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Ancient and Modern

How to Write Historical Fiction

Hulton Archive/Getty

Novelists Bruce Holsinger and Nancy Bilyeau discuss the joys and pitfalls of scrupulously researching the past and then turning it into fiction.

Who writes historical thrillers, those thick suspense stories filled with atmosphere and detail? The answer is, people like Bruce Holsinger and Nancy Bilyeau, who each have novels out now. Holsinger, a medievalist who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Virginia, wrote A Burnable Book, a thriller set in 1385 London. Nancy Bilyeau, a journalist and the executive editor of DuJour magazine, is writing a series of mysteries whose main character is a Dominican novice in the reign of Henry VIII.

Baseball's Barons

The Heroes of My Youth

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, via Getty

Paul Hemphill was one of the great unsung writers of the American South. Here he celebrates the heyday of Birmingham's minor league team, the Barons.

Just in time for Opening Day, here’s a gem about minor league ball in the South. It was written by the late Paul Hemphill, who was often called the Jimmy Breslin of the South. But that doesn’t do him justice. He was more than a brilliant columnist. His first book, The Nashville Sound, remains one of the great books ever written about country music, and his baseball novel, Long Gone, later made into a fun and now overlooked movie (it was shown on HBO the year before Bull Durham came out), is a treat.

Small Is Beautiful

The History of Small-Batch Bourbon

Amin Akhtar/laif/Redux

Bourbon always had an off-the-rack reputation, but its distillers knew better: A chapter on small-batch bourbons from ‘Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit.’

Hedonism, decadence, profligacy, debauchery—such words may have made infrequent cameos in the Sunset Strip vernacular of the glam metal band Mötley Crüe, but as axiomatic principles, they were embraced as unquestionably and wholeheartedly as the ever-winking umlaut. Because to be a rock star was to push the boundaries of excess ever further, toward that self-fulfilling longitude—invisible, but mortally real—where glitter and doom became twinned on the horizon.

How to Write Sam Phillips’ Life

Colin Escott/Getty

Peter Guralnick has written biographies of Elvis and Sam Cooke. He could kick back and write fiction or teach. But forget that. He’d still rather sit around waiting for a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland horn rehearsal in the middle of the night—even if it never happened.

“Long before the existence of Crawdaddy! or Fusion or Rolling Stone,” Peter Guralnick wrote in his first book, Feel Like Going Home, “I wanted to do a history of Sun Records.” That was 1971. Now, more than four decades later, Guralnick’s wrapping up a biography of Sun’s founder, Sam Phillips. “I think I’m something like 27 pages from the end right now,” he said during a recent phone. There’s no firm publication date set, so he’s got time to revise the manuscript—which he describes as “about as long as [Dream Boogie],” his 2005 biography of Sam Cooke, so call it roughly 800 pages—before turning it in to Little, Brown.

Longreads

The Week’s Best Longreads

The Daily Beast

From the interpreters we left behind to fend for their lives in Iraq to a creepy unsolved murder in Waco, the Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

The Interpreters We Left Behind Paul Solotaroff, Men’s Journal As our troops pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re abandoning fixers and translators to the dangerous countrymen who view them as traitors. Asylum in the U.S. could be their last hope. If only we’d let them in.Renewables Aren’t Enough. Clean Coal is the Future. Charles C. Mann, Wired It will be at least a hundred years until we can entirely covert to renewable energy. We have to clean up coal—fast.

Early Feminism

A Novel That Got Bigger Over Time

Bettmann/Corbis

Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer-winning ‘So Big’ was the bestselling novel of 1924. This class-conscious novel with a feminist heroine looks better the older it gets.

Four years after the publication of So Big, the bestselling novel of 1924 and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Edna Ferber found herself in a scene that might have been lifted from that novel. E.B. White wrote an item about it in the New Yorker:Miss Edna Ferber, the novelist, who lives in Central Park West, may not vote this year, because of something that happened when she registered prior to the last election. The clerk was taking down the facts about her: name, address, age, and so on.

Cursed

100 Years of Wrigley Field

John Zich/AFP/Getty

Happy birthday Wrigley Field, but are you too beautiful of a ballpark? After all, attendance at games is more sensitive to beer prices—much more—than it is to the Cubs’ record.

