Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

bird by birdI have known of this book for some time – I first remember hearing of it in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones – and recently yet another reference made me finally go looking for a copy of my own. I’m so glad I did. While Writing Down the Bones had some good writing tips, and Keep It Real provided good nuts and bolts, this was a great combination of writing tips, and nuts and bolts, and also heartfelt and encouraging advice about (as the subtitle says) writing and life.

Lamott’s conversational and even confessional tone makes me feel like we are friends – me and her, personally. She tells me confidentially some of the same things she tells her students in the writing classes she teaches; but it feels like I get a more intimate version. Her description of life as a writer is honest; she pulls no punches about publishing and the woes of full-time writing – well, what would I know about it, but at least I believe she has pulled no punches; that’s the impression her tone gives.

We get some a glimpse of Lamott’s life: her upbringing in a joyfully readerly household; her beloved father, the writer; her long and painful journey towards publication, and her discovery that it doesn’t solve the problems of the world or even of her world; her experiences as a single mother. We get to know her good friends. Lamott is hilarious and imaginative as well as kind. I love her; I want to go have a glass of wine with her right now.

As often when I love something, I find myself reduced to listing my favorite lines.

All you can give us is what life is about from your point of view. You are not going to be able to give us the plans to the submarine. Life is not a submarine. There are no plans.

Wonderful. Not a submarine. She is full of these excellent, inventive lines. This is why she is a writer.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

…And, I would add, repeatedly. When I am doing my best work, this is exactly what happens. I don’t know if I’m hypnotized, precisely, but for me the analogy is vomiting: when it’s going well, I just sit down and braaaaaaap it all just… comes out. And later I can go over it and clean it up. But what I needed to get out, I got out all in one go.

Writers tend to be so paranoid about talking about their work because no one, including us, really understands how it works. But it can help a great deal if you have someone you can call when you need a pep talk, someone you have learned to trust, someone who is honest and generous and who won’t jinx you. When you’re feeling low, you don’t want anyone even to joke that you may be in some kind of astrological strike zone where you’ll be for the next seven years. On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you.

Again, this is advice not only for writing but for life. I think I am going to send this on to everyone I might ever ask for a pep talk, so they can be sure to get it right.

Her writing advice is decidedly geared toward fiction, and I am an aspiring writer of nonfiction. But I think there is still a great deal to be gained here. This is my favorite book of writing-and-life advice to date.


Rating: 9 birds, if that’s not too obvious.

Teaser Tuesdays: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

spinster

There is a lot to love about this book, in which a fun, intelligent woman discusses singledom and the arguments in favor, while exploring the lives & writing of those who’ve gone before her. A Maximum Shelf is coming. For now, I wanted to share these charming lines.

Because I’d started contributing to magazines and newspapers as a graduate student, the transition was seamless enough, save for the fact that reviewing books makes it very easy to never go outside.

I certainly identify, Kate. Here’s to continuing to make an effort to go outside (& also loving what we do).

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

John Vaillant at Village Books

Way back when I interviewed John Vaillant – in, I think, September of 2014 – I was living in Houston and getting ready to move to the Pacific Northwest. He mentioned that he’d be speaking at Village Books in February. And here we are: I went to hear him read and talk with Husband and Pops.

You know that I enjoyed his book; and I’ll tell you now that our interview was one of the most enjoyable (and moving) that I’ve ever done.

What I learned from this event is still more to his credit. It’s incredibly rare for an author who is this good with words – no, wait. First of all it’s rare for an author to be this good with words. But for an author like that to also be this composed a speaker; this articulate about the writing process; this calm and easy with an audience, this engaged with the people he’s speaking to; to have a strong speaking voice, read his own work beautifully; and then to be extremely funny to boot… well. I’ll cease raving and tell you just to go see him if you get the chance.

Also, I’m well convinced that his two earlier books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, would be up my alley. Sadly, as ever, my reading schedule is booked (ha), so we’ll see when I get around to them.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erik Larson

Following yesterday’s review of Dead Wake, here’s Erik Larson: Ideas and Process.


