Author Archives: Mike Harvkey

PW Best Books 2012: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Mike Harvkey -- October 22nd, 2012

Leading up to the November 5th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2012, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post: 

Over the course of Tana French’s four Dublin Murder Squad novels, a lot has happened. For one, French has become a very good writer. Her last two in the series, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor, are great books; moody, enthralling, truly mysterious, and well-written, with only rare moments of laziness when French leans on too-familiar metaphors. A lot has happened to Ireland too since French wrote her first novel, In the Woods. Published in 2007 in the U.S., that novel mixed a mysterious murder and a decades-old disappearance with economics and politics in the guise of a planned motorway project. Dublin was booming then, the Celtic Tiger at full roar. By Faithful Place, French’s third novel, Dubliners were starting to worry, a bit, about the increasingly unstable real estate market. 

In the Ireland of Broken Harbor, the Tiger is dead, its corpse carpeted by maggots. And the way that the Irish economy, as seen primarily in its boom-bust real estate market, figures in French’s books has also evolved. In Broken Harbor, the failed economy isn’t simply a shady backdrop—it’s motivation for murder. When three of a family of four are killed in their home in a depressingly under-populated seaside housing estate, Detective Mick Kennedy (from Faithful Place) is assigned to solve the case that left only the mother alive, maimed and unable (or is it unwilling?) to speak when the police first visit her in hospital. French saddles Kennedy with a lot of obstacles to create tension: a former workplace screw-up that puts pressure on him to solve this increasingly dark and complicated case; a rookie partner who may not be up to the task; an unstable sister who needs constant care; and a haunted past that connects Kennedy (and his sister) to Broken Harbor—a site now whitewashed into the generic, real estate-friendly “Brianstown” development. Like Jo Nesbo, who grounds his latest tale in Oslo’s economic issues, which have led to a heroin epidemic, French makes expert use of the very real and serious economic problems that her adopted country has faced in recent years.

No one in Ireland is talking about recovery right now, not yet. While this is bad news for the Irish on a daily basis, every year or two, when Tana French turns her mind to Ireland’s troubles, it’s great news for everyone else. 

PW Best Books 2011: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Mike Harvkey -- October 26th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Johnson begins his deceptively slim book with “In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.” This compact paragraph blooms into a brief scene of the attempt which, like the book, resonates with meaning greater than the sum of its small moving parts. Grainier helps three railway men make “every effort” to chuck the guy off a bridge. But he has a desperate hold on life and breaks free; either frustrated or impressed, his would-be executioners are by then happy to let him go. He squirrels his way to safety and Grainier, on his walk home with a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla for his nursing wife, sees the man everywhere: “Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.” Again and again Johnson uses a moment to reveal character and show how easily the trajectory of a life can be changed.

The novella traces Grainier’s life, with Johnson flitting dexterously in time, sometimes covering decades in one chapter and then, in the next, a single event. Always, he uses a few precise words to convey a great deal. As in this sentence, which ends the attempted killing: “Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.” What a wonderfully odd choice Johnson has made to repeat the “a,” evoking wind in the singular and complicating the rhythm of his sentence. This is a expertly-crafted book, more etched from granite than written down, it seems to me. Continue reading

Are U.K. Book Designers Better?

Mike Harvkey -- September 2nd, 2011

Yes, the art of book design in the United States has come a long long way in the last ten years, with a few designers, like Chip Kidd, and a handful of comic book artists, attaining something of a cult status. But check out the striking difference between the English version of Howard Jacobson’s No More Mr. Nice Guy, and the American version.

Here’s what American readers are getting come September:

Snooze.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is what U.K. readers were given in 1998:

Now you're talking!

Granted, naked noseless women are far more attention-grabbing than a business man prostrate on a rococo queen-size bed, so tuckered out from making money (or making his money make money) that, to quote Capote, it was “as if sleep were a weapon that had struck him from behind.”

