Saturday, June 28, 2014


The Gold Rush notwithstanding, California’s most precious commodity may be the nugget of an idea, which turns into a story, which graces a piece of literature for the ages. The number of famous authors who lived and worked in San Francisco alone is remarkable, from Ambrose Bierce and Dashiell Hammett to Upton Sinclair and Mark Twain. Several of them even have streets named after them. Stroll across Keroauc Drive. Stretch your legs at William Saroyan Place.

But the convergence of literature and place is a curious one, and it begs a question: Do we really need to create monuments to writers? Shouldn’t the writer’s plays or poems or novels be enough of a legacy? The answers: Yes and yes. While a writer’s creations are legacy enough, it can also be fascinating to understand the setting that sparked that creativity.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


My Mantelpiece: A Memoir of Survival and Social Justice, recently published by Why Not Books, is Carolyn Goodman’s account of her lifetime of love and loss, courage and conviction. Her life was punctuated by tragedy—a brother’s premature death, childhood molestation, teenaged abortion, a mother’s callousness, a father’s suicide, the loss of two husbands. But hers is foremost a tale of survival, of turning personal anguish into social conscience—and the fulcrum of this tragedy-and-triumph dichotomy was the murder of her son in the summer of 1964.

That was Freedom Summer, when the forces of good went on the offensive, flooding the South with northern college students who would start Freedom Schools and register African-American voters. On the very first day of summer, Carolyn’s 20-year-old son, Andy, was one of three volunteers to disappear in Philadelphia, Mississippi, an event that galvanized the nation and transformed the civil rights struggle.

The names Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner—their bodies were discovered 44 days later—still spark raw emotion in those who recall the era’s turmoil. Carolyn Goodman turned her son’s martyrdom into a mission. She formed The Andrew Goodman Foundation, organized an anniversary Freedom Summer, and produced documentary films celebrating young activists. In 1999, she was arrested at a protest in New York City—at age 83. She passed away in 2007, but not before recounting her life—and the lessons therein—in full.

On the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project, My Mantelpiece marks the first time that a family member of one of the victims has expounded about the experience. It is an intimate perspective of Freedom Summer—the story of one mother, one cause, one decision, one tragedy, and the myriad emotions it spawned, from guilt to pride to resolve.

But it also one of many ways in which Freedom Summer has been explored over the years—historically, legally, spiritually, in fiction, in books for adults and for young readers, in first-person accounts and academic studies. A journey through the literature is a means of examining this seminal moment in the civil rights struggle from all angles.

Friday, June 13, 2014


Prospective authors, take note: The list of literary legends who didn’t attend college for one reason or another includes Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Truman Capote, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, William Saroyan, John Cheever, Sherwood Anderson, and Louis L’Amour. And the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, and Henry Miller made only fleeting attempts at the university experience.

But before you decide to give the heave-ho to higher education, you might be interested to learn that these folks went to Harvard: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Updike, Horatio Alger, Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs, John Dos Passos, George Plimpton, Michael Crichton, Peter Benchley, and Eric Segal.

Every year, the U.S. News & World Report puts out a ranking of American colleges and universities—based on all sorts of criteria. But I wondered: How would we rank the way they’ve churned out celebrated writers?

Sunday, June 8, 2014


In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King commented on how he was considered to be prolific despite having written “only” a few dozen novels to date (this was back in 2000). Yet he contended he was nothing compared to a British mystery novelist named John Creasey, who wrote more than five hundred novels under ten different names. On the other hand, some renowned novelists have written fewer than five books in a career. “Which is okay,” King stated, “but I always wonder two things about these folks: how long did it take them to write the books they did write, and what did they do with the rest of their time?”

Well, here are the 17 writers who are to “prolific” what King is to “horror.” In fact, King isn’t even close to making this list. But Creasey? He’s ninth.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


In 1934, a male English author named Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called A Handful of Dust, which focused on the breakdown of a marriage and has been named more than once as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It was originally called A Handful of Ashes, but after a dispute with his American publishers, Waugh renamed it—after a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” which was written a dozen years earlier.

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

But “The Waste Land,” regarded as one of the century’s most important poems and loosely following the legends of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail, also borrowed its title from another source. In his notes about the poem, Eliot wrote, “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book.” That book, From Ritual to Romance, was an academic examination of the roots of the King Arthur legend and had been published only two years earlier.

So let’s recap, shall we? Over the course of just 14 years, one book borrowed its title from a poem, which borrowed its title from another book. Oh, and a line from “The Waste Land” also led to the title of two Iain Banks novels—Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward. And another poem by Eliot (“Whispers of Immortality”) contributed the title for P.D. James’s The Skull Beneath the Skin. And still another bit of poetry by Eliot (“Gerontion”) sparked the title of another book, this one a detective novel by Peter Robinson called In A Dry Season. Who says all literature isn’t derivative?

Then again, these titular literary loans are far more common that you might think. Charles Dickens did it. Ernest Hemingway did it. William Faulkner did it. E.M. Forster, George Orwell, Margaret Mitchell, Maya Angelou… they all borrowed. In fact, Aldous Huxley, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck, and Madeleine L’Engle were serial borrowers.

So for the Why Not 100, I have come up with a list that honors the best-of-the-best of the borrowers—74 titles from renowned authors, all of which were taken from other literary creations.