Erik Larson is the author of four national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than 5.5 million copies. His books have been published in 17 countries. Larson began his writing career as a journalist, and now gets to travel the world researching his works of nonfiction. [You can read a longer and surprisingly hilarious bio written by the man himself here.]

larsonTo begin, my mother made me promise I’d ask: how do you choose the diverse subjects of your books? What makes for a compelling story that you feel driven to tell? Why the Lusitania?

Well, you tell your mother it’s none of her business. Actually, no, please tell her that, really, I have no idea. There’s more truth to that than I care to admit. The hunt for each book idea is a hard one for me, and typically takes about a year. To write the kind of history I write, I need to find real-life events that lend themselves to being told as stories–true stories–with beginnings, middles and ends. There has to be a clear, ascending narrative arc, and there has to be a rich enough trove of archival materials to make the story and characters come alive without massaging the facts. And, it has to be something I want to spend the next few years working on. I often think finding that next idea is like finding a spouse–you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one that kisses back.

What drove me to write about the Lusitania was the potential it offered for nonfiction story-telling–for crafting a narrative full of real-life suspense. A nonfiction maritime thriller. The archival base was extraordinarily rich, full of elements that I felt no one else had adequately mined–all the things I love to work with: telegrams, diaries, love letters, secret documents, even the German submarine commander’s hour-by-hour war log. It doesn’t get any better than that. Whether I succeeded, of course, is for readers to decide.

Aside from the obvious choices to concentrate on Captain Turner and Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, how did you choose the individual stories to follow? Were they (Charles Lauriat, Dwight Harris, Theodate Pope, etc.) simply the ones who left behind the most documentation?

Exactly! The three you cite all left vivid, detailed accounts, especially Lauriat, who wrote a book on the subject, and in addition left a broad and deep documentary trail. I also liked the fact that Lauriat was a famous bookseller. How nice that a time once existed when a bookseller could become famous and travel in first class on Cunard ships and be recognized on sight. As for Pope, I found her backstory particularly compelling: her depression, her interest in the supernatural, the fact she was a pioneering female architect and pal of Henry James and that she was in that cadre of American women who were first to embrace their identity as feminists, back when the term itself was brand new.

You state in your “Note to Readers” that you are very careful to stick to the facts, with no embellishment. And yet your narrative is incredibly lively. Please explain the importance of that rule for you–the integrity of pure fact–and how you make the bare truth so gripping.

They key lies in detail. There are no shortcuts–you have to do the necessary digging to find the bits and pieces that will ignite the reader’s imagination. It’s the reader, I’m convinced, who does the animating of my narratives. I just present the details necessary to allow that to happen. For example, I often have people tell me that I must have made some things up, because I have actual dialogue in my books. But in fact, if there is dialogue, it’s pulled directly from some actual historical document, like a letter, or memoir, or newspaper interview. More often than not, however, what they point to isn’t even dialogue–it just seems to be dialogue, and reads that way in their imagination. Which is wonderful. The human mind loves to connect dots and finish sentences and make disparate bits of information seem like a coherent whole.

lusitaniaWhat do your processes of research and writing look like, and are they in fact two separate processes? What’s the most enjoyable part for you?

They are two separate processes that merge in the middle. Ideally I’d like to have all my research done before I start to write, but that never happens. Invariably I reach a point where the book just has to come out. It’s like how my wife describes pregnancy: get this baby out of my body, NOW. Passages come to mind, and I start writing. At first I’ll just write them in my journal–I keep a journal for each book–then I’ll start writing things in a computer file called “Passages.” Then I enter my page-a-day mode, where I get up early, and write a single page before breakfast, and then return to my research for the rest of the day. Pretty soon the writing supplants the research almost entirely–although the research really never ends, because you always end up having to check things. What did early NYC street lamps look like? What was the weather like on a particular day? What were people reading in the newspapers in New York on the day the Lusitania departed? That kind of thing.

How do you keep so many characters and events in such a complex world history straight?

