Blogs at Amazon

Jim Gaffigan Eats His Way Across the USA

FoodLoveStory500Jim Gaffigan has been making us laugh for years, both as a top performing stand-up comedian and the author of last year's best-seller, Dad Is Fat On stage, Gaffigan freely shares his thoughts, obsessions, and observations of food and food culture, and he brings that and more to a new book, Food: A Love Story. To give you a little taste of what's in store, check out this exclusive guest post from the author:


People look at a map of the United States and see different things. Some people see red states and blue states. Some people see North and South. Some see East and West. I see food. I’ve performed in all fifty states and eaten my way through pretty much every major city. After my fourth or fifth lap of performing and eating across our beautiful and delicious country, I started to think of the geography of our country as it relates to food.

Here’s a preview of five food lands I talk about in Food: A Love Story

SEABUGLAND: (The northeast coast of the United States as far south as Maryland)
Lobster is as much a part of the New England personality as is the hating of all things New York City. If you can catch something in a net and crack it open for food, those bug lovers will eat it. The French may refer to seafood as the “fruit of the sea,” and scientists may call shellfish “crustaceans,” but to me they are creepy-crawly giant insects on the bottom of the ocean floor.

SUPER BOWL SUNDAY FOODLAND: (The Midwest and eastern part of the United States)
What is served on Super Bowl Sunday feels like a homecoming of all the great unhealthy American foods. They are dishes that taste great with beer and are all easy to eat while watching television. What could be more American than that? The deepest appreciation of and love for these Super Bowl Sunday foods can be found in the Midwest.

MEXICAN FOODLAND: (The southwestern part of the United States, and, of course, Texas)
I’m convinced that anyone who doesn’t like Mexican food is a psychopath. It is a known fact that it is impossible to eat quality Mexican food and not be in a good mood afterward. Even bad Mexican food is better than 90 percent of all other foods.

WINELAND: (Northern California)
Wine is a key element of the NorCal culture, and it is overemphasized with gracious abandon. I enjoy wine, but I’m certainly no expert. Occasionally, I’ll make the mistake of asking which wine the waiter would suggest. They always seem to point at one of the more expensive wines. “Well, this wine would complement your meal.” I always think to myself, Is there a box of wine you’d recommend? ’Cause that would complement my wallet.

FOOD ANXIETYLAND: (Louisiana)
You don’t just dine in New Orleans. You overeat. Whenever I’m about to go to New Orleans for a show, I always suffer food anxiety. There are just too many decisions. Where should I eat? What should I eat? How often can I eat? Did anyone watch all the episodes of Treme? New Orleans is a food mecca. It’s not just the variety; it’s the fact that I’ve never had bad food in New Orleans. I think it may be against the law.

Of course there is much more in Food: A Love Story.

--Jim Gaffigan

  Final-Gaffigan-Marketing-MapNODATE

Cook This: Chicken Parm in 30 Minutes, from Mark Bittman

BittmanI've never been good at being told what to do. In the kitchen, that resistance is to blame for the testy relationship I have with cookbooks. I love them, but I'm not a paint-by-numbers cook, preferring to snag bits and pieces of four different recipes.

That's why I've always appreciated Mark Bittman's cookbooks and his New York Times columns. His recipes aren't prescriptive, they're fluid, adaptable. Don't have turmeric? Try paprika. Don't have broccoli? Try brussell sprouts or fennel.

In his new book, How to Cook Everything Fast, Bittman offers strategies and shortcuts designed to help people make healthy meals quickly. Many of the recipes have variations, like the one below.

Don't have chicken? Try eggplant.

[*Look for our interview with Bittman later this week.]

~

Fastest Chicken Parm*

Time: 30 Minutes

Makes: 4 servings

(*Note: The "naturally fast" techniques in the book call for doing some of the prep work while some of the ingredients are cooking. In the recipe below, the "prep" steps are italics.) 

This take on the classic couldn’t be easier: Instead of dredging and panfrying, just stack the ingredients in two stages on a baking sheet and broil. Done this way, the tomatoes get lightly roasted and the bread crumbs stay nice and crunchy. (For eggplant like this, see the Variations.)

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium ripe tomatoes

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)

Salt and pepper

8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese

2 ounces Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup grated)

1 bunch fresh basil

1 cup bread crumbs

 

1. Turn the broiler to high; put the rack 6 inches from the heat. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet and spread it around; put the baking sheet in the broiler. Core and slice the tomatoes. Cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally to make 2 thin cutlets for each breast. Press down on each with the heel of your hand to flatten.

2. Carefully remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Put the chicken cutlets on the sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with the tomatoes, and broil on one side only until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, rotating the pan if necessary for even cooking, 5 to 10 minutes. Grate the mozzarella and Parmesan. Strip 16 to 20 basil leaves from the stems. Combine the bread crumbs, mozzarella, and Parmesan in a small bowl.

3. When the chicken is cooked through, remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Lay the basil leaves on top of the tomatoes, sprinkle with the bread crumb and cheese mixture, and drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil.

4. Return to the broiler, and cook until the bread crumbs and cheese are browned and bubbly, 2 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

 

Variations

Cubano Chicken

Use sliced dill pickles instead of the tomatoes and Swiss cheese instead of the mozzarella. Omit the basil. Before putting the pickles on top of the chicken in Step 2, spread a little Dijon mustard on the cutlets. Instead of the Parmesan, mix 1/2 cup chopped ham into the bread crumb and Swiss topping.

Chicken Melt

Use Gruyère cheese instead of the mozzarella and 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves instead of the basil. Omit the Parmesan. Before putting the tomatoes on top of the chicken in Step 2, spread a little Dijon mustard over the cutlets.

Fastest Eggplant Parm

Instead of the chicken, slice about 2 pounds large eggplant crosswise 1 inch thick. After the pan heats in Step 2, spread out the eggplant slices—but not the tomatoes—and turn to coat them in some oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil until softened and browned in places, about 3 to 5 minutes. Flip the eggplant, then top with the tomatoes and proceed with the recipe from the end of Step 2.

An Amazon Exclusive: Neil Patrick Harris Reveals Everything

HarrisIt's not often that you get a behind-the-scenes peek at a book's creation. Read on to see what it took to write Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (and some other guy).

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Like many memoirists before him, Neil worked with a collaborator whose job was to take his words and edit them for clarity, eloquence, and in some cases a little extra “oomph.” To illustrate this process, Neil’s collaborator, David Javerbaum, has been gracious enough to provide Amazon with before-and-after examples of both the original sentences written by Neil and the final versions David revised.

 

ORIGINAL: I was born on June 15, 1973.

FINAL: I emerged heroic and triumphant from my mother’s seedhole into a nation consumed by the tragedy of Watergate.

 

ORIGINAL: I had a comfortable childhood.

FINAL: I grew up deprived of deprivation, lacking even a single deficiency to call my own.

 

ORIGINAL: “How would you like to play Doogie Howser?” he said.

FINAL: “How would you like to play Doogie Howser?” he said, removing his pants.

 

ORIGINAL: I do not remember many details of those two days.

FINAL: That weekend in bed with Meryl Streep and Jamie Farr was everything a 17-year-old boy could dream of.

