On January first, hot off a night of staying up late and consuming extraneous amounts of delicious food and alcohol, we stare at ourselves in the mirror in the milky light of winter morning and decide what we want to change about ourselves. And how to do it.
Do more? More exercise, more gratitude, more phone calls instead of Instagram hearts, more vegetables, more organization.
Or do less? Less sugar, less anger, less time in front of a screen, less worry.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck had an awkward launch—the opening story about Charles Bukowski's "success" felt less than inspiring—but quickly moved into an updated, passionate, and profanity-laden exhortation not to sweat the small stuff. And some big stuff as well.
It helped. I disconnected myself from getting outraged over minor issues and concentrated on what was more meaningful to me. I also pared back my Facebook time enormously. My feed had stopped showing me cute cat videos and instead bubbled with anger and ads. No thank you.
I also felt a warm glow of smugness. See?! My decision several years ago to stop folding my clothes and to just dump them into my dresser drawers was an example of how I was spending my precious time and emotional energy on important things, rather than domestic servitude.
One day, though, I was putting away a newly purchased black shirt and realized that I already owned four similar black shirts. One was on view at the top of the riot of shirts in my drawer, but the other three were hidden deep under the continental shelf of clothes that I rotated through every week.
Suddenly, my drawers were no longer Exhibit A of cleverly not giving a f*ck. There were an example of excess and inefficiency.
A few years ago, I'd breezed through Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (It helpfully puts the significant parts in bold type, so we impatient types can flip through it in 20 minutes and absorb the highlights.) I'd cleaned out several rooms after reading it, and I still regularly drop off items at Goodwill that no longer bring our family joy but could bring joy to someone else.
I never did try to learn how to fold my clothes using the KonMari Method. But that was about to change.
I watched a YouTube tutorial and then attacked my shirt drawer.
Sigh. It looked amazing.
I then tackled my daughter's shirt drawer. Thirty minutes later, her cute llama and Harry Potter and sailor-stripe shirts were folded tightly and lined up like the spines of books, one next to the other.
And, shocking the heck out of me, it brought me joy.
So, as with just about everything, there's no easy answer to self-improvement. To draw closer to health and happiness, some commitments focus on doing less. Less snacking, less obsessing, less time reading the comments on inflammatory posts. Some commitments focus on doing more. More walking, more meditation, more time with friends.
John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy made the character George Smiley an icon of espioage fiction. More than 25 years later, A Legacy of Ashes returns to the world of the British Secret Service and Smiley-disciple Peter Guillam, who, despite his best efforts to leave the past behind, finds himself entangled in old conflicts—their Cold War justifications now lost to the intervening decades.
The Hotel Years, a collection of short writings by Joseph Roth
Written over the decade leading to the outbreak of the second world war, and superbly translated by Michael Hoffmann, this little book makes wonderful reading for every aspiring journalist and novelist. I love it for its vivid observation and its elegiac sense of despair as the old European order yields to the rise of Fascism.
They never met. The one was an imperialist conservative, the other a disenchanted communist and left-leaning libertarian. But their parallel lives were driven by the same ideal of human liberty and democracy, and the same hatred of autocracy, whether from the Left or Right. Ricks makes his case with passion, and backs it with meticulous historical research.
I’m not sure why I returned to this classic account of one of the most absurd military blunders of all time: the suicidal cavalry charge of the British Light Brigade in 1854, at the height of the Crimean War. The charge was led by Lord Cardigan and ordered by Lord Lucan, who were not on speaking terms. Having been directed against the wrong target, the sabre-carrying horsemen of the Light Brigade hurled themselves against a fully armed battery of artillery with predictable results.
Perhaps there is present comfort to be found in revisiting one of history’s best-documented examples of unbridled human folly.
We've seen an explosion of graphic novels for kids in recent years, led by authors like Dav Pilkey, who's Captain Underpants and Dog Man series' have made readers out of kids who didn't think books were fun.
In 2015 two of the Newbery Honor books were graphic novels, Victoria Jamieson's Roller Girl and Cece Bell's El Deafo. Both are now finding their way into school reading curriculum (including my daughter's 5th grade classroom), giving even more kids a way into reading though a format that works for them.
