Monthly Archives: August 2015

A Young Woman Goes ‘Underground In Berlin’ To Escape The Holocaust


A lot of books come across our desks here at Weekend Edition. One caught our eye recently, because of the unusual way it came to be published. The title sums up the story — Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany.

That remarkable tale came to light, thanks to a request by her son, historian Hermann Simon. “I once put a tape recorder and said to her, ‘You always wanted to tell me the story of your life. Well, go ahead.’ “

In one of the recordings her son made near the end of her life, Marie Jalowicz Simon describes a near miss with the Gestapo. It was June 22, 1942. Her father had just died after a long illness, leaving her, a 20-year-old Jewish woman, all alone in Berlin.

Marie Jalowicz watched as friends and family were hauled away to unknown destinations. When the Gestapo came for her, she was staying with a family friend. The officers ordered Marie to get ready to go.”

“We want to ask you some questions. It won’t take long, and you’ll be back in a couple of hours,” they said. “That was the kind of thing they always said to prevent people from falling into a fit of hysterics, or swallowing a poison capsule, or doing anything else that would have been inconvenient for the Gestapo.”

With the help of her friend, Marie fled.

Marie Jalowicz Simon survived the Holocaust by hiding with friends and strangers in Berlin.i

Marie Jalowicz Simon survived the Holocaust by hiding with friends and strangers in Berlin.

From the private collection of Hermann Simon


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From the private collection of Hermann Simon

Marie Jalowicz Simon survived the Holocaust by hiding with friends and strangers in Berlin.

Marie Jalowicz Simon survived the Holocaust by hiding with friends and strangers in Berlin.

From the private collection of Hermann Simon

“She thought it is only possible for her to survive not in her former neighborhood. It must be a place that is for her completely for her unknown,” Hermann Simon says.

So she wouldn’t be recognized, Marie Jalowicz went underground, moving around the city to survive — staying with sympathetic Germans whom Simon describes as on the fringe of German society: “Prostitutes, poor people, really outsiders. Not the so-called normal people.”

Some of them treated her decently. They chose to ignore the fact that Marie was a Jew and in exchange she helped them — standing in lines for rations or cooking and cleaning. Others exploited her. She recounts in matter of fact tone how time and again she had to endure sexual assaults. Her son describes it as part of the price she paid for survival.

And then, after Marie Jalowicz had spent three years living under an assumed name — surviving hunger and abuse and countless allied air raids — the war ended and the Russians rolled into Berlin.

“She once said to me: it was difficult to go underground, but it was also difficult to come out from the underground,” Simon says. “Everything changed. And she was alone. At the end, she was alone.”

The house she grew up in had been razed, friends and family members had been killed by the Nazis, but Marie Jalowicz stayed in Germany after the war. She found and married her childhood friend Heinrich Simon, she continued her studies and became a professor of literary cultural history at Humbolt University in Berlin, where she lived until her death in 1998.

How Fishermen’s Bragging Rights Gave Birth To Fine Art


Fishing for fine art: Gyotaku, the art of making inked prints from real fish, originated in 19th century Japan. Above, three examples from modern Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner (from left): Under the Rainbow Rainbow Trout; Little big skate and Primary colors butterfly ray.i

Fishing for fine art: Gyotaku, the art of making inked prints from real fish, originated in 19th century Japan. Above, three examples from modern Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner (from left): Under the Rainbow Rainbow Trout; Little big skate and Primary colors butterfly ray.

Courtesy of Heather Fortner


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Courtesy of Heather Fortner

Fishing for fine art: Gyotaku, the art of making inked prints from real fish, originated in 19th century Japan. Above, three examples from modern Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner (from left): Under the Rainbow Rainbow Trout; Little big skate and Primary colors butterfly ray.

Fishing for fine art: Gyotaku, the art of making inked prints from real fish, originated in 19th century Japan. Above, three examples from modern Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner (from left): Under the Rainbow Rainbow Trout; Little big skate and Primary colors butterfly ray.

Courtesy of Heather Fortner

Fishing lore is full of tales about “the one that got away,” and fishermen have been known to exaggerate the size of their catch. The bragging problem is apparently so bad, Texas even has a law on the books that makes lying about the size or provenance of a fish caught in a tournament an offense that could come with a felony charge.

But in 19th century Japan, some enterprising fishermen found a foolproof way to record trophy catches. (Some versions of this origin story suggest they did so at the emperor’s behest.) The method was known as gyotaku, or “fish rubbing,” and allowed fishermen to print inked fish onto paper — creating a permanent record of their size. They used a nontoxic sumi-e ink, a black ink traditionally used in both writing and painting which could be easily washed off. Once the print was made, the fish was either released, if it was still alive, or sold at market.

At first, these prints were rudimentary, but they soon became works of art. Fishermen began adding details like eyes (which don’t show up in a print) and enhancing other parts of the image. Over time, gyotaku became an established art form with two printing methods: direct and indirect.

Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner explains that in direct printing, the ink is placed directly onto the fish, using it almost like a stamp on the page. Indirect printing is the “finer art form,” she says: The paper is glued to the fish and ink is tamped gently onto the page, “like a gravestone rubbing.”

Though gyotaku artists traditionally used sumi-e ink, today, anything from India ink to acrylic is considered fair game.

  • Oregon pomfret, by Heather Fortner. "I have always loved the ocean and anything from the ocean," Fortner says, adding, "Gyotaku allows you to express an appreciation for the natural world by partnering with the finest artist in the world: Mother Nature."


  • Spadefish Samba: Atlantic Spadefish


  • Wrong way Jack: jack crevalle, seatrout, permit


  • River Dreams Rainbow Trout


  • Permit Pompano


  • Oreo oregon


  • Octopus


  • Crappie


Another artist, Derek Wada, spends up to a full day working on the base prints for his gyotaku. “It’s hard, because you’re trying to put a 3-D art onto a 2-D medium,” he says. “You have to make up the shape and silhouette of the fish by pressing.” If the fish was speared, the gyotaku will have a hole on the page. Likewise with ripped fins, scars, or any other flaws.

From there, artists may add color (if they didn’t include it in the original pressing), draw the eyes, and any other finishing touches. “You can get a really good print, but it’s ruined if you don’t have a good eye,” Wada says.

Some gyotaku artists, like Japanese fishermen of yore, do eat the fish when their printing is over, but many don’t.

“The fish needs to be room temperature or the ink will condensate,” Wada says. “I use acrylic ink or paint, and depending on the color, it might have cadmium and other toxic chemicals.” Between the threat of food or heavy-metals poisoning, many artists simply refreeze the fish and print another day.

Today, a basic form of gyotaku is sometimes offered as an easy art and educational activity for children. “It introduces them to biology, art, and fish, all at the same time,” Fortner says. Though a child may not be able to paint, they likely can press an ink-covered fish onto a piece of paper.

Kumu (sp. Parupeneus porphyreus). The Whitesaddle Goatfish has a special place in Hawaiian culture. In ancient Hawaii, the fish were used in offerings to the gods.

Kumu (sp. Parupeneus porphyreus). The Whitesaddle Goatfish has a special place in Hawaiian culture. In ancient Hawaii, the fish were used in offerings to the gods.

Courtesy of Derek Yoshinori Wada


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Courtesy of Derek Yoshinori Wada

And many fishermen still use gyotaku as a record of their catch, keeping the origins of the art form alive.

Fish printing often attracts those who have a connection with the ocean or marine life. Wada, who is Japanese-American, grew up in Hawaii and was taught how to fish by his family at a young age. And before she became a gyotaku artist, Fortner was a commercial fisherman, research vessel deckhand, and a ship’s officer and Master in the U.S. Merchant Marine. “I have always loved the ocean and anything from the ocean,” she says.

She adds: “Gyotaku allows you to express an appreciation for the natural world by partnering with the finest artist in the world: Mother Nature.”

Tove Danovich is a writer based in New York City.

Presenting: The Holy Romance Trinity Of J


Romance novelsi
Romance novels

I migrated to digital books years ago, but I hold on to eight yellow, tattered paperbacks with spines so bent, my Lego snowboarder could use them as a half-pipe. They’re what I call the Holy Romance Trinity of J: Jude Deveraux, Julie Garwood, and Judith McNaught. They weren’t the first romance authors I read, but I love their books so much, I refuse to part with them. Even though each cover has long since parted from the pages, these books will never, ever leave my possession.

The Trinity of J wrote incredible historicals and contemporaries, and if you mention their names to a romance fan, we make a sort of half sigh, similar to Good Book Noise, only with more nostalgia and awe. To us, these three authors are special. More than special. They’re a foundation for hundreds, if not thousands of romance readers who found one book, and kept reading through entwined families and Scottish brides and department store magnates and movie stars and rebellious hoydens and taciturn noblemen.

If you go back and read them now, you’ll probably notice that the style is slightly different than what you’re used to. The depiction and influence of wealth is different, and the characters’ evolutions follow a path that might seem distinct from romances written today. But while the genre evolves, many modern heroes can trace their developmental lineage back to a hero written by these women. The same is true for today’s brave, bold, take-no-guff heroines.

Jude Deveraux‘s influence can be seen in the fated-mate pairings of paranormal romances, in the multi-sibling generational sagas that can fill a shelf with one series, and in the romances that feature tough characters who surprise themselves with a knack for quiet caregiving. Her books span centuries, and often feature the Montgomery family and the Taggert family, two clans who seem destined, no matter what, to end up married to one another.

