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  • Jeff Somers 5:30 pm on 2015/05/19 Permalink
    Tags: , , , kevin birmingham, , maureen corrigan, 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.

  • Jenny Shank 3:32 pm on 2015/03/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , , j.r. moehringer, luck of the irish, maile meloy, maureen corrigan,   

    5 Irish American St. Patrick’s Day Reads for the Irish at Heart 

    According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 33.3 million Americans claimed Irish ancestry in 2013. That’s more than seven times the Irish population, possibly including leprechauns. About twelve percent of Americans are at least a little bit Irish—and an even higher percentage can occasionally be persuaded to drink green beer. So it isn’t surprising that Irish heritage turns up in a lot of great American books…and their authors. Because we’re all a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, here are some fine books to read while participating in the wearing of the green. They’ll go down easier than a Shamrock Shake.

    Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Booksby Maureen Corrigan
    NPR’s Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan’s engaging account of how she became so book besotted includes vivid details of her Irish Catholic upbringing in Queens. In the chapter “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: What Catholic Martyr Stories Taught Me about Getting to Heaven—and Getting Even,” she reflects on formative reading in the Irish American canon, such as Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life and the Beany Malone children’s book series. She writes, “The martyr stories we learned in religion class most blatantly preached the spiritual rewards of ‘sucking it up.'”

    Teacher Manby Frank McCourt
    Most readers know Frank McCourt for his debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, about growing up impoverished in Ireland, published when he was 66. His 2005 memoir, Teacher Man, about the 30 years McCourt spent teaching English in New York City public schools, explains why it took him so long to write that first book: “When you teach five high school classes a day, five days a week, you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose.”

    After Thisby Alice McDermott
    Alice McDermott’s elegant fiction makes her one of the top chroniclers of the Irish American Catholic family. Try Charming Billy, her 1998 National Book Award winner, about a charismatic alcoholic, or After This, her crisp, poignant evocation of an Irish Catholic family braving cultural changes in the second half of the 20th century.

    Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
    “Travis, B.,” one of the strongest stories in Maile Meloy’s most recent short story collection, Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It, is about Chet Moran, a part-Irish, part-Cheyenne ranch hand, crippled by polio, who develops a crush on a lawyer named Beth. It’s impossible not to root for the shy Chet, who “walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.”

    The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
    When J.R. Moehringer was growing up in Manhasset, New York, you were either “Gaelic or garlic,” according to his classmate, so Moehringer didn’t admit he had both Irish and Italian ancestors. In this endearing memoir, the fatherless Moehringer finds camaraderie in the people who populate Publicans, a bar where his Uncle Charlie works the taps, located just 142 steps from his grandfather’s house. Moehringer recalls the first time he saw the bar’s regulars playing softball “on a hot summer night in 1972,” when he was seven years old. He asked his mother, “‘Why do those men act so silly?’

    ‘They’re just—happy.’

    ‘About what?’

    She looked at the men, thinking. ‘Beer, sweetheart. They’re happy about beer.'”

    Who’s your favorite Irish—or Irish-American—author?

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