The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

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Solving for X: Malcolm X and White Readers

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Think of classic books by black Americans, particularly those written before the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll come up with a lot of autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Richard Wright’s Black Boy; and James Baldwin’s lightly fictionalized Go Tell It on the Mountain. There’s a good reason for this. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, African Americans wanting to enter a national literary conversation dominated by white writers have first had to make the more basic assertion that their voices deserve to be heard, and for much of American history they have done that by telling their life stories. But for almost as long as African Americans have been writing autobiographies, white critics have been claiming the black authors didn’t write the books that bear their names. Early slave narratives often included phrases like “written by him/herself” in the title to reassure readers they were getting the straight story, and in the case of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, some scholars mistook Jacobs’ memoir for a polemical novel written by her white editor, Lydia Maria Child.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents quite the opposite problem. The cover of the book states clearly that someone else – namely, Alex Haley – wrote the text, but since it was published in 1965, most readers have naturally assumed they were hearing the unfiltered voice of Malcolm X. In his new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the late Manning Marable argues that “[i]n many ways, the published book is more Haley’s than its author’s.” Marable claims that Haley, a liberal Republican who favored racial integration, tempered Malcolm’s more extreme positions, particularly his anti-Semitism. In addition, Marable argues, Haley helped to idealize Malcolm, smoothing over the bumps in his sometimes rocky marriage to Betty Shabazz and skirting possible homosexual behavior in Malcolm’s past as well as an adulterous affair Marable contends may have continued right up until the last night of Malcolm’s life.

This is potent stuff for those who care about Malcolm X and his legacy. Marable’s biography, which has earned largely positive reviews from the mainstream press, has drawn blistering attacks from critics like Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, whose review calling the Marable book “an abomination” was so incendiary it had be withdrawn from the journal that commissioned it. But whether The Autobiography represents the true testament of a martyred black icon or a sly act of ventriloquism by his more moderate collaborator, the book presents, to my mind, a more puzzling literary conundrum: how did the story of a man who for most of his adult life considered white people “devils” become a classic beloved as much by the very white readers it attacks as by the black readers it champions?

The answer no doubt has something to do with Haley, who wrote for white-owned mainstream magazines and knew how to shape his subject’s story for a white audience. But I would argue that the book’s enduring transracial appeal has far more to do with the singular journey Malcolm X takes in the Autobiography from fiery black separatist minister who describes himself as “the angriest black man in America” to a profoundly religious man gunned down by his former followers for, among other things, daring to profess that white people are not devils. This narrative arc soothes the conscience of white readers laboring under the weight of historical guilt, putting them in the novel position of rooting for a black martyr against the forces of intolerance, and more subtly, offering them a route to racial absolution. If the “angriest black man in America” no longer hates you, the book seems to say to white people, then maybe you’re not all bad.

Whoever wrote it, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a hell of a book. First, there is the story itself, which remains in its broad outlines unscathed by Marable’s scholarly sleuthing. Malcolm Little’s father, Earl, was a Baptist minister and committed black separatist in Lansing, Michigan who was cut almost in half by a runaway streetcar – whether by accident or at the hands of racist whites, no one can say for sure. After his father’s death, Malcolm’s overwhelmed mother slowly lost her grip on reality and landed in a mental institution, causing young Malcolm to quit school after the eighth grade and strike out for the East Coast, first to Boston, and then to New York’s Harlem, where he became a pimp, drug dealer, and burglar. The memoir paints an indelible portrait of 1940s Harlem where Malcolm seemed to know everyone, from musicians Sonny Greer and Billie Holiday, to colorful hustlers like West Indian Archie, a mathematical prodigy and numbers runner capable of keeping hundreds of his customers’ lottery picks in his head without resorting to pen and paper.

Ultimately, though, the most fascinating character is Malcolm himself. By his own admission, he was a feral figure during his Harlem days, operating with “a jungle mind,” scamming everyone he met to get what he needed:

I believed a man should do anything he was slick enough, or bad or bold enough, to do, and that a woman was nothing but another commodity. Every word I spoke was hip or profane. I would bet that my working vocabulary wasn’t two hundred words. 

