Monday, September 26, 2005

Interview: Making the Case for Mark Twain

The Destiny of Ron Powers: Making the Case for Mark Twain

This article originally appeared in Publishers Weekly.

Ron Powers, coauthor of the bestseller Flags of Our Fathers, felt the influence of Mark Twain early on. "When I was a little boy in Hannibal," says Powers, "[Twain] was a mythic figure to me. His books and a bust of him were all over my friend Dulany Winkler's house, and I spent a lot of time there. Seeing that a guy from Hannibal made it in the world lodged in my consciousness. I have carried Hannibal and Twain round in my head all my life."

Powers has expressed his lifelong passion for the writer by penning a 700-page biography, Twain: A Life, which Free Press has just published. The book may help stake out a bigger spot in other readers' consciousness for an author who Powers believes is inadequately appreciated. The hefty volume draws together the disparate parts of Twain's personality, from his early days as a red-headed four-year-old sitting at the knee of his family's slave, Uncle Dan'l, through his early years in Nevada and San Francisco as a maverick newspaperman, to the glory days as the toast of the town in Boston, New York, Paris, Sydney and almost everywhere in between.

Before this book, Powers published three separate works touching on Twain and his hometown: White Town Drowsing: Journeys to Hannibal, an account of the failed attempt to "package" Hannibal on the occasion of Mark Twain's 150th birthday; Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America, a true crime book that looks at the dissolution of smalltown values; and Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain,an examination of Twain's formative years. Powers, who now lives in Middlebury, Vt., says that the shared birthplace has given him an affinity for Twain. But the pair have more in common than a hometown. As demonstrated in Twain: A Life, Powers and Twain share a knack for word play and irreverence. "With any other writer," says Powers's editor, Bruce Nichols, "I wouldn't have let through so many puns. But here, it seemed appropriate." Nichols believes that Powers and Twain are "an extraordinary match of writer and subject," and the pairing is serendipitous. Without it, it is unlikely a publisher would have commissioned yet another biography of the writer, who due to the vagaries of academia and a spirited campaign against him by the NAACP, among others, has largely receded from the classroom.

Since Twain's death in 1910, there have been more than 40 biographical works written about Twain for a general audience, including several recently, such as Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biographyby Justin Kaplan, The Singular Mark Twainby Fred Kaplan and Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biographyby Geoffrey Ward.

Nichols, who paid a six-figure advance for the book, insists that despite the number of previous works on Twain, there was more to be said. "In every generation we need to rediscover our cultural giants. If the country was ever said to have a cultural 'founding father,' Twain would be it," he says. The Free Press is banking on the book's ability to appeal to the same readers who have made David McCullough into a bestselling author, opting to print 70,000 copies of the $35 hardcover.

As if to confirm Twain's timeliness, new works by the author continue to be published. In 2001, the Atlantic Monthly, a magazine to which Twain was a regular contributor, finally printed his novella, A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage, 125 years after it was first rejected by the magazine. In 2003—a three-act play originally written in 1898, entitled Is He Dead?—was discovered and optioned for Broadway. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley, which serves as the main repository for Twain's letters and manuscripts, has since its founding in 1949 managed to annotate only a modest percentage of Twain's work, which includes some 28,000 letters (with tens of thousands estimated to be at large moldering unfound in attics and steamer trunks), along with notebooks and other sundries, including 500 incomplete and/or unpublished manuscripts. The project's general editor, Robert Hirst, who has been publishing books of Twain's annotated letters, estimates it may take until 2021 just to finish annotating the letters. Powers says he owes a debt to Hirst and the scholars at the archive, who provided much of the never seen before material and helped with the lion's share of research. Nichols goes so far as to call Hirst the "godfather" of the book, and says that Hirst's staff fact checked the manuscript.

Unfortunately, even as new works appear, Twain's reputation remains diminished. The author is a victim, Powers maintains, of career academics "who are probably a little bit jealous.

The major objection that is always raised against teaching Twain is the liberal use of the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn in particular. Resistance came early, when the Concord Library banned the book in 1885, calling it "trash suitable only for the slums."Momentum built in the 1950s, when the NAACP suggested the book contained "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations." Similar allegations continue today. As recently as 1998, PBS rejected an offer to broadcast a filmed version of Mark Twain Tonight!—the theatrical one-man show the actor Hal Holbrook has been doing for 40 years (and recently revived on Broadway)—because of concerns over Twain's language.

