Jon Clinch--American Author Challenge March 2019
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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.
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.
I will be reading The Thief of Auschwitz, which has been waiting for me for a while.
I'll be reading Finn too this month, if I can remember which mountain I rested it on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
>22 laytonwoman3rd: I listened to a bit of the soundtrack earlier today. Good stuff.
>22 laytonwoman3rd: - Just to clarify and make it easier for people to find, I think the documentary is "Brother's Keeper."
>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.
>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.
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!
>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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
>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.
>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!
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