Reading 2014

Being a collection of disordered thoughts on new writing from the last year or so.


There were lots of books about books. I enjoyed Rebecca Mead‘s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishing, 2014) and Joanna Rakoff‘s My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), which both fused literary criticism and autobiography into what Joyce Carol Oates called, reviewing Mead, “bibliomemoirs.” “The book was reading me, as I was reading it,” wrote Mead of Middlemarch, locating George Eliot’s greatness in her broad imaginative sympathies. Mead’s is a lovely book, mixing biographical detail about Eliot with an introspective analysis of how her work might be read and re-read on the journey through life (review here). Rakoff’s book, meanwhile, is more straightforwardly autobiographical, recounting the author’s first job in publishing, in which she became a sort of gatekeeper for J.D. Salinger. Until then, she’d not read him (“I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita”); but before long, she’s hooked.

After a century of literary modernism, its central characters continue to haunt the pages of new work. Kevin Jackson‘s Constellation of Genius: 1922 – Modernism Year One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is novelly conceived, taking 1922 day by day, dropping in and out of the lives of Joyce, Proust, Picasso, Stravinsky, and many other towering figures of the age. Worth it for the detail alone, including the rumoured conversation between Proust and Joyce on their only interpersonal encounter (“I have never read your works, Mr Joyce”). Nine more things you might learn from Jackson here. Shortly after came Kevin Birmingham with The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (The Penguin Press, 2014). In this fascinating book, Birmingham makes a highly convincing case for placing Ulysses at the center of the story of the troubled relationship between art and the law. He also tells a cracking story, weaving anarchists, tortured geniuses, and the international vice squad into the tale of one man and his masterpiece.

Feminism seemed to be in the process of reinscription in 2014. In September Emma Watson spoke eloquently at the United Nations about gender equality and the need to reclaim the very word “feminism” from those who associate it with misandry. Laura Bates collected her thoughts and conclusions from two years of the Everyday Sexism Project in a startling first book. Caitlin Moran published How To Build A Girl (Harper, 2014), a sort of fictional companion piece to her earlier How To Be A Woman (Harper Perennial, 2012), and continued to rule the Twittersphere. Beyoncé got in on the action at the VMAs, beaming the word FEMINIST across America in six-foot-tall capitals. Diane Keaton published the second volume of her memoirs, a touching and witty exploration of beauty and motherhood called Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty (Random House, 2014). And I particularly enjoyed Roxane Gay‘s energizing Bad Feminist (Harper Perennial, 2014), which made me laugh out loud walking down the street (review).


Suffering from chronic fear-of-missing-out, I finally dived headlong into Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s six-volume My Struggle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Book 1, 2012; Book 2, 2013; Book 3, 2014), which may or may not accurately be called a publishing phenomenon (cf. Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books). People are describing it as Proustian but really I think a whole new adjective is called for. I was reading Book 1 around the time Boyhood came out at the cinema, and started making idle notes in relation to both about “the transcendence of the banal.” Knausgaard in print and Richard Linklater on film have succeeded in transmuting the inconsequential into something meaningful, even profound. The shambling arc of Boyhood was given special resonance by the astounding formal experiment at the film’s heart: its having been filmed with the same cast over the course of twelve years. Linklater’s film also shared with Knausgaard’s writing a piercing clarity on the subject of what used to be called “the crisis of masculinity.” Meanwhile, the confessional Karl Ove (or “Karl Ove”?) is surely set to become one of the great characters in world literature. His musings — petty, grand, philosophical, banal, cruel, loving — are the extraordinary propulsive force in his meandering, almost entirely uneventful epic. Like Zadie Smith, I need the next volume “like crack.”

A solid showing from fiction elsewhere in 2014 too. There Must Be Some Mistake by Frederick Barthelme (Little, Brown, 2014) was funny and fun and wise and postmodern-without-the-agenda and timely and all that jazz. Wallace Webster’s very much a hero for now, an ambitionless retiree watching box sets of Scandinavian crime dramas and casually pursuing romance. In the background are a series of suspicious deaths and weird happenings in the condoparadise of Forgetful Bay, TX, where he lives. Hugely enjoyable. Joshua Ferris‘s third novel, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour (Little, Brown, 2014), which became one of the first American books nominated for the Man Booker Prize, was very entertaining too. A sharp take on the challenges of spirituality in the digital age, it’s also the comic tale of a dentist caught up in a pseudo-religious conspiracy (review). Back in May, the House of SpeakEasy welcomed David Gilbert to the City Winery stage, and his novel & Sons (Random House, 2013), which explores the life and death of a reclusive literary novelist, was also a highlight (review).

