A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Stacy Schiff is known for her captivating storytelling and historically rich biographies—many of them about notable women throughout history. In her latest project, The Witches: Salem 1692, she looks to one of the few historic events to center around women, the Salem Witch Trials. Packed with historical detail and unfolding like a thriller, Schiff’s The Witches draws us into the mysterious year of hysteria and injustice that resulted in the execution of 19 alleged witches and wizards. She brings to life the individuals at its center and reveals the fascinating religious, social, and political context in which it took place. , Schiff talks about the events that will forever define Salem, Massachusetts and their place in and influence on our history in conversation with Steve Scher.
It’s the time of year for renewal. To restart cycles, redye the hairdo, rewind the cassette tapes. Snow melts, songbirds sing, colors bloom, the sun comes out and old things come back to us in new forms. For example, books come out in paperback. You might say, well, books come out in paperback all year. Sure. That’s true. But I’m painting a larger picture here. Anyways all the paperbacks I’m talking about came out in spring. Good enough? Moving on.
Like a butterfly from chrysalis, a paperback doesn’t necessarily match it’s larval, hardcover iteration. For anyone like me who, for better or worse, went to art school, the design decisions are more than kind of interesting. Some books keep the original design. Those who do are often the mainstream mega-bestsellers – Dan Brown, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, even Game of Thrones – but the literary stuff usually gets a fresh breath of life, or at least a new take. To illustrate, here’s a selection of my 2013 favorites that have come back around with new plumage.
The People in the Trees knocked my socks clean off. When I finished it was hard to read anything else for a while, and even now I’ll stop reading a book that I realize is trying to do something The People in the Trees did much better – namely, be haunting, wonderfully crafted and well-told, like Shirley Jackson’s stuff, or The Sparrow or Geek Love. It lingers like a bad, beautiful dream. And as for the covers, the hardcover (left) gets the moody strangeness and the paperback (right) gets the violence. One great thing about the hardcover is that if you were holding it in your hands you’d see the maggots all over the spine. It’s brilliant. The paperback is handsome, too, but moreso than dreamlike/odd it falls toward edgy/gritty. And if you haven’t read it and are wondering what the deal is with the turtle, well, then, read the book.
This I read in one sitting. We Need New Names was a finalist for the Man-Booker Prize and why was obvious in the reading – swift prose and a powerful narrative voice telling a damn good story. The hardcover (left) is electric yellow with skinny typography, which gets the exotic setting and the skinny legs of the young protagonist & her pals. The plane in the center takes the protagonist from her friends in Zimbabwe to America, and her aunt. The paperback (right) borrows much of the same palette but has the feel of U.S. propaganda painted on wood panels, maybe the side of someone’s home in Zimbabwe shortly before it’s bulldozed by Revolutionaries. As you might notice, the book got some good attention. Paperbacks often wear awards & praise like generals wear war medals, to gaudy results. This cover handles its accolades well. I hope it means this book will be noticed and read.
Perhaps you’ve also noticed that all these entries are debut books by women writers. All I can say is, so they are. It’s exciting because every book here is incredible and these writers are young and just getting their motors going. The Panopticon was written by a Scottish poet. The protagonist is a young girl and the setting is a prison. The hardcover (left) gets the prison (bars, keyhole), but the paperback (right), in a very subtle upgrade, really hints at what kind of prison – circular, with a watchtower in the middle to observe all prisoners at once. Also hypnotic, radiating lines which evoke the concentric circles of the prison and the protagonist’s often drug-induced, quasi-hallucinogenic, paranoid experience of her world. Both covers are stunning and capture well how unlike this book is from almost any other. And of note, both covers may have subconscious appeal to Hitchcock fans. And that’s all for now, til the next installment – happy reading, whether your book be hardcover, paperback, or e-.
Here’s a great new “long-list” of titles nominated for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. From their website:
“Now in its fifth year, the Walter Scott Prize has become a prestigious and distinctive star in the firmament of literary prizes. Honouring the achievements of Sir Walter Scott, the founding father of the historical novel, the Prize rewards writing of exceptional quality with a setting of ‘Sixty Years Since’, echoing the subtitle of Scott’s most famous work, Waverley. With a winner’s prize of £25,000, it rivals the biggest and best literary prizes in the UK.”