Deveraux also wrote a lot of identical twin heroes (because sequels) whose true love could be identified by her innate ability to tell one twin from the other. Feminist literary theorists could have a field day and a picnic lunch with this motif: Instead of the male gaze identifying or isolating the female, the female gaze differentiates the male, and in doing so, identifies herself.

There are a lot of Montgomery and Taggert stories, but probably the most famous is Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor (it even made the NPR Books favorite-romance list). All you Outlander fans, take note: The story involves chivalry, bravery, time travel, and a bittersweet ending that romance fans still debate. I found it to be perfect, and remember crying over my copy of A Knight in Shining Armor when I read it.

Oh, who am I kidding? My eyes were wet when I skimmed the ending a few minutes ago.

I was introduced to Judith McNaught‘s books by two women I knew in high school. They were best friends, and they signed each other’s yearbooks with messages that managed to include the title of every Judith McNaught book in print. They’d read them all more than once, and the titles had become their private language.

McNaught, like Jude Deveraux, writes in many sub-genres. She also writes flawed, memorable characters who stick with you long after the book is over. One of my favorite McNaughts is Perfect, which sparked my love of behind-the-scenes industry details (and of characters getting caught in blizzards). A school teacher is abducted by an escaped convict — who is also a famous movie star determined to clear his name — and they end up getting snowed in at a remote lodge. The chapters where the heroine, Julie, watches the hero’s moves — and learns the awkward true details of filming sex scenes — are priceless.

But like Deveraux, McNaught also wrote a book that readers still debate to this day. Whitney, My Love, a historical first published in 1985, was actually revised for modern audiences, removing a scene where the hero assaults the heroine and another where he spanks her for her misbehavior. To my knowledge, this is one of the few — perhaps the only — times a book has been revised in such a way. Readers still argue over whether alpha male hero Clayton has groveled enough, and the answer often lies in which version of the book that person has read.

I love Judith McNaught and Jude Deveraux, and just lost an hour of productivity re-reading my favorite scenes from A Knight in Shining Armor and Perfect, but I must confess my loudest reader enthusiasm belongs to Julie Garwood. Her historicals, especially the Scottish ones, are among my perpetual favorites.

The Bride is the one I’ve re-read most, despite the cover dangling by one corner and the brittle yellow pages that crinkle and crack like onion skin. It’s not just the story, but where I’ve read the story, too: I’ve brought it along on vacations, to college and back every year, and to different countries when I studied abroad. This book comes with me, because I like to know it’s there.

This summary doesn’t fully capture the adventure within: A Scottish laird named Alec must marry an English bride, and he chooses Jamie, the youngest daughter of a baron. Jamie has violet eyes (of course) and is stubborn, optimistic, and headstrong (of course). Alec expects Jamie to do what he says and obey his orders; Jamie has no such plans.

The danger in sharing my favorite books has been that for each book I try to describe, I lose two hours because I start re-reading it. It’s like visiting old friends who remain as welcoming and fun as they were decades ago. And while I can’t loan out my own copies, because they aren’t allowed to leave my shelf, I recommend to the point of nagging that any reader who hasn’t tried one do so as soon as possible. The Holy Romance Trinity of J rarely disappoints.

Sarah Wendell is one of the founders of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and the author of Everything I Know About Love, I Learned From Romance Novels.

German Filmmaker Wim Wenders Sums Up His Work In One Word


German director Wim Wenders poses with his Honorary Golden Bear Award for lifetime achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.i

German director Wim Wenders poses with his Honorary Golden Bear Award for lifetime achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images


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John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

German director Wim Wenders poses with his Honorary Golden Bear Award for lifetime achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

German director Wim Wenders poses with his Honorary Golden Bear Award for lifetime achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a big year for German filmmaker Wim Wenders: He received a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art had a retrospective of his work and his latest Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth, came out in March. This week also marks the opening of “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road,” a nationwide traveling retrospective of his films, many of which have been restored after years of being out of circulation.

Wenders joins NPR’s Rachel Martin to talk about how he transitioned from painting to filmmaking and the one big story that’s defined his filmmaking career.

Interview Highlights

On his early decision to become a painter

My first impressions of beauty [were] not in life but strictly in paintings because I was born right after the war. My hometown of Duesseldorf was flattened, 90 percent of the city was in ruins, and as a kid that’s what you take for granted. That’s what the world looks like. But there was a better world and that was all these cheap art prints my parents had on their walls. And there were some old Dutch paintings and French landscapes … and these cheap prints gave me the idea that there was a different kind of world out there.

On how he transitioned from painting to filmmaking

I was very much encouraged by American painters who started to use cameras — Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage. These were painters I liked and all of a sudden they’re all making movies. And I started to think that cameras were a logical next step for painters to hold on to. So I started to make little short films, but looked at them as painterly things. I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker; I made these movies as a painter. …

Related NPR Stories

All of a sudden, I realized filmmaking was something else than painting, and filmmaking used montages and sounds and dialogue and music. And slowly my totally non-narrative films became more and more narrative. Slowly but surely, I turned from a painter to a storyteller.