It was an excellent year for general nonfiction. In April, our executive director, Amanda Vaill, published Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). A superb, wide-ranging history of the conflict focusing on key figures including the photographer Robert Capa and Ernest Hemingway, it was later listed as one of the New York Times‘ notable books of 2014 (review). The House of SpeakEasy also hosted Simon Winchester, whose rhapsodic The Men Who United the States (Harper, 2013) was hugely pleasurable (review), and Tom Reiss, who won the Pulitzer for his excellent biographical study of Alexandre Dumas’ soldier father and “the real Count of Monte Cristo” in The Black Count (Crown, 2012) (review). Perhaps my favorite book of the year, though, was Philip Hoare‘s follow-up to The Whale, The Sea Inside (Melville House, 2014), a strange and intense work of natural history, philosophy, biography and literary criticism. His style recalls influences as disparate as Iris Murdoch, J.G. Ballard and even Melville himself; his self-effacing romance with the ocean is gripping (review).

As for the award for best nonfiction that wasn’t actually a book? OK, yes, the Serial podcast was pretty great. I’m in the minority that finds Sarah Koenig‘s smart-casual style somewhat affected, a little disingenuous, and at times plain irritating. But advertently or not, Serial has helped to focus any number of questions and issues currently buzzing round the US legal system and the entertainment-industrial complex. What is the nature of reasonable doubt? How do race and the law interact in today’s society? Is it OK to replay personal tragedy as mass entertainment? The podcast has finished but the debate continues, with the recent publication of interviews with Jay Wilds, the key witness for the prosecution of Adnan Syed in the murder of Hae Min Lee, on The Intercept. Roll on, Season 2…

Keep following us on Twitter and Facebook as we inaugurate another Seriously Entertaining year on January 28 at City Winery with our gala show!

This Is Not A Man

Alexander Pope recited in the style of William Shatner. A French general, born into slavery in Saint-Domingue, locked in a war of attrition with Napoleon Bonaparte. A live link to Hollywood during Oscars week. It could only be the House of SpeakEasy.

“This Is Not A Man” delivered another Seriously Entertaining mix of music, comedy, history and literature in the warm embrace of City Winery in SoHo.


Dana Vachon (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

First out of the gate was Dana Vachon, author of Wall Street satire Mergers & Acquisitions. He kicked off with a couple of thumbnail sketches — “One story that doesn’t work involves my father and a terrorist…” — before setting off on a globe-trotting assignment set by Vanity Fair. It was a tale of data-mining billionaires, early-morning water calisthenics in Singapore, and uber-alpha-male English expats all called Roger MacMillan, topped off with sage words of advice from Don DeLillo. “I asked him what young novelists should be writing about,” said Vachon, “and he said immediately, without hesitation, the destruction of the environment.”


Steve Coogan (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

The comedian Steve Coogan, who stands to win his first Oscar this weekend for his screenplay for Philomena, spoke to SpeakEasy founder Amanda Foreman via Facetime from Los Angeles. Coogan has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career in comedy, but Philomena is his first major foray as a writer into serious drama. Due to technical difficulties on the night, Coogan briefly became a star of silent film — but after some ingenious semaphoring and a pioneering reappropriation of the speakerphone function on a cell phone, we were treated to an insight into how the movie is affecting real lives.

“Our project is to attract attention to this pressure group in Ireland that wants to effect a change in the law,” said Coogan, referring to the work he has been doing alongside the real Philomena Lee to bring justice to other women, like Philomena, who were forced to give up their children for adoption in 1950s Ireland. “I like comedy as a tool, as a device, to use in drama,” he said. “It’s more interesting to use comedy as a device to bring levity to difficult subjects.”

And what about his recent audience with Pope Francis? “He didn’t tell me what he thought of me, but he was very nice about Philomena!”


Susan Minot (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“Some time ago I went to the coronation of a king in Africa…” So began Susan Minot, our third guest, whose latest novel, Thirty Girls, was published by Knopf this month. “He was crowned not just with the pelt of a leopard, but with the leopard’s head on top. All in his Armani suit…”

The coronation, though, was a mere backdrop to a more intimate story. Minot was accompanied on the trip by a “handsome wreck” of a journalist, “solemn and full of doom about the world… he was right up my alley.” At one stage, the pair meet a wise old woman straight out of a fairytale, who offers them beer — “basically pure alcohol” — and various gnomic pronouncements (“She said you were old but you look young because you are happy…”). The real significance of said meeting would not become clear until Minot was back in New York, irritated by a cold sore she initially attributed to travel-induced anxiety.