The most powerful tool is chronology. Before I start to write, I build a chronology that contains every worthwhile fact that I’ve mined from archives, books and whatever, with each item coded in such a way that I can readily find the source document in my files. This chronology becomes a de facto outline, with various events clumping at various points, and with each character’s role clearly defined. Using this as a spine, I craft the first draft. Then, I lay the whole thing out on the floor of our bedroom and, using a scissors and tape, I literally cut everything up and move it around, hunting for the most natural structure, while hoping that no one will open a window at the wrong moment. Once my dear departed dog, Molly, walked across the manuscript for Thunderstruck. Luckily only one small passage was displaced–it wound up on the balcony outside my bedroom.

What are you or will you be working on next?

I’m exploring a possible idea. This is early for me, so, being a pessimist, I’m pretty sure the idea won’t pan out. But I’m writing a test proposal. I won’t say what the subject is, because I never talk about works in progress until they’re done. It’s very annoying for my friends and family, though my wife and daughters all know early on. The proposal is a draft of what I would eventually send my agent, and which he in turn would send to my publisher, and which ideally my publisher would love so much that she would spend gobs of money to acquire it. Doing a proposal is a good test of an idea’s strength. If you get through the process–writing an opening chapter, an overall description and a chapter outline, maybe 80 to 100 pages in all–you have a pretty good sense that it’s a viable idea and that halfway through you won’t hang yourself from boredom.


This interview originally ran on February 9, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on February 9, 2015.


dead wakeIn May of 1915, a torpedo fired from a German submarine struck the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship with nearly 200 Americans aboard. She sunk off the coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes (due to a sequence of events unforeseen even by its attacker), killing 1,200 passengers and crew, fully half of whose remains were never recovered. Common knowledge has it that this event drove the United States to enter a European war that would become World War I, but, in fact, while the Lusitania‘s fate played some role in that decision, it took two full years and the secret German Zimmerman telegram for the U.S. to enter the war in 1917.

Erik Larson examines this extended U.S. isolationism, the final days aboard the Lusitania, and related events and characters in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As in his earlier books (Isaac’s Storm; In the Garden of Beasts), Larson presents exhaustive research with precision and accuracy, in extraordinarily compelling prose. Dead Wake is a masterpiece of gripping narrative nonfiction, arguably the most riveting of Larson’s works.

Nearly 2,000 people boarded the Lusitania in New York City, bound for Liverpool, including 1,300 passengers, of whom 189 were Americans. An unusually large proportion were children and babies. The Lusitania was the biggest and fastest civilian ship on the seas in that 10th month of European war. These superlatives–plus the reassurances of the captain, William Thomas Turner, and the Liverpool-based Cunard Line–allowed the ship to confidently set sail despite a German warning published in all the New York papers on the morning of the Lusitania‘s departure, that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction.” Larson provides detail and humanity by profiling several passengers and crew members, including a Vanderbilt heir; a psychic; and a Boston bookseller who boarded with a small but invaluable collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s original illustrations and Charles Dickens’s own copy of A Christmas Carol, complete with the author’s marginalia.

Just weeks earlier, another vessel had departed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. German Unterseeboot-20 was captained by Walther Schwieger, a well-regarded young Kapit√§nleutnant known for his aggressive and innovative tactics. Because submarines lost radio contact with their bases almost immediately upon departure and remained out of contact for much of their cruise, Schwieger was in full charge of his boat, empowered to cruise, dive and attack on his own, with the full support of his government. In following Schwieger’s submarine in the weeks leading up to the climax, Larson gives the story dimension; far from presenting the German captain as a monster, he is humanized, for example, by the devotion of the men who worked under him, and the presence on board of a litter of puppies rescued, interestingly, from another ship sunk by torpedo.

As he builds toward the inevitable intersection of U-20 with the Lusitania, Larson introduces more characters. Captain Turner of the Cunard Line had decades of experience at sea, and had just testified in a civil case against the owners of the Titanic on behalf of the families of deceased passengers. He was known to his men as a brave and capable but old-fashioned captain, with “one foot on the deck of a sailing ship.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had had a rough year, even without the European conflict: having lost his wife Ellen in late 1914, his mourning left him unmoored and struggling to concentrate, until he met widow Edith Bolling Galt. His love for her would prove overwhelming, and their courtship strained–she rejected his first marriage proposal. This love story is affecting, and if it serves as a distraction from the sinking ship at the center of this book, that is a fine style choice by Larson: it was a distraction for Wilson, too.