It is this attitude, borne out by the book’s descriptions of Malcolm’s hustler persona, that makes his later prison transformation so riveting. When he first arrives in prison, Malcolm is so angry and violent his fellow inmates call him “Satan,” but within months of his introduction to the Nation of Islam, he discovers both a deep religious faith and a latent intellectual passion. These passages, the famous scenes of Malcolm in his cell reading Spinoza by the dim light coming through the bars, are among the most memorable in the book – and, I would argue, offer clues to the enduring appeal of the book for educated white readers. For one thing, his metamorphosis from functional illiterate to world-class intellectual seems to confirm the liberal white piety that all poor black people lack is education, while at the same time taking the onus for providing this education away from white society. After all, the man was in prison. No special program was required, no tax dollars had to be expended to send him to college. All Malcolm needed – and in a certain kind of white reader’s mind, all any poor black man needs – is some time and a little self-motivation.

More subtly, though, the prison section draws educated readers because it offers them an unexpected emotional connection to an angry, uneducated black felon. I’m sure this is true for readers of all races, but it seems to me it’s uniquely true for whites, who, if they are anything like me, first encounter The Autobiography in college. The first time I read it, between my junior and senior years at NYU, I was myself awakening to a deep hunger for books and knowledge. I still remember sitting on the fire escape of my squalid shared apartment in Hoboken, reading the passage in which, discovering he can barely read, Malcolm assigns himself the task of copying the entire dictionary word for word. “I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened,” he writes,

I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from the until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of a book with a wedge. 

This was deeply moving to me. This former ghetto hustler and thief could not have been more different from me, but he was experiencing the same intellectual transformation and feeling the same intellectual excitement that I was. It wasn’t just that I admired Malcolm in these passages. I wanted to be him. For fifty-odd pages, this white college kid from the California suburbs identified with – idealized, even – the angriest black man in America, and I’m going to guess I wasn’t alone.

There is, of course, a fundamental callowness in this. Malcolm was reading to save his very life, whereas I was reading to finish college and follow my parents into a secure white-collar profession. Still, the primal power of this emotional identification with Malcolm can’t be underestimated, because from the prison section onward readers like me aren’t just following the interesting adventures of a historical figure – we’re traveling with him. We feel his triumph as he races around the country establishing mosques for the Nation of Islam. We relish his public jousting matches against racist whites and “Uncle Thomases Ph.D.” Most importantly, we begin to see the world through his eyes. We go with him back to the Harlem streets he once knew and meet the ruin that West Indian Archie has become, a ghostly figure “in rumpled pajamas and barefooted” living a cheap rented room. And because we have come to trust Malcolm’s razor-sharp mind, we begin to draw the same conclusions that he does, that white people are to blame for this tragedy, and for the wider tragedy of black poverty in Harlem and around the nation. That most illogical of propositions – I am evil – begins, in the pages of Malcolm X’s memoir, to seem the only rational conclusion one could draw.

This is why the ending, both Malcolm’s abandonment of his black separatist ideology and his eventual martyrdom, is so crucial to the story’s appeal. The great enigma of the book is Malcolm’s attachment to Elijah Muhammad, the quiet, gnomic nonentity at the head of the Nation of Islam. If Malcolm is so smart, the reader wants to know, how can he be taken in by this obvious charlatan with his cockamamie racial origin theories and his sad parade of pregnant secretaries? There is, I think, a deeply personal answer to this question. The memoir begins with the death of Earl Little, whom Malcolm both feared and idealized, and Elijah Muhammad, for all his flaws, serves as the proud black father figure Malcolm lost when he was six. But it is also true that Muhammad spoke to the darkest side of Malcolm’s rage. Muhammad’s theology, with its slapdash mix of ersatz sharia law and tent-show hokum, makes no sense at all, and his political philosophy of total disengagement from white society is a dead end. But what makes sense to Inmate “Satan” locked away in a Massachusetts state prison, is the image of white people as “blue-eyed devils” bent on destroying a once proud race of black people.