This year there have been several stand out graphic novels for young readers, as well as young adults. The five books below are titles that may not have received the attention of the newest Dog Man, but are, in my humble opinion, all worthy of a look for anyone who has a kid who already enjoys--or might be interested in--graphic novels.
Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel by Mariah Marsden
A children's book classic reinvented. And it works. Marsden's graphic novel adaptation is a fantastic way to introduce L.M. Montgomery's spirited heroine to a new audience of young readers who might not otherwise discover Anne's adventures. Ages 7-12
Swing it, Sunny by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
In the follow-up to Sunny Side Up, summer is over and Sunny is starting middle school. Navigating middle school is strange enough but there is still the matter of Sunny's older brother to contend with... Another winner from this brother-sister duo. Ages 8-12
You may never look at your dryer--and especially the lint trap--the same way again. This wacky, wonderfully illustrated story of Lint Boy and his brother Lint Bear has a bit of a Tim Burton feel that is great fun to read. A good versus evil tale that speaks loads about teamwork. Ages 7-10
In her first graphic novel, Chanani tells a poignant story of a girl searching for answers about her Indian heritage. A piece of magical cloth holds the key to bringing her two worlds together in a warm story of family. Ages 10-14
Wings of Fire Graphic Novel #1: The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland and Mike Holmes (available January 2, 2018)
Following in the footsteps of other popular series, like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Tui Sutherland has adapted her bestselling Wings of Fire series for a graphic novels audience, kicking off the new year with book one. Ages 8-12
Ian Falconer's precocious porcine character has been delighting children since she arrived on the page in Olivia which promptly won a Caldecott Honor award. Since then, Falconer has sent Olivia to the circus among other adventures, including her latest as Olivia the Spy, a book we selected as one of our editors' picks for the best children's books of 2017.
A book by Maurice Sendak appears in Ian Falconer's picks below, along with two very interesting companions and commentary about why he chose these particular books. Look here for more celebrity favorites.
This is a slightly mournful tale about a dog named Jenny who runs away from home. All in black and white, the various episodes are very funny yet surreal. A giant baby, a pig who wears sandwich boards advertising sandwiches and on. I once said to Mr. Sendak that I thought that that was my favorite of his books. He bellowed back at me, in his usual way “So do I!!! I don’t know why other people don’t get it!!!”
Another surreal (bordering on incomprehensible) book. A young woman goes to London to be on the stage. On her arrival, confused, she is taken up by a kind stranger who takes her off to a lunch party at a fashionable restaurant. The guests are odd city creatures, including, among others, A Miss Whipsina Peters, “daughter of the famous flagellist”.
Joanna Barsh began her long career in global business as a production assistant in the movie industry, where she says she "spent my days trying to do my best, getting yelled out, and being bored." How times change. Now director emerita at McKinsey & Co., Barsh has written three books to help people move ahead and excel in their careers. The latest in this trilogy is Grow Wherever You Work: Straight Talk to Help with Your Toughest Challenges. Praised by Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Angela Duckworth (of Grit), Grow Wherever You Work includes case studies of the challenges faced by over 200 rising leaders on their way to the top. Barsh talked to the Amazon Book Review about her own work struggles, who will benefit from reading this new book, and her response to the #MeToo movement. If you'd like more of Grow Wherever You Work, sit tight. We'll have an exclusive excerpt later in the week.
Amazon Book Review: Joanna, what led you to write this book?
Joanna Barsh: My earlier research focused first on why some women rose to the top. It started with my own professional journey and personal questions – and I was 50 years old at the start. A few hundred interviews in, by this time including men CEOs too, we had shaped a leadership approach designed for executives (or anyone for that matter) seeking to lead through times of big changes. Our team at McKinsey & Company helped transform these concepts into experiential training for middle and senior level executives. We called it Centered Leadership, to reflect how most of what we experience gets better when we lead from our center.
I recognized that it did not work as well for younger professionals. In particular, young women would ask me questions that older professionals never raised, like, “What if you don’t have any passion?” or, “How do I move on from a career-stopping mistake?” Not only were their questions different, but they needed role models closer to their age and work experience. Confronted with remarkable senior women leaders, some would say, “I cannot see the steps from where I stand to where they sit,” or “I don’t want what they have sacrificed so much to obtain.”
