Louise Penny (Photo by Jean-François Bérubé); Hillary Rodham Clinton (Photo by Joe McNally); James Patterson and Bill Clinton (Photo by David Burnett)
No mystery here: Before the year’s out, Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a best-selling novelist. The former secretary of state is working on a thriller with Louise Penny, author of the popular Chief Inspector Gamache series (rave).
“State of Terror” will be released Oct. 12. According to the book’s joint publishers, Simon & Schuster and St. Martin’s, the story follows the harrowing adventures of a new secretary of state who must rebuild America’s weakened position and stop a series of horrific terrorist attacks.
In a statement about her collaboration with Clinton, Penny said, “Before we started, we talked about her time as Secretary of State. What was her worst nightmare? ‘State of Terror’ is the answer.” With all due respect, I think we’ve already lived through Clinton’s worst nightmare. The only question is how recognizable Donald Trump will be in these pages.
This project mirrors an earlier partnership between James Patterson and Hillary’s husband, Bill. In 2018, the guys published an alternately dull and silly thriller called “The President Is Missing,” which sold approximately 87 gazillion copies (review and video). Look for the sequel — “The President’s Daughter” — on June 7.
Geoffrey Kloske, publisher of Riverhead Books, tells me this might be a lucrative new trend for retired Washingtonians. “For politicians, book publishing used to be the first stop on the way out of town. Now they never have to leave. After four or five memoirs the material runs thin. But this innovation should offer politicians book advances even after they’ve denuded their life story."
Kloske has a great idea: What politician and fiction writer would you like to see produce a novel together? Using this brief form, name the two authors, suggest a title and give me a one-sentence description. We may use your answer in a future story, but we promise not to turn your email address over to Senate investigators.
Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama record their podcast for Spotify. (Photo by Rob DeMartin/Spotify via AP); Harper Perennial
Podcasts are the bitcoins of online media: Their actual value is questionable, but we’re crazy about them! By one estimate, there are more than 1,750,000 podcasts, which is a lot for people who can’t remember if “Bridgerton” is on Netflix or Hulu. But the hysteria continues unabated.
This week Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen launched a podcast on Spotify called “Renegades: Born in the USA” (story). The president and the rock star promise a show that offers “personal, intimate conversations on race, fatherhood, marriage, and the future of America,” because that’s what personal, intimate conversations are like.
Ignore me. I’m just bitter because a Famous Novelist and I tried for years to sell a podcast about books back when the industry was just taking off. We passed through a gauntlet of podcast “networks” that were about 15 minutes old but acted like they were the next Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Everybody loved our pilot episode but thought it might be better if it were completely different. One producer told us bluntly, “Nobody wants to hear you two chat,” and then described his brilliant new podcast that involved a man dialing random phone numbers.
If only the Famous Novelist and I had had a copy of the new book from the McElroy brothers called “Everybody Has a Podcast (Except You).” Justin, Travis and Griffin produce more than 10 podcasts, including the long-running “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” so they bring valuable experience (and zany comedy) to their book.
The brothers offer all kinds of trenchant advice (“Structure is good”) and help readers turn their obsessions into viable podcast themes like, say, cereal. But hang on: Justin already produces that one. “It’s a meditative show,” he says, called “The Empty Bowl,” co-hosted with “a cereal blogger.” (No, I’m not making any of this up.)
There’s a helpful chapter on what equipment you’ll need and good advice about keeping the show moving, editing audio files, adding music, getting people to listen and maybe even making some money. I hate to admit it, but “Everybody Has a Podcast (Except You)” is funny, self-deprecating and, yes, smart and encouraging. If you’re interested in podcasting and you want to get further than a Famous Novelist and I did, the McElroys’ book is a good place to start.
Walter Pater wrote, “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Nico Walker knows something of that kind of success. After serving as an Army medic in the Iraq War, he became a heroin addict and then a bank robber. In prison he wrote a celebrated autobiographical novel called “Cherry” (rave). He sold the movie rights for $1 million. Last year, he married Rachel Rabbit White, a provocative poet and former sex worker referred to in Vanity Fair as the “hooker laureate.”
That’s a lot of gem-like flame to keep burning. And it’s about to get hotter. “Cherry,” starring Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo, opens today in theaters and will stream on Apple TV+ March 12 (trailer). Walker has seen bits of the movie but has no intention of watching the whole thing. “I do not think it would do my mental health much good,” he tells me. “I have moved on.”
Clearly, it’s been a jarring period. After almost nine years in prison, he was released on the very day the pandemic lockdown began in Mississippi. “The irony was not lost on me,” he says. But he’s grown deeply skeptical of the covid-19 crisis, which he claims “is sustained by a few bad actors.” The lockdowns are part of an “ongoing state of mass deception” that most people are afraid to question. “I know beyond any reasonable doubt that the pandemic narrative is not on the level,” he says, “and that the public is lied to and extorted.” (Read The Washington Post's fact-based coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.)
