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The Man With Stories To Tell

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The perfect gift for any crime and mystery lover this season is a new omnibus edition of Dashiell Hammett’s work. Allen Barra on the enduring greatness of his work, even when there are no crimes.

In his famous essay on the American detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler, the man who walked through the door Dashiell Hammett kicked in, paid him homage. The creator of Philip Marlowe wrote of the creator of Sam Spade: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.” If that seems a tad obscure to today’s readers, it’s because mystery fans no longer read early twentieth century British mystery writers such as Edgar Wallace and Dorothy Sayers or their later American imitators.


The Legend of Brown Dog

Jeff Topping /The New York Times via Reduz

One of America’s greatest writers, Jim Harrison, has created an indelible character in the trickster Brown Dog. Now collected for the first time in a new book readers can fully experience this energetic, lustful, quiet hero.

The prevailing notion of heroism is one for melodramatics and epic poets. There are comic book crime fighters who can fly with the birds, smash through walls of concrete, or transform the weather from sunny to stormy. There are the triumphant champions of professional sports, who with their superior physicality, dazzle audiences with seemingly superhuman feats of strength, speed, and agility. Then, there are the real life legends of justice, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, who risk life and limb to further the fight for human freedom.


The Week’s Best Reads

From the death of Nelson Mandela to the exploding Christian entertainment industry in Dallas, The Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

The Miracle Maker Sam Seibert, The Daily Beast The extraordinary life of the man who liberated South Africa—and then kept the country from falling apart.On Smarm Tom Scocca, Gawker From literature to politics, smarm—an insistence on civility, a finger-wagging disapproval of negativity—is doing its best to keep the cultural elite insulated from criticism.The Homeschool Apostates Kathryn Joyce, The American Prospect They were raised to carry the fundamentalist banner forward and redeem America.

Positively 4th Street

How Greenwich Village Vanished

Mark Peterson/Redux

A Greenwich Village historian tells us how the bohemian paradise dramatized in the Coen Brothers’ new film ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ became what it is today—one of the squarest, priciest neighborhoods in New York.

The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is hardly a sunny, soft-focus nostalgia-fest. It depicts a hardscrabble week in the life of the titular folksinger—a period, sometime in the winter of 1961, during which Davis gets punched in the face by a stranger, nearly freezes, coatless, in the bitter New York cold, and has to beg everyone he knows for a sofa to sleep on. The low winter light captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is lovely, but it’s also as bleak and grey as Davis’s prospects for musical stardom.


Mandela, My Source

Mary Benson/Corbis

For a young journalist in South Africa Nelson Mandela as a young ANC leader was a major source on the anti-apartheid struggle. He recalls there late night clandestine meetings and the moment when Mandiba turned to violence.

Amid the worldwide mourning and praise for Nelson Mandela, memories flood in of past desperate times in South Africa when the entire police force was hunting him. Mandela was in hiding, running a campaign to end apartheid. I was a young reporter on the Rand Daily Mail newspaper in Johannesburg and my beat was black politics.   Mandela and I met regularly, secretly at night, on a dark street in Johannesburg, so that he could brief me about his plans.


The Original Criminal Mind

Nicholas Belton/Getty

To truly understand the criminal mind turn to a forgotten novel that has inspired writers such as Stephen King and Thomas Harris: John Fowles’ The Collector. Casey N. Cep on a tale of depravity and horror.

When Ariel Castro took his own life in September, many felt the closure offered by the criminal justice system had been thwarted. However impossible Castro’s thousand-year sentence, that he served so little was shocking, partly because it leaves us with so many questions about why he kidnapped three women, raped them repeatedly, and tortured them for more than a decade.There is no slaking our need for answers when it comes to criminality, and when we cannot find them in life, we seek them in fiction.


Kill the Fat Man?


It’s one of philosophy’s thorniest questions—the trolley problem—and a new book explores its interesting history, the many answers to it, and what it reveals about our failure to talk about moral questions in public today.

When forced to comment on an especially touchy issue—NSA surveillance, say—President Obama’s go-to rhetorical gambit has been to call for a “debate,” sometimes a “conversation,” often in service of “striking a balance” between two obviously important things. It’s good tack, particularly when Obama is playing defense. He’s actually found a way to deliver the no-content statements of a politician while portraying himself as a contemplative law professor.