My own Millennial daughters were among the skeptics. In a way, I embarked on this new research for them – to help guide them on their work journeys (without a heavy hand). More than two hundred interviews later, this time with remarkable men and women Millennials, I had the findings and material to help rising leaders earlier in their careers.
This time, younger female readers are going to find the book in my ‘trilogy’ that speaks to them. My first book helped women partway through their careers to lift their ambition and step up to lead. Brave men leaders, comfortable in their own skin, read it too. My second book, Centered Leadership, teaches everyone the steps to this leadership approach – whether they are expert facilitators and coaches or individuals looking to grow on their own. This third book is for younger women seeking more concrete guidance, without the preachiness or arrogance that older scholars inadvertently convey. That’s not to say that younger male readers aren’t going to find the book. It’s full of men’s stories too! In fact, I included stories of individual challenges to show that tough, strong women face bullies and that reflective men face their fears, in order to counter stereotypes.
Where does it fit with other books on the market?
There are lots of books on the market that teach you how to write a great resume, succeed in a job interview, or make a decision about which job is best for you. They’re focused on the process of finding jobs, succeeding in them, and winning that promotion. Don’t open my book for that instruction! GROW focuses on the harder challenges we all face in order to accelerate the emotional growth of rising leaders at work. It addresses questions like, “Is it time to leave your job?” and “How can you get the most out of a lousy review?” or “How do you learn to take good risks at work?” I’m sure there have been books like this in the past, but not filled with real life experiences of real people facing real challenges at work today. Their honest stories are like ‘instant experience’ for readers who don’t have years of personal work experience to draw on.
When you were starting out in your career, did you get meaningful advice or help from a mentor?
My first few jobs were in the movie business, and I can honestly say mentors were scarce, at least for lowly production assistants like me. I spent my days trying to do my best, getting yelled out, and being bored. My next two jobs were in retail, both with abusive, female bosses. I reached out to a senior executive who tried hard to protect me. His early advice was not to let my boss know that we were meeting. That said, as the situation worsened, he transferred me to a different area; one year later, he wrote a brilliant recommendation that helped me get into business school!
So, I benefitted from the impact of a sponsor early on—someone who sticks out their own neck to help you. While things are much better today, it’s still possible to work your way through five or even seven years without much mentorship – particularly if you’re different… or diverse. It’s well researched that managers tend to mentor younger people just like them. I’m hoping to change that with this book. My research participants span a wide range on every dimension: age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, marital status, and even where they come from. Over 40 countries are represented. I hope that managers who pick up this book will be inspired to mentor people who don’t look like them, but who bring a different perspective.
Is there advice that would have helped you that you didn’t get?
A lot of advice might have helped me reach higher and take the right kind of stand earlier. I caused a lot of trouble for my early bosses! It was important for me to exert my individuality and I did it in some regrettable ways. Had I gotten help to redirect that energy into learning the business, those first jobs would have been so much more rewarding. I met challenges by noting them, and then sticking my head as far into the sand as I could. It took awful physical symptoms of stress (as in, a bloody nose daily), for me to confront my situation. When I did, I reached out for help. My work life improved, although it took a few years to let go of so much stress.
What can work environments do to encourage productive mentoring?
Companies that value mentoring take measures right from the start. They assign young mentors to every newcomer during an onboarding process, but they also encourage every manager to be a mentor. It’s part of the culture and considered part of the job, too. All managers are evaluated on their commitment to mentoring – and their actions. That makes it easier for younger professionals to seek mentors, since they’re only doing half the work. Receptive managers do the other half.
Another part of the mentoring culture has to be respect for honest conversation. Most people don’t raise issues because they feel judged or fear career-limiting outcomes. A lot of those conversations are also difficult and uncomfortable for both parties. It takes skill to hold them effectively. Mistakes, poor reviews, lackluster work, reticence to speak up, overwhelming pressure are all opportunities for mentoring and professional growth, if managers and their team members are willing and able to face them directly. The first thing to do is to withhold judgment about the other person. Then stand in their shoes to experience the conversation from their perspective.
