all ten of these books, I would.

Books are listed in approximate order of on-sale date. I started this series last month here on Washingtonian.com, and I will keep it up as long as my editor allows it--but want to reiterate that I’m happy to entertain suggestions. My email address is bpatrick@washingtonian.com.

FICTION

American Romantic by Ward Just

What happens to a man’s soul after he spends his life in service to his country? Just’s protagonist Harry is a world- and war-weary State Department veteran whose choices and orders along the way affect him, as well as his great loves, and how they negotiate the future.

Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman

Hoffman dazzled me (and many others) with her 2011 So Much Pretty, a dark, disturbing examination of small-town violence against women. Her new novel focuses on the difficult homecoming of a female Army sergeant, and it’s damned fine work. Highly recommend.

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

You might not think a comic romp involving blood diamonds, Scandinavian gangsters, and an unlikely heroine might teach you something about the evils of fundamentalism in all its forms--but Jonas Jonasson has pulled this off in one of the year’s best surprises.

Echo of the Boom by Maxwell Neely-Cohen

“Born after the fall of the wall but before the fall of the towers,” Neely-Cohen’s teenaged protagonists inhabit a Washington, DC that is stretched to its limits right before “the end” (although no one knows exactly what that is). A brave, funny, articulate new voice.

Casebook by Mona Simpson

I’ll admit that I love most of Simpson’s work, so I was expecting to love her new novel--but I wasn’t expecting the tart Mile Adler-Hart, whose intelligence reports from his Santa Monica adolescence are a testimony to parents and children in every part of the country.


NONFICTION

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Lesley Jamison

You’ll be hearing a lot about this collection of essays (full page in New York Times Book Review, that kind of hearing), but if you’re just hearing about it here first, just go and buy or reserve a copy. Jamison illuminates her subject but her writing alone is worth the trip.

Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Who except Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) could dig a bit of early experience from a diary, hone and polish it for meaning to her own life, and then extend that meaning for contemplation by others? Even if you don’t agree with her conclusions, you’ll learn from them.

Falling Through Clouds: A Story of Survival, Love, and Liability by Damian Fowler

After Toby Pearson’s wife was killed in an airplane accident that his two young daughters survived, he took on the aviation-law establishment--and actually changed things. For anyone who enjoys a David-versus-Goliath story, and who among us does not?

Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center by Adele Levine

If you’re looking for a weepy inspirational book, run, don’t walk in the opposite direction--Levine isn’t here to jerk tears. Instead, she’s written a mordantly funny account of how soldiers and their rehab teams really make it through amputation, PTSD, and more. And it’s . . . an inspiration.

Marijuana Nation: One Man's Chronicle of America Getting High,  From Vietnam to Legalization by Robert Roffman

“Roger Roffman first discovered marijuana while serving as a US Army officer in Vietnam. From these seemingly innocuous beginnings, Roffman has been fascinated by marijuana, as a researcher, scholar, therapist, activist, and user.” What’s not to love?

Posted at 11:35 AM/ET, 04/02/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A local author’s effort to find a place for his own writing is about to help student writers negotiate today’s publishing jungle By Bethanne Patrick

A Washingtonian.com Exclusive

A local author’s effort to find a place for his own writing is about to help student writers negotiate today’s publishing jungle. Dallas Hudgens, whose novels Drive Like Hell and Season of Gene were released by the august Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner, turned to self publishing in 2012 for his story collection Wake Up We’re Here. “My time was up to prove myself through traditional publishing,” Hudgens told me over cappucinos recently. “I spent years asking others to take a chance on me. It was time to take a chance on myself.”

He needed a name for his self-publishing venture, and decided to be very literal. He called his imprint Relegation Books “because I felt relegated to a certain niche in traditional publishing and bookselling,” said Hudgens. While he wanted to leave the frustrating aspects of NY-centric publishing behind, Hudgens also felt strongly about producing a properly edited and designed book; he turned to professional colleagues Steven Bauer and Zach Dodson for those services.

Bauer and Dodson will work with Hudgens as Relegation makes its move to a bigger stage this year, releasing its first book in September: On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg. “I wanted to work with an author who hadn’t found an audience yet,” said Hudgens. “Someone who was worth a second chance.” In widening the circle of authors Relegation Books will publish, Hudgens also decided to widen the group of professionals with whom he works, adding Manhattan-based literary publicist Lauren Cerand to his team.