Up and Down

All that Glitters


The latest wild commodity is none other than one of the oldest: gold. A new book by journalist Matthew Hart takes readers on a while ride from South African gold mines to the trading desks where gold fortunes area made and broken.

“We are on the biggest gold binge ever,” writes Matthew Hart. “Never has there been so much to buy and such a frenzied trade.” The economic meltdown certainly played a part in this binge; gold prices doubled between 2008 and 2011 as investors sought refuge from the rocky financial markets. But as Hart whisks us around the globe and across the centuries with the breezy panache of a seasoned journalist, we see that the origins of the current gold boom lie in policies and practices implemented well before 2008—and that anyone who thinks gold is a “safe haven” should think again.

To the Barricades!

Americans Are Radicals at Heart


A new book by Yuval Levin says America should discover its Burkean roots, but it’s Paine and his radical vision that are truly in the spirit of this country.

Reading The Great Debate, reminded me of the night I spoke at the Yale Political Union (YPU) in February 2009. I was invited to New Haven to advance the argument that “Americans Should Embrace Their Radical History”—that is, the history of our many popular struggles to enhance American democratic life and our exceptional achievements in the 1770s, 1860s, and 1930s and 40s in confronting and overcoming threats to the survival of the nation by actually doing so.


Fact Vs. Fiction in ‘Llewyn Davis’

Kai Shuman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty; Long Strange Trip

If the new Coen Brothers movie is meant to be a portrait of the pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene, how well did it do? Warning: spoilers abound.

Llewyn Davis seems all but lost at sea. He’s a merchant marine who’s misplaced his seaman’s papers. Come nightfall he’s a New York folk singer who is more likely to receive a beating after a gig than get royalties for his obscure recordings. At the end of the day he bounces from one benefactor’s couch to another’s, but instead of repaying them with a nice bottle of wine he loses the first one’s cat and gets the other friend pregnant. Considering Joel and Ethan Coen’s fondness for sad sacks, it’s no surprise Llewyn is their creation, the cosmic tragic schlemiel at the center of their new movie Inside Llewyn Davis.

Good Lord

How I Write: James McBride

Victoria Will/AP

The newly crowned National Book Award winner for fiction tells us about his pad in New York City, being able to write anywhere, and rewriting everything—even his emails.

I understand that I’ve caught you in the midst of a visit to the National Stamp Museum in DC?I’m doing an appearance here in DC. I had an hour and a half to blow, so I decided to pop into the museum, take a look around. You’re always hunting for ideas, you know?Congratulations on winning the National Book Award.I was eating an apple tart. Then they announced my book. I was stunned. Pretty surprised. I went to accept the award, and I was still holding my dinner napkin in my hand.

Sad Eyed Lady

Dylan at the Chelsea

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In the fall of 1965, all Bob Dylan wanted to do was check into the Chelsea Hotel with his girlfriend Sara Lownds and write his album, but he ended up trysting with Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick—and then making the biggest decision of his life. An excerpt from ‘Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel.’

Bob Neuwirth, Bob Dylan’s closest friend and “supreme hip courtier” during this period, later recalled that it was on a snowy night sometime in the late fall of 1965 when he and Dylan first crossed paths with Edie Sedgwick. Dylan had finally returned east after a harrowing tour with his new band, the Hawks, and had more or less abandoned the house he had bought in Woodstock, not believing he could write something new in a place where he’d written before.


This Week’s Hot Reads

This week, from the short fiction of an overlooked American master to the family history of three generations of real-life adventurers.

The Stories of Frederick Busch by Elizabeth StroutWhen he died of a heart attack in New York in 2006, obituaries of Frederick Busch called him a “writer’s writer,”—someone who “seemed to impress critics more than the mass audience,” as The New York Times put it. It’s a shame his work didn’t reach a broader audience in his lifetime. A new collection of Busch’s stories reveals a powerful writer whose fiction is as deeply compassionate and accessible as it is well-crafted.

In Memoriam

Lunch with Peter Kaplan

Clint Spaulding/, via Sipa

Famed New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan died Friday. Adam Begley, who was books editor of the newspaper for twelve years, remembers their lunches.