In the course of your work, have you encountered a common misperception about what it takes to build a successful career?
I sure have! It’s natural to assume that our own example is the way it’s done, and to foist that upon mentees, with great intentions, even if they are very different us. I write that it’s natural because organizations historically created career paths that everybody followed. Success was practically guaranteed by stepping in the footprints of the manager ahead, becoming like him, and working hard. It’s not like that today for a few reasons. What worked well in the past may not work at all in today’s faster changing, more unpredictable, and more complex work environment. Generalists have given way to specialists. People are forging their own paths and many are finding success at younger ages. It’s no longer good advice to put your head down, make your boss successful, and suck it up for ten years to become a vice president. Making your boss successful, of course, is still pretty good advice for anyone, but not the head down and waiting it out parts!
The #MeToo movement has revealed how widespread workplace harassment is – and how high the costs can be for both victim and perpetrator. What advice would you give to working people about avoiding, or dealing with, that peril?
None of the over 220 interviews covered sexual harassment, which is not to say that no one encountered that. However, a few individuals shared low points at work related to working with jerks, bullies, villains, creeps, or worse. Abuse of power lay at the center of those stories, and the way forward for the storytellers was clear. I was alert to these situations, given my own poor experiences early on.
The first step is self-awareness, which doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes, you might not recognize the signs and instead, blame yourself. Fear can also cause you to tolerate a bad situation longer than another person might. That happened to Hannu, who suffered greatly by someone he had brought into his startup. He had had no experience working with an irrational and explosive individual. Understandably, Hannu tolerated increasing abuse until his panic attacks were too big and too frequent to ignore. So, acknowledging that the other person is hurtful and abusive is a meaningful step forward.
The next step is to protect yourself by getting help, likely from someone with greater authority to change your situation. In one story in the book, Kayla went to her boss and boss’s boss to work out a different solution. The bosses had no option to get rid of the rude and explosive individual, but they offered Kayla the option of stepping out. When Kayla opted to stay in the situation, they took unprecedented steps to protect her from being alone with the bully.
The steps you take may vary based on your situation. It’s critical to protect yourself first. Only then can you gather the strength to help others. Sometimes Human Resources is part of the problem, and sometimes it offers the right kind of help to correct a bad situation. Elizabeth suffered so much at the hands of an abusive senior colleague that she prepared to leave. As the story unfolded, she turned to HR at the corporate office and got great results for her colleagues.
Your background is in business. Did writing books come easily to you? What challenges did you face in this new career?
Call me crazy, but I love writing. That’s a good thing, since I do an awful lot of rewriting. For me, writing is a by-product of thinking. When my thoughts are mixed up or confused, writing is tedious. Sometimes, the link from my brain to my typing fingers short circuits. That’s when I can say what I think but I’m at my wit’s end when it comes to writing down those thoughts. Luckily, that doesn’t happen often. If you find writing painful, practice speaking. Speak your piece and work from there.
I admit that I have two degrees in English literature and my first dream was to become a painter! So that mind’s eye to hand coordination is practiced. I also have comfort with simple words. My challenge is to structure my thinking well enough before starting to write things down. Wading through thousands of words in order to discover the structure is painful. It’s much better to start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, in order to draw the structure. I learned that working with someone who can be both sounding board and challenger eased the birth of the structure. My agent played that role a bit, and then my brother pitched in for the heavy lifting.
Most people face the challenge of getting published. If you’re starting out without the advantage of a platform or connections, start small. That’s what I did. I wrote white papers and articles with colleagues well before setting out to write a book. The internet is a beautiful thing! You can write micro-articles and publish them yourself. You can write posts on your social media. You can write stories. Do it over and over because you can. That may be enough to satisfy the urge to express yourself, and if it’s not, it could the start of the journey toward a book. For example, a few months ago I began a blog. I think four people read it regularly, but hey, that’s a start!
Do you have a writing tip or habit you’d like to share?
