Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Raider of the Lost Manilla Folder

Re-publishing your older titles as ebooks is a satisfying experience, in no small part because it opens up a past you thought was dead and, well, published. In fact it was all just waiting there to be re-discovered, not just the novel itself, but also the inspiration, the place, the people, and the paper trail leading to its creation…
    World's End (William Morrow) may have appeared long enough ago to be a Book of the Month Club Alternate Selection but it still accurately reflects much of south Louisiana. And it recently afforded me, when I re-opened that file in my desk, beaucoup memories in the form of notes, photos, and letters like the one from my friend, Pani Kolb. A Louisiana native and a long-time resident of New Orleans, she was responding to my question about what one might find at an all-out, deep-pockets, deep-delta wedding reception:
    "… remoulade sauce from Arnaud's… a dance floor built under a canopy… a jazz group from New Orleans, Cajun group from Mamou, amplified concertina… long tables with linen tablecloths.. two pirogues on stands filled with ice… shrimp creole, redfish courtboullion to go over headrice, crabmeat au gratin, turtle sauce piquant… hollowed out loaves of french bread filled with pieces of steak on toothpicks and butter to dip them in, strawberries filled with cream cheese, vol au vents filled with creamed oysters… satsumas, orange wine… oyster and crayfish pies, cochon au lair, cabrito, lots of chicken and spareribs, fry wagons with big vats for catfish… C'est la vie!"
       And then there was the problem of properly arming the combatant forces working for the O'Neills, traditional patriarchs of World's End Parish, and the Cinques, mafiosi-esque re-dos of Louisiana's more traditionally organized criminals.     
      But there's a lot more to World's End than eating and shooting. If you want to read the novel please go to: http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-End-James-Conaway-ebook/dp/B00HLKFGDS/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1388505312&sr=8-7&keywords=james+conaway

Monday, December 30, 2013

World's End begins (again)

      Paul Theroux and T. Coraghessan Boyle both must have recognized the excellence of this title since both used it after my novel appeared.
     That puff of smoke isn't from the barrel of a gun but a steam pipe, on a back street in the Vieux Carre.
      It was my second novel, this time from the publisher William Morrow, and it came out a few years after The Big Easy (Houghton Mifflin). Now I'm happy to say it has just been released as an ebook (http://www.amazon.com/Worlds-End-James-Conaway-ebook/dp/B00HLKFGDS/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1388420881&sr=1-1).
     Here are some reviews that appeared at the time it was published in hardcover. Looking through the folder I kept them in, I discovered material I used in the research - including a description of a Thompson submachine-gun - that I'll share in a later post.
       Novelist Michael Mewshaw wrote in the Washington Star: “Conaway has written a saga which... leads to the conclusion that at the top - at the bottom? - the country is run by an interlocking directorate of corporate executives, mafiosi, elected officials and regional power brokers... What raises the book above its genre is Conaway’s sure knowledge of the place and its people... he knows, for instance, that racketeers in New Orleans wear elastic white socks as a kind of professional badge. And he can describe a Cajun celebration, a morning coffee at Cafe du Monde, or a ritualistic serving of Sambuca just a skillfully as he handles the action sequences.”
      New York Daily News, “If tight melodrama laced with sex, power grabs and corruption is your dish, you’ll devour World’s End with the relish of a hungry mule in a cornfield...a spellbinder.”
      Kirkus: “This Louisiana tale, with its Mafia crime barons pitted against corrupt-government barons, expertly lifts numerous Puzo-ian scenes and motifs - tit-for-tat violence, family honor - while adding some strong local colorations and cinematic effects... there’s enough action and avarice down among the bayous to make this a solid, never crass or tasteless, commercial entry.”
      The Miami Herald: “There is a good deal more to World’s End than just politics. Conaway’s novel is at once a family chronicle, a thriller, and a brief history of Louisiana. It is filled with authentic detail and atmosphere, told with great skill.”
       Philadelphia Inquirer: “The teaser on the jacket flap says that James Conaway’s new novel ‘will remind some readers of ‘All the King’s Men’ and others of ‘The Godfather’... The good news is that it’s an astonishingly successful hybrid.”
      New Orleans Times-Picayune: “... fascinating and absorbing... one of those rare you-can’t-put-it-down books.”
       Kansas City Star: “World’s End would be a much less successful novel without Conaway’s merging of action and place. So much that is ugly and crude occurs in the midst of so much beauty and graciousness, and Conaway makes us believe equally in both.”

