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!

The Ink Runs Dry

L to R: Jay Parini, Salman Rushdie, Amanda Vaill, Christopher Mason, David Gilbert, Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Borgesian understatement, Nixonian analysis, Putinian philosophy, and a rediscovered Kodak disc camera. The ink, the wine, and the laughs were all flowing at Tuesday’s Seriously Entertaining show as another smashing line-up of writing talent mused aloud on the creative process and the terror that one day the ink might just dry up altogether.

Amanda Vaill (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Amanda Vaill was first in the spotlight with a tale from her new book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). When war broke out, the writers who answered the call to arms were all generally afraid that “their ink was running dry”, not least Ernest Hemingway, one of the stars of Hotel Florida, whose writing career in the mid-1930s was far from soaring. “But those who were the new face, the new day,” said Vaill, “were the photographers, the film-makers.” Most famous amongst them were Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, whose philosophy was summed up by Capa’s maxim, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Capa and Taro are perhaps best known for the image of the “Falling Soldier”, which Vaill contends was a staged shoot gone fatally wrong. Whatever the circumstances, it made their name, and when Gerda was tragically killed later in the conflict, tens of thousands followed her coffin through the streets of Paris. Capa survived the Spanish Civil War only to be killed when he stepped on a landmine in 1954 while covering the First Indochina War. Is this how the intrepid war photographer would have chosen to go? wondered Vaill. Or would it have been better to let the ink run dry?

Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“In 1988, to my mother’s dismay, I launched a project to bring Nixon to Newsweek,” began Jonathan Alter, our second speaker. “Nixon was not a small-talk man,” he recalled; “he was a man who wore his black oxfords on the beach.” Still, what he lacked in social graces he more than made up for in the astuteness of his observations. When asked how he thought history would judge him, Thirty-Seven responded, “You have to distinguish between history and historians, because history is written by liberals.”

Nixon was a notorious user of tape recorders, a habit that contributed hugely to his downfall. But despite their destructive potential, the humble recording device has flourished in the White House ever since. After a tense conversation in 1999 with Bill Clinton during which Alter asked him if he would be seeking psychiatric help — this was following the infidelity-impeachment double-header — the writer discovered that his interview tape was totally blank. “So I called the White House and asked if the presidential limo has a recording device… fortunately it did…”

And a recording device played a key role in the 2012 election, too, as Alter reveals at length in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (Simon & Schuster, 2013). He closed his great set with the story of Scott Prouty, the waiter whose secret recording of Mitt Romney’s “forty-seven percent” comment may well have been one of the most significant factors in Obama’s re-election.

Christopher Mason (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who won the inaugural Tip of My Tongue competition at the House of SpeakEasy gala in January, returned as host of this month’s quiz, delighting the crowd with three mystery literary passages.

After the interval, satirical songwriter Christopher Mason launched into a new and brilliantly witty take on the crisis in Ukraine entitled “Putin On The Blitz”. “You say Ukraine / I say Mykraine,” says the Russian premier in Mason’s hurlyburly retelling of the currentest of affairs. “Haunting former Soviet republics”, the bare-chested leader goes “advancing in Ukraine” to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Watch this space for a video of Christopher’s performance, coming soon.

“I really have to follow the fucking piano player?” asked David Gilbert, author of & Sons (Random House, 2013) and the next writer to take the stage. “I was nearly in a taxi!”

David Gilbert (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Fortunately for us, Gilbert stuck around, unspooling a brilliant story of writerly procrastination and recovered photographs. Writing’s hard at the best of times, but Gilbert would make it even harder for himself by attempting to contrive lines of prose that were exactly the same length. “This was before I discovered ‘Justify All’… But then I noticed the gaps between words, which annoyed me even more than the right-hand margins!”

One day while cleaning out his closet (to avoid writing, naturellement) he came across a roll of undeveloped film from one of the Kodak disc cameras from the early 1980s. “You just know these prints are gonna be terrible,” he said, but set out merrily nonetheless to find out what they contained — “maybe all those fun times, the secret adventures of your teenage years?”

Instead he finds a succession of selfies. “Me looking in a mirror. Me looking to the right. Me looking to the left… Then the first two buttons of my shirt are undone. Then my shirt is off. Then my pants are off… Here I am looking at my selfie self, and I can see this poor kid trying to figure things out.” He grinned. “Then the last picture is of my dog.”

Jay Parini (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Our final guest of the night was poet, biographer and critic Jay Parini. “In 1968 or so, I was being chased by this fucking government that wanted me to go to Vietnam. So I went to Scotland for seven years and enrolled at St. Andrews.”

There, Parini was given the task of chaperoning the visiting Jorge Luis Borges, a name unknown to him at that time. Unimpressed by this supposedly famous writer, Parini asked Borges why he’d never (even) written a novel. It turned out that Borges had in fact considered doing so for many years — a giant blockbuster epic of a novel, no less. Rather than that, though: “One day I went to my desk and wrote a two hundred-word review of this novel instead,” said Borges. That would do.