I start with intention. There are days I dread writing. I know I have to do it, and I’m not inherently excited. My writing is going to suck with that attitude. So, before I write (hours before), I reflect on what I love about the specific writing task ahead. It could be the people I’m writing about, the insight I want to express, or the readers who will benefit. I set my intention and feel grateful. Writing is a luxury. It’s a creative act, even when my output is technical. It’s a joy to struggle, because eventually, I will arrive at a solution that feels magical. Some people have to work in a factory. I get to sit at a desk and look out the window. That’s pretty greatWhat other books about work have inspired you?
I’ve read a lot of books about Meaning and Happiness, and still feel drawn to the next one. They’re not specifically about work, but they offer fantastic insight into making work more meaningful and fulfilling. The first one I found was Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. I was so inspired that I read Learned Optimism and then tracked him down to connect. It led me to Carol Dweck’s Mindset. My team brought me Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and I’ve read it over and over. Dr. Frankl wrote about the Holocaust, and how meaning can be derived: suffering (that is not gratuitous) offers it, but also love and work. I’m lucky in love and I’ve always enjoyed working hard. That book gave me the insight as to why.
I like small (as in short) books that nail their topic, like John Kotter’s Power and Influence. In general, I find a lot of business books hard to read. I fall asleep, I don’t relish the writing, or I lose the thread partway into it and have to plow through again. That’s when I go back to my favorite authors who write about life: Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton to name a few. Maybe that’s why my books include so many stories.
It's really hard to believe, but Diana Gabaldon continued her uber-popular Outlander series with Dragonfly in Amber over 25 years ago! Revisit eighteenth-century Scotland and the story of soldier Jamie Fraser and his time-traveling wife, Claire Randa (ok sure, you're watching the television adaptation now, because Sam Heughan is dreamy and all, but we all know the book is always better).
The Last Hack is vintage Christopher Brookmyre—equal parts adrenaline and empathy, a plot that opens out like a Japanese flower dropped in hot water, and characters so real you want to reach through the page and save them.
Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series (Rain Dogs, Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, etc.) is an addictive combination: police procedural, political thriller and historical fiction—it’s set during the Troubles in the ‘80’s in Northern Ireland, and features Sean Duffy, the only Catholic policeman in his unit—not a comfortable position. Creatively violent with flashes of a beautiful sorrow, and constantly, compulsively funny.
Phil Rickman's latest is among the best of his wonderful Merrily Watkins series. All on a Winter's Night blends family dynamics and dysfunction, murder, spirituality (and its inverse), politics and…Morris dancing, which is a lot more sinister than one might think, when carried out on a foggy night in a churchyard, beside an open grave. I can’t think of another author who could juggle Gurdjieff, Big Farma (not a typo…), Czechoslovakian thugs, and the diocesan exorcist of Hereford without batting an eye.
Jason Reynolds recently told me about one of the best days of his life: the day he took his mother to the National Book Awards gala where his book didn't take the prize, but the two of them got to see congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis win, and win again. That story says a lot about the kind of person Reynolds is, and his writing reflects his generous spirit.
This year Reynolds wrote three books for young people, including Long Way Down; one of our top picks for the best young adult books of 2017.
I loved this book for many reasons, but the one that stands out is Ward’s ability to capture the voice of an adolescent boy as he grapples with a harsh reality, while simultaneously navigating a tangible surreality. Such beautiful grit.
An in-depth look at the intellectual icon that strips away the cliche and cartoonish figure we think of when we think of Albert Einstein. It gets into his ego, his certainty, his family, and of course, his brain.
I bought this at the airport—and NOT from an airport bookstore, which is to say, I had low expectations. That’s why it was surprising when this book, a story about how a tragic accident involving a teenager leaving nothing salvageable but his heart, turns everyone who knows him and even some people who don’t, upside down.
Jann Wenner wanted a biography. As founder and Editor in Chief of Rolling Stone magazine, he has wielded an outsized influence over popular culture for decades, and his biography would have to match. When Wenner launched his “sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper” in 1967, it also shot him into the whirlwind; soon he was socializing with the likes of John and Yoko, Mick , Janis, and Jimi, while indulging in the excesses inextricably intertwined with the rock-and-roll lifestyle. His success was deserved; as an editor, his eye was confident and sharp, and as the magazine grew in stature through the 1970s, his direction fostered the careers of Hunter S. Thompson, Annie Leibovitz, and Greil Marcus, just three of the many counterculture outliers to grace its pages. (Maybe grace isn’t always the right word.)
