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Jon Clinch--American Author Challenge March 2019

75 Books Challenge for 2019

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1laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Feb 28, 4:14pm Top



Jon Clinch was born in upstate New York….waaaay upstate, not in the part that’s just “up” if your reference point is New York City, but in the heart of the state, near Lake Oneida, west of the Adirondacks. I’m excited to feature him in the AAC this month, because I believe he is one of the best American writers of our time, and because he deserves wider reading than I think he’s getting. If you love American literature as I do, I’m sure you’re going to love him too. He is a graduate of Syracuse University. He has worked as a copywriter, an English teacher, an illustrator and an advertising executive. He performs frequently at inns, pubs and coffee houses in Vermont, singing and playing guitar. He is an avid skier, and is married to Wendy Clinch, who blogs as The Ski Diva. In 2008, at about the time his first novel was heading for publication, Clinch organized a benefit for the financially distressed Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. His efforts are credited with saving the literary landmark from bankruptcy.

Every year during the first weekend of August, a local church holds an outdoor bazaar that includes a tent full of used books for sale. Ten years ago, browsing through that tent, I came across a copy of a novel titled Finn by an author I had never heard of. I read the jacket, as you do, and plopped it into my sack. Who could resist learning Pap Finn’s backstory for a buck? Later that year, at our family Thanksgiving gathering, my brother thrust an ex-library copy of the same novel into my hand, saying “You HAVE to read this!”. I didn’t let on that I had it on my TBR stacks already—a book recommendation from him is a rare and wonderful thing, although he probably reads more than I do. He also feels about Twain the way I feel about Faulkner, so I knew this book had passed a pretty stringent test. Finn is in my opinion, as good as it gets, and while I am generally skeptical of prequels, sequels and spin-offs of classics when written by modern authors, this one flat-out works. It feels as though Clinch had access to Twain’s notes for just such a tale of Pap Finn’s wretched life and poetically just death. In fact, Clinch has said that he believes Twain left “clues” to at least some of Pap’s story in the description of his dead body in situ in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Check out this interview with Clinch in which he talks about how he came to write Finn. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Clinch’s other novels include Kings of the Earth, which imagines the lives of the mysterious Ward brothers, an actual farming family from Clinch’s home town. Under the spoiler cut I’ve quoted what Clinch has said about writing that novel...it’s not a spoiler, it’s just that it might be more than you want to know, so you can skip if if you want. I realize I am inclined to carry on a bit about this man's work. Draw an X across New York State--letting one arm of it be the Erie Canal as it runs from Albany to Buffalo--and where the two arms of that X cross, you'll find the city of Oneida. The place where I grew up. It's a city by name and charter only, so when you picture it you should picture a town instead. A modest one. And on the perimeter of that town, past a sign at the edge of a cornfield that with no irony whatsoever marks the "city limits," picture a rich and endless panorama of farming country. A glacial landscape of great beauty, at work in the service of corn and cows.
My father was born in that farming country, although he didn't stay. He was the son of a previously itinerant day laborer and machinist and circus magician, who had left Tennessee's Clinch Mountain in order to start a new family in upstate New York. My mother, on the other hand, was born in the town. She descended from educators and preachers who traced their lineage to William Howard Taft--not just America's fattest President, but the only one who did double-duty as her Chief Justice.
No wonder I love that "city limits" sign, planted out there at the edge of a cornfield. No wonder I'm interested in whatever divisions it would seem to mark.
The thing is, I never saw the beauty of that place until I'd left it behind. And when I finally discovered what I'd lost, I spent years finding my way back. Kings of the Earth was part of that journey.
In it I tried to capture and preserve the voices of my childhood. The sound of the world as I knew it. The stories that people told, the things they valued, and the ways in which they understood one another (or tried to). Writing it was, as one character says, "like trying to hear a tune somebody whistled last week." But however impossible that kind of thing might be, making the effort can bring a person very close to something precious and important.
Because in spite of the many different voices heard in Kings of the Earth--women and men, farmers and city folks, con men and criminals and keepers of the peace--the book isn't just about how they talk. It's about how they listen. To one another.
The story begins with three old brothers on a dirt farm, just down the road from the place where my father came into this world. Three uneducated brothers who've lived and worked and slept together on that patch of hard ground and in that shack of a house all their lives long. Until the summer morning when one of them doesn't wake up.
Whatever might have happened in that shared bed of theirs was deeply private, but it takes on a wide public dimension. And the effort to make sense of it draws together a community of personalities, each of them with his or her own point of view. Together they draw a portrait that spans the better part of the twentieth century in one small American town, a portrait not just of the brothers but of themselves.
Listening to those people talk--giving them their own voices and putting them all in a book where they might endure for at least a little while--was my aim and above all my honor.