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pulling cork: Atlas Peak

                  Look... up    
   I remember doing research for my book, Napa, and seeing vineyards going in up on Atlas Peak, one of the highest points in Napa Valley forged from, among other things, volcanic drift. A cellar was being dug into an escarpment there, and the vines looked exposed and a bit lonely. Since then some wonderful wine has come off that mountain, and from other high elevations on both sides of the valley.
    The sources of this cabernet sauvignon, with its pittance of malbec and cabernet franc, are Howell Mountain to the north, and Mt. Veeder to the west. Because the grapes come from different appellations this one is simply designated Napa Valley. Consequently it's less expensive than similar wines from a single designation, and one of an increasing number of good mix-and-match cabs, so to speak (Dunn Vineyards Napa Valley cabernet one of the best examples).
   This Atlas Peak cab's from the 2010 harvest, relatively affordable at about $40, and only 14.7% alcohol. Peppery, berryish, with some power and a fine, long finish. 
To see my new e-books go to: http://www.fearlessbooks.com/Conaway.htm

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Big Easy Deconstructed

     (Takes a local writer to get to the nub of it.)                                
        A veteran journalist and historian who lives in New Orleans, Carolyn Kolb, researched the history of the phrase, “the Big Easy,” in the course of assembling her own book, New Orleans Memories: One Writer’s City (University Press of Mississippi). Carolyn interviewed me earlier this year and concluded in a chapter entitled Deconstructing The Big Easy: “There doesn’t seem to be any reference to ‘the Big Easy’ prior to 1970... the year author James Conaway published his novel
     "The book follows the adventures of a police reporter (which Conaway had been at the Times-Picayune) through the underside of New Orleans, with crime, drugs, and racial disturbances... Did the name exist before Conaway’s book?”
Kolb cites various researchers who found the name on dance halls “but none as a nickname for the city.” A digital search of 156 years of the New York Times finally finds Conaway’s The Big Easy mentioned in a review of [the Times’s] top crime novels on December 6, 1970... So where did Jim Conaway get the phrase ‘the Big Easy’?
“Well, like any good reporter, Conaway just made note of something he heard on the street... a Wallace Stegner fellow in creative writing at Stanford University, he... arrived in town two days before hurricane Betsy in September, 1965... his first day at work began the morning after... Conaway soon became a police reporter.
        "‘It was a noir experience - real life noir - although I didn’t realize it when I was having it,‘ he said. The world of criminal court at Tulane and Broad was fascinating. ‘Bigger-than-life characters, a lot of corruption but a lot of freedom... People could do exactly what they wanted.’
        “He often rode the bus and walked from Claiborne Avenue to the courthouse, an adventurous route... It was while walking that he overheard two black men use the phrase ‘the big easy,’ perhaps describing the city as a place where any musician should be able to succeed with ease. ‘I was really struck by the phrase... It was only later that it came back to me.’”

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Memphis Afternoons now in ebook

 Memphis Afternoons (Houghton Mifflin) has just gone up on Amazon and Smashwords. Here are some reviews:

Jim Lehrer in The Washington Post - “Profound... hilarious... honest and serious... proof that the gods look more favorably on some writers than they do on others... conaway moves through his family and life in Memphis in the ‘40s and ‘50s with the flow and grace of an impressionist painter.”
     Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains, House) - “Exemplary... absorbing... sad and funny... It awakens our own memories, makes our own lives more available to us.”
     Rick Bass (The Ninemile Wolves) “I’m crazy about this book, and implore the nation to read it... about the shuddering magnificence, the depthlessness, of the human heart.” 
      Or go to Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/390793

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Big Easy's an ebook (finally)

    My first novel, The Big Easy (Houghton Mifflin) is up on Amazon and Smashwords. Here are some reviews:
            The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Grim, gripping, violent,  and practically impossible to put down."
       Publisher's Weekly: "The scene is unglamorous New Orleans... in a brief, well-written novel of hopeless degradations    that has a unique impact."
      Library Journal: “A short- fast-paced and absorbing novel... that probes deeply into the texture of the contemporary South, and entertains from first page to last.”   