 

ORIGINAL: I have nothing but kind things to say about my four co-stars on How I Met Your Mother.

FINAL: And now a few words about the meth head, the skinhead, the arsonist, and the plushie.

 

ORIGINAL: “How would you like to play Hedwig?” they said.

FINAL: “How would you like to play Hedwig?” they said, removing their pants.

 

ORIGINAL: There’s nothing more satisfying than hosting the Tonys and the Emmys.

FINAL: There would be nothing more satisfying than hosting the Oscars.

 

ORIGINAL: “Mr. Sondheim,” I said, “playing a role in one of your musicals is a dream come true.”

FINAL: “Yo yo, Stevie S.!

I’m filled with happiness!

’Cause when I’m in ya show

I feel like I’m ya ho!”

 

ORIGINAL: The decades-long struggle to identify and “label” my sexuality was for me just another aspect (albeit a very important one) of a more generalized quest to fuse all the wayward parts of my mind, soul, and spirit into one coherent, fully integrated self.

FINAL: Yep, I’m gay.

 

ORIGINAL: My children Gideon and Harper are my two greatest achievements.

FINAL: My professional career has been so accomplished, even my own children fall well down the list of my greatest achievements.

 

ORIGINAL: My home phone number is (310) 555-8712.

FINAL: My home phone number is nnnnnnnnn [REDACTED].

 

ORIGINAL: “I absolutely refuse to remove my pants,” he said.

FINAL: “I absolutely refuse to remove my pants,” he said, removing his pants.

 

ORIGINAL: Above all, this book is dedicated to David Burtka, my partner and soulmate.

FINAL: Above all, this book is dedicated to David Javerbaum, my collaborator and one of the great literary geniuses of the 21st century.

 

Graphic Novel Friday: The Long Halloween

BatmannoircoverOctober is here, October is here! With the onslaught of all things pumpkin-flavored (but who can resist?), now is the time to settle down with a good fright. This month, publishers prepare the very be(a)st in spooky reads, and comics are no different. October kicks off with the appropriately titled Batman Noir: The Long Halloween, a gorgeous reissue of a classic Batman tale.

Originally released in single issues in 1996 and 1997, The Long Halloween is a year-long murder mystery set in the early days of Batman’s career. Writer Jeph Loeb manages to weave nearly every main Batman villain into the noir narrative (and then a few lesser-knowns, like Calendar Man, winner of the least-threatening supervillain name ever), along with an origin story for Harvey Dent/Two-Face. The thirteen-issue run grew in such popularity and influence that a sequel, Dark Victory, followed along with a tie-in, Catwoman: When in Rome—and elements can be found in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. DC Comics keeps the fandom alive by releasing various collected editions over the years (including a spectacular Absolute Edition for hardcore fans).

Batmannoirpage1Now in a new “Noir” hardcover, The Long Halloween comes in a strictly black-and-white presentation—but with letters and dialogue balloons intact. It’s a fascinating study of how a comic looks at the inked stage, and it’s a showcase for Tim Sale’s blow-the-Batcave-wide-open artwork. The opening page features Bruce Wayne drenched in a thick shadow, stating, “I believe in Gotham City,” while his pallor is now a stark white [click left image for a larger version]. Double-page spreads are free from color distraction (no offense to original colorist Gregory Wright), and the reader can obsess over Sale’s line work and his fanaticism for musculature and sweeping Gotham cityscapes.

As I flipped between this and my color edition, I noticed how much thicker Sale’s lines appeared in the new Noir edition, and how much more I lingered over the artwork, as opposed to puzzling through the narrative. It’s a case of less being much, much more—carved like this, The Long Halloween glows.

--Alex

 

The New Trailer for the "Unbroken" Movie

For those who haven't read Unbroken (I realize a lot of us have read it), there's still time to read the book before seeing the movie. I've had a lot of conversations through the years about whether one should read a book before seeing a movie, and the answer varies depending on the book and the reader--but this is one title I'd recommend reading first. I know I just wrote that it depends "on the book and the reader," but in this case I think Louis Zamperini's story has enough universal appeal that the advice read the book first applies in nearly all cases. It really captures the imagination, and your imagination should be as unsullied by visuals as possible when you dig into this unbelievable true account. That said, here's the trailer. It's very good. -- CS

10 Songs: Greil Marcus and the Culture of Surprise

The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten SongsIf rock & roll has achieved institution status, Greil Marcus certainly qualifies as one of its pillars. As one of the most influential critics of rock music--a small and vital, club, to be sure--he has made a long, distinctive career by elevating an often disparaged form and placing it firmly (rightly) within the hierarchy of great art. In addition to his writing for the likes of Rolling Stone (he was its first reviews editor), Creem, and The Village Voice, Marcus has authored many books, often dealing with the idea that rock & roll is both a accelerant and amplifier of cultural memes, Narcissus and his reflection in one. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, originally published in 1975, traced rock music's roots, evolution, and impacts--intuitive and otherwise--through the lives and careers of six epochal artists; TIME appointed it one of the 20th century's most influential nonfiction books. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century launches itself from the Sex Pistols and the punk scene of the 70s into an examination of heretics, rioters, and iconoclasts spanning Western civilization, across both time and geography. There are many more, occasionally academic, always incisive, and definitely fun.

In his latest--The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs--Marcus rambles the back roads of rock history to present  short biographies of 10 songs spanning the entire breadth of rock & roll, from doo-wop to post-punk, demonstrating how rock's impulse to combine (and recombine) its influences made each possible and entirely original. Two pieces of advice for readers: 1.) Unless your record collection is as expansive as Marcus's, have YouTube cued up so you can listen while you learn. 2.) Set "Shake Some Action" to repeat.

We asked Marcus for 10 songs that shaped his own rock & roll experience. Here's what he said.

 


 

Greil Marcus: 10 Songs

Rock & roll for me has always been a culture of surprise. When it’s at its best you never know what’s coming and you can’t wait to find out what it is—when all the music seems to be one great answer record, with everyone, performers, listenters, the radio, a club, even the background music in a supermarket or the foreground music in a restaurant part of the same conversation. That happens best on Quentin Tarantino soundtrack albums, which aren’t references to his movies but almost counter-works—from the neo-surf music in Reservoir Dogs to the creamy, sleazy pop on the two Kill Bill albums to Django Unchained, which is probably the best. But it can happen anywhere.

In the order they occurred to me:

Outkast, “Hey Ya!” (2003). As Lou Reed once said, when you first heard this song you felt as if you could listen to it forever—“And then you kind of had to.” But endless airplay didn’t wear the song out, it only revealed equally endless layers of play, emotion, and a life being lived: the cool comedy of the verses always falling into what seemed like the unalloyed joy of the chorus. And it was in the chorus that, after weeks, months, never, provided its own drama: the way the first “Hey ya” was nothing but a smile, the way the second pulled away from the first, with a dying fall of regret, loss, uncertainty, doubt. There is a whole history of American music in this song—minstrelsy, wild and fast L.A. doo-wop (the Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone,” the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz”), Bob Dylan’s carnival sound (“I Want You”), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—and also prophecy: a sound and a feeling the Roots will probably always be looking for.