Of the six titles on the list this year, Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen doesn’t seem to be available yet here in the States, but all the rest are already major titles for us: from Hachette, Kate Atkinson‘s revelatory Life After Life. New just this month from Skyhorse, comes The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber. A favorite with some of our own, from Random House, Harvest, by Jim Crace, author of the award winning, Being Dead, among many great books. If you don’t already know Eleanor Catton, she’s already won the Man Booker Prize for this one, The Luminaries, from Hachette. The new book from the author of Fatherland, Robert Harris makes the list with An Officer and a Spy, from Random House.
There’s a pretty wide range of history, subject and style here, on what is now among our favorite lists of the new award season. Read away.
I love books. And movies. And books about movies, well don’t get me started—those are like the literary equivalent of Reese’s peanut butter cups. For me, one of the most fascinating periods of history is the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the 1920s till the early 1950s, the era of the Studio System and such moguls as Irving Thalberg and Samuel Goldwyn. The former served as inspiration for the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel The Last Tycoon; the latter is the subject of A. Scott Berg’s second biography, Goldwyn, an insightful and comprehensive portrait of one of the most powerful Hollywood figures to rule a studio. (And thanks to Mr. Berg’s recent stop at Town Hall for his new, and impressive biography on Woodrow Wilson, the University Book Store has signed copies of both Wilson and Goldwyn.)
The Studio System excelled at doing two things: producing films with astonishing efficiency (at its peak, Goldwyn’s studio MGM produced 52 features a year, one for every week) and promoting its stars into pop culture icons. One of the most iconic stars ever to emerge from Hollywood was Elizabeth Taylor, the subject of M. G. Lord’s The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice. Lord’s award winning book recounts how Taylor—in such films as BUtterfield 8, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—was able to subtly embodied the ideas of postwar feminism through her performances and also discusses her lasting legacy as an AIDS activist. For those wanting further evidence of Lord’s thesis, University Book Store has a compilation of four Elizabeth Taylor films, which includes her Academy Award-winning turn in BUtterfield 8.
One can hardly mention Elizabeth Taylor without conjuring up the specter of Richard Burton. Their romance and marriage defined Celebrity in the 1960s and early 70s. Last year, The Richard Burton Diaries were published and is now available in paperback and offers invaluable insight into one of the screen’s master thespians.
The 60s and 70s were a turbulent time for the movies. Television had chipped away at the once powerful studios, leaving them shells of their former selves. Mick Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution recounts how the Hollywood reinvented itself for the modern era. Along similar lines, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value examines the indelible mark horror films—from Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to Alien—made on cinema in the 70s and 80s.
The best contemporary writer on the movies and Hollywood is David Thomson, whose The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a witty, engaging, and entertaining reference to nearly every major figure in cinema. His most recent book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, comes out in paperback next month. Thomson explores how the movies first entranced America and what it means now that the silver screen is shrinking and shrinking to the point where we can (and sometimes, do) watch a movie on an iPhone. New Yorker film critic David Denby’s book, Do The Movies Have a Future?, furthers the discussion started by Thomson and will also be released in paperback later this month.
Of course, The New Yorker‘s most famous film critic was the formidable and influential Pauline Kael, the subject of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark. She is also the only film critic to have a selection of her reviews published in the prestigious Library of America series. In Life Itself, Roger Ebert’s wonderful memoir, the critic shares how much cinema shaped his life. Both works show, in turn, how Kael’s and Ebert’s criticism shaped the movies we know and love today.
Finally, the fall season always heralds a new slate of literary adaptations, and this year is no different. Among the films based on books that you’ll be hearing about include 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, already touted as a Best Picture favorite; The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s account of Charles Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes; Horns by Joe Hill, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, who also portrays Beat poet Allen Ginsburg in Kill Your Darlings; and Life of Crime, an adaptation of The Switch by the late, great Elmore Leonard.
As always, we recommend reading the book before seeing the film.