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!

Seriously Entertaining Gala Sets Social Pages Alight

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From top to bottom: Uma Thurman reads some Seriously Entertaining excerpts from classic literature; host Andy Borowitz and Susan Orlean; Adam Gopnik [Photo credit: Amanda Schwab / StarPix]

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.”

 — Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice” (1923)

So wrote Robert Frost in 1923, eerily prescient in his choice of imagery of this past Monday night. For inside the walls of City Winery NYC, as temperatures outside dipped into the low 20s, the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala night turned out to be a sizzling-hot celebration of writers and their art. For Page Six, the evening marked the coming-together of “a pride of literary lions”. For the House of SpeakEasy team, it marked the successful start of a series of Seriously Entertaining shows to come in the months ahead.

Playing emcee for the night was comedian Andy Borowitz, creator of The Borowitz Report. In the words of Vogue:

[The show] opened with writer and host Andy Borowitz regaling-slash-horrifying the legions of literary-minded folk in attendance with a tale of being asked to live-tweet the Oscars last year by an unnamed newspaper owned by “an Australian man” and turned the offer down once informed it was for no actual fee. “They said they would mention my website,” he dryly quipped.

Borowitz’s elliptical anecdote laid bare one of the House of SpeakEasy’s principle missions: to protect the professional status of writers in an age of free content.

As the near four hundred guests tucked into their starters, Borowitz was joined onstage by New Yorker writers Adam Gopnik and Susan Orlean, who each told stories relating to the gala’s theme, “Plays With Matches” (videos coming soon!).

To round out the first act, actress Uma Thurman took to the stage to introduce “The Tip of My Tongue”, a literary quiz that had guests plunging into their inner Bartlett’s to identify fiery passages from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Robert Frost poem that opened this blog post. The sharpest guests may have picked up a clue to the third passage from Andy Borowitz’s opening monologue; in a series of haikus abridging famous works, he took on a book by a certain H. Melville: “Call me Ishmael. / Hundreds of pages later: / ‘Holy crap, a whale!'”

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Top to bottom: Dar Williams; Simon Winchester; House of SpeakEasy founder Amanda Foreman with Salman Rushdie [Photo credit: Amanda Schwab / StarPix]

After an intermission, House of SpeakEasy founder Amanda Foreman explained the guiding principle behind the organisation:

We looked into the future […] The first possibility is a future with no bookstores … and writers can no longer earn a living through quality writing. Or there’s a vibrant community of quality writing and great ideas. This is the future we want to ensure happens.

As the main courses were cleared, British-born historian Simon Winchester regaled guests with a grisly but hilarious tale of his gap-year work in a morgue in early-1960s England. The final performer, Dar Williams, rounded off the festivities with songs from her long and successful career on the American folk scene, including fan favourite “When I Was A Boy”.

As for the winner of “The Tip of My Tongue”? None other than author Salman Rushdie!

You can see further coverage of the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala in the Wall Street Journal here and here, the Mail Online, the Huffington Post, and London’s Evening Standard.

COMING SOON… see all of our speakers in videos from “Plays With Matches” … blog posts in support of our February line-up … and even more pictures from our gala celebration!

You can buy tickets for our February 24 show, “This Is Not A Man”, featuring Steve Coogan, Uma Thurman, Tom Reiss, Susan Minot, Dana Vachon and Anton Sword, on the City Winery website here.

Plays with Matches: A Brief Meditation on Fire & Literature

flameThis coming Monday, the House of SpeakEasy’s inaugural special guests — Andy Borowitz, Uma Thurman, Adam Gopnik, Susan Orlean, Simon Winchester and Dar Williams — will be stepping onto the stage at City Winery to ruminate on the theme “Plays with Matches”. I don’t know what they’re going to say. But it’s a fantastically potent theme — fiery metaphors abound in world literature, and fire has played a major role in the history of literature. So, in advance of gala night, I thought I’d share some of my own thoughts and a few excerpts from my reading notes.

To start with, fire is of course the metaphor of choice for all kinds of passion, noble or ig-:

“Love is a spirit all compact of fire,
Not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire.”

Venus attempting to sway the passions of Adonis in William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Humbert Humbert in the opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Even when said passions turn out to be ephemeral, in fact:

“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”

The melancholy Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

Fire often stands in for inspiration, as in the Muse of fire in Shakespeare’s Henry V “that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention”, or the child who Rabelais claims “is not a vase to be filled, but a fire to be lit”. It can signal great suffering — one thinks of the “wheel of fire” King Lear finds himself bound to after abdicating his kingdom. Relatedly, it’s a common stand-in for conflict, as in the title of our founder Amanda Foreman’s The World On Fire, a history of the American Civil War. It also plays a major part in religious depictions of punishment, as in the fire and brimstone of the Book of Common Prayer, the “lake with liquid fire” on which Satan must lie in Paradise Lost, and the fire “whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for unbelievers”, in the Koran (in the 1964 Arberry translation).