Bo Diddley, “Say Man” (1959). Even by 1959, after Little Richard, after “The Book of Love,” I didn’t understand how anything this ridiculous—so ridiculous it was, somehow, pure anarchy, an epistemological proof that neither government nor society did, in fact, exist—was allowed on the public air. Now, long after learning that this was just a Top 40 version of the dozens, of The Signifying Monkey, of a harmless African-American insult ritual going back to forever, I still don’t.

Greil Marcus

Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter” (1969). It’s been on the radio for 45 years and hasn’t lost anything. It’s kept up the with times, or the times are still chasing it. And I knew that would be the story from the first time I heard it.

Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (1958). For me, proof that music—the language everyone was speaking, that everyone though was sufficient to say whatever needed to be said—could change overnight. The day before, whatever was on the radio sounded just right. The day after, it sounded old, tired, and fake. The same thing happened with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Hockey “Song Away” (2009). I heard it sitting outside a shoe store in Minneapolis. I caught a few words, maybe the title phrase, but mostly a smile that I couldn’t get out of my head. Thanks to the internet, I could track it down and play it a dozen times in a row. I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Whenever I think about it, I still can’t. That’s what rock & roll is for.

 

Portrait by Rich Black based on the original photo by Thierry Arditti

YA Wednesday: Meg Wolitzer on "Belzhar"

BelzharBack in June I read a book called Belzhar that I'd been hearing about.  Author Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings was one of our Best Books of 2013 and prior to that I'd loved her novel for middle graders, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, so I was eager to read her first book for young adults.  It's amazing. And it just released so not only did it *finally* get to claim it's rightful spot at the top of our Best YA of October list, but now when I rave about it I don't have to follow-up with, "...but it won't be out until September 30th..."

Belzhar speaks to the experiences of love, loss, and reading something life-changing. And sharing those experiences with people you may never have picked out of a crowd but when life throws you together, deep friendships are forged.  I laughed, I cried, and in the video below I talked about Belzhar with Meg Wolitzer at Book Expo in New York. I enjoyed talking with her as much as I do reading her books.  Now I anxiously await the next...

National Book Award Finalists Announced

Drum roll, please. The National Book Awards shortlist was broadcast this morning. Celebrating the best in American literature, the winners will be announced at a ceremony on November 19 hosted by best-selling author, Daniel Handler (you might know him better by his other name--Lemony Snicket). So, without further ado, I give you this year's finalists, who about now must be penning particularly well-crafted acceptance speeches, just in case.

NBA FinalistsFiction:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Nonfiction:
Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
Tennessee Williams by John Lahr

National Book Award FinalistsPoetry:
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
The Feel Trio by Fred Moten
Second Childhood by Fanny Howe
This Blue by Maureen N. McLane

Young People’s Literature:
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Noggin by John Corey Whaley
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

 

Where I Wrote It: John Twelve Hawks, on Writing his New Novel, "Spark"

Readers of Omnivoracious may be familiar with our "How I Wrote It" Q-&-A series, in which we ask authors to describe the writing of their book (including questions about their work space, their tools, their fuel--you can read them here). In "Where I Wrote It," we'll be asking authors to share photographs of their desk or office, along with a brief description of that space and what role it played in the creation of their book. Our thanks to John Twelve Hawks, whose new novel, Spark, is a Best of the Month pick in mystery, thriller, and suspense.

John12Hawks

In our Digital Age, it's almost impossible to live "off the grid." But we can find places of refuge where we know that our thoughts are our own.

The first draft of my new novel, SPARK, was written at a friend's house in rural Ireland.

Every morning, I would sit at the kitchen table near the cast iron stove, drinking strong tea while I gazed out the window at a green world. Everything seemed possible at that moment, and words streamed in with the sunlight.

Spark2  --John Twelve Hawks

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[Note: John Twelve Hawks, a pseudonym, is famously, elusively anonymous. Here's a portion of a note he posted on his Random House-hosted website, announcing the publication of SPARK: "Contrary to Internet rumors, I am not dead or in prison. I do move around a great deal and live in London, rural Ireland and New York City."]

The Rules of the Handshake

I Stand Corrected Lots of people dream about doing the kinds of things Eden Collinsworth does routinely in her life: change jobs, move countries, strike out for parts unknown both internal and external. In the form of an etiquette guide, I Stand Corrected – excerpted below -- is both a cultural analysis of East-West relations and a witty memoir of a very unconventional life.


In 1985, I received an invitation from a delegation of Chinese businessmen offering me the opportunity to see Shenzhen. It was the height of China's policy of economic Opening Up, and this former fishing village had grown into a booming metropolis constructed with what looked to be gigantic Lego pieces. At the time, I was a book publisher. I was also young, fair- skinned and redheaded; and so, when I arrived in Shenzhen, it was easy for the Chinese to believe I might have come not from America, but from another planet entirely.

"What do you mean he's asked how much I am?" was my stunned question to the associate acting as my translator at a business dinner for which I was the host.

"Just that," he told me.

All at the table had been imbibing a great deal; it was not without reason that I asked my colleague if the man inquiring was sober. "He seems to be," was the answer.

"Have you correctly translated?" I asked? "Surely he's asked how much it would cost to buy the company we represent," I said.

"No. He means the cost for you, as a woman," reiterated my colleague. "Our guest has just inquired about taking permanent possession of you." Latching on to whatever composure had not already abandoned me, I pointed out that I was not just a woman, I was also the president of an American book publishing company. "One who happens to be the host this evening," I made clear.

"I can translate what you've just said," volunteered my colleague. "But it won't matter."

"Why not?" I wanted to know.

"Because he believes that your gender makes your professional rank insupportable."

And there it was. A full-in-the-face statement, which forced upon me the irrefutable difference between my self-image and my status in China where, at the time, I was Western luxury item possibly to be purchased.

"What would you like me to tell him?" asked my colleague.

It took a moment to realize that it wasn't so much that I needed to surrender my self-image as that I should consider suspending it. Making a bottom line calculation with that in mind, I responded with falsehoods calibrated to avoid embarrassment.

"First, thank him for his interest," I instructed my colleague. "Next, tell him I'm extremely flattered. And then let him know that, sadly, I belong to someone else."

That face-saving response—and others like it—enabled my many years of doing business in China, during which course I witnessed the nation's profound transformation. But, long after committing to advance gender equality there, it seems to me that the Communist Party has underestimated resistance from their nation's culture, a culture that remains rooted in a traditionally Confucian society.

Eden Collinsworth

Only after living in China did I understand how women there struggle to break through the encased male-dominated work environment, not just in circumstantial ways but in the far more complex ways that have to do with self-belief. Very few possess the emotional and financial resources required to brave the tide of political, social, and parental waves pushing them toward marriage.

Hengnu, or "leftover woman," is a term China's Ministry of Education has added to its official lexicon. It describes an urban professional woman over the age of twenty-seven. For those slow in understanding the implications, the prefix sheng is the same as in the word shengcai, or "leftover food."

Setting its own action-oriented time line that delineates exactly when women become stale, the Communist Party provides instruction by age groups. At twenty-five, women must "fight" and "hunt" for a partner. If not married by twenty- eight, women are pressured to "triumph against the odds." Between thirty-one and thirty-four, still-unmarried women are referred to as "advanced leftovers," and by thirty-five, a single woman is the "ultimate" leftover, spiritually flawed in thinking she is higher than the mandate of marriage.

