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Soldiers fill a hole left by an explosion on a road outside Beiji, Iraq, in 2005. In his debut novel, Michael Pitre follows a group of Marines doing similar work on Iraq's highways. (AP)

Marine Turned Novelist Brings Brutal, Everyday Work Of War Into Focus

by NPR Staff
Aug 26, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Michael Pitre lives in New Orleans. Fives and Twenty-Fives is his first novel.

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"Every inch of that place, every grain of sand, wanted desperately to kill us."

That's a line from a compelling new novel about the Iraq War, written by former Marine Michael Pitre.

Pitre was a history and creative writing major at Louisiana State when he joined the Marines after Sept. 11. He became an officer and served two tours in Iraq's Anbar province working in logistics and communications.

His new novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, follows an American road repair crew and bomb disposal team in Iraq. He tells NPR's Melissa Block about the crew's mission, the meaning of the book's title and balancing his loyalty to the Marine Corps with his desire to tell a realistic story.

Interview Highlights

On his characters' mission in Iraq

Their mission is to fill potholes — to repair the roads and highways of western Iraq so that the troops and supplies and civilians can move freely on them. The problem is the potholes are created by IEDs, roadside bombs, and the insurgent cells were planting IEDs in the same potholes over and over and over again. So when you go out to repair the potholes, you had to first clear the bomb that was waiting for you that had been planted overnight, typically. So it was just this endless grind of really brutal manual labor in a very dangerous environment.

And this was not my job; it was the job of a very close friend of mine named Ed ... who did this for a stretch in Iraq. And I asked him the question, "How many of those potholes had another bomb in them, Ed?" And he said, "Oh, every single one."

On why he wanted to write this book

I did not have an exciting, super action-packed Iraq experience, but my close, close friends did, and I was there with them when they did. And their stories weren't being told the way I thought they should. ...

I wanted to tell a story that didn't fetishize combat. It was a war story with very little real combat as we know it. Because war is work, right? It's sweaty and it's exhausting and sometimes it's carrying bags of concrete in the 130-degree sun and wondering if you're just going to get engaged by a sniper when your back is turned. And it was not glamorous and it's not SEAL Team 6; it's just work, and I wanted to tell a story about that.

On his decision to write part of the book from an Iraqi's perspective — that of a young interpreter named Dodge

The combat in Iraq, the fighting done by the Marines there, was not an end unto itself — we didn't go there to fight just to fight. The fighting was part of a larger military mission, and that military mission was the safety and security of the Iraqi people. That was the reason why I included a narrator who was Iraqi. It was really their war much more than it was ever ours and I wanted their story told as well. ...

It took some thought and it took some soul-searching. And I knew a number of interpreters, none of whom are direct inspirations for Dodge — he's really an invention. And putting myself in his shoes wasn't that hard, honestly, because you saw it every day on those guys' faces, that they had to go home to this at the end of the day when you got to go home to sunny California.

On the meaning of the book's title

Fives and Twenty-Fives refers to a tactic to maintain safe distances from possible roadside bombs. So if you were on a convoy and someone in the lead vehicle saw something suspicious that they needed to stop and investigate, the first thing everyone would do is scan 5 meters around the wheels of their Humvee to make sure that they weren't parked next to a bomb. So once everyone's cleared in their fives, they dismount and do their 25-meter sweep where they establish a larger zone of protection for the dismounted troops so you can know that if you're within 25 meters of the vehicle, you're safe.

But it also became a metaphor for protecting yourself. I heard it more than once in a Southern California bar. Two young Marines — very obviously young Marines by their haircuts — one of them's too drunk and his buddy says to him, "Hey man, watch your five and twenty-fives"; meaning, you know, stay safe.

On balancing his loyalty to the Marine Corps with his desire to tell a realistic story

My loyalty to the Marine Corps and to those with whom I served — those with whom I'm still very close — my loyalty to them led me to want to tell a true story. And as I was writing it — and this is, in all honesty, a manuscript that I never thought would be read by anyone other than my wife — I sent it out to my old friends from my old battalion and said, "Hey, read this." And the subject line was always "Read this and tell me if I have brought dishonor to our corps." And no complaints from them, which is what matters to me most.

On his frustration with the State Department and contractors in Iraq

There's no getting rid of that. That exasperation will last the rest of my life, I know. I mean you were dealing with a whole Marine Corps that was marched into this area of desert without a plan at all. And then you see around you contractors and folks who are really profiteering, was what a lot of it was.

And there's a line in the book in which [an American lieutenant] says to Dodge: Hey, I think we're gonna remember this war as the last time we were disappointed by our parents. And I do hold to that. There was this sense in Iraq that, you know, your dad had taken you on vacation and didn't bring gas money and you were stranded. So the Marines on the ground in Iraq did the best with what they had, but in the end there was no real strategy. We just dropped a lot of bombs and said, "We've taken over the country now." And that was sort of the end of the thinking, it seemed, and from there on it was improvisation. And that was a shameful way to treat the U.S. military and the volunteers who embody it.

On how he feels about the recent advances of Islamic State fighters in Iraq

It's absolutely gutting if you think about it too long. And I have stayed up late at night watching the news, unable to sleep, thinking about God, I've been in that town, I saw those people. And now that they're under the thumb of such brutality... [it] is truly gutting. ... You try to go to sleep, in my case anyway. I'm long separated from the service. You call up your friends; you have a heart-to-heart. And you try to move on with your life.

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Exclusive First Read: 'The Bone Clocks' By David Mitchell

by NPR Staff
Aug 26, 2014

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David Mitchell's previous books include The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas.

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David Mitchell's new novel, The Bone Clocks, is a treat for longtime fans and people who've never picked up one of his books before. It's a decades-spanning saga that switches perspective from section to section among a wildly disparate group of people — but the center of it all is Holly Sykes, at the start of the book a psychically sensitive runaway who gets caught up in a war between two factions of ancient near-immortals. The Bone Clocks is a deft and entertaining mix of literary fiction and fantasy — and Mitchell fans will appreciate the Easter eggs here and there, returning characters and themes from previous books that begin to tie all Mitchell's books into one grand universe. This scene is told from the perspective of Ed, Holly's partner and the father of her child — and also a war journalist who's about to embark on a dangerous assignment. The Bone Clocks will be published Sept. 2.

ELEVEN O'CLOCK AT night, and all's well, kind of, for now. Olive Sun wants me flying out again by Thursday at the latest, so I'll have to tell Holly soon. Tonight, really, so she doesn't make plans for the three of us next week. Fallujah is the biggest deployment of marines since the battle for Hue City in Vietnam, and I'm stuck here on the Sussex coast. Holly'll hit the frigging roof, but I'd better get it over and done with, and she'll have to calm down for Sharon's wedding tomorrow. Aoife's asleep in the single bed in the corner of our hotel room. I only got here after her bedtime, so I still haven't said hi to my daughter, but the First Rule of Parenting states that you never wake a peacefully sleeping child. I wonder how Nasser's girls are sleeping tonight, with dogs barking and gunfire crackling and marines kicking down doors. CNN's on the flatscreen TV with the sound down, showing footage of marines under fire on rooftops in Fallujah. I've seen it five times or more and even the pundits can't think of anything fresh to say until the news cycle starts up again in a few hours, when Iraq begins a new day. Holly texted a quarter of an hour ago to say she and the other hens'll be heading back to the hotel soon. "Soon" could mean anything in the context of a wine ­bar, though. I switch off the TV, to prove I'm no war junkie, and go to the window. Brighton Pier's all lit up like Fairyland on Friday night, and pop music booms from the fairground at the far end. By English standards it's a warm spring evening, and the restaurants and bars on the promenade are at the end of a busy evening. Couples walk hand in hand. Night buses trundle. Traffic obeys the traffic laws, by and large. I don't knock a peaceful and well-­functioning society. I enjoy it, for a few days, weeks, even. But I know that, after a couple of months, a well-­ordered life tastes like a flat, non-­alcoholic lager. Which isn't the same as saying I'm addicted to warzones, as Brendan helpfully implied earlier. That's as ridiculous as accusing David Beckham of being addicted to playing soccer. Just as soccer is Beckham's art and his craft, reporting from hot ­spots is my art and my craft. I wish I'd said that to the clan earlier.

Aoife giggles in her sleep, then groans sharply. I go over. "You okay, Aoife? It's only a dream."

Unconscious Aoife complains, "No, silly! The lemon one." Then her eyes flip open like a doll's in a horror movie: "We're going to a hotel in Brighton later, 'cause Aunty Sharon's marrying Uncle Pete, and we'll meet you there, Daddy. I'm a bridesmaid."

I try not to laugh, and stroke Aoife's hair back from her face. "I know, love. We're all here now, so you go back to sleep. I'll be here in the morning and we'll all have a brilliant day."

"Good," Aoife pronounces, teetering on the brink of sleep ...

... she's gone. I pull the duvet over her My Little Pony pajama top and kiss her forehead, remembering the week in 1997 when Holly and I made this precious no-­longer-­quite-­so-­little life-form. The Hale-Bopp Comet was adorning the night sky, and thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide in San Diego so their souls could be picked up by a UFO in the comet's tail and be transported to a higher state of consciousness beyond human. I rented a cottage in Northumbria and we had plans to go hiking along Hadrian's Wall, but hiking didn't turn out to be the principal activity of the week. Now look at her. I wonder how she sees me. A bristly giant who teleports into her life and teleports out again for mystifying reasons, perhaps — not so different from how I saw my own father, I guess, except while I'm away on various assignments, Dad went away to various prisons. I'd love to know how Dad saw me when I was a kid. I'd love to know a hundred things. When a parent dies, a filing cabinet full of all the fascinating stuff also ceases to exist. I never imagined how hungry I'd be one day to look inside it.

When I was back in February she was having her period. I hear Holly's key in the door. I feel vaguely guilty.

Not half as guilty as she'll make me feel, though.

Holly's having trouble with the lock so I go over, put the chain on, and open it up a crack. "Sorry, sweetheart," I tell her, in my Michael Caine voice. "I never ordered no kinky massage. Try next door."

"Let me in," says Holly, sweetly, "or I'll kick you in the nuts." "Nope, I didn't order no kick in the nuts, neither. Try — " Not so sweetly: "Brubeck, I need to use the loo!"

"Oh, all right, then." I unchain the door and stand aside. "Even if you have come home too plastered to use a key, you dirty stop ­out."

"The locks in this hotel are all fancy and burglar-­proofed. You need a PhD to open the damn things." Holly bustles past to the bathroom, peering down at Aoife in passing. "Plus I only had a few glasses of wine. Mam was there as well, remember."

"Right, as if Kath Sykes was ever a girl to put the dampeners on a 'wine-tasting session.' "

Holly closes the bathroom door. "Was Aoife okay?" "She woke up for a second, otherwise not a squeak."

"Good. She was so excited on the train down, I was afraid she was going to be up all night dancing on the ceiling." Holly flushes the toilet to provide a bit of noise cover. I go over to the window again. The funfair at the end of the pier is winding down, by the look of it. Such a lovely night. My proposed six-month extension for Spyglass in Iraq is going to wreck it, I know. Holly opens the bathroom door, smiling at me and drying her hands. "How did you spend your quiet night in? Snoozing, writing?"

Her hair's up, she's wearing a low-­cut figure-­hugging black dress and a necklace of black and blue stones. She hardly ever looks like that anymore. "Thinking impure thoughts about my favorite yummy mummy. Can I help you out of that dress, Miss Sykes?"

"Down, boy." She fusses over Aoife. "We're sharing a room with our daughter, you might have noticed."

I walk over. "I can operate on silent mode." "Not tonight, Romeo. I'm having my period."

Thing is, I haven't been back often enough in the last six months to know when Holly's period is. "Guess I'll have to make do with a long, slow snog, then."

" 'Fraid so matey." We kiss, but it's not as long and slow as advertised, and Holly isn't as drunk as I was half hoping. When was it that Holly stopped opening her mouth when we kiss? It's like kissing a zipped-­up zip. I think of Big Mac's aphorism: In order to have sex, women need to feel loved; but in order for men to feel loved, we need to have sex. I'm keeping my half of the deal — so far as I know — but sexually, Holly acts like she's forty-­five or fifty-­five, not thirty-­five. Of course I'm not allowed to complain, because that's pressurizing her. Once Holly and I could talk about anything, anything, but all these no-­go areas keep springing up. It all makes me ... I'm not allowed to be sad either, because then I'm a sulky boy who isn't getting the bag of sweets he thinks he deserves. I ­haven't cheated on her — ever — not that Baghdad is a hotbed of sexual opportunity, but it's depressing still being a fully functioning thirty-­five-­year-­old male and having to take matters into my own hands so often. The Danish photojournalist in Tajikistan last year would've been up for it if I'd been less anxious about how I'd feel when the taxi dropped me off at Stoke Newington and I heard Aoife yelling, "It's Daaaaddyyy!"

Holly turns back to the bathroom. She leaves the door open, and starts to remove her makeup. "So, are you going to tell me or not?"

I sit on the edge of the double bed, alert. "Tell you what?"

She dabs cotton wool under her eyes. "I don't know yet." "What makes you think I ... have anything to tell you?" "Dunno, Brubeck. Must be my feminine intuition."

I don't believe in psychics but Holly can do a good impression of one. "Olive asked me to stay on in Baghdad until December."

Holly freezes for a few seconds, drops the cotton wool, and turns to me. "But you've already told her you're quitting in June."

"Yeah. I did. But she's asking me to reconsider."

"But you told me you're quitting in June. Me and Aoife."

"I told her I'd call back on Monday. After discussing it with you." Holly's looking betrayed. Or as if she's caught me downloading porn. "We agreed, Brubeck. This would be your final final extension."

"I'm only talking about another six months." "Oh, f'Chrissakes. You said that the last time."

"Sure, but since I won the Sheehan-­Dower Prize I've been — " "And the time before that. 'Half a year, then I'm out.' " "This'll cover a year of Aoife's college expenses, Hol." "She'd rather have a living father than a smaller loan."

"That's just"­ — you can't call angry women "hysterical" these days; it's sexist — "hyperbole­. Don't stoop to that."

"Is that what Daniel Pearl said to his partner before he jetted off to Pakistan? 'That's just hyperbole'?"

"That's tasteless. And wrongheaded­. And Pakistan's not Iraq." She lowers the toilet lid and sits on it so we're roughly at eye level.

"I'm sick of wanting to puke with fear every time I hear the word 'Iraq' or 'Baghdad' on the radio. I'm sick of hardly sleeping. I'm sick of having to hide from Aoife how worried I am. Fantastic, you're an in-­demand award-­winning journalist, but you have a six-­year-­old who wants help riding a bike with no stabilizers. Being a crackly voice for a minute every two or three days, if the satphone's working, isn't enough. You are a war junkie. Brendan was right."

"No, I am not. I am a journalist doing what I do. Just as he does what he does and you do what you do."

Holly rubs her head like I'm giving her a headache. "Go, then! Back to Baghdad, to the bombs taking the front off your hotel. Pack. Go. Back to 'what you do.' If it's more precious than us. Only you'd better get the tenants out of your King's Cross flat 'cause the next time you're back in London, you'll be needing somewhere to live." I keep my voice low: "Will you please fucking listen to yourself?" "No, you fucking listen to yourfuckingself! Last month you agree to quit in June and come home. Your high-­powered American editor says, 'Make it December.' You say, 'Uh, okay.' Then you tell me. Who are you with, Brubeck? Me and Aoife, or Olive Sun and Spyglass?"

"I'm being offered another six months' work. That's all."

"No, it's not 'all' 'cause after Fallujah dies down or gets bombed to shit it'll be Baghdad or Afghanistan Part Two or someplace else, there's always someplace else, and on and on until the day your luck runs out and then I'm a widow and Aoife has no dad. Yes, I put up with Sierra Leone, yes, I survived your assignment in Somalia, but Aoife's older now. She needs a dad."

"Suppose I told you, 'No, Holly, you can't help homeless people anymore. Some have AIDS, some have knives, some are psychotic. Quit that job and work for ... for Greenland supermarkets instead. Put all those people skills of yours to use on dried goods. In fact, I'm ordering you to, or I'll kick you out.' How would you respond?"

"F'Chrissakes, the risks are different." Holly lets out an angry sigh. "Why bring this up in the middle of the bloody night? I'm Sharon's matron of honor tomorrow. I'll look like a hungover­ panda. You're at a crossroads, Brubeck. Choose."

I make an ill-­advised quip: "More of a T-junction, technically." "Right. I'd forgotten. It's all a joke to you, isn't it?"

"Oh, Holly, for God's sake, that's not what I — "

"Well, I'm not joking. Quit Spyglass or move out. My house isn't just a storage dump for your dead laptops."

Excerpted from The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Copyright © 2014 by David Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

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The Hagia Sophia is one of the city's most well-known Byzantine monuments, but it's also home to a lesser-known memorial: a plaque for the man who encouraged the Fourth Crusade's plundering of the city. (AFP/Getty Images)

Mystery Writer Finds Istanbul's Byzantine Past Hiding In Plain Sight

Aug 25, 2014 (Morning Edition)

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The Hagia Sophia, or "Church of Holy Wisdom," is one of Istanbul's most well-known Byzantine monuments. Traffic passes under Istanbul's ancient Valens Aqueduct, which once carried water to the city's royal cisterns. Tekfur Palace is also known as the Palace of Phorphyrogenitus, or "born to the purple" in Greek. It was home to the last Byzantine emperor.

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Istanbul makes an exotic first impression: Boat traffic on the Bosporus sends waves brushing up against the shores of both Europe and Asia as enormous mosques and monuments from previous empires stand guard.

The city wears its history more openly than many, but that doesn't mean it's always easy to find. So writer Selcuk Altun spins mysteries that take his heroes into forgotten corners of the city, where once-majestic monuments go unnoticed amid the bustle of modern life.

Turkey's current Muslim leadership focuses primarily on the Ottoman Empire, but Altun's novel The Sultan of Byzantium is a homage to the Byzantines who ruled Istanbul — then Constantinople — for a millennium before the Ottomans came along.

It begins with a quiet academic living in Istanbul who receives a cryptic message that will change his life. It's from a mysterious organization that tells him he's a descendant of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine Palaeologus, and it poses a series of tests to determine whether he's a worthy successor. Along the way, he discovers that other descendants, including his father, died under mysterious circumstances.

In the book, Altun sets the stage for an exploration of Istanbul's Byzantine past, an era he thinks deserves a lot more attention than it gets these days.

"In my opinion, Byzantium civilization is highly underrated," Altun says, "and not only underrated but also mis-[re]presented. Nowadays, when you say the word 'Byzantium' it's synonymous with grand-scale conspiracy and intrigue."

Altun says he wrote The Sultan of Byzantium as a kind of antidote to the thick, plot-heavy thrillers of writers like Dan Brown. In Altun's book, the main character considers Byzantine civilization the greatest in history, and the author still gets excited being around its monuments.

Touring Istanbul's Obscure Byzantine Monuments

It's early on a weekday morning and commuter traffic is whizzing by, carrying passengers on cellphones who don't notice that they're traveling in a VIP lane of sorts: the Byzantine Golden Gate, reserved for victorious generals and visiting dignitaries. These walls were built in the fifth century to protect Byzantines, but by the Middle Ages they were also protecting medieval Europe from rapacious Eastern armies.

Altun points to differences in the limestone where later stone masons carried out renovations.

"The renovation part is really debatable," he says. "The original stones and renovated stones, they are not in coherence. Actually, in the infamous earthquake of 1999, some of the renovated stones fell down, but nothing happened to the original stones."

From there we move inland to a giant monument that, to motorists passing through its arches, must look like an old bridge — it's actually the ancient, 90-foot-high Valens Aqueduct, which once brought water to the royal cisterns.

"When Greeks and Romans started coming and settling in this city," Altun explains, "the city had a major problem: The nearest source of water was called Belgrade Forest, 25 kilometers [about 15.5 miles] west of [the] city. So they built these huge water bridges, called aqueducts. And to me it has a special meaning: You are coexisting with history."

To reach our next destination, we climb steep, winding streets alongside creaking bicycle carts. We're looking for Tekfur Palace, home of Palaeologus, the last Byzantine emperor. It's tucked away amid modest apartment blocks in a working-class neighborhood.

Altun says he can't blame Turks for not recognizing the amazing history all around them; after all, they aren't taught to appreciate it.

"Seventy years ago," he says, "in the history department of Istanbul University, there was a subdivision of Byzantine history. Today, there is no division or subdivision to study Byzantine history, although Istanbul — old Constantinople — is the center, is the heart of the Byzantine civilization."

The Tekfur Palace was saved by its very obscurity — rampaging crusaders missed it when they sacked the city in the 13th century. In the novel, this is where Altun's narrator discovers who has been putting his life in danger throughout the book.

The Final Crusader Insult

Our next stop is by far the most popular Byzantine site in Istanbul. Known as the "Church of Holy Wisdom," Hagia Sophia was an astonishing architectural achievement for the sixth century. Altun says a thousand years passed before a bigger church was built in Spain.

As massive lines of tourists fill the plaza outside the church, Altun pauses to describe what he calls "the Mona Lisa of mosaics" — an image of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist in the church's upper gallery. In the book, this is where his hero discovers the final crusader insult to the venerable church: Across from the glorious mosaic lies a marker for the grave of a Venetian doge named Dandolo.

"He was the one who provoked and motivated the mercenaries of [the] Fourth Crusade to plunder the city," Altun says. "When he died, he was 100 or 101 years old, and there is a plaque saying, 'Here is Dandolo.' "

The plaque remains, but historians say the bones were probably removed after the Ottomans conquered the city and turned the church into a mosque. It's now a museum, but some Turkish officials want to make it a mosque again. Altun hopes that won't happen.

A retired bank executive, Altun calls himself a reader and a book lover more than a writer. All proceeds from his books go to a scholarship fund for literature students. He hopes his modest mystery will give readers an urge to know more about a once-grand empire hiding in plain sight in modern-day Istanbul.

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Kinda Like Brothers ( )

In A Foster Home, Two Boys Become 'Kinda Like Brothers'

by NPR Staff
Aug 24, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Coe Booth is also the author of Tyrell, Kendra and Bronxwood. Traffic passes under Istanbul's ancient Valens Aqueduct, which once carried water to the city's royal cisterns. Tekfur Palace is also known as the Palace of Phorphyrogenitus, or "born to the purple" in Greek. It was home to the last Byzantine emperor.

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Before Coe Booth was a writer, she was a caseworker with child protective services in New York City, where she worked with teenagers and families in crisis. She was, at times, responsible for removing children from their homes and placing them with foster families. The foster parents would often have children of their own.

"I was always wondering: What would it be like for those kids to have these new kids come and leave and come and leave and not want to attach to them?" she tells Tess Vigeland, guest host of NPR's weekends on All Things Considered.

Booth's latest book for middle-grade readers, Kinda Like Brothers, explores that question from the kids' points of view.

The novel starts with the arrival of a new set of foster children in the home of 11-year-old Jarrett. He's been through this many times before, but always with babies. This time, a young girl named Treasure is brought to his house late one night, along with her 12-year-old brother, Kevon.

The book follows Jarrett and Kevon as they grow from being strangers to sort of enemies — and then, kind of like family.

Interview Highlights

On getting the mind of her characters and writing for young boys

I think in every grown woman, there is an 11-year-old boy. No, I'm just joking! ... I don't know, I have nephews that ... they don't know it, but I've been spying on them while I was writing this book and a lot of my book is set in a community center much like the community center that my nieces and nephews go to. I would just hang out there for a little while. I was the creepy lady like writing notes as the kids were running around ...

But as I continue writing, he just becomes a person, so I'm able to kind of just let go of fear that I'm not portraying boys accurately.

On a scene where young boys at the community center receive advice on what to do when stopped by the police

That scene begins with Jarrett walking up and seeing a counselor at the center getting stopped and frisked for no reason. And it really disturbs him; he's just really angry. That afternoon a guy comes over to the center ... and he just tells them, "I'm going to keep it real with you guys, you black and Latino boys are going to get stopped a lot. And it doesn't matter what you do, or what you didn't do. It's just because of who you are. And in the meantime, I need to teach you what to do when the cops stop you — not if, when."

I think any parent or anybody who is dealing with young black boys — as is what's happening at the community center in this book — I think every single community center has had this conversation with their boys. And it's just so sad that we have to do this, but we do, and I hope that changes. I don't know if what's going on in Ferguson will change that, but I do hope it at least continues that conversation, because it's just exhausting that this is still going on in 2014.

On the intended audience for the book

Everybody — but particularly, I want kids who see themselves in this book because it's hard to find books that are for them and about them. It's not a fairy tale, it's a reality and it's, you know, it's complicated. But I hope it's true.

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Kinda Like Brothers ( )

As Summer Winds Down, Wistful Dreams Of A 'Lost Estate'

by Alexander Aciman
Aug 22, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Coe Booth is also the author of Tyrell, Kendra and Bronxwood. Traffic passes under Istanbul's ancient Valens Aqueduct, which once carried water to the city's royal cisterns. Tekfur Palace is also known as the Palace of Phorphyrogenitus, or "born to the purple" in Greek. It was home to the last Byzantine emperor.

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The summer before I went to college my grandfather died. I spent that season clearing out the shelves in his bedroom. And since he was a compulsive rereader, I kept the books that looked the most tattered. I thought he must have loved those the most.

One of them was The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes), by Henri Alain-Fournier. I couldn't have known when I picked it up that it would be such an appropriate last book for someone just days away from becoming a college student. In the late August heat I sat on my grandmother's balcony and read it in two days.

The story begins with the arrival of a new student at a school in a small French town. Through the eyes of the headmaster's son we meet Augustin Meaulnes — and the two boys quickly become friends.

While the narrator is cautious and sickly, his new friend is restless — Augustin can't seem to settle down into a routine. He's the first student in line for morning inspection at school, but he also wakes his friend at midnight so they can set off on an expedition.

One day he sneaks away from school and stumbles upon a party at a hidden, possibly magical, estate. When he comes back, he tells his friends that he has fallen in love with a girl he met there.

Years later he imagines meeting her, writing to the narrator: "Sitting on the bench, shivering, miserable, I like to imagine that someone will gently take my arm ... I should look round and she would be there. 'I'm a bit late,' she would say simply."

Meaulnes — uncompromisingly youthful — is unable to abandon the years-old adventure, and is unwilling to leave his adolescent fantasy unsatisfied. We perhaps understand him best when the narrator describes his friend's journey to the estate: "Anyone but Meaulnes would immediately have turned back."

Without ever actually announcing it, The Lost Estate tells a story about feeling inescapably tied to one's life as a student and a child, but hoping that something far more enchanting will come along and distract us. Just like Augustin, we wish we could be set off course.

Incidentally, it's the very same thing I always felt when summer begins to wind down, and Staples starts pushing back-to-school specials, and textbook lists are sent out in the mail: We are preparing for the inevitable, but still hope to avoid it. We're like Meaulnes, who cannot be tied down to school, or to his little village; he lives in a perpetual summer vacation.

Just as I was during those August balcony days, students heading out to university are all a little bit like Meaulnes himself: feeling those pangs of the beginnings of the familiar school year, but nevertheless nursing a desire to take off, and peer into the strange, unknown estate, ready to be swept off their feet.

Alexander Aciman's latest book is Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less.

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