As I mentioned, there is also an unhappy historical link between fire and literature. It’s an unfortunate testament to the power of the written word that it has been so feared over time as to provoke its own destruction. Paper starts to burn at a point between 424 and 474ºF, as any Ray Bradbury fan will know. And burning was the sad fate of the Library of Alexandria in the first century BC, countless works of Chinese philosophy under the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the Imperial Library of Constantinople in the Middle Ages, the Library of Congress in 1814, and many other collections throughout history.

Humboldt University

Humboldt University on the Bebelplatz in Berlin, site of infamous Nazi book-burnings in 1933. [Photo: Charles Arrowsmith]

When I was in Berlin at Christmas I visited the square where, in 1933, Nazis burned around 25,000 books and manuscripts ransacked from the Humboldt University and the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. The memorial there, designed by Micha Ullman, is profoundly moving: an underground library, its shelves bare, sealed off from the outside world and visible only through a glass porthole in the ground. On a flagstone nearby are engraved the eerily prescient words of nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was just a prologue; where they burn books, they will end up burning people too.”)

It’s an interesting quirk of literary history that, had some writers had their way, their work would never’ve seen the light of day in the first place. Virgil left strict instructions to burn what he called a mere draft of the Aeneid. Emily Dickinson charged her sister with burning the vast body of her work. The ailing Franz Kafka gave the same instructions to Max Brod. We are of course very fortunate today to be able to enjoy the Aeneid, the collected poems of Emily Dickinson and The Trial. But the concerns of their authors should not go unremarked, for at the very least they bear witness to the power of their literature to… Well, to do what? to harm? to shame? to discredit? We’ll never know for sure. We can only be guiltily thankful that cooler passions prevailed and their wishes were ignored.

We look forward to seeing many of you at Monday’s gala event, where we can all continue to play with matches in the splendid company of our special guests. If you can’t make it, we also look forward to sharing video and photos from the event on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’ll be live-tweeting all evening and sending out our first newsletter with a recap next week — do be sure to sign up!

In the meantime, you can buy tickets for our second show, “This Is Not a Man” (February 24), when our special guests will be Steve Coogan, Tom Reiss, Dana Vachon, Anton Sword and Jeff McDaniel. Just pop on over to the City Winery NYC website.

Curtain Call: Meet Our Special Guests

Gala Banner New Dar3

It’s now just five days till our opening gala, “Plays with Matches”, and now seems a good time to bring all our hosts and special guests together. So, without further ado…

Meet Andy Borowitz, our host, talking here about sex education and the difference between “continuously” and “continually” at the 92nd Street Y:

“I guess I failed to ask a key follow-up question because I came away from this explanation thinking that all this transpired between a man and a woman while the couple was asleep. And it wasn’t until years later that I realised that one of you has to be awake…”

Andy will be joined by Hollywood superstar Uma Thurman, who hosts our literary quiz, “The Tip of My Tongue”. Here’s Uma sharing a $5 milkshake with John Travolta in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

“I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna go to the bathroom and powder my nose. You sit here and think of something to say…”

Storytelling collective The Moth has featured writer Adam Gopnik as a guest several times. Here he is in 2006 on how he learned to LOL.

“…and I thought to myself, This is the real nature of every communication between parent and child: we send them lots of love; they laugh out loud at us and we don’t even know they’re doing it…”

Author and New Yorker writer Susan Orlean talks here about the process of being fictionalised in the movie adaptation of her book The Orchid Thief at the Texas Book Festival:

“I remember at the time saying to a friend, If they make this into a movie, there’s no doubt that they’ll add sex and drugs and car crashes. I mean, how can they not? It’s Hollywood!”

Next up, this is the historian Simon Winchester at TEDxEast, speaking about The Men Who United the States, and in particular the curious case of Clarence King.

“There are 18 towns called Paradise in this country, stretching from Paradise, close to Intercourse, Pennsylvania, which of course always excites people, to a retirement community outside Sacramento…”

Finally, the House of SpeakEasy’s first musical guest is the singer-songwriter Dar Williams. Here she is in 2011 being interviewed by Larry Groce of Mountain Stage about her greatest hits compilation, Many Great Companions. It’s interspersed with some live performances, too.