That being the case, Li Ping, a young woman I came to admire in Beijing, was spiritually flawed. Ping was a decent, well-educated, hardworking woman who had made a fortune launching a portfolio of magazines. She had proved herself an astute businesswoman and, by all Western accounts, a great success, but during a revealing conversation in the backseat of her chauffeur-driven car while stalled in Beijing traffic, Ping told me that her younger sister was more successful in the "important way."

"Why would you think that?" I asked.

"It's not what I think, it's what I know. My sister is married, and I am not. I am shaming my parents."

Ping's punishing words spoke of the worst kind of self-judgment, and it was difficult for me to understand the irrational degree to which she was holding her self-esteem in abeyance until she was married. Still, her plight was not without claims on my sympathy. At one time, I, too, would have been an "advanced leftover."

Eventually, I married, having fallen in love with a man in my own country. When I did, I gave myself away to him for free.

"Apocalypse Now" Meets "Lord of the Rings" - An Interview with Fantasy Author Chris Evans

EvansFantasy author Chris Evans new novel Of Bone and Thunder goes on sale today. It's a book that, like many fantasies, revolves around war—but unlike most fantasies it focuses mainly on the grunts doing the fighting as opposed to the politicians moving the chess pieces. As you read the book, you quicky realize that there's a real-life model for his fantasy world (think Vietnam, but with dragons, magicians, and dwarves), and that makes it all-the-more compelling. Kirkus recently called it "memorable and deeply satisfying—a fitting tribute to those who serve." I caught up with Evans to ask him a few questions about his new book:

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Chris Schluep: How do you describe your novel?

Chris Evans: Of Bone And Thunder takes the chaos of "Apocalypse Now" and transports into an epic fantasy world like that of Lord of The Rings.

CS: When did you get the idea for this story?

CE: I've been fascinated by military history since I was a child and developed my love of fantasy around the same time. As I read more of both, the idea of combining the two grew stronger. After using the Napoleonic Wars and British Imperialism in my first fantasy series, I was ready to tackle the Vietnam War. It meant plunging traditional fantasy into a dark and unsettling world, but one that still had hope.

CS: Was it the place or the characters who first came to mind?

CE: The jungle came first, but only because I knew it before I knew the veterans that would ultimately inspire my characters. Still, the jungle is very much a character in its own right.

CS: What kind of research did you do?

CE: My work with veterans as a military history editor provided me with untold sources of inspiration and anecdotes. Coupled with voracious reading and a constant soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane et. al. in the background, I was transported to a jungle that I hope readers will find every bit as majestic and mysterious as the real thing.

CS: How did you surprise yourself in writing the book?

CE: This novel took me deeper into the creative process than any writing I'd done before. I came to realize that there are no absolute heroes or villains. The same person can be craven and courageous on the same day. War amplifies that and I think I conveyed that in ways I haven't before.

CS: Have you heard from veterans? What response would you hope for?

CE: I have, and it's been incredibly positive. I set out to write a fantasy that captured the essences of the Vietnam War. As such, the characters and their experiences are an amalgamation of the combat tours and of the veterans I know and many more I don't. My hope from the very start was that they would view the book as an homage to what they experienced, and I am gratified that that has been the case.

Who Needs Pictures? B.J. Novak Tells the Story

BkWithNoPicturesFrom his work on The Office we already know B.J. Novak is funny, and we had a great time reading his book, One More Thing earlier this year.  It was when he came to our office for that book that I met Novak and he told me about the children's book he had coming out at the end of September.  A picture book format but with no pictures. Huh. 

When The Book With No Pictures came in I took it home right away, read it to my seven-year-old and we both cracked up.  This is one of those rare children's books that, as a parent, I'm willing to read over-and-ove--and believe me, I've been asked to do exactly that.  Loads of fun for kids and adults, Novak proves that even in children's books, words can do all the heavy lifting.

In his guest essay below, B.J. Novak talks about the origin and creation of The Book with No Pictures (one of our Best Children's Books of October and our top pick for ages 6-8).


When I was a very little kid, I was lucky enough to experience the joy and connection of having my parents read books to me. I found myself drawn above all else to humor, and especially the sense of controlled rebellion that humor always represented in books by my most beloved authors—Dr. Seuss,  Shel Silverstein, and Roald Dahl, to name a few favorites. The world they presented had clear rules and expectations; and when those rules and expectations were bent and broken, the results were exciting, interesting, funny.

Last year, as I waited for my first book, One More Thing, to be published, I would often spend time with my friends and cousins who were starting to have kids. My role in connecting to these kids was always to ask which books he or she would like me to read.

My best friend has a very young and rambunctious son named Bruce. One day when I was visiting, Bruce picked up a book and held it out to me with an insistent expression that I read him whatever was inside, and something occurred to me. This is funny, I thought. Even though I’m the one who can read, and I’m the adult—he’s in control of me, because he’s choosing the book, and the book is in charge. This was basically a little two-year-old producer handing me a script. And it occurred to me that any kid who hands you a book is essentially the producer of that evening’s entertainment, a tiny Harvey Weinstein telling you, “Here’s what you’ll be performing tonight. These are your lines, stick to the script; and I may ask you to do it a second time.” The kid was in charge because the book had the power, and the kid had the book. That was funny to me. And I thought, you know who would really find this funny? The kid.

The idea started as simply as that: If a book is a script that a grownup is being asked to recite, what script would be the funniest one for a kid to hear? As I thought more about this idea, and looked back at my favorite books from childhood from the point of view of someone who had written comedy for adults but not yet for kids, I realized a second necessary function in comedic children’s books that is not present in comedy for adults. Comedy for adults takes the rules of the world for granted - and then twists them. The world has already provided the set-up; all that the humor really needs to provide is a punchline. But comedy for the youngest children needs to accomplish a second purpose, too: It needs to somehow introduce kids to both the setup and the punchline. In an Amelia Bedelia book, a child may need to be introduced to the idea that words can have double meanings; in Dr. Seuss books, there is an established sense of order that it would be particularly funny to disrupt.

This inspired me to play with the ways that a book might introduce the rules of the written word itself, leading to a comic payoff of these rules a few pages later. The fun would come from the child and book “teaming up” to make the adult say words that were purely for the enjoyment of the child. And the lesson would be that written words aren’t simply captions to pictures: They are powerful on their own—and they can always be a child’s ally. To try to make this lesson even more clear, I came up with a title that I knew would inspire a child’s curiosity with its sheer audacity: The Book With No Pictures.

I wrote and printed up a copy and took it around to the houses of other friends with young children and asked if I could watch them read it to their kids—rather than read it myself —because I wanted to be sure I had a book that worked as a reading experience for every type of parent. With each reading I made small changes to phrasings and pacings based on the grownup’s reading and the child’s reactions, until I could tell it inspired the same amount of laughter for everyone, but for different people in different ways. As the book got closer to publication, I focused on the design, keeping an eye out for two purposes: that the page looked beautiful and colorful to a child’s eye; and that the size, spacing, and rhythmic layout of the words were so clear and simple that even the most performance-shy adult could read it easily and intuitively.