If the book had ended there, with Malcolm fulminating about “blue-eyed devils” and “so-called Negroes,” The Autobiography likely would have shared the fate of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, another popular 1960s memoir by a radicalized former convict, which is now little more than a museum piece. Instead, The Autobiography has sold millions of copies, inspired a major Hollywood film starring Denzel Washington, and remains even now, 46 years after its publication, a staple of college syllabi. All this, I would argue, is due to Malcolm’s final separation from the Nation of Islam.

The break with Elijah Muhammad officially followed Malcolm’s public comment that the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” but really it turned on a far more intimate matter: Muhammad, the great moral arbiter of the Nation of Islam, had impregnated a string of secretaries, including, Marable claims, one of Malcolm’s former girlfriends. Once unseated from his powerful perch in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became The Man Who Knew Too Much, and was marked for death by his former co-religionists. His response to this betrayal displayed an almost superhuman moral courage. First, he organized a group to carry on his fight against discrimination in America, and second, he decided to take his Islamic faith seriously and make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Malcolm X’s journey to Mecca is the stuff of legend. He completed the Hajj, the ritual visit to the most holy sites in Islamic culture, and in the days leading up to it, he was treated with respect by Arabs who, had they been Americans, would have been considered white.

That morning was when I first began to reappraise the “white man.” It was when I first began to perceive that “white man,” as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, “white man” meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.

It is odd, to say the least, for an American in 2011 to read of devout Islam as a bastion of tolerance, and Malcolm, who knew little about the Middle East, vastly underestimates the seething tensions that have riven that part of the world for centuries. But for a white reader pre-9/11, Malcolm’s about-face on the moral capacity of white people offered an escape from the bind presented by the rest of the book. White people are not evil by nature, Malcolm now says, but become evil through social conditioning, which means that a white person can choose not to be evil.

In its content, this message is no different than the teachings of Martin Luther King and other black leaders of the period, but here it is the source that matters. Just a hundred pages earlier, when a young white woman sought Malcolm out after a speech to ask what she could do, he told her flatly, “Nothing.” Now, he says he wishes he could find that girl again and tell her what she can do, which, he emphasizes, is not to join hands with black people in the ghetto for a few rousing choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” Instead, he calls on white people to go “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.” This, finally, is what is so potent in the story of Malcolm X for white readers: he grants us our moral agency. He is not asking for our pity. He is not asking for our money. He is asking us, in the plainest way possible, to exercise moral courage in our own lives just as he has done in his. A few dozen pages later, when he is gunned down by Nation of Islam thugs during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom, he is, in one sense, dying in the defense of the proposition that people of all races possess that moral courage, and that if they exercise it they can change the world.

The Happy Ghost

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Ghostwriting used to be book publishing’s dirty little secret. A vaguely disreputable art, it was practiced quietly on the back streets of the business’s shadier precincts. The term itself speaks to a desire for privacy and anonymity—ghosts were invisible and, for the most part, happy to stay that way.

No more. Today a growing cadre of writers are discovering that checking their ego at the door and telling someone else’s story can make them very successful, very rich and, in at least one case, as close to happy as most writers will ever get.

Meet Michael D’Orso, the happy ghost.

“I bristle at the term ‘ghostwriter,'” says D’Orso. “It indicates dishonesty. It indicates hiding behind the scenes. I prefer collaborator. I’m not a shill.”