Another part of the ongoing trouble with the academy may be Twain's reliance on satire and humor to make his point. Humor doesn't necessarily resonate across decades; will our grandchildren's children find David Sedaris funny? Powers points out that Twain's laughter was "a seamless extension of his anger," but that after his death, "his humor, and anger, amounted to character deformations, and worked fatally against his higher literary potential."

In addition, Powers writes, Twain's books "tended to be sprawling pastiches, grab bags of personal narrative, some of it true, mixed with found art: sections from other books, recollected tales, happenstance, memory fragments, self-plagiarized letters and essays, anything to meet the word count." Modern critics find this lack of formal structure off-putting, Powers writes.

That Twain is not very much appreciated by academic gatekeepers is no surprise. Much of Twain's career was a reaction to and revolt against the patrician thought police who guarded the gates to the garden of literary respectability. Assisted by other writers, such as his editor at the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, who became a lifelong friend and champion, Twain introduced East Coast readers to vernacular American speech and, in doing so, to proletarian –Americans' ideas about class and race. At the same time, Twain was a striver and for much of his life was as passionate about making money as writing. He is, after all, the man who branded the Gilded Age.

This duality, evident in his personality and double name— Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain—appealed to the deconstructionist literary critics who became dominant in the 1980s. They revived him somewhat, but unfortunately, says Powers "they viewed [Twain] as a walking Freudian casebook." The prevailing work on him was a form of "psycho-biography," says Nichols, that speculated on everything from his sexuality (he lived in San Francisco, he might be gay!) to the origin of his showmanship.

Powers, with his lifelong interest in Twain, observed this period and felt throughout that Twain the man "was pushed to the side and abstracted into theory." When the time came in his career to address Twain full on, he sought to "bring the man to stand next to the theory" and argue for his role in American history. "Here was a Rorschach blot of America in the 1880s and 1890s," says Powers, "the representative man of his age and a prophet of our time. The man internalized the American experience to the bones."

That Twain has always been a polarizing figure and still can inspire debate is a testament to his ability to embody the issues at the center of the national character. Powers's book may go a long way toward reasserting Twain's place as a titan of American letters. Nevertheless, Powers remains modest in his ambition. "I don't have any grandiose expectations of this book," he says. "I just want to reconnect people to the pleasure of reading him."

Monday, September 19, 2005

Review: Alexander McCall Smith's Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Alexander McCall Smith's 'Friends, Lovers, Chocolate'

By Edward Nawotka


Sunday, September 18, 2005

What kind of a title is "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate" for a mystery? It sounds better suited to a romance novel or a cookbook. Yet that's what Alexander McCall Smith, author of the immensely popular "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," has decided to call his latest whodunit.

Smith, who has sold some 3.5 million copies of his franchise series, is fond of such adamantly sweet titles. The last two "No. 1 Ladies" books were called "The Full Cupboard of Life" and "The Company of Cheerful Ladies." The next one, coming out in the spring, is "Blue Shoes and Happiness."

Give Smith credit for truth in advertising. The heroine of the "No. 1 Ladies" books is Precious Ramotswe, a Botswana detective with a milewide optimistic streak who putters around Gabarone in her "little white van" dispensing folksy advice, collecting orphans, settling lovers' quarrels and solving the occasional bloodless crime. Precious likes to eat (Smith calls her "traditionally built") and solves many of her mysteries while in quiet contemplation over a cup of red bush tea shared with her assistant.

These books are, for the most part, delightful. In Smith's eyes, Botswana is a place where good, hard-working people make the most out of their modest circumstances and there is little moral ambiguity. Those who don't play by the rules usually come to know shame and the failure of their ways.

Some have criticized the books as disingenuous -- for example, they rarely mention AIDS -- but Smith, who was born in nearby Zimbabwe and taught for a time in Botswana, has chosen his setting carefully. Botswana has a small population and some of the

largest diamond mines in the world. The government's longstanding partnership with mine operator DeBeers has given Botswana the fastest growing economy in Africa and made it one of the few politically stable nations on the continent. AIDS is an immense problem, but the force of pride prevents many from discussing it openly. (Which, of course, only makes matters worse.) Having lived in Botswana myself, I can verify that it's an oddly contented place.