What troubles Walker more, though, is our passive attitude toward America’s military adventures around the world. “There is no sense of urgency about ending these unexplained wars we have been made to cosign for by the inexhaustible cavalcade of charlatans that has presided over us for as long as I can remember,” he says. “We are on a prison ship, headed into the rocks. The crew are all cartoon sociopaths. They are as devoid of sense as they are of scruples and empathy, and we are in chains below the decks. If Americans came together, we could stop it all in a day.”
Walker expects to publish a second novel soon — an action-packed story that takes place in and out of prison. “I hope it won’t suck,” he says. “I’m under the impression it’s good enough, but I have deluded myself before, so I never can tell.”
Mia Farrow with her young daughter Dylan Farrow from “Allen v. Farrow.” (HBO/Warner Media); Arcade Publishing; W. W. Norton
Don’t quote me on this. Amid a storm of publicity, “Allen v. Farrow” started streaming Sunday on HBO. The docuseries reinvestigates claims that Woody Allen molested his 7-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow (review). As he’s done before, Allen denied the allegations, but a fresh objection came from a curious source.
Skyhorse Publishing contends that HBO and the filmmakers have infringed on Allen’s copyright by using clips from the audiobook version of his recent memoir, “Apropos of Nothing” (epic pan). It’s a clever way to include Allen’s “responses” in a documentary he eschewed, but is it legal? In a statement, the publisher has threatened to sue, saying, “Neither the producers nor HBO ever approached Skyhorse to request permission. . . . We believe that its unauthorized use of the audiobook is clear, willful infringement.”
It may be “willful,” but whether it’s “clear” is a matter of legal ambiguity, which is essentially a welfare program for copyright attorneys. U.S. copyright law carves out an exception for “fair use,” which allows a book reviewer (or a documentary filmmaker) to quote passages from a book without having to get permission. But the law provides no definitive guideline about how much is too much when it comes to quotation, saying only that judges should consider “the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.” That flexible declaration keeps writers guessing.
The muffling effect on scholarship is substantial. My friend Lisa Zeidner, who teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, has just published a book of literary criticism titled “Who Says?: Mastering Point of View in Fiction.” Her book includes almost 200 quotations to demonstrate her analysis. But many of those quotes required getting permission from the publishers — at a cost. For a single paragraph from “Lolita,” Penguin Random House charged $250. In other cases, permission was simply denied.
Permission costs are one reason textbooks are so expensive. For instance, Zeidner says that editors of poetry anthologies find that some iconic writers “are simply overlooked these days because their permissions are so prohibitive. Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson continue to break the bank!”
Biographies, histories, historical novels and works of criticism are all cramped by such overbearing control. The Constitution established copyrights “to promote the progress of science and useful arts,” not to smother it.
Republic Book Publishers
Abe Lincoln shot down again. For Republican politicians, “cancel culture” is a boogeyman of dazzling dexterity, capable of inflaming donors’ paranoia and opening their wallets. But that doesn’t mean the threat is entirely illusory.
Republic Book Publishers is a relatively new company in Washington devoted to conservative titles. Last fall, Republic published “Old Abe,” a historical novel by John Cribb about President Lincoln during the Civil War. Hoping to catch some holiday sales, the publisher bought an ad for the novel on Facebook. Weirdly, the ad was rejected. In a cryptic note, Facebook said it “didn’t comply with our Advertising Policies.” For some reason, it got tagged “Ads About Social Issues, Elections or Politics.” Which, in this case, could only mean the presidential election of 1860. ("Stoppeth the Steal!") Undeterred, Republic submitted the additional information that Facebook requested to guarantee transparency. “We followed all the protocols and jumped through all the hoops," Republic’s ad designer tells me. "I had to submit my driver’s license as verification and wait almost two weeks to receive a PIN code in the U.S. Mail. Once received, I verified myself and still got denied.” Four times.
In January, Cribb took his frustration to conservative media, penning an essay titled: “Facebook Cancels Abe Lincoln.” His cause gained traction on Fox News. By all appearances, Facebook had spurned a perfectly reputable historical novel about Abe Lincoln simply because it was released by a conservative publisher. In a sign of the times, Republic began to use Facebook's rejection as a peg to market the novel: “Old Abe” soared up Amazon's bestseller list.
Like any imperious monopoly, Facebook never told Republic exactly why its ads were rejected, and it took me several weeks to get a definitive answer from the social media company. But I finally learned that “Old Abe” had triggered Facebook’s temporary ban on “social issues, elections or politics” because its ad contained a blurb from Vice President Pence saying, “Best Lincoln book I’ve ever read.”
I realize that we live in politically volatile times, but as provocations go, “Best Lincoln book I've ever read” is not exactly “Vive la révolution!” And what has Mike Pence done to render even his book recommendations too incendiary to print? Facebook says that it’s not singling out conservatives; it's banning any ads from the right or the left that could imperil our civil order. But that’s as ridiculous as it is specious. All ads reflect social issues and politics. Consumerism itself stems from a particular social and political point of view.
The need for intelligent editorial judgment is not a valid excuse to let social media algorithms carpet bomb free speech. If it faced actual competition — or legal peril — Facebook could easily distinguish between advocating a violent attack on the Capitol and recommending a novel about the 16th president. Lincoln deserves better and so do we.
