Smith Henderson Reads from Fourth of July Creek

Smith Henderson Reading

Join us for a reading and conversation between Smith Henderson, PEN Emerging Writer and highly acclaimed debut author of Fourth of July Creek, and Nathan Rostron, Director of Marketing at Restless Books.

Tuesday, June 3, 7:00pm, Barnes & Noble, 150 East 86th Street, New York, NY 10028

A muscular, hugely ambitious literary debut set against the vivid backdrop of the Montana wilderness, Fourth of July Creek is the story of Pete Snow, a troubled social worker barely on the right side of the law, who tries to keep a dangerously paranoid survivalist from jeopardizing his family, even as Pete’s own family disintegrates.

“This book left me awestruck; a stunning debut which reads like the work of a writer at the height of his power… Fourth of July Creek is a masterful achievement and Smith Henderson is certain to end up a household name.” —Philipp Meyer, author of The Son

Fourth of July Creek knocked me flat. This gorgeous, full-bodied novel seems to contain all of America at what was, in retrospect, a pivotal moment in its history…. Smith Henderson has delivered nothing less than a masterpiece of a novel.” —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Fourth of July Creek cannot possibly be Smith Henderson’s first book. Its scope is audacious, its range virtuosic, its gaze steady and true. A riveting story written in a seductive and relentlessly authentic rural American vernacular, this is the kind of novel I wish I’d written.” —Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn

SMITH HENDERSON is the recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writer Award in fiction, and was the Phillip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University the same year. His short story, “Number Stations,” won a Pushcart Prize and a finalist honors for the University of Texas Keene Prize, where he was a Michener Center for Writing Fellow. He currently works at the Wieden + Kennedy advertising agency, where he contributed to the Emmy-nominated “Halftime In America” Super Bowl Commercial. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Literature: It’s Better with Pictures

Remember trying to read “Moby-Dick” in high school? It was awful: Melville’s knotty prose and madman plotting were rendered in minuscule type in a claustrophobic paperback edition–it was like drowning in a stew of language. But I was lucky–years later, I made a discovery at my local bookstore (holler, @Powells): a stately, oversized edition with breathable type and, best of all, woodcut engravings that gave you a visual break from Melville’s insane story. I increasingly fell in love with it as I read, and nowadays, “Moby-Dick” is probably my favorite novel.

My turnaround with Melville made me wish all of those classics I resented having to read in high school would find their way back to me, complete with pictures. Artist Matt Kish has answered my call with a new edition of Joseph Conrad’s classic (also despised by my teenage self), “Heart of Darkness.” Each right-hand page bears the text of Conrad’s novel, set very readably on thick, creamy paper, and on each left-hand page is a vivid, striking image that corresponds to the text. For instance, here’s the image opposite the lines, “We had enlisted some of these chaps on the way for a crew. Fine fellows–cannibals–in their place”:

Cannibals: fine fellows

I realize that the physical shape a novel takes should not alter your experience of a story, but Kish’s edition of “Darkness” presents a counter-argument. Beyond the pleasure of reading such a well-produced book, there’s brilliance in Kish’s illustrations in that they don’t attempt realism in the slightest. Rather, they’re like the hallucinatory images from a fever dream, which have the effect of displacing you further from your physical surroundings and pulling you deeper into the story, without stage-directing your experience. “The mind of man is capable of anything,” Conrad writes, and Kish illustrates:

The mind of man is capable of anything.

Conrad’s novel has had its psychedelic afterlife. Frances Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a Vietnam-ized rendering of “Heart of Darkness,” has become so culturally potent that in coming back to the novel I half-expected to see Conrad’s storyteller, Charlie Marlow, hazy with opium or freaking out in a hotel room like Martin Sheen in the movie. But Marlow is no smoky-voiced burnout: He’s a vibrant raconteur, a yarn-spinner not unlike Melville’s Ishmael (though better at sticking to the point). Yet, the vision of darkness Conrad shows us is every bit as brutal as Coppola’s…. Read the rest on Bookish

What Tony Kushner Told Me About Maurice Sendak

He said what?

He said what?