Clinch’s other works include Belzoni Dreams of Egypt (also featuring a rather mysterious real-life person), The Thief of Auschwitz, and the upcoming Marley, which is another “spin-off” tale, this time envisioning the life of Jacob Marley of Christmas Carol fame. (Not, as Clinch points out, about either a reggae icon or a beloved dog of the same name.) It is due to be published in October.

2lauralkeet
Feb 28, 12:25pm Top

I've read Finn already because, well, you made me do it. And it was great! My library has Kings of the Earth so I'm planning to read that one in March. I'm studiously avoiding your non-spoilery spoiler just as a precaution.

3m.belljackson
Feb 28, 12:54pm Top

Ordered Kings of the Earth this morning from abe.

4laytonwoman3rd
Feb 28, 3:41pm Top

>2 lauralkeet: Oh, there really isn't anything in there that might spoil the story for you, Laura. It's all Clinch's own words, and he wouldn't do that to his prospective readers!

>3 m.belljackson: Excellent---I hope you enjoy it.

5lauralkeet
Feb 28, 4:06pm Top

>4 laytonwoman3rd: Okay, I read it. Tantalizing.

6brenzi
Feb 28, 7:40pm Top

I just went back and read my review of Kings Of The Earth which I read in 2012. I loved that book. I meant to move on to other Clinch books but never did so I'll be reading Finn I hope.

7laytonwoman3rd
Feb 28, 9:26pm Top

I will be reading The Thief of Auschwitz, which has been waiting for me for a while.

8weird_O
Mar 1, 10:17am Top

Finn is what I have, the only Clinch I have, so Finn is what I'll read.

9laytonwoman3rd
Mar 1, 10:20am Top

>8 weird_O: Nuthin' wrong with that!

10Caroline_McElwee
Edited: Mar 1, 1:56pm Top

I'll be reading Finn too this month, if I can remember which mountain I rested it on.

ETA: Found.

11alcottacre
Mar 1, 9:19pm Top

My local library does not have a single one of Clinch's books, but I have ordered The Thief of Auschwitz from Amazon and hope to have it early next week.

12laytonwoman3rd
Mar 7, 9:29pm Top

I have finished The Thief of Auschwitz, which is a poignant story of one family's time in the infamous Polish extermination camp, and how they managed to salvage remnants of their dignity by keeping their love for one another alive. Definitely recommended, even if you think you've read all the Holocaust stories you can take.

13laytonwoman3rd
Mar 7, 9:30pm Top

>11 alcottacre: Rattle some cages, Stasia---get them to order the new one coming in October at least!

>10 Caroline_McElwee: I had a little trouble finding my copy of The Thief of Auschwitz, and I thought I knew exactly where it was!

14lauralkeet
Edited: Mar 8, 10:07am Top

I picked up Kings of the Earth from the library yesterday, and started reading at bedtime. I'm already hooked. I love Clinch's prose.

15laytonwoman3rd
Mar 8, 8:58am Top

>14 lauralkeet: *enthusiastic applause*

16weird_O
Mar 10, 3:12pm Top

I've sampled the first 10 pages of Finn, and Oh My! "Ya like that fatback, do ya?" Looking forward to plunging in. But first: Washington Black. A family read, so to speak. Father-daughter. I think it'll be brief diversion.

17lauralkeet
Mar 14, 8:49am Top

Kings of the Earth was a terrific read. It was a bit like reading Kent Haruf's Plainsong trilogy, only a lot darker. Here's my review for anyone interested. If you're still wondering what to read this month, you can't go wrong with Kings of the Earth.

