Curtain Call: No Satisfaction


The lanterns have been trimmed, our log pile has been replenished, and there’s a splendid bottle of red glinting in the firelight. Yep, it’s time for another Seriously Entertaining foray into the best of contemporary writing. The House of SpeakEasy’s next show, No Satisfaction, which hits the City Winery stage on Monday, November 17, aims to provide the exact opposite of what it says on the tin. And we couldn’t be more delighted to welcome Philip Gourevitch, Hooman Majd, Graham Moore, Dan Povenmire and Ruby Wax to help us do so. Join us for more laughs, drama, and intellectual stimulation than you might think possible for a Monday. Tickets here.

Philip Gourevitch‘s first book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998), which tells the story of the Rwandan genocide, is a masterpiece of reportage (we reviewed it here). His later books A Cold Case (2001) and The Ballad of Abu Ghraib (2008) were published to similar acclaim. In this marvellous interview with Paul Holdengräber, he talks about James Brown, Jonah and the Whale, and the ethics of photography. “We often use these words unthinkable, unspeakableunimaginable,” he says. “They’re supposed to tell us, these are huge subjects… It’s supposed to make them sound important. But what does it say? It says don’t think, don’t speak, don’t imagine. It basically gets you off the hook.”

Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American journalist and commentator, and the author of three books — The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern IranThe Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge; and The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran (which we reviewed here). Hooman presents a view of Iran from both inside and out. Still, as he told me when I interviewed him, “I’ve always maintained that there are no real ‘experts’ on Iran, for every self-proclaimed or media-proclaimed one has been wrong on so many issues and occasions that one might as well give up trying. I include myself, of course….” Aside from his journalistic and authorial endeavors, he runs an entertaining — and instructive — style blog called The House of Majd. In this great series of short videos via Big Think, Hooman demystifies Iran for Western audiences…

Graham Moore is the youngest SpeakEasy guest to date. His first novel, The Sherlockian, a meta-mystery thriller set in 1900 and 2010 and starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, was published to general acclaim in 2010 — the late, great Christopher Hitchens called it “ingenious and amusing.” (We reviewed it here.) At the end of this month, The Imitation Game, for which Moore wrote the screenplay, will be released by the Weinstein Company. In it, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the British mathematician whose work on the Enigma Machine is widely credited with turning the tables of the Second World War in favor of the Allies. Dan Jolin in Empire commented that “screenwriter Graham Moore couldn’t have made a more impressive debut,” and he’s had excellent notices also in The Hollywood Reporter and Time Out London. There’s already a sizeable awards-season buzz about this one.

“2D is alive and well and living on TV!” So says Dan Povenmire, co-creator of the Disney Channel smash hit Phineas and Ferb. After years bringing his magic touch — and a penchant for grand musical numbers — to shows including The SimpsonsFamily Guy, and Rocko’s Modern Life, and winning an Emmy in the process, Dan and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh launched Phineas and Ferb to great acclaim in 2007. Read our profile and interview with Dan, in which we discussed how not to be a jerk and the five cartoons he’d save from the zombie apocalypse. Then feast your eyes and ears on this episode of Phineas and Ferb, in which the boys’ older sister, Candace, finally succeeds in busting them…

Though born in America, Ruby Wax has spent most of her career working in the UK. She was the script editor on the legendary BBC TV series Absolutely Fabulous, and has had a hugely successful career as a stand-up comedian and celebrity interviewer. Her many subjects include O.J. Simpson, Pamela Anderson, the Ku Klux Klan, and — below — Joan Collins. Her intimate yet outrageous style has brought forth some amazing revelations from her interviewees. In her most recent book, Sane New World: A User’s Guide to the Normal-Crazy Mind, she discusses living with depression and how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help. Read our review here.


Re Martin Amis

Martin Amis, photographed by Maximilian Schönherr in a hotel suite in Cologne, Germany, in 2012

Martin Amis was doubled on Saturday night at the New School. He was appearing as part of the tenth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, established by his great friend Salman Rushdie, who had a front-row seat for the occasion. Stage left was the real Amis, head cocked and battle-ready; opposite him sat interviewer and critic John Freeman; and between them was actor Anatol Yusef, who spoke only the historical Amis’s words, taken from interviews conducted since the 1970s in Interview magazine. The concept was simple but rather brilliant: Freeman would interview Amis-past and -present interactively, with Amis-present annotating, approving or contradicting his earlier selves. It was fascinating to watch.

Starting with The Rachel Papers (1973), Amis’s writing was inevitably compared with that of his father, Kingsley, whose most famous books include comic classic Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, winner of the 1986 Booker Prize. “I still think it delegitimises me in a weird way, having a writer-father,” said Amis-present, who’s written thirteen novels, several collections of short fiction and a wealth of criticism and social commentary. “I’m like Prince Charles, who talks with this sort of ex cathedra authority based on absolutely nothing at all. With me, everyone slightly suspects I got where I am through nepotism.” Now sixty-four, Amis has children of his own, but he was resistant to the idea that the family might automatically produce a third-generation writer. “It’s a very complicated thing, to encourage a child to follow your profession,” he said. Meditating on music and art, where dynasties of talent are much more common, he concluded: “There are no prodigies in literature. Only in chess, music and math, which have in common the fact that they have nothing to do with life; they don’t feed off life.”