On the kinds of stories he’s drawn to

When I first shot my films and all these critics started to write about them … they wrote that this kid from Germany made all these movies about angst, alienation and America. And I call them my AAA reviews because they all said I was this guy specializing in alienation and angst and America. These were my themes and they came from my own biography. And alienation was certainly a thing that I knew a lot about, especially as a German kid growing up in post-war Germany under very heavy American cultural influences but still [not] really at ease with his own upbringing and with his own culture and with his own past. So the big thing in my life was the discovery of America long before I ever went there. So these critics with their AAA reviews had it right.

On his early fear of making a film set in the American West, and how he overcame that fear to make 1984’s Paris, Texas

The scary thing about it was … whatever you do, you’d fall into the trap of repeating something that you’ve already seen — all these Westerns, all these movies made in the American West, they seemed to limit the possibilities that you had of seeing it for yourself. So I swore to myself when we finally started Paris, Texas that I wasn’t going to copy or imitate any film I’d ever seen and that I was going to film the West as if nobody had ever been there. And in order to do so, I prepared myself and I traveled for several months all on my own just to photograph the American West in order to have the liberty to see it from scratch and to see those colors and this incredible light that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. To just see it on my own and not be afraid I’d be repeating something I know already.

On his belief that it is possible to have a new idea

I think anybody who starts something — a musician, a poet — it’s necessary that you believe nobody opened this territory before, even if you’re wrong and if later on, in hindsight, you realize this was touching on certain other ideas that you had before. There is only a limited amount of things you can tell and if you look at the history of filmmaking, most great filmmakers actually were working on one story for all their lives. I mean John Ford or [Alfred] Hitchcock, if you look at their work they were all telling one big story each time in new variations.

On the big story he has been telling with his films

There’s a film of John Ford called The Searchers and sometimes I think that’s [my] main topic. … It’s searchers. It’s people who are searching, trying to define what they live for, trying to find [the] meaning of their lives, trying to find their role in life, looking for love, searching searching searching. That seems to be the key thing my characters are doing.

On whether he thinks of himself as a searcher

Yep, that’s my middle name.

The Bloody Mary Meat Straw: An All-American Story


This Bloody Mary served at the Nationals Park in D.C. came with a meat straw, which infuses each sip with an umami flavor. Ben Hirko first came up with the concept while tending bar one snowy night in 2009. The straws have become a hit.i

This Bloody Mary served at the Nationals Park in D.C. came with a meat straw, which infuses each sip with an umami flavor. Ben Hirko first came up with the concept while tending bar one snowy night in 2009. The straws have become a hit.

Tamara Keith/NPR


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Tamara Keith/NPR

This Bloody Mary served at the Nationals Park in D.C. came with a meat straw, which infuses each sip with an umami flavor. Ben Hirko first came up with the concept while tending bar one snowy night in 2009. The straws have become a hit.

This Bloody Mary served at the Nationals Park in D.C. came with a meat straw, which infuses each sip with an umami flavor. Ben Hirko first came up with the concept while tending bar one snowy night in 2009. The straws have become a hit.

Tamara Keith/NPR

This is a story of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is the story of the meat straw. Yes, you read that right.

“It is a straw made out of pork,” explains Ben Hirko of Coralville, Iowa, the man behind Benny’s Original Meat Straws.

It’s a half-inch in diameter, the same length as a standard plastic straw. And it has a hole running down the middle of it, through which you’re meant to slurp up Bloody Marys.

Like many good stories, this one involves a snowstorm — and maybe one beer too many. Back in February 2009, Hirko was tending bar, and there was only one couple there to drink, so as the snow piled up outside, he poured himself a beer. The bar didn’t serve food, but the couple brought a bunch of meat sticks to snack on.

“After a few beers, I reached over and grabbed one of the snack sticks,” says Hirko. “And I was like, ‘You know, this would make an amazing Bloody Mary garnish.’ It just had great flavor.”

But there was a problem: Only the bottom of the meat stick was soaking up the spicy tomato juice and vodka.

“And so I grabbed a plastic straw out of one of the dispensers, and I grabbed a new stick from them. And I literally started digging a hole in it and eating the meat out of it until I got all the way through,” says Hirko, recounting the moment his meat straw concept was born.

And right there, Hirko had created his first prototype.

“I held it up to the guy that was there,” Hirko says. “And I looked him in the eye, right through the hole, and I said, ‘That’s awesome.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Yes, it is.’ “

Now, if you are thinking, “Does America really need meat straws?,” you’re not alone. Even Hirko’s father had doubts. “He didn’t really say it, but he looked at me like, ‘You know you have a family to support now, don’t you?’ ” Hirko recalls.