18msf59
Mar 14, 7:50pm Top

I swear I had stopped by here all ready, but it clearly looks like I have not. Bad Mark? Bad former-AAC host? This is puzzling, because, much like Linda, I am a big fan of Clinch. And I had the honor of meeting him at the Booktopia author event, in Manchester, VT, where I ended up with a signed copy of Finn, which is an absolutely stunning book. If you have to pick one Clinch book to read in March, go with that one. Kings of the Earth is an excellent read too.

Those are the only 2 I have read, so I am going with The Thief of Auschwitz. I should be able to start the audio tomorrow. His books were hard to find in my library system, except for the top 2. I was a bit surprised.

19laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Mar 14, 8:46pm Top

Thief of Auschwitz was privately published, I think. It probably didn't end up on a lot of library shelves. I don't see anyone here picking up Belzoni Dreams of Egypt. I had a lot of fun with that one, so those of you who enjoy Clinch and have read his other work should look for it as well.

20Caroline_McElwee
Mar 15, 7:41am Top

I'm planning to pick Finn up next week.

I've got four books I'm liking on the go, but none of them are driving me on at the moment. Mood thing.

21katiekrug
Mar 15, 12:36pm Top

Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch

Thank you, Linda, for finally getting me to pick up one of the Clinches I've had on my shelf for several years!

I was familiar with the story that served as this novel's inspiration. I grew up in rural New York myself, though not in quite as rural a setting. But I am familiar with the location, and also familiar with the kind of very small community where odd characters are allowed to live their lives without judgment or hostility from other locals.

In Clinch's version of the story, three brothers live together in near isolation tending a farm and land that barely give back enough to sustain them. One brother ends up dead, and suspicion falls on another. But this isn't a murder mystery. It is a story of family and connection, to people, to the land, to the idea of self-reliance and hard work. Told from multiple perspectives and moving back and forth in time, the novel is made up of fragments that shift and move into place and provide glimpses of a community and a family that many wouldn't bother to see or try to understand. It's done with sensitivity and some affection, while never letting up on the grittiness and grim reality of it all. The whole things is very well done.

4.5 stars

22laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Mar 15, 7:18pm Top

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Katie. I know we've talked about it elsewhere, but I wanted to put up the information about Brother's Keeper, the 1992 documentary made about the real family Clinch fictionalized in Kings of the Earth. It's fascinating, and focuses on the murder trial and media circus that followed the death of William Ward outside Oneida, NY. These events don't appear in the novel, which concentrated on the culture of the area and the lives of the individuals. See it if you can, and by all means listen to its soundtrack, with original music by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, two marvelous acoustic musicians.

23lauralkeet
Mar 15, 1:29pm Top

>22 laytonwoman3rd: I listened to a bit of the soundtrack earlier today. Good stuff.

24katiekrug
Mar 15, 1:35pm Top

>22 laytonwoman3rd: - Just to clarify and make it easier for people to find, I think the documentary is "Brother's Keeper."

25msf59
Edited: Mar 15, 6:35pm Top

>19 laytonwoman3rd: I remember you recommending Belzoni Dreams of Egypt, Linda, but I could not find it in my library system or on audio. So, I went The Thief of Auschwitz and based on the first hour or so, it was an excellent choice.

>21 katiekrug: Loved your review of Kings of the Earth, Katie. I read it nearly 8 years ago, before attending Booktopia. I had seen the documentary years before that and was quite impressed with both.

>22 laytonwoman3rd: I wholeheartedly agree, with seeing Brother's Keeper. It is currently on Netflix. I do not remember the soundtrack. It has been 20-plus years. I will have to check it out.

26laytonwoman3rd
Mar 15, 7:18pm Top

>24 katiekrug: You're right, Katie. I've edited my post.

27laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Mar 15, 8:33pm Top

>25 msf59: I'm sorry your library doesn't have Belzoni, Mark. Neither does mine. In fact, our system has only one Large Print copy of Finn, the audio book on CD,and e-audio available for Finn and Kings of the Earth. He deserves better exposure. I ordered both Belzoni and Thief of Auschwitz directly from Clinch's website, and as a result my copies of both those books are signed. His newest one, coming out in October, should be more widely available, I hope.