But content aside, there is an obvious and often disparity in artistry, here.

What do you think? Is this about the Brits just being better? Or is this about willingness to take risks? Have you come across wildly different covers for different editions of books you love?

Book Tie-In Videos: A ‘Declaration of Principles’

Mike Harvkey -- December 13th, 2010

While editing the online review of New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton’s first book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (Crown Business), I came across this video tie-in on Amazon:

While I hate to be hateful and, like David Denby, try to resist the snark monster whenever possible, I do think that as we speed helplessly down this information autobahn, authors and publishers should start to adopt some basic aesthetic principles.

1. Readers don’t want information. David Mamet, paraphrasing Stanislavsky’s paraphrasing of Aristotle, said it well when he said, “The audience doesn’t want information, it wants drama.” Granted, he was talking about, um, drama. Dramatic mediums. Not all books are created to deliver conflict and drama to the reader in a tidy, handheld package. But what we talk about when we talk about tie-in videos is marketing, and marketing is the desperate attempt to capture the increasingly fickel attention of people with money in their pockets, and marketing executives, or the authors or small presses who can’t afford to hire them, need to adopt this basic truth of human existence. Adapted for our age, what readers want, arguably more than anything else, is to be entertained. Continue reading

Poet, Editor, Critic, and now Publisher Max Winter on Jim Shepard’s Gojira, King of the Monsters

Mike Harvkey -- November 3rd, 2010

Cover Design by Michael Kupperman

Jim Shepard’s Gojira, King of the Monsters is out next week from Solid Objects, a New York press recently founded by poet and critic Max Winter and poet and translator Lisa Lubasch.

At 52 pages, the work falls into the murky and, for some reason, often controversial, realm between the “long short story” and the novella.

When I asked Winter how he’d come to be publishing a single short work by Jim Shepard, he said he’d been a fan of Shepard’s for years and contacted him when he and Lubasch decided to start the press. Shepard sent him Gojira, and Winter was “moved and fascinated. One immediate draw for me,” Winter said, “was what you could call the cult of Godzilla [the American-ization of the original Japanese title], an observed, long-standing intense interest in both the Japanese and American versions of the monster and the film. In addition, the movie has always been important historically, as an influence on other movies and as a metaphor for America’s status in the world at the time of its release.”

Set mostly in 1954, Shepard’s novella sticks closely to Eiji Tsuburaya, the real life special effects director of the historic film (known during production as only “project G”), revealing a Japanese man torn, like many, between home and work. “He was falling behind everywhere: in his wife’s affections and in his work’s responsibilities,” writes Shepard. Tsuburaya’s wife, Masano, is unhappy, and seems to shoulder the lion’s share of grief over the loss of their young daughter years before. She’s also not thrilled that Hajime, their 19-year-old son, wants to follow in dad’s footsteps; indeed, Tsuburaya gets him a job working on the film as a camera assistant helping to shoot the miniatures (of which there are many). Continue reading

PW Best Books 2010: Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War

Mike Harvkey -- November 1st, 2010

“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on silts and couples drinking beer in the sand.” This sentence begins Swift’s account of the last days of his grandfather, James Eric Swift, a bomber pilot for the RAF during WWII. But Bomber County is no biography. Swift circles his grandfather’s service to examine not just the man but also the myth that the second world war, unlike the first, failed to produce significant poetry; it lacked an image of sufficient horror to grasp the imagination of artists, so the thinking goes. Swift disagrees. The bombing campaign was to WWII what the trench was to WWI. “Bombing forced new verse,” Swift writes, bringing T.S. Elliot, Virginia Woolf, Andrew Marvell, James Dickey, John Ciardi, Stephen Spender and dozens of other poets, including poet-pilots, into a loose narrative that allows him to spiral off again and again on unexpected tangents. In this way the book reminded me a little bit of Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.