Cerand’s work with Relegation is no accident; the Potomac, Maryland native grew up reading the Washington Post and, like Hudgens, is “protective of DC,” meaning that both believe it is a place in which literary ideas and groups can flourish. As Cerand rode the train down this way to give a talk to George Mason University MFA students, she spoke with me and said “It’s no longer all about AWP or BEA in the writing and book worlds. Writers, authors, and publishers need to look at what’s going on down the street. That’s what makes a literary life.”

Making a literary life is the idea behind Relegation’s newest--and as yet unnamed--initiative: Giving seed money and direct support to a GMU MFA student-run imprint that will both help writers learn about the publishing process and how to publish their own work. “It’s their vision,” Hudgens emphasized. “How do you define success? How do you want to make books and writing part of your life?”

Hudgens and Cerand have coined a new moniker for what they’re doing: “craft publishing.” As Cerand notes, “There is no longer just one path to publish a book. It’s about looking at the best possible path for each book; they’re not all cut from the same cloth. One of the reasons I’m speaking to the MFA group regularly is to help them learn the latest best practices in book PR and marketing, but also to help them identify the places where there are no answers--yet.”

Dallas Hudgens knows there are places with no answers, and he hopes that Relegation Books and the nascent GMU imprint to realize that it’s time to ask new questions. “What is possible? What works best? The important thing, for me and for Relegation, was to take time and make what we put out be high quality work.”

That sounds like a great definition of success to come. Watch this space for more on Relegation Books and the GMU MFA imprint program--which [Ed.: THIS JUST IN!] will become known as Stillhouse Press.

Posted at 09:25 AM/ET, 03/26/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Chatting with author John Banville, whose latest novel, written as Benjamin Black, is an homage to Raymond Chandler's character Philip Marlowe. By Bethanne Patrick

Many writers find it difficult to sustain a balance between the work they do for love and the work they do to pay the bills. The novelist sitting across from me in a DC boutique hotel has, however, found his own solution: “Benjamin Black is my day job, and John Banville searches for perfection.”

“Banville,” as he often refers to himself, is a polished, witty, and somewhat guarded Irishman who won the 2005 Booker Prize for The Sea: A Novel and has won a passel of other awards (Irish, Italian, Austrian, British…) for other Banville titles such as The Book of Evidence and Ancient Light. Heralded as “one of the most imaginary literary novelists working in English today” by author and journalist Marie Arana, John Banville could rest on his laurels.

But he will not, because “Writing as a craftsman, you might sell a million copies, but you will not have perfection,” he tells me. “I’m not looking for that when I write as Black, but Banville aspires to be an artist.” Fortunately, the two authors work on different schedules: It takes “three to four years of hard work” to finish a Banville book, while Black books are written during the three to four months of the season he prefers to spend indoors: “I hate the summer. It’s a dead time, when the earth is at its most barren. That’s when I write a Black novel.”

Portrait of the Author as Benjamin Black
credit: Barry McCall

A few years back, “a Black novel” would have meant “a Quirke novel,” as until now, the 1950s Dublin PI was his protagonist of choice. However, Banville/Black is visiting the US at the moment to promote something new, a book called The Black-Eyed Blonde whose narrator is none other than Phillip Marlowe, the hard-boiled noir creation of Raymond Chandler. Pluck a sentence or paragraph at random from Benjamin Black’s novel and you might think you’re reading Chandler, his style is that faithful. But there are differences. “My Marlowe is not quite Chandler’s,” says Banville. “I was captivated by the man’s essential loneliness. He has no family, no home, no possessions. What he does have is a fundamental belief in being honest. He’s in the mold of an ancient hero.”

Banville believes “Our times need people like Marlowe. The concept of goodness is very old fashioned, as is the idea of doing your best. That’s what attracted me to giving this a try.” Will he write another Marlowe book? “It depends on how this one’s received. I’m very proud of this one and where I’ve managed to insert it into the Marlowe timeline, so I’d be quite happy to go on.”