That’s the story of The Book With No Pictures. I hope people enjoy it! There’s no sound in the world like a child’s laughter, and while there are so many things I can’t do—for instance, draw—it would be quite an honor to know I’ve contributed a little more of that sound to the world.--B.J. Novak

How I Wrote It: Walter Isaacson, on "The Innovators"

Isaacson"We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation," says Walter Isaacson, whose new book explores the overlooked collaborations and breakthroughs that would eventually give us the personal computer and the Internet. 

In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, one of our Best Books of the Month, Isaacson shows how lone geniuses like Steve Jobs (the subject of his bestselling 2011 biography) didn't single-handedly create the digital age in which we now live.

[*Scroll down to see a video of Isaacson discussing The Innovators.]

Tell me about the the origins of The Innovators

I began working on this book almost fifteen years ago. It grew out of my fascination with the innovations I’d been part of when I ran digital media for Time Inc. and also from my biography of Benjamin Franklin, who was an inventor, publisher, postal service pioneer, and all-around information networker and entrepreneur. Plus I was an electronics geek as a kid (my father and two uncles were electrical engineers), and I loved soldering circuits, sorting transistors, and building ham radios (WA5JTP). I realized, leaving aside Al Gore jokes, that I didn’t even know how the Internet had been invented. My initial plan was to focus on that. But when I interviewed Bill Gates, he convinced me that the simultaneous emergence of the Internet and the personal computer made for a richer tale. I put this book on hold early in 2009, when I began working on a biography of Steve Jobs. But his story reinforced my interest in how the development of the Internet and computers intertwined.

InnovatorsHow is this book different from your previous books?

I wanted to step away from doing biographies, which tend to emphasize the role of singular individuals, and once again do a book like The Wise Men, which I had coauthored with a colleague about the creative teamwork of six friends who shaped America’s cold war policies.

We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation. There are thousands of books celebrating people we biographers portray, or mythologize, as lone inventors. I’ve produced a few myself. Search the phrase “the man who invented” on Amazon and you get 1,860 book results. But we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in explaining how today’s technology revolution happened. It can also be more interesting.

What’s the first line and what does it say about the book?

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them.” It conveys that I don’t want merely to generalize about innovation. We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning. Instead, I set out to report on how the most important dozen or so innovations of the digital age actually happened and to tell the tales of the people who created them. What ingredients produced their creative leaps? What skills proved most useful? How did they think and collaborate? Why did some succeed and others fail?

Tools

I’m a gadget freak. I use an iPhone and a Blackberry and sometimes a Samsung smartphone. I have a MacBook Air and a Dell PC and an iPad. I like to be able to write and research on any of them, wherever I am. So one of my most useful tools is Dropbox, which allows me to summon from the vasty cloud any of my documents, interviews, drafts, and outlines on any device, anywhere, anytime.

Soundtrack

New Orleans funk -- Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste.

How do you relax and recharge?

Long swims to clear my mind.

Research

I love combining archival research with doing my own interviews. There are historians who are better than I am at mining archives and journalists who are better at pursuing reporting leads, but I like to combine both approaches. I’m lucky that I’ve known and been gathering string on most of the players in the digital revolution over the years--ever since my days at Time in the 1980s and 1990s when we put many of them on the cover--and I can get them to sit down with me. I also love to ferret out the academic papers, journals, and oral histories as well as go see the actual artifacts, such as Colossus at Bletchley Park, Charles Babbage’s reconstructed engine at London’s Science Museum, the Mark I at Harvard, and the delightful cornucopia at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

What surprised you?

The important role of women in the digital revolution, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper to Jean Jennings. They deserve more recognition.

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> See all of Walter Isaacson's books

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The Best Books of October, Part One: Some Serious Reading

Maybe it's a fall publishing thing, but there is some pretty heady writing in the top 5 of our October Best Books of the Month. We (the Amazon Editors) try to pick our Best of the Month books with all readers in mind—so go here if you're looking for something that might be a little less daunting. But this month it just-so-happens that we have, in order, a National Book Award finalist, a two-time Man-Booker Award-winner, a three-time finalist for the Man-Booker Award, a Rhodes Scholar, and a winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. That probably sounds heavy, like a meal of roast potatoes and super smart pot roast, but let's face it: pot roast is delicious.

Here are the top 5 Best Books of October:

MortalSpotlight: To build on our opening theme of seriousness, let's start with dying. We may as well face that we're all going to do it, so why not do it right? That's the essence of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In describing Gawande's book, our Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, puts it this way: doctors have been trained to attack problems—to win—but that victory doesn't look the same to everyone. "Death is the enemy," she quotes from the book. "But the enemy has superior forces." And it can be fruitless to fight a war of annihilation against a superior enemy. "In his compassionate, learned way," Nelson writes, "Gawande shows all of us—doctors included—how mortality must be faced, with both heart and mind.

MantelPick #2: Hilary Mantel is so good she's won the Man-Booker Prize not once but twice. For anyone who's read Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies, you know she's a great writer. But the short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher show another side of her writing, one that brings vividness to a life more like her own (we assume). In the words of editor Erin Kodicek, "there are only ten stories... a few of them quite spare, but all so chock-full of vivid detail and devilish wit that it leaves the reader wanting more." Kodicek writes, "They don’t hand out Man Bookers like candy, and these stories further explain why Mantel has two on her mantel (so far)."

ToibinPick #3: Sara Nelson describes Colm Toibin's seventh novel as "atmospheric and emotional." It is a story about a forty-year-old widow, set in rural Ireland during the 1960s and 70s, a woman who is "on the verge of slipping back into the isolated life from which her husband had rescued her." Nelson warns that Nora Webster is not entirely likable, accurately pointing out that "a self-centered person mired in depression rarely is." But, she says, Nora slowly wins you over. "Even more important, she eventually finds a way to save herself. This is not a novel that makes a lot of noise—and yet it’s musical. It has a kind of deliberate, note-by-note crescendo—but very few crashing cymbals—as Nora rediscovers her love of singing, learns how art can help her navigate through grief, and how music can help even the most quiet among us to regain our voice."

InnovatorsPick #4: Before Walter Isaacson wrote that fabulous blockbuster about Steve Jobs, he was working on another book. The book is called The Innovators and it is our #4 pick for the Best Books of October. Amazon Senior Editor Jon Foro writes, "Many books have been written about Silicon Valley and the collection of geniuses, eccentrics, and mavericks who launched the 'Digital Revolution'.... but Walter Isaacson goes them one better." He describes The Innovators as "probably the widest-ranging and most comprehensive narrative of them all," building as Isaacson does from the 19th-Century and showing how today's greats, and the greats before them, stood on the shoulders of giants.

JamesPick #5: Marlon James' lyrical and sweeping novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is not an easy book—it is violent, it is big, and it demands that you work sometimes—but it's one that drew me in completely, and I read through the second half of the novel very quickly. The story is written as an oral history, with multiple voices. I was immediately struck by the author's prodigious talent for inhabiting these voices; from men to women, from the patois of a Jamaican rudeboy to the voice of a CIA operative, reading these people is a special experience. The story revolves loosely around the attempt in the 70s to assassinate Bob Marley, but it spans out from there, from Jamaica to Miami and New York in the 90s. In summing up my Best of the Month review of the book, I wrote: "like all great novels, James’ work drew me in, entertained me, and changed me in ways I could not have anticipated."