Meanwhile, a secret section of the British Admiralty was tasked with intercepting and decoding German wireless messages, a purpose known to only nine senior officials, who were hampered in using any information gained for fear of having its cryptanalysis ability revealed. They would therefore fail to warn Turner of U-20’s preying presence in the waters he sailed. Such parallel plots and individual profiles add color and depth to Larson’s account, as when the chief of British naval intelligence is described as “part Machiavelli, part schoolboy.”

The Lusitania‘s story is in itself moving, and carries great historical significance, but these events positively glitter with life in Larson’s engaging, quick-paced and captivating prose. Though it incorporates well-documented history, Dead Wake still contains elements of suspense for all but the most expert readers; as Larson acknowledges, he had his own misconceptions coming into this project, and learned surprising facts in his research, as readers surely will. The pages fly by as such details are revealed and the action ratchets up toward a climactic event that we all see coming, but that still makes us catch our breath. In spellbinding, immediate language, Larson contrasts the “books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life” on the Lusitania with the “U-boat sweat,” foul odors and close air aboard U-20. His enthralling description of passengers joking about submarines and torpedoes, in the very moments before the torpedo strike, and “making polite apologies” just after, in the scramble for life jackets, keep the reader fully engaged. Appealingly, in his “Note to Readers” and “Sources and Acknowledgments,” Larson writes in a more personal voice about the joy of the research process, and about his frank difficulty in understanding the passengers who boarded the Lusitania in the face of warnings from Germany about travel in a war zone.

Dead Wake is both a thoroughly satisfying read, and an unparalleled adventure into world history. Larson’s fans will rejoice, and grow in number.


Rating: 8 life jackets.

How lucky am I to get to interview Erik Larson?? Come back tomorrow to read the result.

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes

The Spanish Civil War, and its medical, military and artistic contributions to modernity.

hell

The Spanish Civil War was a precursor to World War II, and served as a practice field where medical and military leaders experimented with new technologies and refined strategies. Creative minds from around the world drew inspiration and horror from the conflict, yielding Picasso’s Guernica, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Miro’s El Segador and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) examines the Spanish Civil War not in exhaustive chronology or complex international intrigue–although both are present–but in its gifts, good and bad, to the world that followed.

As Germany and Italy begrudgingly contributed to the Spanish nationalist (fascist) side, and the Soviet Union just as reluctantly supplied the republicans, new military technologies met old. Advances in aircraft were matched by new strategies, including “carpet bombing,” a term used for the carnage at Guernica. In response, doctors and nurses from Spain and abroad innovated as well: while reliable blood typing and preservation for blood banking had been under development since World War I, safe transfusions in the field were born in the Spanish Civil War, as was the autochir (a mobile, sterile surgical unit).

Rhodes follows various individuals, famous (Hemingway, Picasso) and less so (volunteer doctors, nurses and soldiers from around the world), providing a vivid, wrenching view of war, art and love. While it scrutinizes world-changing new technologies and ways of life, Hell and Good Company is also a fine, accessible introductory history of the Spanish Civil War, and an evocative human story.


This review originally ran in the February 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 bombs.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Secret Place by Tana French

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

secret

I love Tana French. Obviously I was excited about her latest, which I am accessing via audiobook (because I have loved past audio editions of her work, especially The Likeness).

This one is shaping up to be as good as I’d hoped. Check out this passage about teenaged girls meeting at the mall. Probably we can all recognize the angst…

And at least back when they were twelve they just put on their coats and went. This year, everyone gets ready for the Court like they’re getting ready for the Oscars. The Court is where you bring your bewildering new curves and walk and self so people can tell you what they’re worth, and you can’t risk the answer being Nothing zero nothing. You like so totally have to have your hair either straightened to death or else brushed into a careful tangle, and fake tan all over and an inch of foundation on your face and half a pack of smoky eyeshadow around each eye, and supersoft superskinny jeans and Uggs or Converse, because otherwise someone might actually be able to tell you apart from everyone else and obviously that would make you a total loser.

Stay tuned.

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