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Author Archive: "Dave"

Return of Depression Economics

We could have prevented this economic free-fall, Paul Krugman believes. He wrote the first edition of The Return of Depression Economics in response to the Asian crisis of the 1990s, which he saw as a warning to economies around the world. Now Krugman has revised and expanded the original work to explain our current state of affairs; he also addresses how to contain the situation before it gets worse. Winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics, Krugman is arguably our best guide to the subject; he's certainly the most accessible. ("Don't expect a solemn, dignified book," he warns in the introduction.)


Hope and Other Writerly Pursuits: The Powells.com Interview with Laila Lalami

[Editor's note: Meet Laila Lalami at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:30 pm.]

People will be talking about Secret Son — on college campuses, in book groups, online, in the US and abroad. Upon finishing the novel, I couldn't pin down what about it struck me as so distinctive. It took a second read to realize: Laila Lalami has written a timeless story that's, paradoxically, very much of our time.

Laila LalamiWhen Lalami published Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in 2005, the debut earned praise far and wide, from acclaimed literary authors such as Junot Díaz and even popular weeklies including People magazine. Four years later, the former Portland resident, a native of Morocco, has returned with a remarkable novel of contemporary Casablanca that's sure to expand her avid readership even further.

In a starred review, Library Journal calls Secret Son "a brilliant story of alienation and desperation that easily transports readers to hot, dusty Casablanca." American Book Award winner Joe Sacco agrees, declaring, "Laila Lalami's tale of a young Moroccan man who must navigate between a bleak background and a bright possibility is magnificently told and wrenched my heart."

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Dave: In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, you immediately call attention to the proximity of Spain to Morocco, across the strait. Fourteen miles separate these characters from their dreams. Similarly, in Secret Son, a short bus ride takes Youssef from the high life in Casablanca to the slums of Hay An Najat. Were you conscious of that parallel as you were writing?

Laila Lalami: I never made the connection in the way that you put it. I was just writing things the way I saw them.

In Casablanca, in some ways, class differences are actually even more sharply contrasted than in Secret Son, so that it's impossible not to see the disparity between rich and poor. In describing Youssef's world, I was consciously taking note of the things that would stand out for him. I hadn't made the connection between the two books, but I guess it makes sense.

Dave: A movie comes to town every week, and Youssef sees them all. Movies are his window onto the rest of the world. Obviously, you grew up in very different circumstances, but when you were young in Morocco did movies play a similar role for you?

Lalami: Books and movies. I grew up in a family where everybody read, but we also watched a lot of movies. American movies, Egyptian movies, Indian movies... so all of that was very familiar to me.

In Morocco in the seventies, there was a thriving movie-going culture. But since the appearance of DVDs, so much pirating has been going on — you can get a movie on DVD even before you can see it in a theater — that a lot of theaters have gone out of business. Nowadays you have fewer theaters, in fewer neighborhoods. Having Youssef go to one of the still-remaining theaters was a good starting point for me.

Dave: Youssef often imagines himself as an actor, as if his life were a dramatization. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize who's directing or writing the screenplay.

Did the book end up resembling the vision of it that you had when you started?

Lalami: No. My initial idea was very different. When I started working on the book — I think it was in 2003 — I had this image of a young man going home in the rain to the shack that he shares with his mother, after seeing a movie. I was interested in the contrast between the perfect life that we have in movies, that stylized way of looking at life, and going home to reality. And I always thought his mother was hiding something; I didn't quite know what.

I thought that it would also be the story of his half-sister, who also appears in the book — it was going to be an intergenerational story about these two families. Youssef and his half-sister would be the main characters, the two points-of-view.

But over the course of working on the book, my focus kept narrowing. I dropped the intergenerational storyline — after a while, I guess I wasn't as interested in writing about the earlier generation. Eventually, I focused on the main character and his dilemmas, but from that process I had a lot more insights into who he was.

Dave: Secret Son is filled with secrets — it's right there in the title. The characters construct stories to protect those secrets; and the stories take on lives of their own.

Lalami: We all like to think we have some sort of control over our lives, but of course so much is predetermined by the circumstances of our birth. I wanted to show how the external world affects what we think of our choices. Those choices are conditioned by our perceptions of the outside world, which isn't necessarily reality. I wanted to show the other perspectives, since I already had them, and show how those characters influence Youssef without his realizing it.

Dave: That's a common process. Often a fiction writer goes through the equivalent of a research phase, generating material that may not make it into the book but very much informs the story.

Lalami: Absolutely.


Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Twelve-year-old T.S. Spivet draws maps of train routes and water tables, maps of loneliness, the resilience of memory, even a map of his sister shucking corn. Author Reif Larsen notes, "I think I'm gently expanding the definition of the word map." And about those maps: Larsen, the son of two artists, created them himself. "I got almost all the way through the draft before I realized that we needed to see T.S.'s maps and his diagrams," the novelist explains. "That's the territory of his heart." When T.S.'s work is honored by the Smithsonian — the institute naturally assumes that T.S. is an adult — he runs away from home in Divide, Montana, and hoboes his way to Washington, D.C. An adventure story, a family saga, and a format-busting beauty (T.S.'s drawings appear on more than half the pages, mostly in sidebars and cutaways alongside the main body of text), The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a revelation.