One might assume that he’d been planning a monument to himself all along, but in hiring Joe Hagan to write it, he might have gotten more than he bargained for. Wenner kept an exhaustive archive of all of his records and correspondence, and he gave Hagan full access. He also gave his permission--or at least acceded to it--to write the story as he saw fit, with all the sticky facts that unfailingly accompany a life so large. And, man, did Hagan pull it off. Sticky Fingers is overstuffed with anecdotes, interviews, and history that not only evoke Wenner’s persona in all its grandiosity and creative energy, but also that of the era he helped create.
One way to know that the book is good: Although Wenner reportedly regrets the result (he has denounced it as “tawdry”), he doesn’t dispute it. Hagan did him a favor. This is certainly not hagiography, but ultimately, Wenner will loom larger for it.
Hagan met us at Book Expo last summer to talk about the book--long before Wenner had a chance to read it. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Growing up, Jann Wenner was something of a preppie, maybe a little uptight. How did he become Jann Wenner, chronicler of rock and roll and the counterculture?
It really started in high school, a boarding school in Los Angeles called Chadwick. It was [attended by] all the children of celebrities, near Bel Aire in Hollywood. He felt like an outsider, but he got in by becoming the yearbook editor. Once he was the yearbook editor, he was arranging the pecking order, which was very important to him early on. He became very interested in social strata and social climbing. He was shameless about it, and people knew this about him.
He was listening to Johnny Mathis at this point, but later on, as he goes to Berkeley, he will discover drugs and rock and roll. He's right there in the center of it as it's starting to happen. He has a column at [the The Daily Californian newspaper]--a rock and roll column--but he did it anonymously as "Mr. Jones." He had a picture of himself with a fake beard, fake glasses, and a harmonica around his neck. He wanted to be able to write about drugs and the psychedelic scene without drawing a lot of attention to himself.
He went to an acid test in San Jose, the first time the Grateful Dead played as the Grateful Dead. He had just seen the Stones that night. He saw that this world, which seemed very bohemian and on the outskirts of the mainstream's interest, had all the same qualities that every other part of society had. There was going to be money, and people wanted to be famous. He ended up writing about that later in The Sunday Ramparts, his first professional job. By that time he'd met Ralph Gleason, a jazz critic, who becomes the co-founder of Rolling Stone.
Jann's idea was, "If I'm going to cover it and make it a thing, I'm gonna do it nicely. Make a nice newspaper." The real ka-ching moment [happened when] he took The Sunday Ramparts, which had folded, and recycled it as his--he just put "Rolling Stone" on the top. And it was this beautifully designed newspaper. [He] wanted it to look British and fussy, but the content would be local exotica. That was the beautiful combination, so representative of Jann himself.
Did he nick the name from Dylan?
More or less. Gleason wrote an essay on rock and roll called "Like a Rolling Stone" for The American Scholar. It was a super pretentious essay that invoked Plato, Nietzche, all this other stuff. Jann just took his premise and boiled it down to what would end up being his opening essay in Rolling Stone: Rock and roll is not just about music; it's about this whole culture of youth, and we're going to write about that.
From Hunter S. Thompson to Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone has a long history of edgy political writing. Was that always the vision?
Early on, Jann was hands-off with politics. As Vietnam became more intense and the politics got more radical, he was very skeptical of it--in fact, he attacked Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin as being hucksters. Kent State [was a] huge inflection point. Right around that time, Rolling Stone went bankrupt and Jann needed to raise money, and fast. Jann gets in with his record company people--Clive Davis, Jac Holzman--and they bail him out to the tune of $200,000. Suddenly he's in a position to be having to write about rock and roll.
Meanwhile, his staff had become super radicalized; they want to turn the magazine into a very frontal anti-Vietnam, political magazine. It becomes an internal conflict, almost an attempted coup by the staff to take it away from him. He was not good at firing people and he hated confrontation, but one at a time, he drives everybody out. When Kent State happened, he had about 50 people on staff; by 1970 he has about a dozen.