But it turns out, Bloody Mary meat straws actually can support a family. For Hirko, the big break came when he got a call from the Detroit Lions football team, which serves a Hail Mary Bloody Mary drink.

“We serve it in a plastic mason jar,” says Joe Nader, executive chef for Levy Restaurants at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. He oversees food service at the stadium. “So it’s a pretty good-sized portion, and it’s got a bunch of other garnish with it. The meat straw is kind of the piece de resistance.”

Last year, the Lions sold 30,000 Bloody Marys with meat straw garnishes. The meat straws are also sold in grocery stores and bars, and on the Benny’s website.

And the hankering for meat straws has spread. At a recent Washington National’s baseball game in D.C., meat straws were prominently displayed at a “make-your-own-Bloody-Mary” bar in one of the luxury lounges.

Jonathan Stahl, executive director of ballpark operations and fan experience for the Nationals, demonstrates a meat straw in action, using it to stir horseradish into the Bloody Mary mix.

“As you can see, it comes straight through the meat straw,” says Stahl, taking a gulp to demonstrate. “There you go.”

The straw infuses each sip with a hint of meaty, umami flavor. And by the time imbibers have finished guzzling the drink, the meat straw is well-soaked in Bloody Mary and ready for snacking. Stahl says they’ve been a hit.

“We couldn’t get them one time, and so people were asking where the meat straws were,” says Stahl. “We never have a Bloody Mary bar unless we have the meat straws available now.”

Nat’s fan Bill Foster sits on a patio overlooking the ballpark, testing out a meat straw Bloody Mary. He isn’t convinced this product is really answering a great need.

“Sometimes, as Steve Jobs pointed out, we don’t know what we needed until he put it together, so maybe enough people will think we need this,” says Foster. “I don’t know. I doubt if I’ll be in that crew, but maybe others will.”

The Steve Jobs of meat straws, Ben Hirko, recently sold his company to a larger firm with better distribution channels, but he stayed on. So now he can spend all his time convincing people that meat straws are the answer to a problem they didn’t know they had.

For Carl Phillips, Poetry Is Experience Transformed — Not Transcribed


Taking chances can sometimes lead to great art. But award-winning poet Carl Phillips says there’s a risk to, well, taking risks.

“I think there has to be a place for risk and for restlessness in any kind of fully lived life, and especially I think for an artist,” he tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “I think it’s the only way that imagination gets stimulated and continues — but I think it can easily go unchecked.”

His latest work, Reconnaissance, looks for the balance between restlessness and stability — and between the raw and the refined, the omnicient and the intimate.

It draws on his own experiences, but he resists interpretation of his poetry as autobiographical.

“I think of poetry as being more a transformation of experience rather than a transcription of it,” he explains. “I become uncomfortable when people want to make an equation between the author and the poem.”

To hear their conversation, and Phillips reading a poem called “By Force,” click the audio link above.

For some highlights from the interview — including a discussion of religion that didn’t make it on the air — see below.

Interview Highlights

On readers who bring identity politics to his work as a gay, biracial man

I think of my work as being quite political but maybe not in conventional ways. Certainly when I first began writing in the ’90s, it seemed a political act to even speak of gay experience in poetry. It was a pretty new thing to do, but I also think it’s a political act to assert one’s right to decide what to write about, and not what people expect one to write about. …

I have, from the start, been writing about the body and power. And maybe more specifically, the gay male body, and power in intimate relationships, but I feel as if there’s a lot of overlap with society’s views of how different bodies are treated. So to that extent, I think there’s always a kind of political resonance to the personal, and then vice versa.

Carl Phillips' other collections include Silverchest, Speak Low and Poems Seven.i

Carl Phillips’ other collections include Silverchest, Speak Low and Poems Seven.

Reston Allen/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Reston Allen/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Carl Phillips' other collections include Silverchest, Speak Low and Poems Seven.

Carl Phillips’ other collections include Silverchest, Speak Low and Poems Seven.

Reston Allen/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

On reading poetry through a political lens more broadly

I think a bit of Emily Dickinson. Sometimes people will say, “The Civil War was going on and why does she not have poems that address that?” But the fact that she’s alive and aware of the Civil War means that some part of her is taking that in. To me there’s never one thing happening anyway in any given moment, so it’s why we need as many writers as possible so we can get a full sense of what it was like to be alive today, this moment, in 2015.

On the role (or lack thereof) of spirituality in his poems and life

I guess I understand why people have seen [spiritual themes] in poems before, but I don’t have any religious background or anything. The closest I get is — I live less than a block from the Catholic Basilica here in St. Louis … so maybe some of it filters over into my backyard when I’m back there grilling or something. …

I majored in classics in college and I was reading Greek tragedy. I kept seeing how human beings’ natural emotions were coming into conflict with what the gods had determined was proper behavior. And this issue, this conflict between how we’re told we should behave and how we actually behave is something that seems to pertain to religion, but also just to society. … I’ve always been interested in how, in a lot of religions, they are very interested in how people should behave, but there are always examples of how people can’t, or defy divinity.