Parini later became friends with Gore Vidal, whose biography he is currently writing. When he first met Vidal’s partner, Howard Austen, Howard was introduced as secretary to the great man. “Howard, what does that entail?” asked Parini. “Put it this way, big boy,” responded Austen: “I don’t type.”

Parini closed the evening with some fine words of advice. When working on a novel about Walter Benjamin, he asked Vidal if he could really have two characters discussing Heidegger’s philosophy for thirty pages. Gore’s response was quick and invaluable: “Only if they’re sitting in a railway car and the reader knows there’s a bomb under their seat!”

Watch out for videos from The Ink Runs Dry, coming soon to the House of SpeakEasy website and our Twitter feed.

Curtain Call: The Ink Runs Dry


What happens when The Ink Runs Dry? Fortunately, the House of SpeakEasy has a talking cure. We’re delighted to welcome Jonathan Alter, David Gilbert, Christopher Mason, Jay Parini and Amanda Vaill to City Winery for another Seriously Entertaining literary cabaret, taking in tortured geniuses, presidential candidates, messiahs and more. Read on, dear friends, to meet this month’s line-up.

alterJonathan Alter is an award-winning author, reporter, columnist, and television analyst. A veteran of nine presidential elections, his latest work has dissected the Obama White House, first in The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010) and most recently in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (2013), which we reviewed here. His other books include The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2007).

Here Alter talks to the Washington Post about The Center Holds. “He’s very clear about needing to be president of all the people, and not the president of Black America. But he doesn’t like to talk about that too much in public… Because he’s African-American, the president can’t swing at every pitch that he wants to. Otherwise he plays into the hands of his enemies…”

David Gilbert is the author of two novels, The Normals (2004) and & Sons (2013). The latter, a witty and brilliantly observed examination of a reclusive novelist and his familial relations, was named a book of the year by The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Guardian. John Irving said of it, “the writing is gorgeous — not only the prose but the power of David Gilbert’s observation”. Read our review of & Sons here.

Here Gilbert talks about dyslexia, the myth of fathers, and what writing has taught him.

Christopher Mason is a journalist, author, photographer and composer and performer of satirical songs. He’s performed for, amongst others, President Clinton, the Prince of Wales, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. His journalistic and authorial career includes many pieces for the New York Times and the internationally acclaimed The Art of the Steal, which tells the inside story of the Sotheby’s-Christie’s price-fixing scandal.

Here’s Mason delivering one of his specialties, the occasion a fiftieth birthday party: “This bizarre allegation she’s fifty / Seems an odd cognitive disconnect / ‘Cause what makes her so thoroughly winning / Is her childhood’s not quite over yet…”

Jay Parini has written or edited dozens of books. A poet, novelist, biographer and critic, his catalogue includes Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America (2008) and works on John Steinbeck and Robert Frost. He has often combined biography with fiction, as in The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year (1990), filmed in 2009 with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, and The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville (2011).

His most recent book, Jesus: The Human Face of God (2013), which we reviewed here, is a masterful synthesis of historical evidence and scriptural analysis. Here Parini talks to PBS NewsHour about “the gradually realizing kingdom of God”.

New York native Amanda Vaill is a biographer, journalist and screenwriter. Her new book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), published in April, has been acclaimed as “a vivid, well-paced story” by the Wall Street Journal. Her previous books include Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins and Everybody Was So Young — Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story.

Here she talks about Ernest Hemingway and the genesis of her latest work: “He wrote, ‘You could learn as much at the Hotel Florida in those years as you could learn anywhere in the world’. And when I read this line, I thought, That’s a book! And it was… The hotel itself became a sort of metaphor for Spain in the years from 1936 to 1939 when a desperate war was going on for the fate of the country.” Read our review of Hotel Florida here.

You can buy tickets for The Ink Runs Dry, which is at 8pm (doors from 6pm) at City Winery NYC on May 20, here.

Redaction and Refraction in David Gilbert’s “& Sons”

“All told, or totaled, I would spend a week under A.N. Dyer’s roof, which is how I became a witness, the primary witness despite some feuding claims, to everything that happened.” So writes Philip Topping, the intrusive narrator of David Gilbert’s brilliant & Sons, near the start of the novel, which is due out in paperback from Random House on May 27.