By using poetry and the sorrowful story of his grandfather’s fate, Swift is also able to address the morality of sweeping destruction. The guilt question doesn’t come up until late in the book but when it does it sticks. “Again and again, in the poetry of this war, we find the new landscape of a bombed city; again and again, in the new landscape of this war, we find a poet going out for a walk in the rubble.” Swifts’s grandfather, though not himself a poet, went for one of these walks. “He is thinking now, of his own work; he is considering his guilt,” Swift writes. “The early summer of 1943 marked the start of the moral problem of bombing and the close of my grandfather’s war. He was lost, neatly, at just the right time, and so I could tell you here the story of a hero…” Earlier, when considering for the first time the details of his grandfather’s work, he writes:

In the dusk, you go out to the plane, and sit on the grass, and smoke. You know that you will have no real food for ten hours. You have a Thermos of tea, and a piece of chocolate, but it will be so cold in the plane that you have to hold the chocolate in your mouth to warm it up. It will feel like minus fifty degrees and your teeth will ache, and so you get dressed up. Uniform, then a wooly, a thick jumper, then a fur-lined flying suit, with zips, so that if you are wounded they can unzip it from your body; on your feet, silk socks, then Air Force socks, then wool socks, then flying boots. The planes take off close. As one lifts, another is beginning to roll along the runway, and the next is joining the queue.

Throughout the book Swift’s prose is highly restrained; this is his only use of the second person. Of the numerous ways that Swift could have relayed this information, he chose the tricky second person, because it creates an immediate intimacy; that “you” is the reader, and the cockpit comes alive, and that “you” is also Frank Swift, and in this moment you feel Daniel Swift move a bit closer to a grandfather he only knows on paper.

Swift, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and The Times Literary Supliment, is an excellent writer (this is his first book), and Bomber County is a unique and beautiful book.

This Much Approval Means ‘I must be near the end of my career,’ says Franzen

Mike Harvkey -- September 28th, 2010

The author with his shovel.

In an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Franzen opens up about the fallout from his Corrections Oprah incident (for which he blames “the prevailing mood of philistinism”; being reviled set him back a year), the gap between men and women when it comes to books (calling it “a very destructive disconnect between the critical establishment and the predominantly female readership”), and his process, including earplugs, “pink noise” headphones, and blindfolds.

Since the run-up to the publication of Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and the Time magazine cover, Franzen-mania has taken on a blob-like character, growing ever bigger and devouring smaller books and writers in its path (something Franzen himself has done in the past). It shows no signs of slowing anytime soon, and the military hasn’t been called in to straif the creature yet. Of course frequent profiles, articles (like this one), and interviews help to feed the beast. But in the current climate (“Publishing’s dead! Run, Forrest, run!!”), a beast of a novel isn’t such a bad thing.

The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington sat down with Franzen in his “spartan writing studio in New York’s Upper East Side. The tiny room, furnished with a battered old desk and greasy-looking mattress, resembles a monastic cell. The walls are bare except for a single decorative plate. There is a tiny kitchen with one small saucepan.”

Read the full interview here.

Five Years After Katrina, Writers are Still Struggling with the Gulf Coast

Mike Harvkey -- September 15th, 2010

On September 1st, two new books were published that address the post-Katrina gulf coast in two very different ways.

Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press) was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (for Native Guard) Natasha Trethewey. In it, Trethewey combines poetry, prose, history, and correspondance with her incarcerated brother to relay a heartbreaking story of a region plagued by systemic troubles long before Katrina. Trethewey’s brother, Joe, was sentenced to 15 years for drug trafficking after he lost everything in the flood and couldn’t find a job in the ensuing months that would allow him to pay taxes owed on his devastated property. “The fact that I don’t plan on doing the things that got me here separates me from the people who don’t plan on getting caught. This is not my life,” he writes his sister from prison, and in a letter dated December 31, 2008, gives her the recipe for “sexy babies,” a cocktail he and his fellow inmates drink to celebrate the new year: hot coffee, milk, coco, lots of sugar, and a Snickers bar “if you’re lucky.” It’s an intimate, compelling read and an important addition to the post-Katrina narrative.

In Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six (Haymarket Books), journalist and New Orleans resident Jordan Flaherty draws from dozens of personal interviews to paint a bleak picture of a city clearly divided by race. Flaherty details the troubling, sometimes criminal behavior of the notorious New Orleans police, its officers overwhelmingly white in an overwhelmingly black community. Tension between the NOPD and the city’s African-American population were high before, during, and after Katrina. Like others, Flaherty looks at the many failures of the government, from the local to the federal level, pulling no punches in his assessment and using the longtime connection between New Orleans and Haiti, and the recent earthquake, to illuminate patterns that have been allowed to repeat themselves. Though his assessments are bleak, Flaherty avoids outright cynicism, seeing hope in the famous survivor spirit of the Big Easy. ”Community will sustain us,” he says, “when the cause seems hopeless.”

Galley of the Day special edition: Satori

Mike Harvkey -- August 13th, 2010

As the hottest summer on record in the history of humankind slowly sweats to a close, we here at Publishers Weekly are mourning the loss of some of our fabulous summer interns. They are the ones who work their delicate young fingers to the bone (paper cuts and all) to keep us from being buried, literally buried, in books. The book room is theirs, and they manage that thing like Patton managed soldiers. Well, actually, no, they don’t; they have a much lighter touch and are a lot more pleasant to be around.

By way of saying sionara, each outgoing intern has chosen not simply another boring old run-of-the-mill Galley of the DAY; they have picked a Galley of the MONTH, and this, in her own words, is Stacey’s pick:

Although I haven’t read this book, I’ve decided on my last day as an intern at Publishers Weekly that this is my pick for galley of the month. Why? In the two months I’ve been here, we have received at least eight copies of Satori, each set of two addressed to a different editor at the magazine. That takes dedication (or desperation). Here is the cover copy for the book, which is based on Trevanian’s Shibumi:

“It is the fall of 1951 and the Korean War is raging. Twenty-six-year-old Nicholai Hel has spent the last three years in solitary confinement at the hands of the Americans. Hel is a master of hoda korosu or “naked kill,” is fluent in more than six languages, and has honed extraordinary “proximity sense” –an extra-awareness of the presence of danger. The Americans offer him freedom in exchange for one small service: to go to Beijing and kill the Soviet Union’s commissioner to China. It’s almost certainly a suicide mission, but Hel accepts. Now he must survive chaos, violence, and betrayal while trying to achieve his ultimate goal of satori—the possibility of true understanding and harmony with the world.”

Satori comes out March 2011, from Grand Central Publishing.

Galley of the Day: The Best American Noir of the Century

Mike Harvkey -- August 11th, 2010

We’re excited about this new tome, even though it’s far less epic than the recent Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, which is great but frankly too heavy to lug around unless you’re training for a triathlon.

Writer James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, the series editor of Best American Mystery Stories, dug through 100 years of pulp writing, from 1910 to right now, to find what they consider to be the best 39 hard-boiled tales of the last century. What makes the book particularly great is that giants of the genre like James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, and Dennis Lehane bump up nicely against lesser knowns like William Gay, Tom Franklin, and our personal favorite, Scott Wolven.

Scott Wolven

Wolven bears the remarkable distinction of appearing in the Best American Mystery series seven times in a row, which is more than twice as many appearances as the next most-often writer, Joyce Carol Oats. The story that appears is Controlled Burn, the title story of his excellent 2005 collection. Here’s what Ellroy, self-professed demon dog of American crime fiction, and Penzler had to say about Wolven: “Almost any story in Controlled Burn would fit comfortably between the covers of this book, but the lives depicted in this story, of people who chose ‘an easy way to make a hard living,’ as the author once described it, are especially deserving.” Indeed they are, and that assessment is what makes Wolven’s characters so horrifically human.