“Singer-songwriterdom was more of an evolution than something that required a lot of fits and starts…”

We hope you enjoy meeting them all next week!

Although our opening gala is sold out, you can buy tickets for our February 24 show This is Not a Man”, featuring Steve Coogan, Tom Reiss, Anton Sword, Dana Vachon and Jeff McDaniel, here!

Susan Orlean Does Her Own Stunts


Susan Orlean [Photo by Gaspar Tringale]

Over the last three weeks it’s been my pleasure to introduce you to the line-up for the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala: comedian and host Andy Borowitz; Hollywood superstar Uma Thurman, who will host literary quiz “The Tip of My Tongue”; writer Adam Gopnik; historian Simon Winchester; singer-songwriter Dar Williams; and finally, the author Susan Orlean.

Susan Orlean hails from Ohio and is typically direct and witty in her assessment of the Buckeye State in State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (ed. Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey; Ecco, 2008). “The flatness, it turns out, is a myth,” she begins, before going on to dispel other such preconceptions:

The vast cornfields are also a myth […] The hard, nasal, cawing accent is mostly a myth, though now and again, as you roam through Ohio, you will certainly hear words shaped without any roundness or melody […] Even the Midwesternness of Ohio is a myth.

She finds in the character of Ohio “a certain regularness, a lack of wild distinction, a muting of idiosyncratic extreme”, and feels the need to make it sound livelier. At summer camp as a child:

I boasted that Sam Sheppard, the osteopath who murdered his wife in the sixties and became the inspiration for The Fugitive, was from Ohio. To be honest, I also claimed, quite insanely, that my mother had dated him […] an effort to make myself a little more spectacular, I guess.

She imagines that northern Ohio’s Chagrin River was named by an explorer arriving in the state “looking for a different, more exciting place”. Orlean seems to have got over a similar disappointment (expressed, one might add, with not inconsiderable affection) by travelling far and wide and devoting herself to seeking out the extra- in the ordinary.

Susan Orlean always wanted to be “someone who wrote long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events” (see here for her full autobiographical note). Eventually finding her way to the New Yorker, pretty much the ancestral seat of this kind of writing, Orlean’s work is dominated by long-form nonfiction in which she discovers the “interesting” in the everyday. Introducing her collection The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People (Random House, 2002), she states the guiding principal behind this approach: “An ordinary life examined closely reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.”

This is not confined by species. A confessed animal lover, her work includes a biography of legendary wonder-dog Rin Tin Tin, rescued from the battlefields of the First World War and delivered to a life of Hollywood superstardom, and excellent pieces for the Smithsonian on the donkeys of Morocco, anthologised in The Best American Travel Writing 2010, and, this month, the pandas in the National Zoo in DC. Her Twitter feed has as its background a photo of Orlean surrounded by affectionate donkeys and recent tweets include a campaign for one of her photos to feature on the cover of Modern Farmer Magazine.

But perhaps her most famous work is on “ordinary” people: the ten-year-old Colin Duffy, for instance, who subbed in for a young Macaulay Culkin in a piece for Esquire on “The American Male at Age Ten”, or, in perhaps her most celebrated work, John Laroche, the orchid-loving, law-breaking Floridian who became the subject of The Orchid Thief. The book blossomed from a New Yorker article Orlean wrote in 1995, and eventually formed the basis of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s metafilm Adaptation. (2002), in which she was played — in heavily fictionalised form — by Meryl Streep.

It’s a brilliant movie and uses Orlean’s writing in ways which bring out its intelligence, sensuousness and comedy. Her eye for the metaphorical potential of orchids is matched by Charlie Kaufman’s unrestrained imagination, which has Orlean and Laroche (played by Chris Cooper in an Oscar-winning performance) enter into a romantic relationship and a plan to harvest a psychoactive drug from the orchids Laroche steals. Rarely has postmodernism been so fun.

Orlean’s website is worth checking out for a number of reasons, not least because it publishes in full a number of her New Yorker articles. My favourite feature, though, is the top banner, which changes as you refresh or load new pages. “Susan Orlean” becomes the start of a series of sentences — “…does her own stunts”, “…types 120 wpm”, “…makes a mean martini”, “…has never seen a horse like the Tennessee Stud” — that really encapsulate the fun that’s to be had in her company. The House of SpeakEasy looks forward immensely to the pleasure of said company at our opening gala!

Although our opening gala is sold out, you can buy tickets for our February 24 show “This is Not a Man”, featuring Steve Coogan, Tom Reiss, Anton Sword, Dana Vachon and Jeff McDaniel, here!