Like the "No. 1 Ladies" books, Smith's latest series, "The Sunday Philosophy Club," features a middle-aged woman as its sleuth. Isabel Dalhousie lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, (as does Smith) and is a practicing philosopher who edits the Review of Applied Ethics. Like Precious, Isabel enjoys long daydreams while relaxing with a drink (though wine, rather than red tea, is her libation of choice). Both are women of limited, but adequate, means: Precious sold an inheritance of cattle to start her detective agency, while Isabel inherited shares in a Louisiana land company from her American mother. Both women draw on private sources of wisdom: When in a jam, Precious thinks back on advice that her deceased father gave her; Isabel relies on the poetry of W.H. Auden. Isabel is, for all intents and purposes, a European version of Precious.

But unlike the "No. 1 Ladies" books, Isabel's adventures are not entirely bloodless. The first in the series, last year's "The Sunday Philosophy Club," featured a man leaping to his death in the opening pages. The second, "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate," which arrives in stores this week, finds Isabel infatuated with her niece's ex-boyfriend Jamie, a musician 15-years her junior. She is also intrigued by a man who is the recipient of a heart transplant and is haunted by the former owner's memories, leaving him with the suspicion the other man was murdered. It's not quite as gritty as the crime novels of Smith's fellow Edinburghian, Ian Rankin, but it's a start.

Still, politics and any other matters beyond the characters' immediate concerns don't rate much discussion -- and even when they do, the discussion tends to defuse the issue at hand rather than illuminate or dramatize it. In "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate," Isabel dismisses her housekeeper's son's potentially violent politics with the observation, "He used to collect stamps, then he took up nationalism."

Though Isabel appears more cerebral than Precious, in the end, she is no less confident in her morality than her African counterpart. Here she is worrying over writing a rejection letter for a paper submitted to the Review entitled "The Rightness of Vice":

'It was impossible, thought Isabel. . . . She went over in her mind some of the vices explored by the author, but stopped. Even by their Latin names, these vices barely bore thinking about. Did people really do that? . . . Well, she had a responsibility to her readers. She could not defend the indefensible. She would send the article back with a short note, something like: Dear Professor, I'm so sorry, but we just can't. People feel very strongly about these things, you know. And they would blame me for what you say. They really would. Yours sincerely, Isabel Dalhousie.'

Later, she reflects on the fact that another author died shortly after receiving a similar rejection letter, and worries that she had "made his last few days unhappy." She concludes that she could not have reached any other decision about the manuscript, but "the imminence of death might make one ponder one's actions more carefully. If we treated others with the consideration that one would give to those who had only a few days to live, then we would be kinder at least."

A little of this sort of greeting-card morality -- there's nothing wrong with these sentiments, they just seem to exist in a rarified universe where vice is not only forbidden, it's unthinkable -- goes a long way. And there's an awful lot of it in Smith's books. At one point, in the voice of Isabel, he seems to acknowledge this critique: "It is hard to make goodness -- and good people -- sound interesting," he writes in "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate." "Yet the good were worthy of note, of course, because they battled and that battle was a great story, whereas the evil were evil because of moral laziness or weakness, and that was ultimately a dull or uninteresting affair."

It's a philosophy that runs counter to much mystery writing, which often requires a hero to dwell in the morally ambiguous fringe of conventional society; in many cases, fictional detectives commit crimes themselves in order to solve a crime. A good example of this is on display in the best-selling series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" and "Dearly Devoted Dexter," which feature a vigilante serial killer who only kills, get this, other serial killers.

Precious and Isabel, by contrast, are detectives by virtue of temperament and good breeding. If their goodness is, as Smith suggests, the result of a battle, it's a battle he never takes the trouble to depict.

Indeed, though Smith's books are very charming, they're not mystery novels -- they're romances.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Review: Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown

Rushdie melds passion, politics in nimble novel that illustrates the mind of a Kashmiri terrorist

By Salman Rushdie.
Random House, 416 pp. $25.95.

Perhaps no other novelist is more qualified than Salman Rushdie to write a novel exploring the origins and mind-set of a Muslim assassin.

To recap, in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for the execution of Rushdie, as well as his editors and publishers, after publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel Islamists accused of parodying the Koran.