A.N. (Andrew) Dyer is an elderly, reclusive, New York-based writer in the vein of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. When we first see him, at the funeral of his lifelong friend — and Philip’s father — Charlie Topping, our narrator describes it as “one of those I-was-there moments”, a chance sighting of a rare bird, especially when the famous author stumbles over his eulogy. The majority of the novel’s action takes place in the week that follows the funeral. Philip, recently estranged from his wife, moves in with the Dyers (Andrew and his son Andy) just as the ageing patriarch summons his older children, Jamie and Richard, home from their voluntary exiles in Vermont and California. To make amends or for some darker purpose? Echoes of some of the great-slash-terrible Shakespearean fathers — notably Lear — abound as the plot elegantly unfolds.

& Sons is a great novel about great novels and a fresh meditation on one of American literature’s enduring obsessions, the father-son dynamic. The characters are literary in an almost literal way, the punctuation-metaphor a major feature of Gilbert’s arsenal. Examining Andrew’s posture at the funeral, for instance, Philip is reminded of a comma, “its intent not yet determined”. Later, after a punch-up, Jamie’s nose is left with “a parenthetical bend to the left”. His old girlfriend Sylvia, meanwhile, had an “asterisk-like belly button”. It’s a fascinating tic — sufficiently unobtrusive as to be missable at first, but ultimately highly revealing. After all, Philip must construct what he cannot know — the thoughts and feelings of his subjects. He refers to his father and Andrew as “heavily redacted men”, a redaction felt in the novel’s curiously mutilated title. & Sons, with its absent Fathers, is Philip’s creative attempt, using Andrew’s letters and what he reads into the scenes he witnesses chez Dyer, to declassify Andrew and Charlie’s secret history. The fact that his subjects bear the mark of their invention, that they come to resemble typed “characters”, is like a corny joke writ sufficiently large that it takes on the aspect of a symptom.

For Philip and the Dyers are all prisoners of language. Their actions are shadowed and echoed by the written word, which acts on them like a genetic disease. Richard, Jamie and Andy — Andy most of all — cannot escape their father’s name nor the expectation it carries. Worse, they bear the scars of Andrew’s single-minded devotion to fiction. Writing has cannibalised the Dyers, as when Andrew used Richard’s boyhood journals as source material for one of his books (Percy, By Himself):

Author David Gilbert

The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award, which some considered a consolation prize. The judges praised the story of Percy Sr. and Jr. and their silent struggle for connection, citing in particular the journal entries of Percy the younger and their uncanny verisimilitude (a word Richard had to look up, thinking it had something to do with vivisection).

Perhaps worst of all, fiction can be a form of torture. As the plot unfolds through the distorting lens of Philip’s interpretation, we learn that the novel central to Dyer’s canon, a dark adolescent fable with echoes of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, is in fact a cruelly encoded version of an event that forever entwined the Dyers and the Toppings. In Philip’s reading, the novel’s title (Ampersand) and imagery are the proof. But he fails to note Andrew’s initials (A.N.D.), which, in punning on Ampersand, carry the faint suggestion that he is just as much a pawn in Gilbert’s grand scheme as Charlie was in Andrew’s.

Like Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Philip is in many ways (covertly) the central character. He’s a shadowy figure intruding on his own invented scenes, as when, in conversation with his sons, Andrew asks,

“what do you call this area of the mouth again?” He touched the labial commissure, though neither of his sons knew the term.

or when he describes Andy and cousin Emmett catching snatches of “The Blue Danube” while wandering through Central Park, “though they had no idea of the name, only a familiarity from old cartoons”. His condescension is highly revealing. Most of the time, though, he is invisible, rendering Gilbert’s use of free indirect style fish-slippery. In retrospect, it’s clear that each character might be read as a reflection of Philip’s attitudes towards them. Richard and Jamie, who were never kind to him despite his obvious need to be liked, come across as bitter, narcissistic failures. Andrew, in a dark refraction of Philip’s imagined life for his own father, is tormented by guilt and regret.

It’s an extremely rich, often dark book, but funny, too. Andy, discovering that he is communicating by email not with his father but with the young woman who manages his website, flirts with her, “Dad, you are a very naughty girl.” Philip describes his sister’s family at the funeral, “jammed together” on the second row, as “sour yet insistent, like the richest people flying coach”. And at a book launch at the Frick, “these writers trailed glances of vast amusement — Is that Amadellia-something over there? — while also maintaining stock-in-trade seriousness, discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.” Not unfamiliar, perhaps.

A novel about the art of fiction is an inevitably “meta” proposition. Through its careful construction, weaving A.N. Dyer’s (fictional) fiction into the fabric of the novel, & Sons examines our desire to find meaning in narrative, to spot mythical patterns in the entropic sprawl of life. But it’s far from a chilly exercise in metafiction. Gilbert’s warmth shines through, particularly in his younger characters and in the revealing correspondence between Andrew and Charlie, which prefaces each part of the book. And there’s at least the suggestion, in the final chapters, that writing might also offer a chance for redemption.

David Gilbert will appear at The Ink Runs Dry on May 20 at City Winery. You can buy tickets here.