28alcottacre
Mar 21, 8:38pm Top

I finished The Thief of Auschwitz today. I have not read any of Clinch's books prior to this one, but if I only have this one to go by, it was terrific.

I am hoping to get hold of Belzoni Dreams of Egypt, but doubt I will get to it before the end of the month.

29laytonwoman3rd
Mar 21, 9:06pm Top

I hope you can get a copy of Belzoni Dreams of Egypt, Stasia. It's very different, much lighter than The Thief of Auschwitz, but every bit as good. And I think when the challenge introduces you to someone new, and then you want to read more of that author, it's a success...so I'm happy about that!

30Caroline_McElwee
Edited: Mar 23, 4:06pm Top

I'm behind, still finishing the last 40 pages of Little Women for last month's challenge. I'll catch up. Finn is winking at me.

31cbl_tn
Mar 23, 4:11pm Top

I just finished The Thief of Auschwitz. I generally prefer memoirs to fiction in Holocaust literature. It's so hard to get Holocaust fiction right. This is how it should be done. It's my second 5-star book of the year. The Chosen is my other 5-star book, so this challenge is responsible for my best reads so far this year!

32alcottacre
Mar 23, 4:28pm Top

>31 cbl_tn: That's terrific, Carrie!

33laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Mar 30, 4:35pm Top

>31 cbl_tn: What Stasia said! I'm so glad the challenge is working well for you. I read somewhere that Clinch researched his wife's family history in depth, and that the story in The Thief of Auschwitz is based at least in part on that.

>30 Caroline_McElwee: I know you've had a lot on your plate, Caroline. I'm just glad you will get to Finn eventually.

34laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Mar 28, 10:08pm Top

We've got a couple days left to squeeze in maybe one more Clinch?

If you're ready to move on, the April thread for Jesmyn Ward is now live.

35brenzi
Mar 29, 9:29pm Top

I never got back here to say I read and loved Finn. I'd read Kings Of the Earth several years ago and loved that one too. My library doesn't have any of his other books so I'll have to try Abe Books. He's such a great storyteller and I like how he takes an actual event and builds on it like he did in K of E and basing a novel on Huck Finn's father was genius although the ending seemed a bit rushed.

36nittnut
Mar 30, 4:07pm Top

I read Kings of the Earth. I have mixed feelings about it. It's a story without a lot of hope. It's compelling and well written, and yet, none of the characters are all that charismatic or sympathetic. I found the neighbor who sort of watched over the brothers to be the most likable. Although the constant shifts in time and narrator were a little disorienting, it also contributed to the sense that you only get to see bits and pieces of the lives of your neighbors. You never know the whole story.

37msf59
Mar 31, 8:56am Top



The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch 4.5 stars

Clinch, a master storyteller, effortlessly moves into a Holocaust story here, following a family, as it struggles to survive Auschwitz. He avoids the over-melodramatic, by keeping the narrative grounded, although there is still plenty here to break your heart. This is my third read, by Clinch and all were excellent. He is batting a 1,000, in my book.

*This was also excellent on audio.

38thornton37814
Apr 2, 6:42pm Top

>37 msf59: I had so many other things that I didn't try to read anything by Clinch since I did not committed to any of the challenges this year. I have been reading along on some of them. That one looks like something I would enjoy.

39laytonwoman3rd
Edited: Apr 3, 11:45am Top

>35 brenzi: It's been many years since I read Finn, and I don't remember what I thought about the ending. I think I must read it again!

>36 nittnut: Well, there certainly isn't a lot of hope in Kings of the Earth . Having known people almost as primitive as the Wards/Proctors in my youth, I know that "hope" is barely a concept they are aware of, and this story was realistic portrayal of what life can be like for a segment of the population many of us will never encounter. "You never know the whole story" is so true, and that's why I love an author like Clinch, who tries to imagine it and share it with us.

>37 msf59: He's batting 1000 with me too, Mark. Can't wait for his next one, due out in October. And speaking of that.....just another reminder that you can pre-order Marley from Amazon. You have to drill down to find it, so here's a link: Marley

>38 thornton37814: Just don't forget the name, Lori!

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2019

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