Fair enough. D’Orso, a former newspaperman, has collaborated on 10 books with subjects ranging from a U.S. senator to an inner-city principal, a fitness guru, an amateur genealogist, a professional football player and a civil rights icon. He has also written five non-fiction books on his own, on such topics as the enclave of expats on the Galapagos Islands and a disappearing tribe of native Alaskans above the Arctic circle. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize six times. One of his books rose to #1 on the New York Times best-seller list and stayed on the list for more than three years. He was able to quit his newspaper job long ago and now writes full-time in his elegant – and paid-for – 4-bedroom brick Tudor house facing the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia. A workaholic by any measure, he is collaborating on two books at the moment – one with a woman named Deborah Kenny who operates four thriving charter schools in Harlem, the other with the actor Ted Danson about the world’s endangered oceans. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is very much on D’Orso’s mind these days.

This track record has made him rich and has put him up there in the thin air with the most sought-after collaborators. The unofficial dean of this rarefied group is William Novak, whose 1984 mega-hit, Iacocca, alerted the publishing industry to the fact that there is so much money in ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies and memoirs that the things can’t possibly be shameful. Indeed, when Bill Clinton’s former aide George Stephanopoulos bagged Novak to pen his memoir in the late 1990s, the New York Times allowed that having a big-name collaborator has become “a mark of prestige like being seen about town with a trophy wife.” Chris Ayres, who ghostwrote Ozzy Osbourne’s memoir, told the Chicago Sun-Times: “Who you choose as your collaborator is seen as almost part of the talent of the (subject). It’s seen as a decision that’s an important part of the creative process.”

Madeleine Morel’s 2M Communications Ltd. in New York represents more than 100 ghostwriters. Morel, who considers herself more of a talent agent than a conventional literary agent, usually matches writers with projects that come to her from editors and other agents. “Books aren’t books anymore, they’re products,” she says. “In non-fiction you have to have a platform – somebody who has a household name, or schleps around the country giving seminars, or gets a lot of media exposure. A lot of this is dictated by the fact that we’ve all become such slaves to pop culture. It’s very unromantic.”

Hard words, but undeniably true. What Morel does – putting interesting (or merely famous) people together with talented storytellers to produce commercially viable books – is an equation that makes a great deal of sense for these times. Many people have intriguing life stories, and many others appeal to readers simply because of they’re famous or notorious or stylish or rich or powerful or weird. Quite often such people are incapable of writing a single coherent sentence, let alone a book. Given that, it might even be regarded as a public service that professional writers are brought in, more and more often, to help such people tell their stories. Anyone who has heard Sarah Palin talk was surely relieved to learn that she’d hired a professional writer named Lynn Vincent to ghostwrite her memoir, Going Rogue. Speaking for Palin and her husband, Vincent wrote: “We felt our very normalcy, our status as ordinary Americans could be a much-needed fresh breeze blowing into Washington, D.C.” The sentiment might make you want to blow lunch, but the sentence could have been so much worse.

Small wonder, then, that ghostwriting has officially left the ghetto. In the years since Iacocca appeared – and perhaps going back to Alex Haley’s legendary ghostwriting job on The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965 – the engines that drive the arts, entertainment, celebrity and technology have been working together, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, to remove any lingering taint from the act of collaboration. As the generation weaned on computer technology takes center stage, the embrace of pastiche in all art forms is challenging the very notion of a unique artistic voice. When everything belongs to everybody, originality itself becomes a questionable proposition. After a German teenager named Helene Hegemann won rave reviews for Axolotl Roadkill, her novel about druggy Berlin club kids, a blogger pointed out that she’d lifted entire pages, almost verbatim, from another writer. Unfazed, Hegemann countered that her methods were part of the sampling culture the novel set out to capture and celebrate. The judges of a prestigious German literary prize agreed. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann said, “just authenticity.”