A new Banville novel is in the works, but Quirke fans can look forward to the BBC series coming in May, starring Gabriel Byrne--and written by John Banville. Or is it Benjamin Black who did the screenwriting? “The two men do sometimes look over each other’s shoulders,” Banville admits with a smile. “This is why I can’t take a job teaching writers. I’d kill them all, or put them off writing completely.” Good thing he’s too busy crafting and searching for that to happen.

Posted at 07:44 AM/ET, 03/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A round-up of some literary events in DC over the past two weeks. By Bethanne Patrick

As I mentioned in last week's Top 10 Books for March 2014 post, we live in the nation's most literate place. It stands to reason that we also have loads of great literary happenings, and while I can't attend them all, I do try to get to several each month, and pay attention to those I miss. Each month I'll try to bring you an update on what I've seen, tidbits from events I've heard about, and info on what I think you might want to put on your calendars for the next week or two. 

On Tuesday, March 4, I attended a party in honor of Myra MacPherson's book launch at The Cosmos Club. MacPherson, formerly a Washington Post political reporter who lives in Miami, was just trying to get a drink at the Club bar when I accosted her for a brief pre-party interview about The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age. (NB: The book, a lively and heretofore untold account of sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin, received a terrifc revew in the Post.) We talked about her scandalous subjects, siblings who became the first women traders on Wall Street and refused to live by the very restrictive rules for 19th-century ladies. "People didn't know what to make of them," said MacPherson. "They went from capitalists [as traders] to communists [as activists], and when people would ask them how they reconciled the two, they would say 'We needed the money to support our work!'" One of the most important points MacPherson has to make is that things haven't really changed all that much: "It's always very hard for political women. Always. Maybe even more so today."

Women were also center stage at the Politics & Prose event for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50 by Annabelle Gurwitch, interviewed by her DC-resident pal and fellow author Barbara Ehrenreich. Far more men than anyone might anticipated joined the crowd! Annabelle and Barbara began by recounting how they met (which was in DC) and quickly went on to compare compressions stockings to Spanx, whether to attend a concert with a teenager, and the invisibility of the parental set, and on to more serious subjects like breast cancer. Take a look at Gurwitch's book trailer--even if you're not on the edge of 50, you'll recognize some of the ways in which we all categorize the people in our lives.

While the weather outside continues to be frightful, a spring-themed cocktail gathering is always delightful--and sometimes it works out in the oddest ways. DC-based literary agency RossYoon is known for throwing great parties around this time of the year, and Thursday's, held at Hogo Bar, was in keeping with that tradition. [Full Disclosure: Howard Yoon is my agent.] In the course  of the evening, I met and chatted for a while with a really interesting author, Adele Levine, whose memoir Run, Don't Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Medical Center will be published by Avery/Penguin next month (more on her book then, I promise!). As I joked to various attendees, one of the best parts of the evenings for me was the on-street parking spot I nabbed right in front of the bar. But Adele's evening took a more intriguing turn when she walked out and saw her bicycle chained to a street sign there, too. The surprise? Her bike had been stolen last August. 

Posted at 11:01 AM/ET, 03/14/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The President's half-brother, Mark Obama Ndsandejo, gains a commercial publisher for his new memoir. By Bethanne Patrick

 

President Obama's half-brother, Mark Obama Ndesandjo, has sold a memoir entitled An Obama's Journey: My Odyssey of Self-Discovery Across Three Cultures to Lyons Press.

The deal was announced in Monday's Publishers Marketplace "Deals" email. The book will span Obama Ndesandjo's childhood in Kenya with Barack Obama Sr. and Mark's Jewish-American mother, his attendance at Brown, Stanford and Emory in the U.S., and his career success in China as an artist, businessman, and philanthropist, as well as his relationship with the 44th president. 

Originally intended to be self published, An Obama's Journey was covered after that announcement back in December 2013 in numerous outlets, including DC's Politico. At that time, Obama Ndesandjo related that he would write about his abuse at the hands of his and the President's father, and told reporters that he would describe his relationship with his brother as "...cold and I think part of the reason is because of my writing. My writing has alienated some people in my family."

Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/obama-brother-mark-obama-ndesandjo-autobiography-101323.html#ixzz2vgNlOvuT

Posted at 02:20 PM/ET, 03/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()