I don’t feel it makes me a particularly religious person — I’m just interested in the conflict.

Ursula K. Le Guin Steers Her Craft Into A New Century


Ursula Le Guin has brought mainstream recognition to science fiction in a successful career that has endured for sixty years, with books that include The Left Hand of Darkness, Lavinia, and the Earthsea series for young readers.

She says she doesn’t believe in a lot of do’s and don’ts in writing. But she does run writing workshops in which serious writers might test what works well, and what doesn’t quite do the job. Back in the ’90s, Le Guin wrote a manual for aspiring writers called Steering the Craft. And she’s just released a new edition of the book, updated for the 21st century.

Le Guin tells NPR’s Scott Simon that sound is often forgotten in a piece of writing. “Writing is a kind of way of speaking, and I hear it,” she says. “And I think a lot of readers hear it too. Even if they hear it in silence. And so the sounds of the language, and the rhythm and the cadence of the sentences are very powerful.”

Interview Highlights

On the importance of “crowding” and “leaping”

Crowding is what Keats said when he said, “Load every rift with ore.” In other words, pack in all the richness you can. All great books are incredibly rich; each sentence can sort of be unpacked. But then also in telling a story, you’ve got to leap, you’ve got to leave out so much. And you’ve got to know which crag to leap to.

On authors who’ve written about aging

They’re calling themselves old, and I’m saying, oh baby. Just wait. To me, it’s been kind of like a whole new landscape of living, and [being in her 80s] really is different than the 70s, the decline in energy and what you can get done in a day is enormous. After all, one is approaching the end, and the end is more in view than it ever was. So how do you deal with that?

It is a little bit like being high up on a mountain, and looking back. And oh, look at the view, gee. I never saw all that together before, you know? I mean, there are cool aspects to being very old, but they’re not the ones that show up in the posters.

On whether she’ll write another novel

I wish I could, but see, there’s the energy thing. I realized after I wrote Lavinia, which was my last novel, that I probably wouldn’t have the physical strength to put a novel togther again. It’s a big undertaking.

When I finished a novel, I was always in a panic — I’ll never write again, I’m done, I’m finished. But I always knew somewhere deep in myself that there was actually, something else would show up eventually. And now I don’t. I stopped getting story ideas several years ago. And then Lavinia came, just as a gift from Virgil, kind of. Totally unexpected. And when I finished it, I thought, you know, I don’t think there’s any more water in the well. And I’m not saying that was easy for me to accept, but okay, that’s the way it is? That’s the way it is.

The Gentlemen Bastards Unfold Sumptuous Stories Within Stories


Stories within stories: It’s a structure as old as, well, storytelling itself. In the Western canon alone, everything from The Canterbury Tales to Hamlet to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has played with the idea of nesting narratives within each other. Speculative fiction authors such as Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman have been just as apt to stuff stories into stories, often to marvelous effect.

Scott Lynch may not be ranked in that elite company quite yet, but it’s not for a lack of either talent or ambition. His Gentleman Bastard series — 2006’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, 2007’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, and 2013’s The Republic of Thieves, with four more planned — are each sprawling books, both in page-count and scope. In them, a con man named Locke Lamora and his best friend and grifting partner Jean Tannen live in the teeming fictional metropolis of Camorr, which strongly resembles a medieval Italian city-state. In this sense, it’s not entirely different from other contemporary epic fantasies by George R. R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie. But Lynch, in The Republic of Thieves, brings another dimension to his witty, ribald, picaresque fantasy epic: A story within a story, pulled off with panache and complexity

If it seems strange to talk about the third installment in a series before the first two, well, it makes perfect sense when discussing the Gentleman Bastard books. Lynch jumps around a lot in each book, chronologically speaking, from the time Locke and Jean were boys studying under the master thief Father Chains to the slow unraveling of the ancient mystery that lies at the heart of Camorr’s alien architecture. In The Republic of Thieves, there are plenty of parallel storylines, but there’s also a play within a novel: Caellius Lucarno’s theatrical classic, also titled The Republic of Thieves, is one of the Forty Corpses, a body of drama salvaged from a fallen empire, much in the way that the work of Greek playwrights fed into the real-world Renaissance.

The Republic of Thieves isn’t the only Lucarno work mentioned in the Gentleman Bastard series. Lines from the play The Assassin’s Wedding are quoted in Red Seas Under Red Skies; Jean is also revealed as a devoted fan of the man’s collected works, ready to hold forth passionately at a moment’s notice about Lucarno’s rightful place in the thespian pantheon. In a sense, Jean is a Lucarno geek — much in the same way that scores of fantasy readers have become Lynch geeks over the past decade.