It is possible to argue with that sentiment, but there’s no denying its broad appeal and growing acceptance. In such a fluid climate – and in a culture that’s pie-eyed drunk on celebrity in its glitziest and tawdriest forms – it’s not surprising that ghostwriting has won acceptance as just one of many legitimate ways to produce books. Including novels. Brand-name author James Patterson has a stable of writers helping him churn out his best-selling thrillers. The rapper 50 Cent, who must be a very busy man, pays someone to ghostwrite his 140-character tweets for Twitter. A reading public inured to fabricated journalism, fake memoirs and bald acts of plagiarism barely shrugged when word got out that Ted Kennedy had quietly worked with a ghostwriter whose name did not appear on the cover of his posthumous memoir, True Compass. The publisher insisted that the late senator was deeply involved in the writing. Such is not always the case. Some subjects’ brazen lack of involvement in their own books has become the source of loopy publishing lore. When Ronald Reagan’s memoir, An American Life, appeared, the Gipper gave high praise to his ghostwriter, Robert Lindsey. “I hear it’s a terrific book,” Reagan said. “One of these days I’m going to read it myself.” Long gone are the days when the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy shouted down any suggestion that they’d relied on ghostwriters to help them produce their memoirs. Such authorial integrity now seems so 19th- and 20th-century, so quaintly pre-digital.

Given this history, it’s easy to find much to admire in the way Michael D’Orso collaborates on a book. He had to learn the craft from scratch, and his education began one day in 1986 when he received a phone call from Jackie Onassis, then a book editor at Doubleday. She had read a newspaper article of D’Orso’s that had gotten picked up by the wire services, the story of a black social worker named Dorothy Redford who was researching her slave ancestry.

(Full disclosure: When D’Orso received that phone call, we were both working as staff writers at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. I had already developed great respect for D’Orso’s fierce energy, his skill as a reporter, and his ability to craft vivid sentences and narratives. After reading three of his books, my admiration has only grown.)

Initially D’Oroso was taken aback when he realized that Onassis wanted him to write a book with Redford, not a book about her. Every collaborative book he could think of was, as he puts it, “a piece of shit.” Then, remembering The Autobiography of Malcolm X, D’Orso decided to take the plunge.

“I made my own simple rules,” he recalls, speaking with the same intensity he brings to his reporting and writing. “Number one, it would truly be a collaboration. We agree to go in together and we’re not going to leave until we both agree on the final result. Number two, what the subject brings is his or her story and what I bring are my skills as a writer. I’m going to push you as far as you can go. I’m going to ask questions that go into more detail than you’re used to giving. A lot of it might be hard and painful, but you’ve got to agree to answer everything. It’s a leap of faith. I like to climb into the person’s head.”

All proceeds would be split 50-50, and D’Orso’s insisted his name appear on the cover after “and” or “with.” Predictably, there were sparks. Redford balked at revealing that her paternal grandfather was white, and that she had never married the father of her daughter. D’Orso insisted that both facts be in the book, arguing that readers would embrace Redford for her candor. He won the argument, and his prediction came true. “One of Dorothy’s friends said the book sounded so much like her that she thought it was transcribed,” D’Orso says. “I couldn’t receive a higher compliment.”

In addition to taping hours of interviews in order to absorb the rhythms of his subject’s voice, D’Orso interviews friends, families and enemies, visits important locales, and researches personal papers and printed records. He is, at heart, still an old-school reporter, a believer in atmosphere and context and the telling detail. While collaborating with Congressman John Lewis, for example, they drove together to many of the battlefields of the civil rights movement, including Nashville, Birmingham, Selma and the Montgomery bus station where Lewis got his head split open by a ravening mob of white racists.

When a collaboration with the partially paralyzed NFL football player Dennis Byrd won a $1.1 million advance at auction in 1992, D’Orso was finally able to give up newspapering and write books full-time. Over the years he has turned down several potential subjects, including former L.A. police chief Daryl Gates (“a cowboy run amok”), Vice President Dan Quayle (“an idiot”) and P. Diddy (“that asshole”). There have also been disappointments, most notably U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman’s memoir, In Praise of Public Life. “That’s the one book I’d like to erase off my resume,” D’Orso says. “On paper it looked like a good story, but it turned out there wasn’t any there there. I couldn’t penetrate his facade, and the book was bloodless, lifeless.”