Right at that moment, who does he find but Hunter Thompson, and Hunter Thompson becomes the real catalyst for injecting politics into Rolling Stone. Hunter and Jann weren't interested in being on the margins of culture. They wanted to engage the power structure and whack the hornets nest of the mainstream Democratic party and Nixon.
Did that re-inject a little legitimacy to the magazine?
Absolutely. And it came at a time when rock and roll culture had hit a torpid, moribund moment, where it's going inward, and you're getting Joni Mitchell, CSNY, Neil Young. Everybody's sad-sacking around. The record business is starting to professionalize, and they see this as an industry. Suddenly Hunter comes along. He's this perfect invention for them. He's satirizing things and he's countercultural and he's about drugs. But he's not demanding anything--he's covering [stories] as a journalist. I don't think Jann understood fully what Hunter was doing at first, but he was very infatuated.
There were discarded attempts at a biography in the past. How did the book come now, and why do you think he chose not to write it himself?
As he readily admitted to me, he's a terrible storyteller. And I just think he didn't want to. I had met him in upstate New York in a cafe--I recognized him, introduced myself, and he invited me over to a couple of social events at his house. His estate was outrageous. Jaw hanging down, I brought my wife and kids and they all swam in the pool. The little Tom Wolfe in you is just observing everything, and I'm thinking if I could write about this, it would be really amazing.
One day he takes me to lunch, under the pretense that he's going to give me a contract at Rolling Stone. But then he said, "Well, what about writing my biography?" You're shocked and flattered, and there's anxiety immediately about how that's going to work. Should I even do this? I went to his office, and I [said], "I'm just going to read you a bunch of negative stuff that was in other articles--see how you cope with it."
He didn't cope with it too well at first. He wanted some say over certain personal matters and how they would would be handled, "so I don't expose people that I don't want exposed." So we wrote it all down, and we made a contract, one I could live with. He wanted it fact-checked, which I would have done anyway, and that I would review the most intimate, personal stuff with him. Not that he would ix-nay all of it, but he would know. Sticky Fingers is packed with details and anecdotes about Wenner's life and relationships, much of which was drawn from his own records. How did you go about your research for the book?
I went into the archives--all this correspondence, telegrams, crazy stuff. I was in heaven. There are 500-plus boxes, bankers boxes, full of files and pictures, audio cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. You order them up, and they're delivered from a mountain--a literal mountain in the Catskills that goes deep into the earth. In the case of a nuclear holocaust, they would survive. Immediately I was just gobsmacked by what I was seeing in there.
In certain periods of the year, every weekend I would spend 3-4 hours talking, tape-recording it all, showing him archival materials, trying to stimulate his memory. Looking through old issues. It was a real learning curve for me, how to deal with this amount of information. When I wasn't interviewing him, I was ordering up 20-30 boxes at a time. The way to focus it was to focus on characters. Who are the main characters that people want to know about, and who are important to him? It turns out there is an inner circle, and it's what you expect: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. He had the most intense relationships--or he tried to--with them. Same with Hunter and Annie Leibovitz. How would you characterize his influence across those two decades of music, the '60s and '70s, when Rolling Stone probably seemed the most relevant? What's his legacy?
Well, complicated. It's the story of a counterculture blooming out of late-'60s San Francisco and slowly congealing into an industry. Jann is a part of that--he was a handmaiden to the record labels, shepherding the culture of rock and roll into all of these other avenues of power: Hollywood, Washington, and eventually New York. Jann understood intuitively that rock and roll was about power and money and fame.
If you ever see the first issue of Rolling Stone, there's a little story down in the corner about the Jefferson Airplane having just gotten a record deal. They're sitting around swimming pools and they're living like kings. These were the revolutionaries of San Francisco rock and roll, but they're spending their dough. Jann was cued in: This is an adventure we're about to have here. The Sixties ended up being about the youth culture. They had more money than any group of kids in history, and they were going to create pleasure palaces [for] themselves. Jann was the perfect maker of those pleasure palaces, because he knew what he wanted. I call him the Me in the Me Decade.