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Letters from the Equator - Dreamin'

The editor asked, "How would you like to fly around the equator?" It was the early '90s, computers were just coming into their own and digital cameras clunky things. Getting at the essence of  countries in line, in only a couple of days before moving on, was presumptuous. And, oh yes, there was another problem...)
                       One: The Prospect
     For as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel the equator, where the world is thickest and most fecund, a middle-aged spread roughly 25,000 miles in circumference, suffused with limpid greens and cobalt blues. I have imagined horizons riotous with chlorophyll, deep oceans and salt breezes, damp heat, unrecorded creatures, and people wild either by nature or disposition, all of them equidistant from the poles and from my experience.
      I'm going to do this in less than a month. It's a task that requires, ideally, the knowledge of a jet-lagged Magellan and the talent of an on-line Twain, but my more modest talents will have to suffice. I have crossed the equator before, and been around the world but I have never - and neither has anyone else, as far as I can tell - taken on such an accelerated linear mission, armed with a lap-top, two power packs, and a digital camera that transforms light and objects into images that can be squeezed through telephone lines, projected into space, and bounced back by satellite.
     The equator projects its coordinates upward into what astronomers call the celestial vault. There, an imaginary circle drawn at right angles to the earth's axis divides it, too, into northern and southern spheres, and twice a year the sun crosses this celestial equator at the equinoxes. Several times within the next few weeks I will create mini-equinoxes of my own, stitching the equator by air in order to follow it.
     There is no such thing as a direct commercial route. The equator is less on the way to anywhere than at cross purposes with the hemispheric competitions of the age: one reason it appeals to me. I will have to travel 50,000 miles, tacking back and forth, watching the water in bathroom basins swirl down first one way and then the other, to cover half that distance.
     I fear getting cut - wounds do not fare well on the equator - or inhabited by a relentlessly Darwinian microbe, or missing a plane. My schedule, I can modestly say, makes the Secretary of State's look leisurely. Fifty thousand miles in a little over three weeks, with road and river travel thrown in, seems to me the protean recipe for disorientation and mettle fatigue, among other hazards of travel.
      We will see. The journey encompasses, if I include the stopovers and connecting links, airports being the caravansaries of the contemporary world, fourteen cities, half a dozen islands and as many rivers, three oceans, several continents but only one planet, ours, nestled in the mesh of longitude and latitude, a terrestrial melon in the shopping bag of cartographical ingenuity.
    This fruit is like no other, still promising adventure and the opportunity to see the world from an inch away or from 35,000 feet, as well as to taste, touch, and breathe it. On the equator I will supposedly weigh less because of the diminished power of gravity. The sun will be more powerful, being directly overhead, the weather violent when not too hot, and always it will be wet in the lungs if not underfoot.
     I will travel westward, against the earth's rotation but with the sun, the traditional direction of exploration. I hope to meet people who share some common, as yet undetermined, qualities; I hope to find out something of myself - of stamina and imagination - and to encounter an equinoctial world both unpredictable, and enduring.
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Two from Bordeaux

                                                  Looking east... way                      
  Many wine-drinkers used to our assertive, fruity, often overly-alcoholic cabernet sauvignon are shocked, shocked by the discovery that the more tightly-structured ones from Bordeaux tend to cohabit better with food, show a different complexity, and often prove more interesting than more expensive versions made here.
    The problem for New World devotees is that Bordeaux takes longer to get to that point, and it isn't ever suited, in my opinion, to the aperitif role imposed on this side of the Atlantic.
    In the early years in which most of it is drunk, Bordeaux can seem tart, the fruit unyielding and the tannins formidable. Learn a little patience, re-sharpen your laden taste buds and be reminded of the potential and relatively affordable glories of the land where cab got cranking.
    These two from 2010 are a good place to start. The Chateau Lestage Simon ($20), from the Haut-Medoc, is very tight at first  but shows a long, peppery through-line when it has a chance to breathe. (We left it in the glass for half an hour before trying it, then vaccumed out the air and found that it tasted even better the next day.) The Chateau Cantin (just under $50) from the other side of the Gironde, despite its 15.5 per cent alcohol evinces the classic St. Emilion verve, good black fruit and a strong finish.
    Leave both these wines in the basement for a couple of years before you pull the corks.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