It’s not hard to see why. Yes, Lynch is writing stories within stories, folding flashbacks within flashbacks, and creating mysteries within mysteries. But he’s also creating one hell of a buddy series, and one hell of a heist thriller. All of his intricate framework aside, the Gentleman Bastard series zeroes in on the warm, combative, brilliantly scripted, and at times downright heart-touching relationship between Locke and Jean, two boyhood friends who have grown up to become two very different men, yet bound by camaraderie and the satisfaction of a con well done. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, they get caught up in a struggle for power within the criminal underbelly of Camorr that spawned them; in Red Seas Under Red Skies, they flee Camorr to seek their fortune in the far-off land of Tal Verrar, where Lynch mashes up Ocean’s 11 with swashbuckling piracy — and, miraculously, makes it all mesh.

Lynch isn’t the only current fantasy author unfolding stories within stories — the example that immediately leaps to mind being Patrick Rothfuss’ exquisitely framed Kingkiller Chronicle series. Lynch, though, is asking even bigger questions about the nature of truth. What actually is true? Should veracity go to the most compelling version of events, rather than dull old reality? What about history, both cultural and personal? Is it just another way to delude ourselves? To fabricate our identities? If the sum of civilization — and of ourselves — is simply a puzzle of stories within stories, where does that leave us? It’s a lot to tackle in a fantasy series, even one as broad and deep as this. But if Lynch has shown us anything so far, it’s that Locke and Jean — lowly liars though they may be — are more than up to the task.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Making Sense Of A Tragedy, One Narrator At A Time


There will come a point while reading Did You Ever Have A Family, the debut novel by agent and memoirist Bill Clegg, that you will want to put it down. To leave it aside for shinier, prettier, less complicated things.

You’ll be overwhelmed by the number of characters — all the names and connections to other characters, their jobs and families. You’ll feel trapped in the small-town claustrophobia that makes it feel, in the early going, like everyone lives together in one big house, knows everyone else’s business, despises everyone for reasons that hum with live-wire malice just below the surface of their words, and loves, with perfect, bitter patience, only those closest to them.

The outsize tragedy which burns through the first pages of the story might throw you: on the night before June Reid’s daughter’s wedding, a gas leak and an explosion kill that daughter, Lolly, her husband-to-be, June’s ex-husband and her much younger boyfriend, Luke. It kills, in effect, everyone that June Reid loves. Destroys her home, her clothes, everything she has ever owned. Which destroys her, leaving her hollow and empty and, in short order, in a car with nothing but the clothes on her back and an ATM card, driving west, desperately trying to outpace her own grief and horror.

The first chapters, the hot, hard fall into tragedy and the lives of those affected by it (which, in this town, is pretty much everyone) is a lot to take in. It’s confusing and terrible and it sometimes feels like there’s no room between the words to take a breath.

But you should stick with it because there will come a point where you’ll suddenly find your footing. Where (maybe on the road with June, or in the story of Luke’s mother) the whole delicate origami construction of interlocking stories that Clegg is building will blossom outward and you’ll see it for the first time as the whole thing that it is — this spindly web of connection, this sticky, terrible, comforting, fully realized community of small, damaged and ordinary people all brought together by a moment that no one can understand.

It happened for me twice. The first time was very early, during the soliloquy of the florist, Edith, whose connection to the events is tenuous and fleeting. She was hired to put daisies in jelly jars for the reception. Fifty or so jars, a couple hundred daisies. Edith hated the daisies, (“They always struck me as bright weeds more than actual flowers.”) and thought them unworthy of a wedding. But she’d collected them anyway. And then, the explosion. All that death. And the daisies, every single one of them, found their way into funeral arrangements. “Even when no one asked for them — and let’s face it, most did not — I still found a way to make them work. No one ever accused me of being a soft touch, but when something like what happened at June Reid’s that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters.”

There was something so perfectly realized about that moment — this making use of castoff things. Some sense of the interconnectedness of this small town where more than a hundred funeral arrangements were required, and that all of them came from Edith, and that Edith was both sensible (recycling those flowers that would never end up in their jelly jars) and so hurt by the damage done to people she hardly knew.

Clegg gives every chapter over to a new narrator. Some are intimately connected, some just bystanders. A few, like June, repeat frequently. Others, like Edith, speak their piece and go silent. Edith’s story kept me going until June reached the west coast, found herself at a small, oceanside motel that Lolly had once stayed at and loved, and Clegg gave the telling over to the lesbian couple who ran it.

They — so disconnected from everything, so absent from the central tragedy — allow June to check in under a false name, with no ID. She pays cash, stays for months. And like entomologists fixated by some unusual species trapped under glass, Rebecca and Kelly observe and try to make sense of the mystery of June (who they know as Jane.) Too polite to ask outright, they glean tiny details and worry over her. They become the lens through which we, as readers, can see June clearly when, previously, we have only experienced her story from inside the prism of her own shattering grief.