I'll cover the rest of the top 10 next week. You can find all of our Best of the Month picks here.

 

Rumors of Tears: An Interview with Nicholas Sparks

Ns1If Stephen King is the King of Horror, Nicholas Sparks is, well, the King of Love. There’s no mystery to it, Sparks insists: “I just put people on dates and let them fall in love.”

Across seventeen novels, nine of them adapted for film, that boy-meets-girl formula, which he's explored every angle, has worked amazingly well for Sparks. He’s become one of the world’s best selling and most beloved authors, and he hasn’t slowed down a bit. The film adaptation of his novel The Best of Me opens Friday, and a screen version of The Longest Ride is coming next year.

“What I’m most proud of in my own career is: I never got lazy,” Sparks said during our interview earlier this summer at Amazon’s Seattle campus.

He’s also never tired of writing about love, “the emotion that pretty much drives most of the goodness in the world." Though he tries to walk a line between drama and melodrama--"almost like threading a needle”--he acknowledges some critics think he crosses into mawkish sentimentality. His goal, learned from his hero, King, is to simply tell the best story he can, and let readers decide. And if he makes readers feel something? Then he's done his job.

“I’ve heard rumors that some people have actually shed tears over some of my novels,” he joked.

The interview is a long one--almost 45 minutes--but fans will enjoy hearing Sparks talk about his work habits, and how sales of The Notebook seem to spike whenever Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt.

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>See all of Nicholas Sparks’ books

>See Amazon's exclusive book-and-DVD combo of The Notebook

>Visit our Facebook page for more Nicholas Sparks news and deals this week


 

Weekend Reading: Spies, Diggers, Some Murderers, and a Prig

As Chris mentioned last week, spring has been beautiful in Seattle, but the weather is starting to get dark out here. Apparently, so are we. Here's what each of us will be taking a look at over the weekend. 

Happy Friday!

 

Lives in Ruins Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

Sara Nelson: No, not an analysis of my carton-filled, not-unpacked-but-newly-renovated apartment – author Marilyn Johnson is talking REAL ruins, like the kinds archaeologists study. Johnson wrote the absolutely delightful The Dead Beat, about obituary writers, and then she showed the world how interesting and forward thinking (it’s true!) librarians can be, in This Book is Overdue! Johnson, a longtime magazine writer and editor, has a buoyant voice and slightly loopy sensibility, and I can just see her schmoozing up some archeological prospectors and getting to the bottom of what drives them to dig. (November 14)

 
Astoria

Astoria by Peter Stark

Jon Foro: I'm taking the opportunity to catch up with something that came out ALL THE WAY BACK IN MARCH. I'm not sure why I passed over this then, but Peter Stark's account of the mad rush to open the international fur trade--just a few years after Lewis & Clark--is spellbinding for the audacity of John Jacob Astor's ambition and his mission's predictable disasters. It even has a villainous prig named Captain Thorn. Count me in.

Also reading:

 
Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Seira Wilson: This weekend I’m going to do something that’s as rare as hens teeth--I’m reading a book that came out years ago. I’m in the “I loved it” camp for Gone Girl and have heard that Sharp Objects is also fantastic. So I’m taking Sharp Objects, out in paperback in 2007, to a Florida beach for some welcome vacation. A reporter of questionable mental stability who returns to her hometown and estranged family to cover two murders. Psychological twists ensue. I can’t wait.

Other books I’m taking with me to finish or start::

 
A Map of Betrayal

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

Erin Kodicek: A Map of Betrayal by National Book Award-winning Ha Jin is an unconventional spy novel (our international man of mystery’s name is…Gary). In it, a daughter discovers her deceased father’s double life and does a bit of investigating of her own. What comes to light is heartbreaking, and dangerous. (Available November 4)

 

 
My Heart Is a Drunken Compass

My Heart Is a Drunken Compass by Domingo Martinez

Neal Thompson: What I like about Domingo Martinez’s voice is how it cuts right through that line between telling a story that's both awful and awfully funny. His previous book, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a National Book Award finalist in 2012. His new one continues the story of Martinez’s messy Texas family and his own messy attempts to distance himself and create a new life for himself in Seattle. Of course, trouble is always just a late-night phone call away. (Available November 18)

Also reading:

 
The Forgers

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

Chris Schluep: I’ve got a long flight this weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting lost in a dark murder mystery set against the backdrop of rare books. (Available November 4)

Also reading:

Still reading:

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Best Mysteries & Thrillers of the Month

GrishamI've always thought Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" sounded like the setup to a Graham Greene novel: I was gambling in Havana / I took a little risk ... I'm the innocent bystander / Somehow I got stuck / Between the rock and the hard place / And I'm down on my luck ... Now I'm hiding in Honduras / I'm a desperate man." In the spirit of desperate, hardluck gamblers,here's a roundup of the lawyers, guns, and money found among our editors' picks for October's best mysteries and thrillers.

Lawyers

Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

When Samantha Kofer's New York law firm downsizes her, she reluctantly heads to rural Virginia to work for a legal aid clinic, where she confronts the ecological tragedy known as mountaintop removal. Turns out Big Coal and its thugs will do anything to protect it's black gold. Even murder.

Bones Never Lie, by Kathy Reichs

Two murders and a kidnapped child pull forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan into Charlotte NC's Cold Case Unit, and back to a disturbing case from her past: a psychopathic murderer who eluded capture years ago but now seems to have resurfaced.

PloughmenGuns

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

In this magnificently dark and graceful debut, a 77-year-old contract killer awaiting trial gets talking with the young deputy assigned to guard him, the two men sharing cigarettes and stories and developing an uneasy bond. In a style that's both menacing and moving, Zupan writes with a restrained beauty, whether he's decribing Montana's plains or a gunshot in the back.  

Spark, by John Twelve Hawks

Jacob Underwood is a professional assassin who kills on behalf of multinational corporations. He also suffers from a neurological condition that allows him to do his job without remorse or emotion. That is, until he's assigned to kill a female colleague who's disappeared.

Money

Sometimes the Wolf, by Urban Waite

WolfTwelve years after being sent to prison on drug charges, ex-Sheriff Patrick Drake is released on parole, into the hands of his son, Bobby, now a deputy in father's old department. When two very bad dudes show up in the Pacific Northwest town of Silver Lake looking for cash they believe Drake hid before going to prison, Waite unfurls a dark and violent tale that's equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard.

A Sudden Light, Garth Stein

While not technically a mystery-thriller, Stein's novel of a dysfunctional old-money timber family is packed with mystery--and ghosts. A father has brought his 14-year-old son to the crumbling family mansion outside Seattle, in hopes of convincing his father to sell to developers. Instead, the boy discovers family secrets that might just save them all.

