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  • Jeff Somers 5:30 pm on 2015/05/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , kevin birmingham, marja mills, , peter finn, petra couvee, , ,   

    Five Books that Tell the Story Behind the Story 

    Sometimes it seems like classic novels have just always existed: they were there before most of us were born, and seem an eternal aspect of the cultural landscape. But behind every novel is a second story, a sometimes-hidden one about how that novel came to be. And these stories-behind-the-stories are sometimes just as fascinating as the novels they produced. Here are five absorbing investigations into what lies behind five famous novels.

    The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham
    When people imagine the classic suffering novelist, they may not realize James Joyce is the original template. He struggled to get his work published in his lifetime, suffered myriad physical maladies exacerbated by constant money troubles, and loved recklessly. His novel Ulysses is one of the most difficult and most celebrated in the English language—and for a time was banned as obscene. Birmingham follows Joyce’s life from the initial inspiration for what became Ulysses in 1904 to its final vindication and publication in the U.S. in 1934. He takes what sounds like a dry legalistic plod and turns it into a thriller, with the Good Guys fighting small-minded bluenoses in the name of one of the greatest novels ever written.

    Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood, by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.
    More than 75 years after its publication, it can be difficult for modern readers to understand the phenomenon that was Gone with the Wind when it first published in 1936. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was an instant bestseller, and was quickly adapted into the epic film many of us probably know better than the book. Brown and Wiley don’t waste our time by retreading Mitchell’s life, but rather focus on the mechanics of how a debut novel from an unknown writer became an instant pop culture smash hit that has maintained its grip on the public consciousness ever since.

    So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by Maureen Corrigan
    Most of us meet The Great Gatsby in school at some point, when, frankly, we’re probably too young and inexperienced to really understand it—but every year people rediscover Gatsby and are amazed at what they find. Corrigan explores the genesis of this incredible novel and how it was conceived and written by a troubled genius, who died thinking he was a complete failure in his chosen field. If your memories of Gatsby are mainly of being bored stiff in a classroom, this incredible exploration will inspire you to give the book a fresh look—and you won’t be disappointed.

    The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
    Not many novels are used as weapons in a war, but Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago wasn’t just any novel. When Pasternak wrote it in the 1950s, he was the Soviet Union’s greatest living poet, but he knew his story of the Russian Revolution would never be published in his own country. He had the manuscript smuggled out and published in the West, where it became a sensation. And that’s where Finn and Couvée find the amazing hook for their story, because the CIA saw an opportunity to assault Soviet hearts and minds, and had a Russian-language edition printed and smuggled into the U.S.S.R. The story of this classic novel is a spy thriller that could have been told by John le Carré; as incredible a tale as the book itself.

    The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills
    Not many people can befriend Truman Capote, write a Pulitzer-winning debut novel, and then retire to a simple, quiet life in their hometown for the next six decades—but that is precisely what Harper Lee did (before letting the world back in, earlier this year, with the announcement of Mockingbird “sequel” Go Set a Watchman). After decades of the author refusing interviews, journalist Marja Mills contacted her, then living with her sister, Alice, in Monroeville, Alabama, and began a friendship that saw the sisters inviting Mills to move into the house next door. For nearly two years Mills spent time with them, and Lee finally gave her permission to write and publish this story, which offers an unprecedented insight into the woman who wrote one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and then promptly fell silent.

  • Joel Cunningham 6:00 pm on 2014/07/24 Permalink
    Tags: at home in the world, beth macy, crash course, , , everything connects, factory man, , marja mills, paul ingrassia, remarkable creatures, the alliance, , the mockingbird next door: life with harper lee, , , , , ,   

    What to Read Next if You Liked The Book of Life, The Mockingbird Next Door, The Signature of All Things, The Alliance or Factory Man 

    IMG_7207By now you’ve no doubt torn through The Book of Life, the concluding volume in Deborah Harkness’ trilogy about a historian whose discovery of an ancient manuscript clues her in to a reality of witches, vampires, time travel, and a whole hidden world of monsters and mayhem (you’d think those ancient manuscripts would have warning labels). If you’re looking for a book that will extend the magic a little further, try Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, about a graduate student who stumbles upon a host of witchy family secrets and a magical tome called a “physick book,” a volume that holds terrible lost secrets from hundreds of years in the past (seriously, people just leave these things lying around?).

    The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills, recounts the writer’s years living in the house next door to one of the world’s most famously reclusive authors. It has become a must read not only for the promise of revealing details about why Lee never published anything after To Kill a Mockingbird, or because of the controversy it’s generated (the ailing Lee has denied agreeing to participate), but also because it paints a vivid picture of a changing South. If you’re looking for another book that provides an unusual window into the life of a great, reluctantly famous writer, Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World includes details of her relationship, at age 18, with then-53-year-old J.D. Salinger, and caused a similar furor when first published.

    With The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) proves herself as adept a novelist as a memoirist. Rich in historical details of the 18th and 19th centuries, the book follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a wealthy botanist who becomes a scientist in her own right, unearthing discoveries that challenge the way people think about the world. For another story of a woman who defied the thinking of her time, not just about science but about what a woman could accomplish in a world built for and by men, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures recounts how Mary Anning, a girl living in rural England in the early 1800s, became one of the world’s greatest fossil hunters, her discoveries of ancient dinosaur bones changing much about Victorian ideas of science and religion. (For the record, Alma is fictional, but Mary was the real deal.)

    The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh, is an essential handbook for dealing with the challenges of managing an ever more connected, ever more mobile workforce. For more insights into sparking creativity and innovation in a world that is redefining the idea of “career,” look to Everything Connects, by Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer.

    Amid omnipresent headlines of companies closing down manufacturing in the U.S. and moving jobs overseas, Factory Man, by Beth Macy, reveals how one dedicated businessman managed not only to keep his hundred-year-old Virginia furniture business’s doors open, but actually managed to grow it even while competing with cheaply manufactured imports. For a less colorful but still fascinating look at the way the global economy has changed American industry, read Paul Ingrassia’s Crash Course, a comprehensive review of what led to the near-collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and how, post-bailout, it has begun to thrive again.

    What are you reading and recommending this week?

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