Monday, November 29, 2010


"He thinks of numbers and electricity, reason and magic."

I am hardly a fan of science fiction or fantasy -- at least not the contemporary version of it.  But Matthew Flaming manages to reinvent a Jules Verne-esque adventure.  And in the midst of the action, finds quiet moments to consider how history is written, and remembered.  How permanent is memory?  Can a photograph be evidence of anything?

Peter Force leaves the frozen hills of Idaho in search of something better in fin de siecle NYC.  Struggling, he takes a job as a digger of the first subway tunnels.  His natural ability to understand mechanics lands him a promotion of sorts to the machine shop.  One afternoon he sees a woman stumble in the park, and he is possessed by an urge to help her.  His actions are innocent enough, but once she confides in him about her strange past, he quickly becomes embroiled in a secret race between Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and JP Morgan.  

Financeer JP Morgan
The young woman is an heir to a lost kingdom in Ohio.  The Latoledan family was given tracts of land in the Louisiana Purchase and allowed to keep their autonomy throughout the Revolution and the Civil War.  Toledo was their capital and for a time they flourished.  But as Manifest Destiny took hold, and subsequent generations mismanaged their land, the kingdom shrank to a speck on the map.  It seems she is the only surviving Latoledan -- only because she escaped the siege via a transportation machine she worked on with Tesla (in this way, it reminds me of Christopher Priest's The Prestige and the "New Transported Man"). 

Inventor Nikola Tesla
It sounds far-fetched when I say it, but Flaming's book is surprising believable.  There is just enough truth to make it all plausible.  This was new science for these steampunk inventors.  Tesla and Edison truly were experimenting with the unknown.  Flaming never strays too far from established history, and he inserts completely believable footnotes and references.  It was convincing enough that I had to investigate for myself.  

I'll leave that discovery to the reader, but I will say that a search of Peter Force came back with exciting results.  There was a Peter Force, who was descended from a French Hugenot family, and was a minor politician in early America.  His was a printer, editor and collector of documents and founded the American Archives.  His personal collection was also purchased by the US Government to start the Library of Congress.  I am certain this is no coincidence.  In fact, nothing in this novel is a coincidence.  Each string of thought leads to another, when it just as easily could have led to a third -- not unlike the labyrinthine tunnels under the city streets.

Flaming's form is also satisfying.  His narrator reveals himself slowly.  It is only in the last few pages that the whole picture is seen, yet it is not a gimmick.  The novel is not about the narrator -- or at least, not only about the narrator.  It is about something much larger and grander than we can comprehend.  And therein lies its draw.  

Many thanks to Caitlin at Berkley Publishing for the review copy.  Also visit

Book: Paperback | 8.26 x 5.23in | 336 pages | ISBN 9780425236949 | 07 Dec 2010 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP

Monday, November 15, 2010

INTERVIEW: With Ben Greenman

About "Celebrity Chekhov"

Ben Greenman has decided it’s time for us to talk back to literary characters.  His recent projects What He’s Poised To Do and Letters with Character both rely upon reader engagement not only to succeed, but to exist.
His latest book, Celebrity Chekhov, inserts present day actors, reality “stars” and otherwise notable notables into classic Russian short stories.  The tales suggest a new understanding of what being famous means, and what we know about those who live under the scrutiny of the public eye.
Elin Woods, Britney Spears, Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, and Kim Kardashian all make appearances— and arrive on the other side with a bit more sympathy from the reader.
And with so many celebrities (and celebrity–seekers) around this week, perhaps some levity could come in handy.
I asked Greenman, one of the editors of the New Yorker and contributor to numerous publications, about Chekhov and the celebrities who wouldn’t behave.
Why Chekhov? Why not Twain, or Aesop?
Ben Greenman: Chekhov has special expertise in probing the moral and emotional consequences of apparently ordinary transactions. I could have picked another author, but it wouldn’t have been Twain — his characters are too familiar already. Aesop is interesting, and that’s closer to the benefits of Chekhov — it’s easy to imagine Lindsay Lohan starring in The Fox and the Grapes — but with the narrative detail stripped away, it might seem too nakedly critical of the celebrities, and my point was more about satirizing society than celebrities.
Were there any celebrities that just wouldn’t behave? That rose above the narrative, and just had to be sent back to rehab?
Ben Greenman: O.J. Simpson. Also Bill Clinton. Also Michael Jackson. Also, oddly, Paula Poundstone. Some celebrities didn’t do what I wanted them to do.
Have you heard back from any of the celebrities?  Or from their agents/publicists?
Ben Greenman: A little bit, but no one has gone nuts and threatened to sue me, or Chekhov. I’m a little sad about that. I’m more sad that no one has complained about not being included.
You seem to have an affinity for surreal texts. Unfinished stories, letters to literary characters – what is it about inserting a disjunct detail into a narrative that interests you so much?
Ben Greenman: I think that the process by which we read is dangerous if it’s too smooth. Information and insights (I’ll put both of those in quotes, “information” and “insights”) get absorbed as if true, as if meaningful. How can that work for anyone? I put in strange details, I think, because they give a reader a foothold on a narrative – a little bit of ownership, a moment of drawing back. That’s not always the case: in 2009 I published a straightforward novel called Please Step Back that didn’t have any of these metafictional issues, at least overtly, though it did play with questions of what’s documentary and what’s invented.
Reading should be an exercise in keeping the mind open. I was on a book tour recently and I got some questions that struck me as odd, like “Why would you write a funny book after a serious one?” or “Why would you do a more commercial–feeling book after a more literary one?” I don’t think that way, and I would urge other people not to either.
The job as a writer, I think, is to look at how we interact with and engage with the world. Sometimes that requires thoughtful and sophisticated inquiry. Sometimes it requires clownish comedy.
Often what’s needed is an unholy mix of the two, like what Reese’s would invent if they were literary critics instead of candy makers. You put your clownish comedy in my sophisticated inquiry. With any luck, over the course of a career, they become two great tastes that taste great together.
How much did you have to “change,” adapt?  Did you use a newer or an older translation? 
Ben Greenman: I changed quite a bit in parts, and not very much in other parts. I started from the Constance Garnett translation, which is kind of old–fashioned and stagey, and brought it as far into the present as I could without adding in iPhones and vajazzling.
Are you ever nervous about asking the general public to partake in your literary projects?  How do you let go of the final result?
Ben Greenman: You have to let go. That’s the direction art flows. I have written serious novels and comic stories and essays and experiments, and it’s only ever an invitation: come along if you can.