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More great mystery-thrillers: Parted

Last Winter We Parted, Fuminori Nakamura

The Boy Who Drew Monsters, by Keith Donahue

The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens

The Girl Next Door, by Ruth Rendell

You, by Carolyn Kepnes

Cobra, by Deon Meyer

Brood, by Chase Novak

Tunnel Vision, by Aric Davis

Grub for the Game: Tailgate Inspiration

According to Wikipedia, tailgating "often involves consuming alcoholic beverages and grilling food."  What's not to love about that kind of pre-game kick-off?   The art of the tailgate just keeps getting better and that includes the food and drink.  Don't get me wrong, hotdogs will always have a place on the grill, but you wouldn't be out of line to turn them into a signature of sorts with a unique mix of toppings.  If you are one of the many who will put on the team colors (around here that's blue and green--Seahawks--or purple and gold--Huskies), load up the cooler, and hit a stadium parking lot this weekend, let these cookbooks inspire you to some good eating and drinking.

 NFL Gameday Cookbook by Ray Lampe - For those who want to review photo highlights with a barbeque fork in hand.

NFLgamedayCkbk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The American Craft Beer Cookbook by John Holl - Craft beer. It's a good thing. This is about bringing the brewpub to the parking lot.

CraftBeerCkbk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guy on Fire by Guy Fieri - You know this man. Classic red Camaro, extremely blonde hair. Eats at kick-ass local spots across the country.  Appears trustworthy. 

GuyOnFireCkbk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Barbeque! Bible by Steve Raichlen - This is not called the bible for nothin'.  Don't mess with Raichlen when it comes to barbeque--just follow directions, lick your fingers, and take all the credit.

BBQBible

 

Thug Kitchen by Thug Kitchen - Get your veggies and your attitude on with this one.  Go for salads, tacos, or snacks, whatever you choose swearing is a main ingredient and reading the recipes is half the fun.  Dip, dip, pass, motherf*cker.

ThugKitchen

Chasing Paper: The Debt Collection Underground

Bad Paper“Creditors have better memories than debtors.” --Benjamin Franklin

Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think. Falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets, Jake Halpern's Bad Paper introduces us to an economy spanning many shades of gray. Halpern's book tracks the descent of "paper" (spreadsheets containing the information of millions of debtors and their debts) as it's sold for pennies on the dollar by banks and credit companies and passed through a network of collectors. Files are often bought and sold multiple times, each transaction stripping away the best remaining prospects as collectors wring paper dry through all manners of persuasion and coercion. Along the way, Halpern encounters first-hand the game's players, from the financiers at the top of the pyramid to mid-level "brokers" and the ground-level phone-jockeys; these are all hard men within their contexts, as one tale of a Tarantino-grade stand-off over stolen information attests. This book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun.

Read these short biographies of some of the Bad Paper's most interesting players, and check out our Q&A with Halpern below. Bad Paper is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


 Bad Paper's Cast of Characters by Author Jake Halpern

Aaron Siegel: Private Equity Fund Founder

“All of a sudden, you’re swimming in waters you didn’t really want to swim in – never would have conceived you’d be swimming in.” -- Aaron Siegel

Aaron is a banker who made a big gamble. In 2008, he purchased well over a billion dollars worth of unpaid credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar. What he bought, essentially, were just spreadsheets with names, addresses, phone numbers, and balances of debtors. All went well until some of those accounts were stolen and vanished into the debt underworld. Luckily Aaron had someone to call – a fixer named Branson Wilson who knew just what to do. (See below.)

Brandon Wilson: Debt Broker & Fixer

“I will come back down here, I will take your server, I will burn your agency to the ground, I will come to your house and burn it down, and then I will come back here and burn this store down. Understand?” – Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson is a former armed robber who now runs his own collection agency and debt brokerage firm. He also serves as Aaron’s emissary to the collections industry’s many unsavory precincts.

Shafeeq: Debt Collector & Security Specialist

“I can go and shoot a person—an intruder, at your house—and it would be a lot easier to do something like that with the security contract in place. Whereas if I’m just showing up at your house, and I shoot somebody, now there’s a lot more, you know, paperwork.” – Shafeeq

Shafeeq runs one of the collection agencies that Aaron hires to “work” his paper. He is a devout Muslim, who tries to avoid charging interest whenever possible. Shafeeq also runs his own security firm and is licensed to carry a firearm.

Jimmy: Debt Collector from the East Side of Buffalo

“Back when he ran up into my office with that gun, I’ll tell you what, it felt good. My adrenaline was pumping. I wanted to shoot him.” -- Jimmy

After going to jail, Jimmy turned his back on crime and reinvented himself as a debt collector. Even so, sometimes his past catches up with him.

Larry: A Debt Broker Based in Buffalo

“Certain things you don’t want to know, because once you know something, then you become an accessory to it or responsible—so it’s just better not to know, because most of the dealings on the level that we’re on, they’re not legitimate.” – Larry

Larry worked as a debt broker for years and is now trying to make a living as an artist.

Theresa: Debtor

“There are a thousand ways to rip off desperate people. The more desperate you are, and the less you have, the easier it is.” - Theresa

Theresa is a former Marine who fell hopelessly into debt when her marriage ended badly. She paid $2,700 to collectors who claimed to own her debt and then never heard from them again.

 


 

Bad Paper author Jake HalpernQuestions and Answers with Jake Halpern

 

On the surface, debt collection doesn’t seem like the most scintillating topic. How did you get involved with this story?

I know this sounds odd, but this book owes it existence to two people: my mother and Brad Pitt. It began with my mom. She started getting calls from a debt collector over a debt that she didn’t even owe. So I started investigating the debt collections industry and discovered that my hometown – Buffalo, N.Y. – was one of the epicenters. I ended up writing a profile about a collector, from Buffalo, for The New Yorker. After the article comes out, I get a call from Brad Pitt’s producer, telling me that he wants to turn the story into a TV series with HBO. I was shocked. But he was serious. So I end up traveling back to Buffalo, with the screenwriter, and we stay at my parents' house. It was surreal. The screenwriter is staying up on the third floor and my dad and his wife are making meals for him in the kitchen. Anyway, my job on this trip is to line up some interesting people for the screenwriter to meet, so his script feels authentic. Back when I was doing my story for The New Yorker, no one wanted to talk with me. Now, all of a sudden, I am doing a project with “Brad,” and people are tripping over themselves to talk. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y. Needless to say, I was hooked on their story.

What was the most unexpected turn the story took?

There were a bunch of unexpected turns. My favorite involved a character named Shafeeq, who was a smart, charming, gun-toting, black, Muslim polygamist. He is a rather minor character in my story, actually, but he played a pivotal role in one dramatic scene – the showdown with guns – and so I really wanted his perspective. I tried to get him to talk for well over two years, but he refused. Then one day he tells me that he will talk, if I travel to Buffalo and meet him at his mosque on the East Side of Buffalo. So I go. I show up at the mosque at sundown and, almost immediately, this very aggressive panhandler accosts me. Then out of the shadows of the mosque steps Shafeeq. He is ENORMOUS, roughly six and a half feet tall, and weighing more than 300 pounds. The panhandler skedaddles and Shafeeq leads me into his mosque, which is situated in a beautiful old church. We talk for the next three hours. During this time, he give me one of my favorite quotes from the book, which is an impassioned defense of polygamy. He claims that, by being a good father figure to many children in the African American community in Buffalo, he is a powerful force for good, because is modeling good behavior on an exponential level. “You’re Xeroxing righteousness,” he tells me. It’s one of those little, kind of random moments that is just so bizarre, fascinating, and memorable.