What do you think his reaction will be?
I think he will be troubled by having to face some of the dark side of his life, which he knows is there. But I also strove to make a book that finally told the true story of who he is and the culture he made, and connect it to the modern culture and plug it in it in and make it relevant, in a way that I don't even know that Rolling Stone is at this point. A lot of people don't know who he is. When they find out, they're going to be blown away.
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams has spent a great deal of time on the road during her music career, and she's seen much of this country from big city to small town.
Communities seeking to change their situation have grabbed her attention most recently, as she relates in her new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns. "Powerful proximity" is how she describes the goodwill, pride, and action that pull people closer and help their town grow out of crime and poverty and into a vibrant place where residents want to live.
Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home by Amy Haimerl - Amy documents the rehabbing of a Detroit house, but this completely absorbing book has everything to do with how Detroit is struggling to find its way to becoming a city for its people, not those who would displace its people. I was cheering for her, but I was also cheering for Detroit in this story, and so was she.
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck - Help is on the way! Yes, this book has to do with urban planning, which might seem like a niche interest, one that I have! But Jeff Speck is part of a fleet of urban planners who are pushing back against 50-plus years of sprawl and bringing back neighborhoods and livable cities, and that affects public health, drug epidemics, inequality and democracy itself. Plus, it was easy for me to read, and it will be for you, too!
Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie - These short stories are full of honest, often heartbreaking detail. None of his characters feel sorry for themselves. They know how they got where they are, and you can choose not to love them, but I did. “Breaking and Entering” is a brilliant car crash of social media and identity politics. Trust Sherman to bring new wisdom to these fast-moving times.
Perhaps it’s anxiety about the environment that’s given rise to fiction that’s preoccupied by the ways we interact with the natural world. This year, nature and feminism go hand in hand. Looking back at 2017, three authors stand out for incorporating extraordinary visions of the countryside with some of the best writing of the year. Call them the Rural Feminists?
Samantha Hunt’s unnerving, fantastic stories are thick with metamorphoses that, like myths, suggest deeper truths about the human experience. Her narrators -- mostly women gripped by mid-life hormones and identity crises – possess imaginations so powerful that the stories they tell themselves can’t be distinguished from reality. Adultery raises a dog from the dead; a wife invites her husband to share her nightly transformation into a deer; fears about what a spouse might be doing after-hours are resolved by leaving the house open to all dangers, “as if there are no door, no walls, no skin, no houses, no difference between us and all the things we think of as night.” If language is the medium for the tales told in The Dark Dark, it’s the mute communication of animals that offers Hunt’s tormented but wildly creative characters the connection they can only dream of.
In her breathtaking debut novel, Fiona Mozley imagines what might happen when a small family seeks sanctuary in Elmet, an ancient English forest. Daniel and his teenage sister Catherine live with their benevolent giant of a father on land that once belonged to their now-absent mother. The natural world is kind to them, and they, in turn, treat it with sympathy. Mozley writes in an ecstatic, poetic style that’s well-suited to the deep mysteries she evokes. Take this wild hare: “If the hare was made of myths, then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked where the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and then back into our lives.” Like all Edens, this one is threatened by human greed, but Mozley’s vision of how differently we could live together in nature is strong enough to prevail.
Daisy Johnson is one of those writers whose voice is so rich, intense, and unexpected, that a story’s worth is about all you can handle in one sitting. Take “Blood Rites,” the second tale in her debut collection, Fen. A pack of feral, foxy girls settle in a small village in the Fens -- marshy countryside in the East of England -- and begin to slake their thirst for men. Already, you’re taken aback, aren’t you? But the girls have miscalculated: they soon find they’re taking on the qualities of their prey. “…Fen men were not the same as the men we’d had before. They lingered in you the way a bad smell did; their language stayed with you.” When one eats an animal-loving veterinarian, it triggers an internal revolution. Johnson is fascinated with metamorphosis, and once you dip into these extraordinary stories, you will be too. Like all the best fantasies, there’s something in Fen that reaches far back into a mythical past when mankind -- let's call it womankind -- was on more intimate terms with the natural world.