Read my review of Celebrity Checkhov here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


This gripping mystery from the UK is not for the faint of heart.  Naomi, the main protagonist, has endured the most unspeakable of personal horrors yet found a way to carry on.  So unspeakable that three years later her closest friends are still unaware of it.  That is until she becomes obsessed with finding her missing lover.  Further complicating her story is the fact that her lover is an unhappily-married man.  Knowing the police will be unlikely to look for him if she reveals herself to be the "other woman", she lies about her relationship with him.  And thus begins a tenuous string of truth among lies, leading to the underlying reality.

The novel alternates perspectives between Naomi and Detective Sargaent Charlie Zailer, the tomboy, hard boiled officer assigned to the case.  Their voices are the ones we hear as the bizarre tale unravels. Author Hannah has a natural, believable way of writing the female psyche -- one that is refreshing in a book list burgeoning with immature narratives.  The characters are complicated and display questionable judgement, perhaps, but are not two-dimensional or predictable.  It stretches the psychological boundaries of first-person narrative, especially from a doubtful narrator.

Author Sophie Hannah lives in Yorkshire, England.

Also refreshing is the fact that the publisher/editor for the US did not alter the local flavor.  Characters use words that are only British, and they haven't been watered down for the American reader.  It makes a true difference in the mood and style of the novel.  (For example, a holding cell is a "nick".)
As I mentioned, it is not for the faint of heart.  It is not gory, but it is disturbing and unsettling.  But it is so well-written that you want to keep reading.  Expect to be up late at night. This is a great book to start on a winter afternoon with a cup of hot chocolate, a warm fireplace and a cat for your lap.  I look forward to reading more from Sophie Hannah. 

Thanks to Meghan at Viking/Penguin for the review copy.

Book: Paperback | 5.43 x 8.07in | 400 pages | ISBN 9780143115854 | 28 Sep 2010 | Penguin | 18 - AND UP

Saturday, November 6, 2010

REVIEW: A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

An absolutely fascinating snapshot of a town hit hard by the Great Depression.  As one who never lived through anything so terrifying, I was always intrigued by how emotions -- particularly fear and doubt -- can affect something so math-based like the economy.  And how the (over)reactions of a few can drastically ruin the lives of so many.

Ted Gup, former writer for the Washington Post, is given a suitcase that has been in his grandmother's attic for decades.  When he finally gets around to investigate its contents, he discovers hundreds of letters, thank you notes and cancelled checks.  Even more mysteriously, they were addressed to a Mr. B. Virdot.  Putting his bloodhound skills to use, he digs up the history of these desperate missives -- and some secrets about his own family.

Author Ted Gup, grandson of B. Virdot.

B. Virdot was really Sam Stone (who was really Sam Finkelstein), a Romanian Jew who fled persecution, along with his family, at the turn of the century.  He was a relatively successful businessman in the retail clothing business when the Depression engulfed the country.  Canton, Ohio was particularly hard hit because so much of the local economy was based upon the numerous factories headquartered there.  The unemployment rate there hovered around fifty percent.  And those with job security like grocers and doctors were often traded on a barter system.

Virdot opened a bank account with $750.  He then placed an ad in the Canton Repository asking people to share their stories with him.  He intended to send those most worthy $10 each.  He was so inundated with worthy pleas that he ended up sending $5 to 150 people -- just days before the Christmas holiday in 1933.  Such a transaction probably never would have happened if Virdot had not promised to keep their stories and identities a secret.

Sam Stone aka B. Virdot
The letters that Sam Stone kept reveal more to us now than they ever would have to their neighbors then.  But true to his word, he never let on that he was B. Virdot or that he knew anything about the secrets that had been shared -- even though he would have seen their faces for many years afterward.  Their stories vary, but two things are consistent.  The writers are relieved to be able to tell someone, anyone about their plight, and they are heartened that anyone would even offer help.

Gup sifts through dozens of these letters and finds out what happened to these families after the check was cashed.  In some cases, Gup contacted descendants and read the letters to them.  Most had no idea, but a few remembered that Christmas and being surprised by the doll or the new pair of shoes.

The stories are touching and Gup's research is very thorough.  The only weakness is the sometimes repetitive presentation of the letters and Gup's contextualization.  At times his background as a investigative reporter overtakes a narrative subtlety that the stories benefit from. Still, the book is a spellbinding glimpse into a time that most Americans wished to put behind them.  Yet in this great Recession it does us well to remember where we came from, and where we might go again if we repeat the mistakes of the past.

View more photos and scans of the letters here:
Many thanks to the folks at Penguin Press for the review copy.

Book: Hardcover | 6.14 x 9.25in | 368 pages | ISBN 9781594202704 | 28 Oct 2010 | The Penguin Press | 18 - AND UP