“The next day I look in the mirror and my heart drops to my toes. Because the cold sore has moved. There’s something inside my lip… There’s a worm in my lip…”

“If we were out in the desert, I’d just cut this bugger out,” says her doctor helpfully. Charitably he prescribes a course of antibiotics instead, and after six or seven weeks the worm mercifully passes on and disappears. Its metaphorical significance, though, lives on.


Uma Thurman (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“I later discovered that the handsome wreck, the die-hard bachelor, had gotten married. I like to think I planted something in him that swam up from his heart and planted hope for love…”

Next up, we were delighted to welcome Uma Thurman back as the host of SpeakEasy’s literary quiz, The Tip of My Tongue. This month the mystery passages came from works by George Orwell, Salman Rushdie and Maya Angelou.

Tom Reiss won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. A fan of the legendary French writer Alexandre Dumas since he was a child, Reiss was delighted to discover that he’d written ten volumes of memoirs. But what really gripped him when reading them was not the story of Dumas-novelist but the two hundred pages at the start of Volume I that aren’t even about him.


Tom Reiss (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“They’re about the son of a slave and a renegade French aristocrat,” Reiss said. “It was like reading The Three MusketeersThe Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask all rolled into one.”

The subject was General Alex Dumas, a gifted swordsman who grew up in Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti, and didn’t even travel to France until he was sixteen. A pretty dangerous place, of course, late-eighteenth-century France, and not long after his arrival the revolution was in full swing. Dumas proved to be a superb soldier and strategist and rose quickly to a rank equivalent to today’s four-star generals, in so doing becoming arguably the most successful non-white soldier in the west until Colin Powell.

Unfortunately, his rise coincided with that of another island-born man, an outsider like Dumas but with rather more imperial ambitions, a man by the name of Napoleon Buonaparte.

Reiss’s excavation of this remarkable tale also won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography last year.

Our musical guest this month was the songwriter Anton Sword, whose dance music translates a range of literary influences into the “darkly pretty” songs for which he’s become well known in the US and Europe.

“This is not a man,” mused Anton. “I say that to myself in the mirror every morning! To answer the question ‘What is a man?’ is to be a person… inbetween, insecure and confused.”


Anton Sword and The We Ours (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

He went on to quote neoclassical giant Alexander Pope, “always best delivered in a Shatneresque style, I feel”:

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

— From “Essay On Man”, accessible on Project Gutenberg

Anton and his band, The We Ours, closed out the evening with three songs, “The Air”, “Maybe It’s Begun”, and “Here in the Hurricane” — proving that even in our inbetween, insecure and confused states, we can all still enjoy a good old sing-song.

Tickets are now on sale for our March 18 show, “Are You For Sale?”, featuring Stephen Fry, Jay McInerney, Susan Cheever, Michael Friedman and Jeff Kinney, on the City Winery website here!

The Real Count of Monte Cristo


Tom Reiss

“To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas,” writes Tom Reiss in the opening pages of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Black Count (Crown, 2012). “The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget.” It’s a sin Reiss cannot be accused of, for The Black Count is above all an act of memorial. Alex Dumas’s life will be unfamiliar to most readers, despite the great fame of his novelist son; in this masterful book, he emerges fully formed in his own right.

The making of The Black Count is the stuff of literary thrillers: obstructive bureaucrats, locked safes, unpublished letters. Arriving in Villers-Cotterêts, the birthplace of Dumas-novelist, Reiss discovers that the curator of the Musée Alexandre Dumas has died, leaving numerous crucial documents in a locked safe. “I am afraid the situation is most delicate,” says Fabrice Dufour, the town’s deputy mayor. “And most unfortunate.” Reiss wines and dines Dufour, trying to persuade him of the potential historical significance of the documents over which he now has jurisdiction. Eventually he gains limited access, finding “seven or eight feet of battered folders, boxes, parchments, and onionskin documents collected over the years”.

According to my agreement with the deputy mayor, I had just two hours to photograph whatever I could; then the policemen standing guard outside would take possession of the safe’s contents and remove it to who knew where, for who knew how long. I took out a camera with a big lens and got to work.

The Black Count

The front cover of the US paperback edition

This bit of literary realpolitik brings home the humongous effort involved in producing a work of historical biography. Also the high stakes: without Reiss’s cunning, persistence and fast work, who knows how long it would have been before Dumas’s story came to light with such depth and richness? As it is, his scholarship has already contributed qualitatively and quantitatively to our knowledge of his subject. One only has to compare the Wikipedia page for Thomas-Alexandre Dumas before and after the publication of The Black Count to see the difference.