And then there was the case of troubled football star Ricky Williams. D’Orso’s immersion in that project included helping deliver Williams’s daughter on the kitchen floor in his Toronto home, and compiling 1,000 pages of transcribed interviews. But three years into the project Williams suddenly made himself invisible until D’Orso, with 300 polished manuscript pages on his desk, swallowed hard and withdrew from the project. Many writers operating on a thin margin would have been devastated by so much wasted effort. D’Orso could afford to shrug it off and move on.

In fact, that’s what money is to him: the freedom to pick and choose his projects, and occasionally fail. “I never had the goal of being rich,” he says, “and I have never been super-ambitious. A newspaper’s big enough for me. As long as I was able to make a living from my writing, I was happy. My ambition was to have people consider my writing truly great. Look, I need to be writing because you can’t be more alive than when you’re climbing into other lives in other worlds, whether it’s the Galapagos Islands or the Arctic circle. I’ve felt rich from the beginning – from the day I split the $40,000 advance for my first book.”

Then again, he felt hire-an-accountant rich on the day he drove to the bank in his wheezing Mitsubishi to deposit his first royalty check from Body For Life, his collaboration with the fitness guru Bill Phillips that became a #1 best-seller. When the bank teller realized the check was for $1.2 million, she looked up at D’Orso, her eyes as shiny as new dimes, and asked: “Are you married?”

Most writers – ghosts, collaborators, midwives, brand names, wannabes, novelists, journalists, geniuses and hacks – would kill for the chance to cash such a check and get asked such a question. Michael D’Orso knows this. It’s one of many reasons why he’s a happy ghost.

Image: Pexels/Min.

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

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At the end of July, I went to North Carolina for my family reunion.  Every other year, we rent houses on the beach in Ocean Isle, and for one week we swim in the ocean, drink, play boardgames,  and eat boiled peanuts.  It’s divine. As with all of my vacations, I take time to log the books I spot.

I’m happy to report that, for 2009, literacy is alive and well on the east coast!  I saw people reading!  The woman next to me on the eastbound flight chuckled at an Onion article on her Kindle, and then turned (clicked?) to Finn by John Clinch, and kept murmuring with admiration.  (I made a mental note to check this title out.)  A businessman across the aisle read a hardcover about smart management. I think another woman nearby was reading The Bible, though part of me wanted it to be a tattered first-edition of some Henry James novel.  Mass market mysteries abounded, as did self-help books like The Power of Now.  A mysterious man in the Charlotte airport perused a collection of T.S. Eliot poems.

My grandmother–whom we call Grammie Kids because she is a mother of six–was reading an issue of Reader’s Digest and an old mass market edition of Skipping Christmas by John Grisham.  She said Granddaddy wouldn’t let her pack anything else, and that he had only allowed her to bring light and thin books.  (Her revenge?  She “forgot” to pack his underwear.)

My eighteen-year-old sister flew through a few books while we were there, namely American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Frenemies by Megan Crane.  She reads about a book every two days over the summer, and when I ask for a review she always says, “Good.”  As is the case with nearly every family vacation, people passed around Philippa Gregory’s books  like they were crack; I haven’t tried them yet, namely because my mother describing the plot of The Other Boleyn Girl (“And then…!”) is about all I can handle.  My poor sixteen-year-old brother–who will probably be valedictorian–insisted on bringing his school assignments, and spent two weeks not-reading a brief history of FDR’s first 100 days. (I remember in Hawaii he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; the spine fell apart after the first couple of days and so he started bringing individual chapters to the pool.)  In Ocean Isle, he spoke longingly of the Sookie Stackhouse series–those “True Blood” books–that he wanted to start.

Someone in my extended family was reading Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich (she’s from South River, New Jersey, where my dad’s from, although this isn’t his family we were visiting). Everyone was passing around a memoir about fishing; the title escapes me, but I do remember that the author grew up in Spotswood, New Jersey, just like my mom and her siblings.  At the end of the trip, my mom started The Condition by Jennifer Haigh. She bought it because, except for a single letter, the author’s name is identical to my aunt’s.  The marketing department couldn’t have predicted that, could they?  My mother had also recently finished The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and kept referring to my Aunt Jennifer as her “sister wife.”