The Big Easy, a renaissance

    In the middle of the Sixties my wife Penny and I moved from Palo Alto to New Orleans, a city utterly strange to us, and I went to work for the Times-Picayune with no journalistic experience whatever. It was a rich, tumultuous time I've described in an essay in Vanishing America, and it led to my writing a novel soon after Penny and our little son, Brennan, left to live in Europe a year later.
   I started the novel in Switzerland, an overgrown garden in Chateau d'Oex with a view of the Vaudois Alps, and finished it in London where we lived for three years. New Orleans was about as far from our house in Kensington as you could get, but it was New Orleans that steamed away in the old sub-conscious, grim, violent, other-worldly, and it's that vision that finally emerged, a purgatorial take on a unique piece of America that appears below.
    The book was written in an explosive decade - civil rights struggles, Vietnam, drugs, social dismemberment, glorious and often futile dreams. I called it The Big Easy. I was the first to use that phrase, as I have explained in a early posting. I overheard it on the street, walking from the bus stop to the cop house on Tulane Avenue. It was a pretty phrase, I thought, with a very dark side.
   The novel, first published by Houghton Mifflin, has just been reissued as an e-book and will be available as a newly-released on-demand book in early 2014. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Walking: Lake Onawa

    Lake Onawa will soon be a frozen expanse where snow devils dance and a wind-driven curtain of ice crystals is slowly drawn across the distant, deeply green shore of northern Maine:                                                                           
     "This is going to be fun," said Alexandra Conover, face covered by dark glasses and a neoprene mask. "You might want this," she added casually, offering me a scarf, as if protection at ten below, in a headwind with 25-mile-per-hour gusts, was optional. "You can't feel frostbite, you know. We have to watch each other, to make sure our faces aren't turning gray."
     She also wore a stylish wool cap, white wind gear over more wool, mittens and mukluks of smoked moose hide, and of course snowshoes, the bent, lacquered ash and rawhide bright in the clear winter sunlight. Her husband, Garrett, was similarly attired, and bearded, his glasses kept unfogged by goggles. He held an ax, with which he chopped at the ice, and said, "Six inches. All you need for support is four. Those damp spots out there are just overflow," water seeping up through the ice. "Nothing to worry about."
    Off we went. Snowshoeing requires a kind of subarctic Zen in which the unencumbered heels rise and the toes, in mukluks, tucked under leather thongs, rhythmically shuffle us, not toward nirvana but to the simple satisfaction of walking in one's own backyard. The Conovers are professional guides, an old and venerable profession in Maine, and they venture as far afield in their expeditions as Labrador, for up to two weeks, hauling supplies in a handmade toboggan in winter. But this day they were just rediscovering the 'hood.
    "You live in a place," Garrett shouted over the wind, "and don't do the things others will come miles to do. And then all of a sudden you change your routine, and go out in your own neck of the woods, and" - he gestures expansively - "it's great!"
    Think about snowshoeing too much and you will fall down. Ahead of us fox tracks punctuated the white infinity between us and Onawa's far end. Some of the old cabins around the lake were more than 100 years old and had the original peeled logs; all were shut tight for the season.
    A railroad trestle at the south end leapt from woods to woods, and Borestone Mountain rose above us, wild and knobby against a powder blue sky. Hemlocks and firs on the far side were slashed with birches like ghostly exclamation points, a classic 19th-century view. Although the Appalachian Trail winds close to the north end of Onawa, the famous trail's terminus wasn't far away, this scene remained determinately local.
                                         On the road to Onawa
    Old-time Maine: quiet, cold, daunting, invigorating, an iconic American setting that mostly Mainers have been enjoying for well over a century. Onawa's website, maintained by a local community association, provided some particulars about Onawa - for instance, the word is Chippewa,  for "awake" - but as for directions for getting here, well, the site is coy: "We won't tell."
     A booklet published in 1928 by the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad attempted to lure "sports" from the cities to pursue Onawa's "gamey fellow"- landlocked salmon - but this part of Piscataquis County today seemed content to conserve what it had. It's one of the poorest counties in the state, and for the most part, Garrett said, citizens made a living with small logging and other work, including guiding.
    The barn from which the Conovers launch their expeditions, winter and summer, contains canoes made 20 miles up the road. On their walls hang conventional snowshoes and those made by the Innu Indians up in Quebec, shorter and rounder for extra support in deep powder. There was a two-man saw, a hand ax in a leather scabbard, a broom made of branches, and a pointed board for stretching mink hides that was given to Alexandra by a local old-timer, without explanation.
    "I wondered," she says, "'Why me?' My mother had skinned minks for a living in the forties, and when I told him this, he said, "We know these things,' and walked off."
    The old ways prevailed here until World War II, "when people came out of the woods to work in factories. They didn't go back in again until the late sixties, reinventing the wheel," but it was a new generation learning the arts of warmth, wellness, and mobility without total reliance upon modern technology. "Now the land is up for sale by the timber companies, all part of multinationals. After 100 years of single ownership there are new roads into the wilderness, and everywhere the prospect of development."
    Our noses had grown icicles while, out on the ice, snow formed and re-formed in long, drifting windrows. It felt too cold for me to take out my digital camera, which appeared to have frozen shut anyway. Ahead of us lay the estuary where Long Pond Stream fed the lake, promising shelter. A set of coyote tracks led us up that frozen stream, straight as an arrow. "He was just here," said Garrett.           
                                               Fire woman
    We clambered through the alder thicket and stomped out a lunch spot with our snowshoes. Garrett gathered deadwood and Alexandra stripped shavings from it with her folding knife; soon flames were tentatively licking up. The sun felt good but the fire was even better. Although still below zero, we sat on our mittens, on the snowshoes, and drank tea out of old-fashioned enamel mugs that kept our hands warm.
    "The first day out," she said, of their longer trips, "people are scared, but by day three they're totally confident, working without gloves, eating 'Newfy steaks' - chunks of baloney favored in Newfoundland, roasted on skinned alder branches."Those outings weren't without excitement. Once they were snowshoeing in a three-day blizzard, in Quebec, with a party of five and had to resort to the compass to find their way. "We stayed in sight of each other at all times, then I felt a snowmobile track through my snowshoes, and we followed it."
    Our Newfy steaks were sizzling. "You want grease in cold weather," said Alexandra, but there was gorp too, and peanut butter on crackers, and chocolate squares, a moveable, zero-sum feast. Then we shoveled on the fire and packed up, and it felt cold again. "The first quarter mile of walking after lunch is the fastest of the day," said Garrett, "then the food kicks in, and you're warm once more."                                                
                                                     Garrett (left) and the other guy
    Now the wind was pushing us, whispering at the edges of our hoods. Alexandra told of the solar panel they once took along on their toboggan, to power a satellite phone. "I thought, 'Gosh, we're using 20th-century technology and, at the same time, wilderness gear and methods 10,000 years old.'"
    That experiment wasn't repeated. "People need to get outside, away from electronics. Looking out at this beautiful lake, you think how different this is from a television screen. Both are visual images, but this one you're involved in. You're taken out of yourself for a short time, and there's great restorative power in that."
    The sun passed behind Borestone Mountain. An otter had scouted the ice's edge ahead of us, scooting on his stomach, leaving one long skid mark in the snow, looking for access to the cold water and the mollusks he feeds on. He would find an opening eventually, even though the lake was locked up from shore to shore.
    I was grateful to get back to our launching point, under a numinous evening sky. Maybe this walk was not hard-core by Maine standards, but it was respectable. "We've had a little bit of everything today," said Garrett happily. "A real headwind, some overflow to think about, and a tailwind coming home."
                                                               Alexandra come spring 
To see my bio, click on: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2013/02/heres-concise-bio-for-those-who-have.html
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
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