Alex Dumas, born in 1762, remains the highest-ranking non-white member of a continental European army. This might startle some readers. But like all the best historical biographies, The Black Count is as much a portrait of a time and a place as it is of an individual. And the truth is, France just before and after the revolution was way ahead of its time in its racial mores.

Dumas was born to a lazy-but-cunning father and a slave mother in Saint-Domingue, “the most valuable colony in the world” thanks to its sugar and coffee plantations. As a teenager in 1776, he travelled to France in pursuit of his father, who’d returned a year earlier to lay claim to the family estate.

The young Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie — later simply Alex Dumas — was tall, handsome, and a prodigiously talented swordsman. Moreover, his ethnic background wasn’t the disadvantage one might’ve imagined. Although France was as brutal in the treatment of its slaves as the newly formed US, it was in other ways much more progressive. Louis XIV’s “Code Noir” may have sought to restrict the rights of black slaves but, in placing parameters on their ill treatment, actually allowed many to make a successful legal case for emancipation. In late-eighteenth-century France, many free men proceeded in their careers unimpeded.


General Dumas in a painting by Olivier Pichat that hangs in the Musée Alexandre Dumas, Villers-Cotterêts.

So it was that Alex Dumas, taking his mother’s name with his army commission, was able to rise as quickly and as far as he did. He signed up before the revolution, survived the schizophrenic bloodshed that accompanied it, and reached the pinnacle of his career in the years after. He was an apt soldier: being outnumbered three to one was “the sort of odds that got Dumas’s blood going”; “the chaos of battle was his home.” His son would later boost his legend in tales that, though surely exaggerated, paint a picture of uncommon physical ability: “More than once he amused himself in the riding-school [manège] by passing under a beam, grabbing it with his arms, and lifting his horse between his legs.”

By the close of 1793, Dumas was in command of the enormous Army of the Alps. In this role his strategic genius became apparent, and although it was a bitter campaign that often brought him into perilous disagreement with the unstable government back in Paris, it paid great reputational dividends:

Until then, his heroics had been a kind of soldiers’ legend: the great horseman with incredible dueling skills and a knack for capturing enemy outposts at the head of a small band of dragoons. It was a legend of the kind of man whom men liked to follow, a warrior’s warrior […] Now, General Dumas had led thousands of soldiers to a great strategic victory, while still facing enemy fire in front of them and risking his life alongside them.

These being the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon Bonaparte inevitably emerges as a key antagonist, and Dumas’s destiny is soon intertwined with that of the future emperor. Their opposed philosophies become apparent in their attitudes towards conquered peoples, with Dumas subtly undermining Bonaparte as long as he can. They fight together in Malta and Egypt, in circumstances that would reveal the extent of their difference. Where Dumas protects his troops from suicidal missions in the Alps by strategic avoidance of direct orders, Napoleon is content to lead his army through terrain so inhospitable that many, despairing, commit suicide.

Returning to France from Egypt after the campaign folds, Dumas’s ship starts to take on water and he’s obliged to land in Italy, where he becomes a prisoner of the Holy Faith Army. (His incarceration would later inspire his son’s most celebrated novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.) On his eventual release, his body and spirit broken by the slow poisoning he’s endured at the hands of his captors, he discovers that Napoleon has cut him off. Worse still, Bonaparte has begun to roll back the liberal and anti-slavery policies that had made revolutionary France a rare example of progressive racial attitudes. Within five years Dumas is dead from stomach cancer.

Reiss’s trip to Villers-Cotterêts was not wasted after all.

Even aside from the circumstantial fortunateness that has given us The Black Count, it’s a book full of incidental pleasures. It’s often funny: after the revolution, Reiss writes, “France did not have a normal government: it had a collection of caffeinated intellectuals conducting passionate nonstop shouting matches in the former royal riding school of the Tuileries Palace.” It’s also wise. Of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, one of the leaders of the Girondist movement, Reiss says that “his main character flaw was that of so many French revolutionaries: a zeal for human rights so self-righteous that it translated into intolerance for the actual human beings around him”. And unintimidated by his grand canvas, Reiss breathes evocative life into Saint-Domingue, revolutionary Paris, the frozen Alps and the Egyptian desert alike.

The Black Count may be a corrective to some of Dumas-novelist’s wilder fancies. But at the same time it surely seduces readers into rereading him. With such a fascinating new biographical framework, there will doubtless follow interesting readings of The Three MusketeersThe Man in the Iron Mask and particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. In the meantime, we certainly look forward to Tom Reiss’s special guest appearance at the House of SpeakEasy’s February 24 show, “This Is Not A Man”. Tickets for this Seriously Entertaining night can be bought from the City Winery NYC website here.