In trying to tell the faceted story of a single moment as seen by a hundred different eyes, Clegg has attempted something daring. And the wonder of it is how often his experiment succeeds — and how strange the view of a terrible thing can be depending on the angle from which you view it.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

For Inca Road Builders, Extreme Terrain Was No Obstacle


The Inca were innovators in agriculture as well as engineering. Terracing like this, on a steep hillside in Peru's Colca Canyon, helped them grow food.i

The Inca were innovators in agriculture as well as engineering. Terracing like this, on a steep hillside in Peru’s Colca Canyon, helped them grow food.

Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian


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Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

The Inca were innovators in agriculture as well as engineering. Terracing like this, on a steep hillside in Peru's Colca Canyon, helped them grow food.

The Inca were innovators in agriculture as well as engineering. Terracing like this, on a steep hillside in Peru’s Colca Canyon, helped them grow food.

Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

One of history’s greatest engineering feats is one you rarely hear of. It’s the Inca Road, parts of which still exist today across much of South America.

Back in the day — more than 500 years ago — commoners like me wouldn’t have been able to walk on the Inca Road, known as Qhapaq Ñan in the Quechua language spoken by the Inca, without official permission.

Fortunately, I have Peruvian archaeologist Ramiro Matos by my side. He is the lead curator of an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.”

A suspension bridge made of twisted plant fibers stretches high above the Apurimac River in Peru. Local residents, descendants of the Inca, have been making bridges like this for some 500 years.i

A suspension bridge made of twisted plant fibers stretches high above the Apurimac River in Peru. Local residents, descendants of the Inca, have been making bridges like this for some 500 years.

Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian


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Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

A suspension bridge made of twisted plant fibers stretches high above the Apurimac River in Peru. Local residents, descendants of the Inca, have been making bridges like this for some 500 years.

A suspension bridge made of twisted plant fibers stretches high above the Apurimac River in Peru. Local residents, descendants of the Inca, have been making bridges like this for some 500 years.

Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

That’s “Inka” with a K, as it’s spelled in Quechua. And today, we’re taking a virtual journey down what was once more than 20,000 miles of road traversing some of the world’s most challenging terrain — mountains, forests and deserts.

The Inca road began at the center of the Inca universe: Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, said to be built in the shape of a crouching puma. It actually was not a single road but a network of royal roads, an instrument of power designed for military transport, religious pilgrimages and to move supplies.

“As far as the road stretches, the empire stretches,” says Ramos.

The road spanned modern-day Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. The museum exhibition’s photographs of it are vertigo-inducing: Massive pathways wind up tall mountains and touch the clouds; sturdy staircases unwind into lush, green valleys, as if the brutal nature of the landscape had been just a small inconvenience to work around.

Families walk from the center of Cusco to a temple site at Sacsayhuaman to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun.i

Families walk from the center of Cusco to a temple site at Sacsayhuaman to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun.

Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian


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Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Families walk from the center of Cusco to a temple site at Sacsayhuaman to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun.

Families walk from the center of Cusco to a temple site at Sacsayhuaman to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun.

Doug McMains/Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

“The highest part of the road crosses from Argentina to Chile, nearly 20,000 feet high,” Matos says.

How did they build this?

“Local experience.”

The Inca were master engineers. But like most conquerors, they also tapped local experts. The exhibition highlights a long bridge made of woven plant fibers, still in use today.

“There’s an inventory of over 100 bridges in all of the empire — this is one of the few which remain. It’s made with icchu or puna grass,” Matos says.

The Inca Empire only lasted about a century. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, that intricate road made it easier for them to move around and access precious mines that the Incas themselves had been exploiting.

Today, most of the old road has been destroyed — both by the Spanish conquest and by modern highways. Some parts remain and are still in use.

Schoolchildren around the world learn about the ancient Roman roads and the Great Wall of China — but most people have heard little about the great Inca Road. Kevin Gover, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, says the road is largely forgotten because it just doesn’t fit into a typical Western narrative.

“Indians play one of two roles in that narrative,” he says. “They are either the opponents of civilization or they are literally part of the nature that was there to be settled and conquered. We’re not taught that some of these were very advanced civilizations, because that means this wasn’t a wilderness. And that means somebody had to be displaced. And it wasn’t necessarily a noble endeavor.”

The National Museum of the American Indian's exhibition, "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire," will run until June 1, 2018.i

The National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition, “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” will run until June 1, 2018.

Paul Morigi/AP Images for Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian


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Paul Morigi/AP Images for Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian's exhibition, "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire," will run until June 1, 2018.

The National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition, “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” will run until June 1, 2018.

Paul Morigi/AP Images for Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

That’s why the museum created the exhibit, which is on display till 2018.

The great Inca Road reminds us that, once upon a time, all roads led not to Rome — but to Cusco, Peru.