Levine Querido; author Donna Barba Higuera (Photo courtesy of Levine Querido)
“I’d give anything to have foot warts right now.” That’s Lupe’s reaction to square dancing. She’s the dead-pan hilarious narrator of a YA novel called “Lupe Wong Won’t Dance,” by Donna Barba Higuera. Baseball is Lupe’s life, and if she earns straight As this year, she’ll get to meet her idol, major league pitcher Fu Li Hernandez. But then middle school throws her a curveball: required square dancing class, which she describes as “a bizarre hillbilly rap.”
I don’t get to read a lot of YA fiction these days, but “Lupe Wong Won’t Dance” caught my eye last week when it won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Heartfelt, funny and smeared with just the right touch of middle-school snottiness, this novel is a delight!
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen (Photo by BeBe Jacobs); Grove/Atlantic
I rarely read other critics’ reviews of books I’ve reviewed because it’s so painful to see how wrong I was. But this week raised a curious disagreement. Viet Thanh Nguyen has published “The Committed,” a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning spy novel, “The Sympathizer.” In my review, I wrote, “If you haven’t read ‘The Sympathizer,’ you’ll be hopelessly lost, so don’t even think of jumping in here. The setting and action of this second book are different, but ‘The Committed’ is so dependent on earlier relationships and plot details that these two novels are more like volumes of the same continuing story” (review).
But the same day, reviewing “The Committed” for Some Other East Coast Newspaper, Dwight Garner wrote, “History really comes at these men. You’ll remember them, if you read ‘The Sympathizer,’ but if you haven’t it’s not necessary; Nguyen neatly brings you up to speed.”
It’s perilous to judge what someone else needs to know when you already know it. I’m reminded of the time I dragged my younger daughter to see a silent version of “Macbeth” and told her it wouldn’t matter that she didn’t know the plot. Everything made perfect sense to me; it was two hours of baffling pantomime for her.
This is a perennial challenge for book critics (and publishers). When talking about a sequel or a book in a series, we want to encourage new readers to join, but that’s not always effective. If you’re considering Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, you could pick and choose, right? Same with Terry Pratchett’s numerous Discworld novels. But what about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy? David Mitchell’s fantastical novels?
Sequels don’t just rely on plot details that can be neatly filled in; they’re built on the author’s evolving understanding and the characters’ emotional strata. All that gives meaning and resonance to the next book. For instance, “Jack,” the fourth volume in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series makes sense on its own, but when you come to it after reading about Jack’s crushing struggles in book No. 2, it’s a profoundly different story (review).
Unlike Nguyen’s novels, I’m happy to stand alone on this issue.
The Washington Post Live hosts a conversation with The Post’s White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker and National Investigative Reporter Carol Leonnig about their book “A Very Stable Genius" on Jan. 24, 2020. (Kaz Sasahara/The Washington Post)
In early 2020, Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig — both Pulitzer Prize winners — published “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America.” Reviewing the book for The Post, Joe Klein said their reporting was “relentless, depressing and ultimately numbing; sort of like being an American citizen these past four years” (review).
It’s comforting to imagine that we’ve moved beyond that era of mendacity and chaos, but understanding what the country recently endured is crucial to our recovery. This week, “A Very Stable Genius” is out in paperback, updated with additional material. You can hear Rucker and Leonnig talk about their book and offer their detailed analysis of the Trump years during a streaming presentation from Politics & Prose Bookstore on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 5 p.m. ET (register here).
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, makes his way through a crowd of well-wishers at the 50th anniversary of the store in 2003. (Thor Swift/FTWP)
No one could accuse Lawrence Ferlinghetti of writing his memoir too early. The legendary poet and publisher released an autobiographical novel called “Little Boy” in 2019, just a few days before he turned 100. It’s an irrepressible celebration of a life intensely lived (review).
This week, the world mourns the passing of the man who once wrote, “I am anxiously waiting / for the secret of eternal life to be discovered” (obituary).
Whenever I visit family members in San Francisco, I stop by City Lights, the bookstore Ferlinghetti co-founded in 1953. Alas, I never saw him there, but a few days after writing about “Little Boy” in The Post, I received a brief message dictated by the author: “Here’s my gratitude for your so true review!”
Ferlinghetti’s political activism and his involvement with the landmark publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (story) eventually overshadowed his own early poetry, but give yourself a treat: There’s a compact edition from New Directions titled “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems” that is absolutely wonderful.
Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
to start her death-defying leap
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
“Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15),” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from “A Coney Island of the Mind,” copyright ©1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Mrs. Charles in the remote “classroom” she's been using for the past year. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
Class time, soon. When it comes to in-person learning, Maryland has been the most cautious state in the country (story). If all goes according to plan, my wife, a public school English teacher, will return to her classroom on April 6 — 389 days after she was sent home by the covid-19 pandemic. Initially, at least, her classroom will be a futuristic mix of kids in desks and kids on screens, the kind of school Max Headroom might have attended. But like everything else my wife does, she’ll make it work.
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