The book is filled with rough-around-the-edge characters doing some shady things. Was there any moment you felt uncomfortable, or even at risk?

Just once. I was in the car with a former cocaine dealer, named Jimmy, who had reinvented himself as debt collector. We were on the East Side of Buffalo, which is poor and crime-ridden. Suddenly, Jimmy slams on the brakes, bolts out of the car, and leaves me sitting there for the better part of ten minutes. When he finally returns to the car, Jimmy tells me that he had just spotted a guy he knew, who had recently pulled a gun on him. Jimmy had apparently chased after him but not found him. At that moment, Jimmy was shaking with rage. I just sat there in the car with him, saying nothing while he regained his composure. It was a tense few minutes.

You describe some of the collectors engaging in some dubious practices in order to collect on debt, especially where it comes to taking advantage of debtors’ ignorance (with regard to collection law and their rights) and collector tactics such as bullying. Do you expect reform in this business, and do you hope your book plays a part?

I do hope things change. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be issuing new rules that will – hopefully – change the way the consumer debt is bought, sold, and collected upon. And yes, I am hopeful that my book may help shed some small amount of light on the seedier corners of the industry. But ultimately, the ability of the CFPB to clean up this industry will also hinge on policing. Currently it is policing about 175 of the biggest agencies in the business. Yet according to recent industry estimates, there are well over 9,000 collection businesses in America. That’s a lot of ground to cover. So I am hopeful, but I am also doubtful that the industry will be fixed overnight.

Name three of your most influential writers or books.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann. Grann is a superb nonfiction writer. The number of amazing stories he finds, on a regular basis, is mind-blowing.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover. Conover is simply the best reporter I have ever encountered.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. This is a swashbuckling adventure tale involving Vikings. I love Vikings.

Next project, or current obsession?

I am weirdly interest in jailbird lawyers. I like the idea that there are a few prisoners who have studied the law, become erudite, and are helping work on cases. I am currently scouting out a story involving one of them.

In addition to your nonfiction, you co-authored a couple of well-received young adult novels. How’s that different? Do you plan more?

This is true. The biggest difference here – other than the fact that I write about haunted woods and iceberg fortresses – is that I co-write the books with my friend Peter Kujawinski. We wrote the first book in our Dormia series in 2009. Around that time, I was living on Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, which remains one of the most remote and sparsely settled regions in the continental United States. From my desk, in our tiny ranch house, I watched prairie dogs frolic and tumbleweed blow across the street. Meanwhile, my co-author – Peter – was serving as an American diplomat in Paris. His environs could not have been more radically different. Peter, known simply as “Kujo” by friends and family alike, inhabited a sprawling three-bedroom penthouse with stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. What united us, however, is that we were both twelve-year-olds at heart and wanted to make up imaginary worlds involving magical cities nestled in the mountains. So we started writing the Dormia series. And we just signed a two-book deal with Putnam / Penguin to start a new series. The first book, Nightfall, should be out in about a year.

"Some Monsters I Have Loved" by Keith Donohue

MonstersNew York Times best-selling author Keith Donohue's The Boy Who Drew Monsters went on sale yesterday. It's a hypnotic literary horror novel about a young boy trapped inside his own world, a boy who nearly drowned a few years ago and since then refuses to go outside. Instead, he stays in his room and draws monsters--but those drawings begin to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. To celebrate monsters, and Keith Donohue's new book about monsters, we're posting the author's list of favorite monsters.

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Monsters prowl the shelves of bookstores and hide between the covers, ready to spring out and catch the unwary reader. From the great monsters of myth and fable—the gorgons and harpies, the dragons and ogres—to the nightmare visions of today’s masters of horror, the supernatural takes form in hundreds of great stories designed to pluck at our deepest fears. Here’s a list of 12—no, make that 13—literary monsters I have loved.

1 and 2. Grendel and his mother from “Beowulf.” Grendel is bad enough, a giant shadow walker who likes to visit the mead hall and snack on drunken revelers. He is defeated by Beowulf, who rips off the monster’s arm, and leaves him to die. This upsets Grendel’s mother, who is somewhat worse than the son. John Gardner’s novel Grendel tells the story from the monster’s point of view, and Seamus Heaney’s bristling adaptation breathes new life into this ancient story.

3. Caliban, from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Many of the other characters in the play refer to him as a monster, and he is often depicted as deformed in productions, but is he a true monster? Or a reflection of our inhumanity?

4. Frankenstein’s monster. It’s hard not to imagine Boris Karloff’s flat-headed monster with bolts through his neck, but the real monster, the creation of Mary Shelley in her novel, Frankenstein, is something much worse. Stitched together from cadavers, it’s been alive for nearly 200 years.

5. Dracula. Again, the movie is not the book. The vampire as portrayed by Bela Lugosi and scores of others loses some of the oomph from Bram Stoker’s weird novel. A study in point of view, the novel uses letter, diaries, and other eyewitness accounts of the descent into madness. Dracula may not even be the scariest monster in the book: think of poor Renfield and his most unusual diet.

6. The Pooka MacPhellimy from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. Drawn from Irish folklore, the Pooka is one of the great comic literary monsters. Witty and urbane, he spends a great deal of the novel discussing philosophy with an invisible and quarrelsome Good Fairy who travels along with him in the Pooka's pocket. He believes his wife may be a kangaroo.

7. The Devil’s entourage in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The devil, Woland, comes to Moscow in the 1930s, to wreak havoc on the Soviets. Among his entourage are a wisecracking giant cat named Behemoth, a redheaded succubus named Hella, and several henchmen, including Azazello, a broad-shouldered man in a bowler hat who has one fang sticking out of his mouth. They are far more fun than the Communists.

8. The monster from Stephen King’s novel It. Usually shows up as a clown, which preys on children. A clown!

9. The Tooth Fairy. The late Graham Joyce was a master of the story that deals with the psychology of fear and anxiety. “I am less interested in ghosts than in people who see ghosts,” he once wrote. In his wonderful coming-of-age novel, the Tooth Fairy shows up one night, oddly dressed and smelling of horse's sweat and chamomile, to visit the seven-year-old hero. And she stays through adolescence.

10. The Other Mother in Coraline. For me, the best of Neil Gaiman’s monsters is the Other Mother, who lives in a dimension apart from Coraline and her family, with a box of buttons.

11. The wraith in Sjon’s From the Tale of the Whale. There is a ghoul afoot in Iceland, the wraith of a man drowned in the sea, who must be hunted down by the hero of this lyrical gem of a book. The best way to catch a ghost might be: “to tell the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent. In that way it will eventually see where it fits into God’s great mechanism and realise that it is in quite the wrong place. For how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights and run errands?”

12. The goblins in Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. A picture book about a girl named Ida, who must rescue her baby sister after the child has been stolen by goblins and replaced with a changeling made of ice. This is for children.

13. The ghost in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom.” A ghost, who reminds us that such monsters are often born out of our torment and longing.

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Donohue’s fourth novel, The Boy Who Drew Monsters (Picador), was published on October 7th.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

October 2014

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