Wrigley Field, the dead-ball-era ballpark wedged into perhaps Chicago’s hippest north-side neighborhood, turns 100 this April. With its ivy-shrouded walls, manually operated scoreboard, and concrete-and-steel edifice, it survives as a monument to architectural beauty and athletic ineptitude. The Chicago Cubs, those loveable losers of the National League, have called the friendly confines of Wrigley home for the past 98 years, and not once in that time have they won the World Series.

Flood Warning

The Historical ‘Noah’

Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

The first few chapters of Genesis contain some of the strangest prose in the Bible, but the big reveal is a God making peace with man’s sinful nature.

In the beginning, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, according to Genesis. Out of chaos, God created the universe and brought order. But fairly soon things started going very, very badly.The first chapters of Genesis, what scholars call the Bible’s “primeval history,” depict a gradual distancing between God and his creation, a tour of man’s growing alienation. The Fall is followed by violence—the murder of Abel.

Pedestrians

Who Got to America First

Getty

At last, archeologists have resolved the debate over the first Americans (hint: they walked). Then they screwed up a perfectly good answer to an ancient puzzle.

We finally have a definitive answer to the timeless mystery of where the First Americans came from: They walked across the Bering Straits from Asia (and not from southwest Europe paddling kayaks across the frigid Atlantic sea).The first people to successfully colonize North America are called “Clovis,” and they made their appearance in the lower United States just prior to 13,000 years ago.The only known Clovis burial is in Montana, about 40 miles north of my house on the Yellowstone River (also known as the Anzick site).

Interesting

How I Write: Meg Wolitzer

Leon HarrisLeon Harris/eyevine/Redux

The author of the acclaimed novel 'The Interestings,' now out in paperback, talks about Scrabble, Edith Wharton, and writing without a desk.

Where did you grow up?In Syosset, a town on Long Island, aka Exit 43.Where and what did you study?I started out at Smith College and transferred to Brown University. I resisted the then-loud siren song of Semiotics at Brown, and studied English instead.Where do you live and why?Manhattan. In an uncool neighborhood that’s quiet and far from everything, which forces me to walk a lot. Describe your morning routine.Wake up, walk dog, play a little online Scrabble, start to work.

Chefs

The Queen of the French Kitchen

Rizzoli USA

Before Ducasse, before Bocuse, there was La Mère Brazier, whose cooking was the ultimate in rich hedonism.

Deep in the volcanic gullet of France, on the swollen banks of two rivers fat with fish and krill, in a land sweetened by sod and loamy truffle clods, Lyon squats with its bouchons and charcuteries, a gastronome's glutted mirage. This is not Paris, elite capital of elegant cafés, ville of dainty macarons and delicate glaciers—this a town belonging to the butchers and the traders, to the silk workers’ guild and the workaday Quai Saint-Antoine, where fishmongers and oyster stalls rowdily hawk their rough wares.

Top 100

The Hottest Cool Americans

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Defining who’s ‘cool’ is a slippery enterprise, but that’s never stopped anyone from trying. Bogart? Hendrix? Anita O’Day? Of course. Madonna? Hmmm.

“Bogart was cool: no one used the word then, but it’s the term everyone reaches for now,” writes the literary scholar Joel Dinerstein in American Cool, which he co-authored with photographic scholar and curator Frank H. Goodyear.Besides Bogie, the reach of those who make cut in this sleek book of photographs interspersed with essays includes Johnny Depp, civil rights protestors, Miles Davis as he appeared on the cover of Ebony, Elvis, Robert Mitchum, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, Bob Dylan, Anita O’Day, Madonna, Tupac Shakur, Susan Sontag, Selena, and sundry others.

Forgotten Treasure

A Novelist Ahead of Her Time

Michael Ward/Rex, via Getty

A feminist author long before it was popular, she survived abortion, her husband’s betrayal and even a Harold Pinter screenplay. Her woefully neglected novels still bristle with wit and insight.

In 1966 the writer Penelope Mortimer endured a painful sterilization operation that left her with a giant scar across her belly. She languished in a “home” recuperating from a severe depression. Once out, she discovered her husband, John Mortimer, was leaving her for a younger woman. The novel she had been working on for nearly a year had stalled. To give her a change of scene, her employer, The Observer, sent her to Canada. There, inspired by a spontaneous love affair, her sixth novel was born.

Do Us Part

Fictional Marriages Gone Wrong

Peter Dazeley/Getty

Jean Hanff Korelitz, the author of the new novel 'You Should Have Known,' on her favorite books about failed marriages.