With a bounty on his head, Rushdie hid for years, living under armed guard until the late '90s when he re-emerged into public life, appearing onstage at a U2 concert and becoming a fixture on the party scene in New York and London. His new lifestyle was reflected in a pair of entertaining of-the-moment novels, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a book about rock 'n' roll, and Fury, a riff on boom/bust pre-millennial New York. More recently Rushdie has made headlines for marrying his fourth wife, the Indian celebrity cookbook author and model Padme Lakshmi, giving hope to every socially challenged bookworm on the planet.

Shalimar the Clown returns to the themes and settings of his superb early novels, Midnight's Children, about 1,000 paranormally enhanced children born at the moment of India's emancipation from Britain in 1947, and Shame, an allegory about the creation of Pakistan told through the lives of single family.

A story with depth

The action starts with an assassination. In the first few pages of Shalimar, Max Ophuls, an octogenarian French-born Jewish-American diplomat, has his throat cut by his driver, the Kashmiri terrorist nicknamed Shalimar the Clown. The murder takes place on the steps of the apartment building in Los Angeles where Max's 24-year-old illegitimate daughter, named India, is living. The day before his murder, Ophuls had given his daughter a DeLorean, the bat-winged car featured in the hit movie of that year, Back to the Future.

Rushdie uses the vehicle of the novel to jump back and forth through the 20th century, lingering on important milestones in each character's life: Shalimar's childhood in a culturally divided Kashmiri village, famous for the villagers' ability to throw a feast and offer live entertainment; Ophuls' youth in Strasbourg and his World War II role in the French Resistance, which made him a folk hero; and the moment when their two lives intersect at a dance at the village where Ophuls, by then U.S. ambassador to India, becomes enchanted by Shalimar's seductive and restless young wife, Boonyi.

Roughly a third of the way through the novel, Shalimar makes love to Boonyi for the first time and announces, "Don't you leave me now, or I'll never forgive you, and I'll have my revenge, I'll kill you and if you have any children by another man I'll kill the children also." The words take on a chilling resonance and make it obvious that Shalimar's killing of Max is motivated by something more than cultural and religious politics.

Giving tale realism

Rushdie is able like no other writer to reduce global events to individual lives, to marry macro socio-political conflicts to personal stories. In Shalimar he is able to re-create the political divisions of Kashmir, the disputed mountain valley on the border between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, within the characters themselves. The marriage between the Muslim Shalimar and Hindu Boonyi is itself a form of political compromise. (Ultimately, it is the introduction of modernity in the form of television, with its political propaganda, that divides towns.)

Rushdie is also a master at portraying the divided self. Shalimar, who is at first quite literally a circus performer, a high-wire expert whose dream is to "walk into empty air and hang there like a cosmonaut without a suit," is slowly transformed into a terrorist through a combination of suppressed sexual rage and religious pride. Likewise, Ophuls, who starts life as a freedom fighter and whose parents died in the Holocaust, evolves into a man a lot like our own Congressman Charlie Wilson, working with the mujahedeen who would later give succor to al-Qaida.

It should also be noted that Ophuls, who shares his name with a famous early 20th-century Jewish-German film director, has a history that frequently dovetails with that of former University of Texas professor Walt Rostow, who appears to have served as one of many sources for the character.

If the book has any shortcoming it is Rushdie's tendency to become overly baroque when writing about the role of spirituality and magic in the lives of the Kashmiri villagers. These passages bog down the pace of this otherwise nimble novel. Also, many of the settings and events will probably be unfamiliar to Americans and, taken cumulatively, can cause a minor headache trying to keep them straight. A glossary and timeline would ease the pain.

Ultimately, these are fairly minor quibbles compared to the overall joy of reading Rushdie's prose, festooned as it is with sharp observations and clever satire.

Though there are already a number of fine novels that have examined the mind-set of the budding Islamic terrorist — including Salar Abdoh's The Poet's Game, Viken Berberian's The Cyclist and Lorriane Adams' Harbor (just out in paperback) — this is probably the most important of all. Why? Because Kashmir, at the border of India, Pakistan and China, is the most likely flashpoint on the planet for an exchange of nuclear missiles between countries, thus making Shalimar the Clown a brilliant work of political imagination. You don't need to read far into the novel to know what Rushdie feels about the political state of Kashmir — one of the two epigrams is "A plague on both your houses" from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — but you'll need to read through the entire book to understand exactly why he feels that way. It's a welcome return to form for one of our modern masters of the novel.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle