Author Sarah Lotz is terrified of flying, so naturally every time she gets on a plane she imagines the worst. "I imagine how it's going to smell if things start burning," she says. "I imagine the thunk of luggage falling out of the compartments at the top. ... I imagine it all in absolutely horrible detail."
All those horrible imaginings came in handy when Lotz was writing her new book The Three — the story of three children who are the only survivors of four separate plane crashes that occur in different parts of the world on the same day.
Lotz's book is part of a long tradition of travel disaster stories. After all, travel tales don't often end well: Planes crash into dense jungles and frozen tundras. Shipwreck victims spend months in rickety boats on the high seas. Survivors are stranded on far-flung islands and must overcome terrible odds.
Indeed you could think of Odysseus' long journey home in The Odyssey as just one travel disaster after another, says Eric Wilson, author of Everyone Loves a Train Wreck.
Odysseus endures "just one test after another of his mettle," Wilson explains. "Is he wily enough, is he crafty enough, is he strong enough, is he brave enough ... and the answer in all cases is yes!"
Travel disasters typically thrust people into extreme conditions. Not only is their bravery tested, but so is their moral fortitude. Mitchell Zuckoff has written about real-life stories of travelers stranded in remote locations in his books Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time. He says people get a vicarious thrill reading about such perilous adventures from the safety of their homes. But it also makes them think: "We all fly, we all get on boats — if the worst happened, how would I react? That fascinates me," says Zuckoff.
One of Zuckoff's favorites is A Night to Remember, Walter Lord's account of the sinking of the Titanic, which was made into a film in 1958. Lord based his book on interviews with survivors and included the haunting image of the band that continued to play as the ship went down. But these stories don't end once the ship has sunk or the plane has crashed — often that is just the beginning.
"Most travel disasters turn into something else," Zuckoff says, "a story of survival, a story of bravery, of heroism, sometimes villainy. You just don't know when it starts where it's going to go because they are unexpected events."
It is usually the survivors who are left to tell the rest of us what really happened. In Lotz's book, the young survivors become the center of a media storm. They are suspected of being aliens or harbingers of the apocalypse.
"There is something about a miracle — for example, surviving an air crash — that to us makes them extremely special," Lotz says. "They've beaten death. That really fascinates us."
Survivors often find themselves struggling not only with forces of nature but also with each other. In Frozen in Time, Zuckoff's retelling of a cargo plane that crash-landed in Greenland during World War II, the survivors proved to be heroic.
"It was amazing," Zuckoff says. " ... Every guy inside the tail section of that plane felt as though: What can I give to the guy next to me? Can I warm his feet? Can I share my rations? How do I help him survive?"
But survivors can also turn on each other, sometimes savagely, as in the novel Lord of the Flies. Being trapped in an isolated place — or a small space like a lifeboat — with a bunch of strangers can bring out the best or the worst in us, says author Eric Wilson.
"Suddenly they have to work together as a team," he says. " ... There's this idea of extreme behavior where oftentimes the normal guy becomes the hero and oftentimes the seemingly extraordinary guy becomes the goat. And then there's always the possibility of cannibalism. Again, the idea that something extreme is going to happen, and in the extreme context people will learn things about themselves they did not know before."
Wilson believes writers keep returning to the story of travels gone wrong because there is something immensely satisfying about it.
"When there is danger, when there is destruction, we kind of feel like we're on the edge of life, fully alive," he says. "And that can really bring out some strong prose. And it can allow us to think about some of the great questions in the universe, such as what is the meaning of suffering?"
Sometimes a journey that ends in a disaster can bring the survivor in touch with the sublime. That's literally what happens in James Hilton's Lost Horizon, where survivors of a plane crash in the Himalayas find themselves in a paradise called Shangri-La.
The only problem is ... you'd have to survive a plane crash to get there.
For the first time since the 1940s, the Green Turtle is returning to comic bookshelves. The long-forgotten character has been resurrected in The Shadow Hero, a new graphic novel about what many comic fans consider the first Asian-American superhero.
In the original series, the bare-chested Green Turtle looks like a lucha libre wrestler airlifted into the Pacific theater, defending America's allies in China against the invading Japanese army while donning a green cape and mask, plus "the little triangle pants that most superheroes wear," explains Yang, who was a finalist for the National Book Award for Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be nominated.
In terms of his fellow superheroes, Yang says the Green Turtle is more Bruce Wayne than Clark Kent. "He doesn't have any explicit superpowers in the original books. But he's very agile," Yang explains.
Like Gotham's Dark Knight, the Green Turtle has his own plane, a cave for a home base, and a Robin-like sidekick called Burma Boy.
Beyond those details, much about the Green Turtle remains unknown, as his storyline ended abruptly after five brief issues of Blazing Comics. (You can see pages from the original series on the Digital Comic Museum's website.)
The Fight Over The Green Turtle's Race
Yang wrote The Shadow Hero to finally give the Green Turtle an origin story and an explanation for his — let's be honest — not-so-heroic-sounding name.
" 'Turtle head' is an insult in Chinese," says Yang, who is Chinese-American and adds that his parents would always tell him to not wear green hats. "There's a saying about wearing green hats, which means you are a cuckold."
So, instead, Yang connected the Green Turtle to the celestial tortoise, one of four guardian animal spirits of Chinese mythology.
There was another decades-long mystery that loomed over Yang: Did the Green Turtle's creator, Chinese-American artist Chu Hing, want his character to be Chinese-American like himself?
"When you look at [the] original pages [of the comic series], you kind of see this fight between Chu and his publisher," says Yang, who also relied on graphic designer Alex Jay's research on Chu's background.
Rumor has it that the publisher thought a series about a superhero of Asian descent wouldn't sell. Fear of the so-called "yellow peril" was alive and well as World War II raged on in the Pacific.
So the Green Turtle's skin was colored a pinkish hue, unlike the light orange-y skin tone of the Chinese and Japanese characters. Still, readers never got a full look at the Green Turtle's face in the original series, which always showed the superhero in a mask.
"He almost always has his back turned toward the audience, so all you see is his cape," Yang says. "When he is turned around, something is blocking his face. It's either hidden by shadow, or he's punching and his arm is in the way. Or there's a piece of furniture in the way."
Code Switching Between Superhero And Civilian
In the afterword of The Shadow Hero, Yang describes what he sees as other hidden clues about the Green Turtle's true racial identity:
[Chu] wants to unite East with West. The Green Turtle's costume is typical of American superheroes of the time, yet it incorporates Chinese elements. Blazing Comics #4 begins with a phrase in Chinese: ??????? (the United States united with the Chinese Republic). In that same issue, an American general fights alongside the Green Turtle's team of Chinese guerrillas. In Blazing Comics #3, [Chu] presents us with an old proverb that expresses humanity's connectedness: ???? (four oceans, one family).
Yang's new graphic novel firmly establishes the Green Turtle as Asian-American, unmasking the superhero as a teenager named Hank Chu, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants living in the Chinatown of a fictional city on California's coast in the 1930s.
Hank transforms from a scrawny neighborhood kid into one of his city's top crime-fighters. But in the end, he's still caught between Chinatown and the world outside.
"Every superhero has this superhero identity and a civilian identity," Yang explains. "A lot of their lives are about code switching. It's about switching from one mode of expectations to another mode of expectations. And I really think that mirrors something in the immigrant's kid's life."
South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991, died Sunday at the age of 90. Gordimer merged the personal and political to create a compelling portrait of the injustice of life under apartheid.
She was born in 1923 to a mother whose family came to South Africa from Britain and a Jewish father who had lived under oppression in his native Lithuania. But she didn't learn her politics at home; rather, as she moved out into the wider world — first at university in Johannesburg — she took in what was happening in her country under the government-mandated system of apartheid.
Neville Hoad, an English professor at the University of Texas, Austin, first read Gordimer when he was a university student in South Africa. "She traveled in social circles in Johannesburg that were very much politically engaged," he says. "But I also think she was an astute observer of, you know, everyday experience in Johannesburg in those years. And if you were paying attention, you couldn't help but notice the injustices of apartheid."
Gordimer's first novel, 1953's The Lying Days, is the story of a young woman who, like Gordimer, comes from a small mining town and begins grappling with apartheid when she has an affair with a social worker. Gordimer, who wrote 15 novels, continued to explore the effects of apartheid in books like A World of Strangers, The Conservationist and A Sport of Nature. A passage from that last book, told from the heroine's perspective, reads:
"At night I sat out in what the darkness reverted to the miner's garden. ... The frogs throbbing on and the sea hissing. I'd walk down to the beach. Nothing. Nothing but gentleness, you know how the Indian Ocean seems to evaporate into the sky at night. In the middle of my witness of the horror of this country, I experienced the white man's peace. I did."
Hoad says her ability to capture the contradictions of daily life in South Africa is what made her work so crucial. "She's the most important South African writer of the 20th century for explaining to the English-speaking world what life under apartheid was like."
Gordimer was a member of the African National Congress and an associate of Nelson Mandela's, but she was never imprisoned, though several of her books — including the Booker Prize-winning Burger's Daughter — were banned by the government.
Still, Gordimer didn't define her work as political. In 1991, after winning the Nobel literature prize, she told NPR, "I've never written anything with the idea of persuading people or exposing something. I've just written about what I've sensed, what is there, what I've learned. And if there's a message, it's what people read from it."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux's Jonathon Galassi has been Gordimer's U.S. publisher since the late 1980s. He says, "The thing that's most remarkable about Nadine as a writer was her honesty. She wasn't trying to present a political platform, but she was reflecting in her work what she sensed. She drew from what she knew firsthand and she transformed it. That's what fiction does. But it was very accurate. Her radar for human politics was super acute."
As astute as her political observations were, Galassi says, Gordimer's real genius was her insight into the way people interact with one another. "She will go down in history as a great writer about human relations — race, sex, politics, class. And I think she'll be read forever," he says.
In announcing her death, Gordimer's family said she "cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people, and its ongoing struggle to realize its new democracy."
Often, when people ask me what I read as a young girl, I lie. Or, I should say, I lie by omission. I tell them about my brilliant fourth-grade teacher, Miss Artis, who assigned us Johnny Tremain and Where the Red Fern Grows and Tuck Everlasting, all books that made an impression on me. And people nod in approval.
But the answer I don't usually give is that my favorite books, the ones I read and re-read until the covers were creased and the pages were loosed from the spine, were Sweet Valley High.
I was in fifth grade when I discovered the books, although I don't remember how. Maybe I was attracted to the fact that it was a series, the promise of infinitude in those ivory spines lined up along a shelf, the promise that I could not only escape into the world of a book, but that I could escape for a long time, as long as the series kept expanding. However it happened, once I entered the sunny world of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, I didn't want to leave.
Because I've always been one to follow the rules, I started with #1, Double Love, where both Jessica and her twin sister Elizabeth are vying for the same guy, Todd Wilkins, the star of the basketball team. I saved babysitting money to buy #2, and all the rest after that, each time ravenous to rejoin the escapades of the Wakefield twins. I still remember feeling scandalized when Bruce Patman unties Jessica's swimsuit top in #3, Playing with Fire. And I still remember crying — actually sobbing in bed — when Elizabeth winds up in a coma after a motorcycle accident in #6, Dangerous Love.
Why did they mean so much to me? Elizabeth and Jessica were blonde, all-American, "perfect size 6" twins driving their Fiat Spider to the Dairi Burger. I was an awkward, half-Panamanian girl with giant red Sally Jessy Raphael glasses and black hair cut into a bob so blunt and triangular that kids at school called me Darth Vader.
But back then I didn't think of myself like that. Sure, I was a little awkward, but I identified with Elizabeth because she wrote for the school newspaper; it sounded like something I might want to do one day. And I'd never been to a school dance, but I believed that Jessica and Elizabeth had a lot to teach me about them. As for being half-Panamanian, that was a fact, but it was not, for me, a definition. I was American. As American as Jessica and Elizabeth. I didn't realize there was any difference between us.
If that sounds naive, maybe it was. But it's also true. No, Jessica and Elizabeth didn't sing "Happy Birthday" in Spanish, and no, they didn't hang out at the Panama Canal during summer vacation, and no, they didn't eat arroz con pollo for dinner. But in other ways — they were young girls who were close to their family, girls who had best friends and lost best friends, girls who were trying to navigate daily dramas at school — they seemed a lot like me.
Besides, there were no books I knew of with half-Panamanian characters, so I learned, not only in Sweet Valley High but in every book I read, to see my reflection in shards, to recognize parts of myself if never the whole, and to accept that as good enough.
By the time I got to high school myself, I had given up the series. I left behind the homogeneous Southern California town, the elaborate plots, the relentless boy-chasing. One day, I carried all my Sweet Valley High books down to the basement.
But my parents, who have trouble throwing anything away, kept them, and on a recent visit home, I spotted the faded ivory spines lined up neatly on a different shelf. I picked one out and thumbed through. As soon as I saw some of the character names — Lila Fowler and Winston Egbert — all my memories of Sweet Valley came flooding back.
I didn't re-read the whole book, but I made my way through a few chapters, smiling at the antics, which struck me as more over-the-top than ever. All those plots about falling for boys! Despite that, Sweet Valley High taught me what it felt like to fall for something else — a book. It's a feeling I haven't gotten over to this day.
Cristina Henriquez's latest novel is called The Book of Unknown Americans.
If you've ever enjoyed the ghostly weird-old-America wail of Robert Johnson, the deep blues of Charley Patton or Skip James' guitar wizardry, you can thank the 78 collecting community — those dedicated (okay, obsessive) folks who hunt down the rare old shellac records that hold so much of our musical past.
78s — named for the speed at which they revolve — are the distant ancestors of today's digitally downloaded singles. They passed out of use in the late 1940s, but still turn up occasionally at rural flea markets and in dusty cartons under forgotten beds. And for the passionate collector, there's always the thrill of possibility: a grimy old record at the flea market could be the only existing copy of that particular song.
Music writer Amanda Petrusich documents the 78 collecting scene — and how she got drawn into it — in a new book, Do Not Sell at Any Price. In an email interview, she tells me she has a lot in common with the collectors she profiles. "One of the things I've come up against a lot is the broad-strokes archetype of the record collector — and the 78 collector in particular — as this antisocial, unpleasant, aggressively nostalgic figure who makes everyone around him uncomfortable," she says. "But after spending just the smallest amount of time with these guys, I was like 'Oh, I get this. Oh, I totally get this. Oh, no, I'm kinda like this.' My hope is that the book is an honest, forthright account of a complex and vital and quirky subculture, but I ultimately really enjoyed — and, more importantly, empathized with — nearly all of the people I was writing about. On a really base level, there is a part of me that understands the desire to gather and serialize objects."
Petrusich tells me collecting 78s helped change the way she appreciates music. "I talk a little bit in the book about how disillusioned I'd become with my experience of contemporary music — and that was my fault; that had nothing to do with the relative quality of the work now vs. the work then — and seeing that change, watching myself become more invested and more open and more dedicated to the music I was hearing, it was really incredible. I feel so grateful for that."
I love the scene at the flea market in Virginia where you start to experience the joy of finding something good (and of course, that moment turns out to be pivotal later on in that you and your collector friend missed out on a major find by an excruciatingly narrow margin). Tell me about that day and what it felt like, digging up those old records.
It was generous of Chris King to let me tag along on that junking mission to Hillsville, and it was oddly thrilling for me to watch him excavate 78s from mounds of useless stuff. It reminded me, a little, of reporting — you follow leads, you ask a lot of questions, you hunt, you probe, you introduce yourself to strangers, you say yes a lot. We were digging around in the back seats of people's cars; we were unloading dealers' boxes for them. Hillsville was also the first time I'd gotten a chance to properly seed my own 78 collection, and it was where I realized how fun it is, hunting for records. It's terrifically fun. It's stupidly fun. One surprising thing about 78s is that once you start really looking for them, they're nearly ubiquitous — most junk or antique shops have a stack of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra 78s stacked in a corner somewhere, and while some of that stuff is great, it's not what anyone is sweating it out in the field for. So you spend a lot of time flipping through 78s you have no interest in buying, just hoping and praying that the next record you hit will be something incredible. So many collectors gave me the same advice: you see a box with 100 records in it, and 99 of them are garbage, and it's the last one that'll change your life. Never stop 'til you get to the bottom of the box.
I think what also distinguishes this book is how whole-heartedly you gave yourself to the quest for records ... you actually learned to scuba dive in order to hunt for a great lost trove of records, supposedly tossed into a river when a studio went bust.
As far as I can tell, there's no way to collect 78s without also becoming at least somewhat consumed by the quest — as I say in the book, it's not a pastime that invites dabbling. I think that dive, for me, was both a way of symbolically declaring my seriousness with regards to this whole enterprise, and also trying to make some sense of Paramount Records, the Wisconsin-based label that was inadvertently responsible for capturing and preserving some of the most staggering performances in American musical history. When you visit Grafton [Wisc.] now, there's no real evidence that a recording studio and pressing plant ever existed there — save a crumbling foundation and a historical marker — and I think part of me just wanted to get my hands on some piece of it, to make it all feel more real. It also worked for me, narratively, as a way of showing how insane collecting makes people. Because, you know, that whole thing was insane.
One thing you get at that doesn't get covered a lot is the way the sensibilities of the first collectors — usually educated white men with the means to go record-hunting and an inclination to prize rarities — affected what for us has become the prewar blues canon.
So much of what we know about the earliest commercial recordings we know because collectors resurrected and researched those particular 78s. I think it's really tempting to think of that narrative as objective and omniscient, but it's often so personal — collectors collected the records they liked (as they should), and those are the records that made it and endured. And if you consider the collector archetype again, and think of him as this lonesome, marginalized, anguished figure, then it makes sense that he would be drawn to lonesome, marginalized, anguished music. It makes sense that the narrative might be skewed. Of course, that archetype doesn't necessarily hold up on either end, and these records survived at least in part because they're phenomenally good. But it's worth thinking about. Marybeth Hamilton, in her excellent book In Search of the Blues, asks a lot of tough questions about collectors and the canon.
Can you distill the appeal of 78 collecting into just a paragraph? Is that even possible?
If you are a person who sometimes feels overwhelmed by Spotify, or lost and underinvested in your iTunes library, collecting 78s is one way of slowing down the process of acquiring and consuming music. The other thing about 78 collecting that I think people don't always consider is how high-stakes it is — if you're a fan of pre-war American music and you're out in the field trying to dig up rare or previously unheard records, you might get to play a role, however small, in the preservation of a certain song or genre. That's exciting!
Do you still listen to your 78s? Or has the fever passed?
I'm sad to report it has not passed. I suspect this is a disease that is never cured but merely managed.