And me?  I read three books on the trip.  The first was Woodsburner by John Pipkin, recommended to me by my friend Steve.  This wise debut novel is inspired by a little-known event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a fire he accidentally started in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond.   Not only do we get a fictionalized Thoreau who, “hugs his knees tightly, watches the half-mile-wide fire, and considers the many individual acts that led to this moment,”  but we get a cast of other characters also affected by the conflagration. My favorite is Oddsmund, a Norwegian immigrant with a “dead infant tooth wedged alongside his adult incisors like a misplaced apostrophe.”  He’s so in love with his employer’s wife that his lust leads to a night-time liason with a pumpkin.  Predictably, this was the point in the book where I decided I loved it.  (On Goodreads, someone suggested that if the novel were called Pumpkinfucker, sales might improve.)

My next book was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. The hype on this Swedish thriller is well deserved. After a boring opening chapter about finance scandals (really, it was awful), the story picked up, and, man oh man, it didn’t let me go.  The plot is terrifically constructed–I’m certain I learned something about the beauty of story–and I loved the cold weather, the aquavit, the endless cups of coffee.  I’m not sure I can wait for the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, to come out in paperback. (Although, and I must say it:  I did wonder if the cliches in the book, like “pretty as postcard,” were exact translations.  I’ve heard Sweden is boring, but, really?  In the prose department, I wasn’t wowed.  But, and maybe for the first time in my life as a reader, I didn’t really care! )

There was also a real pleasure in reading a popular book.  Usually, I’m reading something no one has ever heard of, and I’m occasionally ignorant of huge bestsellers.  When Grammie Kids described to me the runaway hit The Shack by William P. Young (“And God is a black woman.  She looks like Maya Angelou!”), I had never heard of it; cut to a week later, I’m at the airport, and I count two copies in my gate alone.  Sometimes I feel like everyone’s eating this thing called scrambled eggs (What are those, I wonder.  They look good.), while I’m enjoying a delicious chantarelle and pecorino frittata. What a snob I am.

My last book was Bonsai by Alejando Zambra, from the Contemporary Art of the Novella Series published by Melville House.  This is a beautiful-looking gem-of-a-book, which I read–tired, sunburned on my kneecaps, and terrifyingly freckled–during my flight home.  Actually, it was so short, I read it as I enjoyed my $8.00 in-flight meal.  I was smitten by Bonsai, with its story-within-a-story-within-a-story, and confounded (in the best way) by its end.  I need to re-read it, if only for sentences like this one:  “Julio and Emilia’s peculiarities weren’t only sexual (they did have them), nor emotional (these abounded), but also, so to speak, literary.”  Ah, chantarelles!

For Book-Spying-Trip #2, I went to Laguna Beach.  I’m sorry to say that I spotted very few readers there.  (Oh, California, I thought, don’t embarrass me further.) Most of the adults were too busy swimming or chasing little kids around.  The teenage girls spent a lot of time spraying Sun-In into their roots as their male counterparts tried to make them laugh.  There was one gorgeous sixteen-year-old girl whom I was mentally casting in a French film.  She might have been wearing lipstick.  On the beach!  Almost all of the teenagers were tattooed (none with dragons); one girl, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, had a tramp stamp. Really. Clearly, I wasn’t doing much reading myself.  The man next to us, however, was very studious with copies of Hemingway and Arthur Miller, and he wore a beanie like an old-timey Stevedore.  I made up all kinds of stories about him: his delicious loneliness, his journal of beautiful sentences by dead authors, his tiny sand-crusted apartment with the bad overhead lighting.   That was a good novel, this one I was writing in my head.  On sale, summer 2012.

Surprise Me!