Obviously, I know everything there is to know about marriage. Who else but a self-appointed expert would commit the hubris of writing a novel like You Should Have Known, in which a marriage counselor has, to put it bluntly, no idea what’s going on in her own 18-year marriage, nor even, really, the first thing about her husband? And then there’s the fact that I’ve actually made it to my own Silver Anniversary and beyond (26 years and 7 months of marriage, not that I’m keeping track).

Past Imperfect

A Novelist Not to Miss

Getty

Justin Cartwright’s ‘Lion Heart’ toggles back and forth between the present and the Crusades, probing the ties both filial and romantic that bind us all.

In conversation with the novelist William Boyd some years ago, I queried him on the names of unheralded authors. He enthusiastically commended Justin Cartwright (who by that time had already written half a dozen novels). It took a few years but when The Song Before It Is Sung made it into my hands in 2007, I was impressed by that Cartwright novel about the friendship between English philosopher Isaiah Berlin and Nazi officer Adam von Trott, who was executed for his part in the “generals’ plot” against Hitler in 1944.

Fugitives

Hunting Down Egypt’s Hidden Nazi

SS doctor Aribert Heim disappeared after the war to lead a secret life in Cairo, ultimately giving Nazi hunters the slip. Now, a new book reveals Heim’s flight, his years in exile, and the manhunt for one of Mauthausen’s most notorious criminals.

In 1975, Rüdiger Heim, approaching his twentieth birthday, decided that he had to see his father again. He remembered little from his childhood. He recalled the soccer goal his father had built and how he would try to keep up with his older brother as the three of them kicked the ball around. Rüdiger also remembered spending time at his father’s medical practice.His mother and grandmother told the boys that their father was living in Berlin. As a small child Rüdiger received letters from him and wrote notes in return, in one describing how good he was in school, “above all in arithmetic.

Antediluvian

The Story of Noah

Niko Tavernise

Read the passage from the book of Genesis of the King James Version of the Bible that is the source of Darren Aronofsky’s new epic, ‘Noah.’

And Lamech lived an hundred eighty and two years, and begat a son: and he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed. And Lamech lived after he begat Noah five hundred ninety and five years, and begat sons and daughters: and all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven years: and he died.And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Old Master

Norman Maclean’s Late-Life Miracle

University of Chicago Press

Norman Maclean didn’t start writing fiction until he was past 70. The man himself turned out to be as remarkable as his fiction.

There’s an old saying that great movie acting is all about the casting. You can say the same thing for magazine writing as well. Sometimes writer and subject are so suited for each other—like John Schulian and Mike Royko, Mark Jacobson and Harold Conrad or Bud Shrake and East Texas—that the story unfolds like a dream.Such was the case when Pete Dexter profiled Norman Maclean for Esquire in June 1981. Dexter was already a star as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, but he was different from other big city legends like Royko or Jimmy Breslin.

History Repeats

A History of Surveillance

Harvey Georges/AP

In the ’70s Americans learned the hard way that intelligence agencies hate to tell the public what they’re doing. Recent revelations about the NSA prove that oversight and accountability are as necessary now as they were four decades ago.

Twice in their history Americans have been forced to confront a challenging question: Is excessive government surveillance a necessity in a threatening world or a crime against democracy? In both instances, the evidence of such operations was gathered and publicized by citizens whose consciences compelled them to risk many years prison in order to inform the public about illicit government actions.We are currently living through one of those times, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the massive surveillance of the National Security Agency.

Dyke Power

All Hail the Lesbian Avengers

Design by Carrie Moyer

In the early 1990s, the Lesbian Avengers took gay politics into the sound and fury of street activism. In a new book, former member Kelly Cogswell remembers the good times and bad.

The death of arch-homophobe and foamer-at-the-mouth Fred Phelps has led to polarized feelings: do you dance on his grave, simply say “good riddance to bad rubbish,” or just think of him with pity? His Westboro Baptist Church picketed funerals with his ridiculous and vile “God Hates Fags” signs: how can we outdo that for his own? Or do we just turn away from his end-of-life spectacle, and in so doing repudiate the extreme homophobia and prejudice he represented?These thoughts occur while reading Kelly Cogswell’s Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger because when the direct action group of the book’s title was hot in the early to mid 1990s, that kind of explicit, vicious homophobia was the norm.

How I Write