Peter Kaplan, who died Friday evening at age 59, was my boss for twelve years at The New York Observer. When he quit the paper in 2009, a few of the reporters put together a tribute issue, “The Kaplan Review,” a 24-page love letter (lightly sprinkled with teasing barbs) from about a hundred writers and editors, almost all of whom worked for Peter at one time or another. The contributors to this festschrift had another thing in common: They all wanted to work for Peter because they liked him personally.

Blank Screen

Hollywood Blues

Everett Collection

Back in the dark days of the Great Depression, Hollywood pumped out brilliant, inspiring, high-spirited films. Now they give us calamity and combat, slavery and drudgery— on land, sea and even in outer space. Liesl Schillinger calls for the return of big-screen romance and wit to enliven the season.

In the midst of the holidays—a time for turkey, pumpkin pie, latkes, mulled cider, and tree-trimming, and long, post-feast afternoons with multiple generations of your family—you will find yourself riffling desperately through movie listings of newspapers, hunting for a heartwarming, mood-lifting film you can all escape to for a few hours, en masse, before the next meal. What will you see, on this and ensuing festive weekends? What has Hollywood unwrapped for us this season? Let’s see, one movie about a man who dies on a boat (probably), another about a man who almost dies on a boat.

One Nation

Why Canada and U.S. Should Merge

Diane Macdonald/Getty

How to prevent us heading for a world of scarce resources, unfair competition, and geopolitical battles? Merge U.S. and Canada!

What is your big idea?  The United States and Canada should merge. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening. They share geography, values, and a gigantic border, but the two countries are on a slow-motion collision course—with each other and with the rest of the world.Since they signed a free trade agreement in 1987, the U.S.-Canada border has become more clogged than ever, hurting trade and tourism. While both countries wrestle with their internal and border problems, emerging economies, using a state capitalism model of development, flourish.

Just Love

Who Was Jesus, Anyway?


What to make of a man that not even the Bible is entirely clear about? About whom we have so little evidence? One biographer set out to find the message that matters in his life and legend.

Who was Jesus anyway? After twenty centuries, there is not much anyone can agree on. The four canonical gospels don’t measure up to modern standards of biographical writing, and—outside of this material—there is precious little contemporary evidence, apart from a few glancing mentions of Jesus or the movement centered on him. In truth, Jesus did not, in his own time, attract much notice.This presents biographers with a problem. What can you base his reality on, unless you take it on faith?The work of recent Christian scholars comes in every size and shape, with few common assumptions.


ID’ing Bosnia’s Million Bones

Amel Emric/AP

During the Bosnian War, genocidal generals were given time to scatter and bury thousands of massacred victims in mass graves. How did forensic scientists identify the victims?

On July 11, 1995 an extermination took place in the small mountainous Yugoslavian town of Srebrenica over six days, when an estimated 8,100 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. It was the worst systematic slaughter to happen in Europe since the Second World War. These perverse crimes were carried out in the name of a warped dystopian vision as laid out by Slobodan Milosevic: to create an ethnically pure “greater Serbia.”Between 1992 and 1995, 100,000 died in the conflict, 2 million were displaced from their homes—half the population of the entire country—and a further 30,000 were reported missing.


A Glimpse of the Real ‘Goldfinch’

Donna Tartt built her latest novel around a 350-year-old portrait of a goldfinch. A visit to the Frick reveals this painting’s astonishingly undimmed power.

Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch is a small painting, roughly 9 x 13 inches, but it holds its own in a room filled with 15 Dutch master works by the likes of Hals, Steen, and Rembrandt. It is a potent little masterpiece. Earlier this week, I went to see it at the Frick Collection in New York City, where it is on display as part of a traveling exhibition of paintings on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Netherlands.


The Week’s Best Reads

The Daily Beast

From the animal injury epidemic on Hollywood movie sets to Washington’s trouble with the new legal marijuana economy, The Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

Animals Were Harmed Gary Baum, The Hollywood Reporter The epidemic of animal injury on major Hollywood movie sets reveals the dark irony of the American Humane Association’s system of verifying that “no animals were harmed.”Long Way Home Rosanne Cash, Oxford American The daughter of American folk icon Johnny Cash on her life in Tennessee.Buzzkill Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker Washington State finds out how hard it is to set up a legal marijuana economy.

How I Write