Sunnyside

A great American novel, Sunnyside contains multitudes. Glen David Gold follows his bestselling debut (Carter Beats the Devil) with an audaciously imagined history of Hollywood at the start of World War I, so unceasingly vibrant that even the book's credits are a pleasure to read.


Now We Know It from Robert Goolrick

Come a day, you might get sick of hearing about A Reliable Wife — so many people will have read it and raved to you about it. Take this preventative medicine: read it first.

Robert GoolrickCatherine Land arrives in Wisconsin on a snowy day in 1907. Receiving her on the train platform, Ralph Truitt knows that Catherine isn't the woman she made herself out to be when she answered his newspaper ad for "a reliable wife." But what else does he know? And how far will Catherine go to fulfill her desires? Robert Goolrick's deftly woven novel of seduction, marriage, money, sex, and drugs will keep you turning pages to find out.

Kirkus calls A Reliable Wife "a sublime murder ballad that doesn't turn out at all the way one might expect." Booklist raves, "Few have permeated their narratives with gothic elements and suspense to such great effect."

You'll want to devour it in a single sitting. Simultaneously, you'll want to luxuriate in the drama as long as possible. Whatever you decide, there's too much pleasure in these pages to leave to your friends.

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Dave: A Reliable Wife made me think about what we withhold and what we reveal. Specifically, that's played out through these three characters.

One line jumped off the page for me: when Truitt tells Catherine, "Everybody knows it, but they don't know it from me." Until that point, Truitt has never been in control of his own story.

Robert Goolrick: Three people not in control of their lives. They're also people who are used to being looked at.

Truitt is the center of his town. Everybody's looking at him and talking about him all the time. Catherine makes herself the center of attention, as does Antonio. They draw the spotlight. And yet they're not really in control of their lives. In a way, it's about the effort to wrest some kind of control.

I wanted to write a book about redemption, about goodness; about the distance between us and goodness, and how we cross that distance. They're all trying to move toward some kind of personal redemption and gain some control over their lives.

And they all have secrets. It's about people who don't tell what's in their hearts, but act on it.

Dave: Each of the characters is burdened by a very specific, self-imposed agenda. Bringing the son home, killing the father, or love and money. Each is singularly obsessed.

Goolrick: Catherine is always afraid of losing her balance, and losing her way. Ralph resigns himself to the fact that the thing he thought he wanted is the thing that's going to kill him. Antonio alone never gives up.

But I also have to say that each of those characters is a facet of my personality. I'm sure this is true for most writers. I was very conscious, when I was writing the book, that Ralph, Catherine, and Antonio are all in some way me. You put all three of them together and they make up my personality.

Truitt says, "Everybody knows it, but they don't know it from me." Yes, and I think it's my attempt through the depiction of three separate lives to say something about my life and who I am.

Most writers who put their heart into what they write are trying to say some very simple thing, I think. Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I here? They construct very complicated narratives to say what they otherwise can't.

Dave: How long did it take you to write each of your books, the memoir and the novel?


Reliable Wife

Come a day, you might get sick of hearing about A Reliable Wife — so many people will have read it and raved to you about it. Here's some preventative medicine: read it first. Seduction, marriage, money, sex, drugs, murder... when Catherine Land arrives in Wisconsin on a snowy day in 1907, we know she's an imposter — but does her husband-to-be? Robert Goolrick has written a novel that you'll want to devour in a single sitting. Simultaneously, you'll want to luxuriate in its drama as long as possible. Whatever you decide, there's too much pleasure in these pages to leave to your friends.


Mercy Papers

The Mercy Papers earns a place right alongside Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination — three canonical books about confronting loss. Robin Romm's unflinching memoir will befriend readers for years to come.


Breaks of the Game

Portland: Read this. The Breaks of the Game, finally back in print, is almost certainly one of the best books ever written about the NBA, but that statement hardly does it justice. Halberstam's subject far transcends any action on the court. In 1979, professional sports and, perhaps more to the point, American culture, stood on the cusp of sweeping change. Consider that in the book's first sentence we meet the mighty Trail Blazers as they gather for the preseason at a small motel in Gresham. Exploring race and class; wins and losses; coaches, executives, players, and fans; amid the nation's vastly expanding television landscape, Halberstam delivers a portrait of our city and our team worthy of his illustrious reputation.


David Grann Finds the Story of Z

The Lost City of Z is 2009's first can't-miss nonfiction. New Yorker staff writer David Grann travels through the Amazon in the footsteps of explorer Percy Fawcett, who captured the world's imagination (and redefined the borders of South America) before disappearing in the jungle without a trace. Nathaniel Philbrick calls The Lost City "a riveting, totally absorbing real-life adventure story" — and early readers at Powell's couldn't agree more.


John Balzar’s Snow Daze

The course of the Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race stretches 1,023 miles over frozen rivers and icy mountain passes, through spruce forests and meager backwoods outposts as Balzar writes, "wildlands settled only here and there, and even then barely settled at all." The author explained, "You see pictures of dog mushing, and they're really boring: starting lights and a crowd and some dogs lunging. That's pretty much our image of it. It's hardly the truth at all." An addictive concoction of history, risk, character, and local color, Yukon Alone has been hailed as "the best book on the Far North since Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams."


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