Monday night I was in reader heaven: listening to one of my favorite authors talk about another of my favorite authors over dinner. It was after the ceremony for the Whiting Writers’ Awards, given annually to writers at the beginning of their careers. The speaker was Tony Kushner, whose play “Angels in America” I’m obsessed with–both as a book and as an HBO miniseries. (Al Pacino’s performance will break your heart into tiny little pieces.) Kushner joked about the irony that after he wrote last year’s “Lincoln,” a movie bursting at the seams with inspiring speeches, it was the first time in 18 years he hadn’t been invited to give a commencement address (which he loves to do just for the “contact high”). So, he had many inspiring words stored up for the Whiting honorees–of which he was one in 1990, years before “Angels.”

But the real treat for me was listening to Kushner talk afterwards about his decades-long friendship with Maurice Sendak–whose “Where the Wild Things Are” was my childhood bible. Some of what Kushner said about Sendak blew my mind–and were too good not to share. Here are five highlights:

1) Millions loved seeing Maurice Sendak appear as a guest on “The Colbert Report.” When Sendak got the call, he’d never heard of Colbert–but he enjoyed being on the show so much that he asked to be a regular guest. He wanted to be Colbert’s movie critic, with one stipulation: He would only review movies he hadn’t seen. Colbert loved the idea. (Unfortunately Sendak’s health declined before they could make it so.)

BFFs

BFFs

2) Sendak was a brilliant artist. But, in the 1940s and ’50s when he was starting out, abstract art was all the rage–Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, etc.–and Sendak preferred to paint and draw recognizable humans and objects. He became an illustrator of children’s books so that he could be paid for his art.

3) Sendak was an avid collector, obsessed in particular with Herman MelvilleWilliam Blake and Mozart. He owned a first-edition copy of “Moby-Dick” inscribed by Melville to his sister and dozens of rare Blake engravings, including one of “Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience” that had been embroidered by Blake’s wife (she signed it “Mrs. Blake”).

4) Sendak owned the second-largest Mickey Mouse paraphernalia collection in the world–but nothing that originated after 1940, when Mickey’s looked changed in a way that Sendak hated.

Maurice Sendak's self portrait with  Mickey Mouse

Maurice Sendak’s self portrait with Mickey Mouse

5) In the early 1990s, long before Sendak was publicly “out”…. Read the rest on Bookish

Book Endorsement: “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” by Edward St. Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. AubynWhat is it about British rich people that’s so fascinating to us? Not just “I’ve got platinum rims on my Bentley” rich, but “My family has had more money than God since God was young” rich. We’re talking capital-A Aristocracy. There is no “proper” aristocracy in America. The wealthiest Americans are self-made tech tycoons or business geniuses who work for their money–which, if you’re a true aristocrat, embodies the very depths of bad taste. Lifestyle-wise, it’s “Cribs” vs. “Downton Abbey”; when it comes to hobbies, it’s bankrolling the Tea Party and nannying New Yorkers vs. fox hunting and holidays in the south of France. The Aristocrats have class, in ways we admire, despise and obsess over.

The aristocratic family at the center of Edward St. Aubyn’s brilliant, scathing, hilarious, emotionally annihilating and–scariest of all, autobiographical–series, “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” are deliciously horrible: The patriarch, David Melrose, is addicted to the romance of his fading promise–a gifted pianist and doctor who refuses to record his compositions or practice medicine because that would display “vulgar ambition.” David is a snob even about snobbery: “To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar.”

David’s cruelty toward his family–rendered with deadly precision by St. Aubyn–drives his wife, Eleanor, to self-medicate into oblivion with drink and pills, and his son, Patrick, to a fall into a decade-long heroin addiction. These descents are hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Take this exquisite depiction of a hangover:

“She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature…. She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth.”

You can feel the sweet relief of the cold vodka and the crack of the ice, but it’s already couched in the inevitable misery of the aftermath. As for Patrick, here’s David’s theory of education:

“Childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet… he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him?”

I can’t say that the experience of reading “The Patrick Melrose Novels” is…. Read the rest on Bookish

Link

I read all 600 pages, give or take, of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” author Marisha Pessl’s new novel, “Night Film.” Like many of the books I still think about, I devoured it, and it drove me crazy. Here’s my review on Goodreads.

Special Topics in Calamity Fiction

Special Topics in Calamity Fiction