Amis moved to Brooklyn three years ago but has written about America throughout his career, most notably in his non-fiction collections The Moronic Inferno (1986) and The Second Plane (2008), which deals with the post-9/11 experience, and in his 1984 novel Money. “I feel sort of half-American myself. I sometimes believe I can speak American… although I wonder if that’s an illusion.” Thinking more politically: “Anti-Americanism in Europe is almost automatic everywhere… and I could never sympathise with that. After all, it’s based on the only good revolution that’s ever been.” He was not entirely sans reservation, though. “Money has got into too many areas of American life: health, politics… It’s more like an oligarchy that has elections every four years. All the talk now about inequality is tremendously overdue; inequities are built in and almost ossified.” Quoting Saul Bellow, he commented, “It’s the country where, ‘if you’re so smart how come you ain’t rich?’ If I wrote a novel called Money now, God knows what direction it would go in…”

Freeman also asked about Amis’s famous literary friendships. A recent piece in Vanity Fair on the fatwa taken out on Rushdie twenty-five years ago includes a beautiful snapshot of some of them, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, including Rushdie and Ian McEwan. Going back in time, Granta’s 1983 list of the best young British novelists, many of whom have been Amis’s friends, is remarkable for its prescience. Sadly missing today, of course, is the late Christopher Hitchens, who never strayed into fiction. “Ian [McEwan] said it was because he didn’t have the temperament to sit around making things up.” Rereading his final book, Mortality, though, “if transposed into the third person and the past tense, it reads just like a novel slap-bang in the English seriocomic tradition. But, alas, everything in that book is gospel truth.”

And what was in the water when Amis was starting out that gave his generation the heft they turned out to have? “The great energising thing was the sexual revolution… It was of incalculable value to society.” Referring to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) on the alleged decline of violence in world history, he pointed out that one of the factors Pinker puts a lot of emphasis on, alongside the state’s expanded monopoly on violence and, flatteringly, the emergence of the novel, is the emancipation of women. “That’s what energised us.”

Looking ahead, Amis’s next novel, The Zone of Interest, will be published by Knopf in September. Like 1991’s Time’s Arrow, it will see him deal directly with the Holocaust. “If you’d asked me [before I wrote Time’s Arrow] who was the least likely British novelist to write about the Holocaust, I’d have said me,” he commented. It went on to become one of his best-reviewed books and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Time’s Arrow is an extraordinary novel because the action happens backwards — not like in the movie Memento, where the scenes are reordered to happen in reverse, but in rewind-motion. “The arrow of time is the arrow of morality,” said Amis, pointing out that, seen in reverse, you can slap a crying child in order to make him stop. The novel’s narrator sees the action in reverse and cannot comprehend its significance; the reader, knowing better, comes to see a well-known horror in a newly terrifying light. The Zone of Interest, which is already one of the most highly anticipated titles on the fall slate, will take a different tack: “it’s social realism of the same period.”

Further reading:

London Fields (1989) is many readers’ favourite Amis novel, a classic in what he calls the “mock heroic style in which we describe low things in a high style”.

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is a great introduction to Amis’s non-fiction, and includes great profiles of post-war literary titans J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, amongst others.

Experience (2000) is Amis’s award-winning memoir, though it says as much about Kingsley as it does about Martin. You can read an extract here.

Curtain Call: In Case of Emergency


A state of emergency is declared. You fly tonight. What do you take with you? Clothes? Thermos? Hatchet? Naaah: books, of course. Fortunately you know of a safehouse nearby. A safehouse by the name of SpeakEasy. That’s right, comrades, there’s a Seriously Entertaining way out of this crisis. Between our six guests next week, we have everything you need to survive In Case of Emergency. Don’t have your ticket yet? Fear not, there’s still a few left here. Your checklist:

1. Amor Towles. Author of the marvellous Manhattan merry-go-round Rules of Civility, which we reviewed a few weeks back, and its ebook follow-up Eve in Hollywood. Here’s Towles talking about the great American photographer Walker Evans and the genesis of his debut novel:

2. Evie Wyld‘s new book, All the Birds, Singing, was just published in the US. When it came out in the UK last year, the Guardian said that it “should enhance her reputation as one of our most gifted novelists”. We took a look at her debut, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, earlier this week. In this clip, Wyld reads the opening to All the Birds, Singing:

3. J.D. McClatchy‘s new collection Plundered Hearts just came out to ecstatic reviews — the LA Times called it a “landmark collection”. We took a look at his poetry last week but he’s well known in musical circles too. McClatchy’s operatic work ranges from Mozart to… Stephen King. Check out these highlights from the opera of King’s Dolores Claiborne, which McClatchy wrote the libretto for:

4. Maggie Shipstead. Like Wyld and McClatchy, Shipstead has a new book out at the moment, Astonish Me, which is set in the ballet world. Her first novel, the witty social comedy Seating Arrangements (2012), won the Dylan Thomas Prize and LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Here she is talking about her influences and research methods:

5. Daniel BergnerSalon wrote of What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (Bergner‘s latest): “This book should be read by every woman on earth”. Every man too, probably, if we’re honest. In this TEDxEAST talk, he debunks some of the many cultural myths that surround female desire:

6. Leonard Lopate. The host of this month’s edition of our literary quiz, The Tip of My Tongue, Lopate is best known for his daily talk show, which has run for the best part of three decades on WNYC. Here he is in conversation with Christopher Hitchens about Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and the joys of drinking: