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Of Maps and Memories: Francisco Goldman Interviewed by Daniel Alarcón

Interior_circuit

Daniel Alarcón, author of At Night We Walk in Circles, sits down to talk with journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman, about driving — and grieving. --Sara Nelson


Daniel Alarcón: So first of all, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle is a beautiful book: part memoir, part map of an infinite city, part meditation on mourning, part reportage. One of the things I love about it is that it seems effortless, straddling all these genres with great elegance. So I want to begin by asking how you conceived of this book when you started writing it. Was there a plan? Did you worry about genre?

Francisco Goldman: I didn’t know it was going to be a book when I started. Its origins go a year or so back, when I began to talk to an editor at The New Yorker about doing a piece on my “driving project” — how I was going to overcome my phobia over driving in Mexico City by using the Guía Roji, that fat and fabulous book of Mexico City street maps, that book of “infinite roads” so indispensable to every Mexico City taxi driver, like an I Ching: close my eyes, open to a random page, jab my finger down, and then try to drive to wherever the finger had landed. That was the idea and I’d agreed with that editor to give it a go, even though I didn’t have a formal assignment. I also owed Grove, my publisher, a third magazine piece which they wanted to bring out in a book alongside two other pieces I’d published earlier that year, one in The New Yorker on children of the Dirty War-disappeared in Argentina, and another in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on Camila Vallejo and the student movement in Chile.

My plan was to carry out the driving project in the summer of 2012, in the DF (The Distrito Federal a.k.a. Mexico City). But it turned out to be a summer in which a lot happened in my life, a dramatic, wild, transformative summer during which, as my Chilango or Mexico City friends liked to put it, I hit “rock bottom,” and then “resurrected.” That spring/summer began with the approach of the fifth anniversary of the death of my wife Aura [Estrada, a grad student and writer], and with the sadness and walled-off emotional loneliness of grief, a feeling that seemed like it was never going to end. The summer ended with me most unexpectedly falling in love again. In between were months of out of control, self-destructive behavior, culminating in a night (the “hit bottom” night) of absurd violence. These were transformative months for Mexico too, with a national election that returned the PRI to federal power, and a massive student movement that seemingly arose out of nowhere, a youthful desperate surge of hope and resistance aimed at preventing the election of the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto as president.

Continue reading "Of Maps and Memories: Francisco Goldman Interviewed by Daniel Alarcón" »

Gumshoe 101: Your Guide to Becoming a Self-Made Detective

Deborah Halber's new book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, digs into the underground network of self-made detectives working to solve mysteries of unidentified human remains, using modern tools to put names and faces to thousands of John and Jane Does--often in unofficial competition with the police, as well as each other. Here Halber offers her guide to becoming a successful shamus for the Information Age.

Skeleton Crew

 

Essential Tools and Tips for Becoming a Successful Private Investigator

by Deborah Halber

Just to be clear, I would make a lousy PI. A reviewer noted that in my newly released narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, my writer’s voice is "inflected with the gritty timbre of a noir detective; it’s hard not to imagine her spitting the words out of the side of her mouth." I’d say in real life I’m more bumbling TV gumshoe than ace detective Philip Marlowe. More Columbo or Cloiseau than Veronica Mars.

Maybe that’s why I’m in such awe of the web sleuths. The real-life Sherlock Holmes wannabes you’ll meet in my book have the patience of a ox, the attention to detail of a neurosurgeon and the visual acuity of a shark, which, I’m told, can detect glimmers ten times weaker than anything humans can see. One self-proclaimed amateur sleuth has such a spot-on visual memory that she’s able to peruse dozens of photos of missing people and compare them in her mind’s eye to facial reconstructions of unidentified human remains. Another tirelessly combs through records of persons reported missing in the general vicinity of a discovered body, working her way outward in concentric circles through counties, cities, states.

Also key is the ability to look at grisly photos without running screaming from your computer or face-planting in a dead faint onto your keyboard. There are repositories of images--artists’ reconstructions, vivid color portraits, crude pencil sketches, cartoon-like illustrations, and distorted clay dummies sporting wigs, like something out of a beautician’s academy for the hopeless--a Facebook for the dead. There are also actual morgue photos barely Photoshopped into presentability. It takes a strong stomach--or a fascination with the macabre--to click past “may be disturbing for some viewers.”

Once you’ve narrowed your search--noting, say, this missing person from Wisconsin looks a lot like that facial reconstruction of remains discovered in Florida--you get to delve into the details. Height? Weight? Scars or tattoos? There’s a mind-numbing mountain of data to sift through--and any given data point is not necessarily accurate. A website devoted to Princess Doe--an unidentified young homicide victim found in Blairstown, New Jersey, in 1982, her face bludgeoned beyond recognition--lists almost 100 potential matches, all young women loosely fitting her description, all reported missing after 1975. The amount of work involved in sorting through these leads would be daunting for even the most seasoned detective.

 

Phoenix unidentifieds


Yet the problem is formidable and well worth the benefits of crowdsourcing: The National Institute of Justice estimates that some 40,000 unidentified remains--the population of Wilkes-Barre or North Miami Beach--are stowed in the back rooms of morgues, crematoriums or buried as Jane and John Does in potters fields. No one in the medicolegal community seems to “own” the Does, but web sleuths using sites such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and the Doe Network have “adopted” well-known ones such as Princess Doe; the Lady of the Dunes in my home state of Massachusetts; and the Boy in the Box, found murdered in Philadelphia in 1957.

Many of the web sleuths are motivated by a genuine desire to help families of the missing. Dig into the attributes of the most successful and efficient web sleuths and you’ll find people whose motives are pure, whose diligence is noteworthy, and whose eyes are much sharper than mine.

Recipe Road Test: Jalapeno Poppers from "Man Made Meals"

Last week my fellow editor, Neal, wrote about Steven Raichlen's recent visit to talk barbecuing and his new cookbook, Man Made Meals.  I also got to meet Raichlen when he was here and after flipping through the book while we talked, decided I would try making the Cheese-Stuffed, Bacon-Roasted Jalapeno Poppers for my Fourth of July party.  Sound mouth-watering? It should, because they totally are.  Below is my road test of this recipe--what worked, what didn't, and one happy accident to repeat.

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First off, the recipe says large jalapenos, and I took that to heart--the ones I used were around 4 inches long and pretty stout.  This worked well for stuffing them with cheese, though I  quickly realized that cutting the pepper in half versus cutting the cap off (both methods are mentioned), was the way to go because, frankly, I couldn't get the cap back on again.

 

 JalapenosStuffed

 

 

The recipe suggests you use whatever cheese you like--I decided to try three: colby, pepper jack, and cream cheese. I wasn't sure how full to pack in the cheese (I did the math but what does 2oz in matchstick pieces of cheese look like?), so I went with my usual motto regarding cheese, "more is better."  I also skipped the cilantro.  It's a polarizing herb and the people that hate it, really hate it and can taste the tiniest bit.  I'll try adding the cilantro to the cheese next time when I'm making a smaller batch.

 

  JalapenosGrillReady

 

 

Raichlen's recipe calls for artisanal bacon, which, for the sake of not going to another store, I chose to interpret as "thick-sliced." But somehow I ended up with regular ol' thin bacon, so instead of a half slice per pepper, I wrapped a whole slice around each one (like cheese, more bacon is better in my world...) and they looked pretty good.

 

You can cook the poppers in the oven or on the grill, and I went for the latter.  The grill, in my case, having been lid-down and shoved in a corner since last summer.  Much to my chagrin, I had completely forgotten how warped (and, let's face it, kind of nasty) the grates are and how much it resembles a grill you might find on a sidewalk with a free sign taped to it.

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But no matter!  It was July 4th, the cocktails were flowing and a jacked-up grill is just one of those things you take in stride.

 The peppers charred (though admittedly unevenly), the cheese melted and oozed out the sides a bit (I no doubt overfilled them), and some of the bacon fell off, but those Cheese-Stuffed, Bacon-Roasted Jalapeno Poppers were delicious!

There was no consensus regarding the best cheese, though I think my personal favorite may have been the colby.  And probably as a result of an uneven grill, the peppers didn't soften as much as they appeared to in the cookbook photo, but having a little crunch left in them turned out to be really nice and I'll definitely try to duplicate that next time.  FinishedPoppers

A Debut to Remember: Celeste Ng's "Everything I Never Told You"

CelesteNgOne of my favorite books of the year is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading it, but I'd heard good things about the novel, and it quickly drew me in. In the end, I tore right through it. As I say in this interview, there isn't a false note in the book.

I only hope that my praise for Celeste Ng's debut doesn't raise the bar so high that it can't meet readers' expectations.

Here's my interview with Celeste Ng:

 

A Conversation with James Browning, Author of "The Fracking King"

James Browning's The Fracking King is an engaging story about a high school junior named Winston Crwth. "Win," as he's called, is at Pennsylvania's Hale Academy (his third school in as many years), and he's there on a "Dark Scholarship" (paid for by the fracking concern, Dark Oil & Gas). He's also a big Scrabble fan.

Browning populates his novel with quirky, memorable characters, and he does a fine job of combining Scrabble, boarding school, and fracking to create a story that's both entertaining and provocative. The Amazon Editors liked it so much, we picked it as a July Best Book of the Month

FrackingKingI had the pleasure of talking to author James Browning, who aside from being an author, is a spokesman and chief strategist for Common Cause, a government watchdog group:

Chris Schluep: First of all, are you a scrabble fanatic?

James Browning: Scrabble was the only game at which I could beat my step-father, a man who believed that children should be “seen and not heard.” I also played constantly with my mother, and my brother and I played about 300 games one summer when we were supposed to be painting our father’s house in Palo Alto, California.

CS: Can you tell me where the idea for the novel came from?

JB: The novel was mainly inspired by a meeting I had in Harrisburg in 2008, with a legislative aide who looked like Bartleby the Scrivener. He warned me not to use the “c-word” in Harrisburg—by which he meant “corruption”—which was a pretty amazing thing to say because the whole point of my job with Common Cause was fighting government corruption.

This meeting and the feeling I got while working in the state capitol—that I was stuck in some lost novel by George Orwell—gave me a real sense of urgency and feeling of responsibility as I began to look at the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Winston Crwth’s own journey to boarding school and then to Harrisburg is also the story of the power of a single word, “fracking,” in the hands of the right person. 

CS:  How long did it take you to write the book?

JB:About two years, but I’ve been writing fiction and hoping to publish a novel for a long time. I wrote a different Scrabble novel back in 1998 when I was in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—a story of Scrabble and doomed love.

CS: Why did you choose to set it in a boarding school?

JB: Boarding school is the thing that woke me up politically—as much because I believed in non sibi, “not for self,” the motto of Phillips Academy Andover, but also because of a lingering sense of shame that I did nothing when several of the not-rich kids in my dorm were expelled for breaking school rules for the second or third time, when the rich kids seemed to get four, five, or more chances.

CS: Are you afraid that it will be seen as "just a Fracking novel"? Because it isn't.

JB: The Fracking King can be read as a fracking novel, or a Scrabble novel, or a novel about a kid trying to survive high school. Or as I told my oldest son, a budding icthyologist, the book is like a cuttlefish, which can change colors to look like sand, a rock, a snake.

CS: What's next for you?

JB: I’m writing a novel about reading for the blind, a sort of older sibling to The Fracking King.

I used to work as the night manager at a studio that recorded textbooks for blind and dyslexic students and it was my job to catch any mistakes before these tapes were sent to the master library. The readers were wonderful, very dedicated, and would describe things like the “honeycomb” shape of certain molecules in a way that a blind person could imagine running their hands along the inside of the molecule.

Many years later, I’m still remembering mistakes that got by me, that got by all of us, and which were then copied and sent to who knows how many listeners. The new novel imagines what would happen if some of those mistakes were sent into the world and accepted as reality—and how you would try to fix them.

 

Graphic Novel Weekend: Interview with Max Brooks

This weekend variant edition of Graphic Novel Friday arrives with an exclusive interview.  Hope everyone had a great July 4th holiday!

Author Max Brooks continues to re-think and refine the zombie phenomenon.  From World War Zthe blockbuster novel that led to the blockbuster film, and the follow-up/send-up The Zombie Survival Guide his name is cemented in the zombie canon. This month, he launches a new graphic novel with Avatar Press that takes another wild look at zombies (and vampires!) in The Extinction Parade. Mr. Brooks nicely took time to answer a few questions over email:

Q: You have two new collections out this spring, The Harlem Hellfighters and The Extinction Parade. What’s your comics origin story—what first inspired you in the medium?

Max Brooks: I can’t remember how old I was, but it was a time before the Berlin Wall fell. We used to spend our summers on a little strip of sand off New York called "Fire Island." I fished and swam and rode my bike everywhere, but one thing I didn’t do was read. Being dyslexic, reading was a real chore. And then I found ROM: Spaceknight at the general store and I recognized it from an action figure I had. It was the first king sized annual. I hadn’t intended to read the whole thing, but before I knew it, I was on the last page. That was the first time in my life I’d ever voluntarily read something, ANYTHING cover to cover, and I still own that exact issue.

Q: The Extinction Parade began as a short prose story. What led to its translation into comics? What aspects did you have to re-think when converting it for Avatar Press?

Max Brooks: Converting from prose to comics is no easy task. For one thing, you can’t ignore any information. In prose, I don’t have to describe anything that’s not integral to the story. Out of sight, out of mind. A comic book is visual. The reader sees everything. I have to pay attention to clothes, hair, architecture, every detail I want to be accurate. Because The Extinction Parade takes place in Malaysia, where I’ve never been, I have to use 3D satellite images to show the artist where our characters are and what we, the readers, would see in the background.

Q: The Extinction Parade is filled with storytelling, from character-to-character moments to detailed narration boxes. What is your method of scripting comics? Are you more hands-on or hands-off in terms of page layouts and character designs?

Continue reading "Graphic Novel Weekend: Interview with Max Brooks" »

BBQ King Steven Raichlen on "Ensemble" Cooking

MealsFireworks won’t be the only things flaring in America’s backyards on this Fourth of July.

You’d think after centuries of cooking with fire, man would have it down. But so many backyard chefs still scorch that precious steak or salmon. We overcook, we undercook, we set good food on fire.

For many years and across many books--notably his bestselling Barbecue Bible--BBQ guru Steven Raichlen has been trying to school us. During a recent swing through Seattle, over lunch at Tom Douglas’s Bravehorse Tavern, I asked for a little help: What do men do wrong at the grill?

“They don’t control the fire, they let the fire control them,” Raichlen said, while dunking a fresh-made pretzel into a bacon peanut butter dip.

Too many guys throw a hunk of meat on the grill or cram it full of chicken pieces and hope for the best, instead of practicing Raichlen’s “30-percent rule”--keeping 30 percent of grill food-free, to provide room to maneuver in case of a flare-ups.

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With a World Cup match roaring in in the background, we discussed Raichlen’s new book, Man Made Meals, which moves indoors and aims to teach guys to cook more like women. Raichlen believes women think in terms of meals while guys think in terms of dishes; women cook with a spirit of nurturing while men cook with a spirit of showing off. With his new book he’s hoping to help guys think “ensemble,” from the main dish to side dishes, from deserts to “rockin’ the bar shaker.”

In addition to the crash course in culinary literacy for guys--“What dishes should every self-respecting red blooded American male know how to do?”--there’s an activist message in Man Made Meals. If we’re careful about how and where we buy food, and how we cook, “we can have a positive impact on ourselves and our health, on the health and well-being of our families, and on the well-being of the planet,” Raichlen said.

Speaking of health and well-being... here's one of Raichlen's go-to dishes:


Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs, with Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

Shop: Baby backs are the easiest ribs to cook, thanks to their generous marbling and intrinsic tenderness. To up your game, try an heirloom breed, like Berkshire pork or Tamworth.

Gear: Your basic kitchen and grilling gear including an aluminum foil drip pan, a charcoal grill (sorry guys; you can cook the ribs on a gas grill, but you need charcoal to smoke them), a rib rack (optional), and a spray bottle.

What else: I like to smoke baby backs at a somewhat higher temperature than the low and slow guys on the barbecue circuit. Which is to say, I grill the ribs using the indirect method at 325°F rather than the 225°F of traditional barbecue. I like the way the heat melts the fat and crisps the meat fibers, giving you chewier, meatier ribs than with the lower-heat method. If you prefer your ribs to have a softer texture, cook them at 225°F for 4 to 5 hours.

Time: About 20 minutes preparation time, plus about 1-1/2 hours cooking time 

These ribs sound an apple theme--you smoke them with apple wood chips and serve them with a made-from-scratch cider rum barbecue sauce. Once you master the process, you can infinitely vary the character of the ribs by changing the seasonings. Texas style? Use a rub based on cumin and chile powder and spray the ribs with beer. Jamaican style? Use jerk seasoning and spray the ribs with pineapple juice. You get the idea. 

Makes 2 racks of ribs; serves 4 normal guys as part of a full meal or 2 big guys with corresponding appetites

  • 2 racks baby back pork ribs (4 to 5 pounds total)
  • 6 tablespoons Raichlen’s Rub #1 (recipe follows) or your favorite barbecue rub 
  • 1 cup apple cider in a spray bottle
  • Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce (page 286) or your favorite barbecue sauce
  • You’ll also need: 1 1/2 cups hardwood chips or chunks, preferably apple or hickory, soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drained

1 Set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a large aluminum foil drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate, and preheat the grill to medium (325°F).

2 Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as the tip of an instant-read thermometer, under it; the best place to start is on one of the middle bones. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane. Repeat with the remaining rack (or ask your butcher to do it).

3 Season the ribs with barbecue rub (about 1-1/2 tablespoons per side), rubbing the spices onto the meat with your fingertips. 

4 When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. (If your grill has limited space, stand the racks of ribs upright in a rib rack.) Toss the wood chips on the coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs for about 45 minutes.

5 Spray the ribs with some of the apple cider. This keeps them moist and adds an extra layer of flavor. Cover the grill again and continue cooking the ribs until they are darkly browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours in all, spraying the ribs with cider once or twice more. When the ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by 1/4 to 1/2 inch. If you are using a charcoal grill, replenish the coals after 1 hour or as needed.

6 Just before serving, brush the ribs on both sides with about 1/2 cup of the Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce or the barbecue sauce of your choice. Move the ribs directly over the fire. Grill the ribs until the barbecue sauce is browned and bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

7 Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board. Let the ribs rest for a few minutes, then cut the racks in half or into individual ribs. Serve the ribs at once with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.

Raichlen’s Rub #1

Here’s a barbecue rub--sweet with brown sugar, spicy with pepper and paprika--that would feel right at home in Kansas City, Memphis, or North Carolina. Makes 1/2 cup

  • 2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard, preferably Colman’s
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, pepper, dry mustard, onion powder, and celery seeds in a small bowl and mix with your fingers, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar or onion powder. Stored in an airtight jar away from heat and light, the rub will keep for several months.

Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

A sweet, mellow barbecue sauce invigorated with dark rum and apple cider. Good choices for rum include Myer’s Rum from Jamaica, Gosling’s Black Seal from Bermuda, or the new Ipswich rum from Massachusetts. The recipe makes more than you’ll need. Refrigerate any excess in a sealed jar--it will keep for several weeks. Makes about 2-1/2 cups

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • about 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 2 cups ketchup (I like Heinz) 
  • 1/2 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark rum, or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste 
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 Place the cider, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a large heavy saucepan and let come to a boil over high heat. Let the cider mixture boil until reduced by about half, 4 to 6 minutes. 

2 Add the ketchup, brown sugar, rum, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, liquid smoke, onion powder, pepper, and cinnamon and whisk to mix. Reduce the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer until thick and flavorful, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, adding more rum and/or mustard as necessary. Transfer the sauce to a bowl or clean jars and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the sauce until serving. It will keep covered in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. Reheat it over low heat before using.

WWII Hero Louis Zamperini Dead at 97

UnbrokenWhen Louis Zamperini's WWII bomber went down over the Pacific Ocean, he probably didn't think my story will become a huge best seller and be made into a movie. Survival was central to his mind as he sat in his little raft in the middle of the ocean. He had to survive intense sun, lack of food and water, leaping sharks, storms, and enemy aircraft. Eventually, he was taken in as a Japanese prisoner of war, where he was mistreated in ways that might have made his open sea experiences seem like a maudlin vacation. But through faith and resilience he survived to tell his tale.

Although his story is well-known to legions of readers, it is worth repeating (and reading and rereading).

Zamperini was born in 1917 to Italian immigrants in Olean, NY. His family moved to California in 1919, where he showed a proclivity for getting into trouble. To channel his energies, he took up boxing and eventually became a world-class runner. He ran the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he finished 8th—but he ran the last lap of the final so quickly that Adolph Hitler reportedly asked to meet him (they shook hands).

Zamperini enlisted in the Air Force in 1941, where he became a bombardier. In 1943, he and his crew were sent to search for a lost aircraft over the Pacific. Their B-24 (commonly known as the “lemon plane”) encountered mechanical difficulties and went down 850 miles west of Oahu. Only three of the eleven men aboard survived. One man, Francis McNamara, died after a month at sea. Zamperini and “Phil” Phillips survived on fish, two albatrosses, and captured rainwater. When they reached the Marshall Islands after forty seven days adrift, they were taken by the Japanese.

Their troubles were far from over.

The movie of his life is scheduled for December of this year. It is based on the inspiring and hugely successful best seller Unbroken.

He also wrote two memoirs: Devil at My Heals and Don't Give Up, Don't Give In (to be published in November).

YA Wednesday: Walter Dean Myers 1937-2014

BEA2012_WalterDeanMyers_250I'm so sad to hear that Walter Dean Myers passed away. I had the pleasure to meet him at BEA in 2012 (pictured here), when he was the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and he was delightful.  Myers said that books gave him solace during troubled times as a young person, and in turn his books have touched many young lives. 

The author of over 100 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Myers won the Coretta Scott King Award multiple times, including a 2014 Coretta Scott King Honor for Darius & Twig.  He also received two Newbery Honors (for Scorpions and Somewhere in the Darkness) and his book, Monster, was the inaugural winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, a National Book Award Finalist, and a New York Times bestseller.  His futuristic young adult novel, On a Clear Day will be published this fall (September 23).  He will be sorely missed.

"I think my life is special. In a way it seems odd that I spend all of my time doing only what I love, which is writing or thinking about writing. If everyone had, at least for part of their lives, the opportunity to live the way I do, I think the world would be a better place.”--Walter Dean Myers

Photo Essay: How Did the Statue of Liberty Get Built?

LibertyElizabeth Mitchell's myth-busting Liberty’s Torch--a Best Book of the Month for July--is a hoot of a story packed with entertaining cameos by Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison and more. At center stage is the maddeningly egotistical artiste, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a snobbish boor who disliked America and her "subpar" people, yet, through persistence and will, found a home for his statue in New York Harbor.

In advance of Independence Day, we asked Mitchell to share a few photos and anecdotes from her rigorously researched tale of how a sculptor’s obsession became a nation's icon.

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We take it for granted that the Statue of Liberty belongs in the New York harbor. But if it were not for one driven man, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, this globally recognizable symbol would never have seen sunrise over the city.

Bartholdi dreamed up the idea of the colossus, he pitched, pleaded, sweated, and schemed to get her built. My new book, Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, tells this tale of one man battling obstacles and accidents to make his unusual vision a reality.

It helped that Bartholdi birthed this creation during an era when artist, inventors and engineers constantly tried to one-up each other. He had seen the colossal statuary in Egypt, the sphinxes and pyramids, and he wanted to also create something that would last for eternity. All he had to do was solve the mechanical feats, clear the fundraising hurdles, and keep everyone alive in the process.

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1) Here is Bartholdi, looking like Dave Grohl. He was spunky, funny, emotional, and a huge egotist. He alone came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty and set out to convince France and America to build it. He wasn’t so much in love with America as he was entranced by the idea of crafting a massive statue. He did appreciate that America had successfully created a democracy while his France struggled violently for the ideal.

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2) He originally designed the piece for Egypt, for the mouth of the Suez Canal, but the deal fell through so he went looking for other locations. At the time, America was showing new growth after the Civil War, taking on constructions like Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The cross continental railroad had just been completed. The nation seemed a likely candidate to absorb the plan that had failed elsewhere.

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3) Short on funds and public enthusiasm, Bartholdi built Liberty in pieces, exhibiting a bit at a time to raise money to create more. Here is the torch being shown at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. At the bottom, Bartholdi set up a kiosk to sell souvenirs and tickets to the top.

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4) Bartholdi showed the head at the Paris Exposition of 1878. It arrived on a wagon from the workshop where she was created, having wended her way through the streets of Paris. People waved and sang the Marseillaise as the massive head passed.

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5) To test the design, the statue was first put together in a neighborhood in Paris near the Parc Monceau. People could pay a ticket to climb up and look over the rooftops.

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6) Liberty was inaugurated on October 28, 1886 in a heavy fog. Bartholdi himself tugged an enormous French flag from her face to reveal her to the world. A few weeks later, he ventured out in a nighttime rain to say goodbye to his creation. He told a reporter that he could no longer sense the immensity of her as he had when he was working on her in Paris. He said, “She is going away from me. She is going away from me.” She now belonged to America.

--Elizabeth Mitchell

The Wildest Books in America

Untamed Will Harlan’s new biography, Untamed, explores the remarkable and controversial life of Carol Ruckdeschel, a woman who eats road kill, stalks alligators, and lives in a ramshackle cabin on the wild Cumberland Island--the country's largest and most biologically diverse barrier island, off the Georgia coast--all in defense of sea turtles and the future of the park.

We asked Will for his perspective on environmental writing, as well as the books that inspired him to track down the story of the "wildest woman in America."

Untamed is an Amazon selection for 2014's Best Books of the Year So Far.


BEST VOICES OF ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING by Will Harlan

Nature writing can be pretty, and environmental books can be convincing, but I ultimately crave the raw emotion of fellow human beings struggling to find and protect their place in the world. The best environmental writing, I believe, is about people.

People are the problem and the solution. Good environmental writing reconnects people to nature—not through lectures, but through living, flesh-and-blood examples of courage and commitment. We feel the landscape through them.   

For years, I’ve tried to write about the tangled environmental politics of Cumberland Island. Finally, I realized that the best way to tell the island’s story was through the heartbreaking adventures of its most powerful personality. Carol’s experiences are more persuasive than any political argument.

Here are a few of my favorite environmental voices and books. Instead of preachy diatribes or flowery descriptions, they inspire me with gritty, gutsy characters—some legendary, some overlooked—who stand their ground and speak for the wild.

 

The Last American ManThe Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert


A modern-day pioneer living nearly self-sufficiently on a wild reserve in Appalachia, Eustace Conway embodies the ideals of American masculinity—ruggedness, courage, and independence. However, those hard-fought ideals have a price. Liz Gilbert shows us the tired, lonely man behind the bravado. A tough, buckskin-clad maverick hunts for the one thing missing from his mountain refuge: love.

 

 



Into the Wild Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


Chris McCandless is either a stupid kid or self-reliant hero. As soon as he graduates college, he gives away all of his savings and wanders the wild, seeking adventure and an authentic relationship with the land—until he finds himself starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Barely able to lift a pen, he scribbles this final message, which continues to haunt and shape my own life: “Happiness only real when shared.”

 

 



Encounters with the Archdruid Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee


McPhee masterfully captures the nuances and complexities of the most influential modern environmentalist, David Brower, by shadowing him on close-combat crusades to protect America’s last wild places. But don’t expect classic confrontations with battle lines clearly drawn; Brower is far more kaleidoscopic. Like Brower himself, the book’s strength is in its subtlety, with finely drawn characters exquisitely presented in shades of gray.

 

 



Refuge Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams


Williams’ mother is dying from exposure to nearby nuclear testing, and wildlife is being wiped out by dams and development. In her unflinching memoir, Williams wrestles with life and death out in the wide-open Utah desert and seeks shelter where there is none.

 

 

 

 

Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodEcology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray


Ray’s hardscrabble upbringing in a south Georgia junkyard is an unlikely start for an environmental luminary, but the rusted scrap heaps of her childhood are chock full of raw, resourceful characters—including an authoritarian father who locks his family in a closet and a snuff-dipping coon hunter who introduces her to the wild woods. Ray weaves her own story into the razed red-clay landscape and leads a rebellion to save the South’s last longleaf pine forests.

 

 



Desert Solitaire Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey


It’s definitely the most sermonizing selection of the bunch, but Abbey’s coarse, thunderous voice crying out for the wilderness still echoes across the desert he called home. Amid his nerve-tingling adventures as a park ranger, the monkey-wrenching anarchist unleashes forceful, full-blooded pleas for the last scraps of wildlands.

 

 

 



The Lost Grizzlies The Lost Grizzlies by Rick Bass


Grizzly bears had not been seen for 15 years in southern Colorado until a small group sets out to find them. Bass seeks more than bears, though; he is tracking his own wildness and the longings of the human heart, which only are revealed in the presence of something larger.


Sara’s Sleeper: "We Are Called to Rise" by Laura McBride

SaranelsonWe Are Called to RiseSometimes I crave a simple, straightforward novel--not necessarily light, but straightforward;  one that makes a point about our world-views, our morality, the way we live now. 

We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride, is that kind of book. It’s a  series of interlocking vignettes of four characters:  two middle aged women with in-flux family lives, a little Albanian-immigrant boy and a wounded soldier too scared and angry to remember his patriotic platitudes. It’s set in Las Vegas, but if you’re thinking glamorous, you’ll be surprised.  And while there are moments you can’t help but see that this debut author is more fascinated by her ideas than the characters she gives them to, I dare you to come away from this arresting novel unmoved. 

Plus:  how can you resist a book that is both readable in one sitting AND takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson? 

Amazon Asks: Ben Mezrich Brings Down the Mouse

BringingDownMouseFor his latest book, Ben Mezrich put a slight twist on the title of his best-seller, Bringing Down the Housebut this time he's writing for a very different audience--young readers.  Bringing Down the Mouse parallels Mezrich's nonfiction book in a middle grade novel full of non-stop action and excitement, risk, math, and gaming.  See what Mezrich has to say about his new book, Encyclopedia Brown, and his magical radio below.

Amazon:  What's the elevator pitch for your book?

Ben Mezrich:  Bringing Down The Mouse is the story of Charlie "Numbers" Lewis, a twelve year old whiz kid recruited into a secret club of sixth graders who use math and science to beat carnival games; their goal is to bring down Incredo Land, the best amusement park in the world.

Amazon: Why write a middle grade novel (vs. one for young adults)?

Ben Mezrich:  I've always loved adventure stories that involve brilliant kids using their brains to beat systems that seem unbeatable; when I set out to tell Charlie's story, and create this world, I wanted it to feel like a thrill ride, but with a very optimistic, upbeat edge. Charlie's Whiz Kids- his group of nerdy friends- aren't the sort of dark, brooding characters you see in young adult, maybe because I'm not very dark and brooding either. I certainly was a geeky kid myself, but to me, math and science were always these magical things- powerful tools you could use in incredible ways.

Amazon: Did you have a favorite books when you were [your main character] Charlie's age?

Ben Mezrich: I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. Also the Electric Book, about a kid trapped in a book being written while he tries to escape. But I read just about everything; my dad had a rule when I was 12 that we had to read two books a week before we were allowed to watch TV, and I loved TV--so if became a speed reader from a very early age.

Amazon: What's your most memorable author moment?

Ben Mezrich: There have been so many. Seeing my first book on the stands was cool. Going to the Oscars, and watching Aaron Sorkin win for his adaptation of my book into the movie The Social Network was pretty amazing. Seeing someone reading something I wrote on an airplane--things like that are pretty awesome.

Amazon: What's your most prized/treasured possession and why?

Ben Mezrich: I have an antique console stand-up radio that I bought in a yard sale twenty years ago, that I've always half-believed has magical properties. It's in my office, and it has watched over each of the fifteen books I've written. It also helped me find my wife, which led to my two incredible children, and my sweet, neurotic, epileptic pug, Bugsy. But that's a much longer story, so I'll just leave is simple: my antique radio.

Amazon: What's your lucky number?

Ben Mezrich: 6 and sometimes 3.

Amazon: What's next for you?  Do you see yourself writing more children's books or entering the young adult right?

Ben Mezrich: Both. I have a thriller coming out in September called Seven Wonders. And a nonfiction book early next year. But Bringing Down The Mouse is the first in what I hope to be a many book series, so I'd love to continue writing these stories for many years to come.

 

How I Wrote It: Alan Furst, on the "special vitamins" of wartime Europe

FurstAlan Furst's thrilling and endearing new historical spy novel is once again set in Europe as the shadows of war darken the continent and its people. As with his previous novels, Midnight in Europe portrays the tense unease of a region--in this case France and, in particular, Spain--on the verge of fracture, with allegiances and loyalties in constant and dangerous flux. Heroes and villains are sometimes indistinguishable, mainly, says Furst, because most of Europe was "scared to death."

"I don't quite understand why, but that era had special vitamins. It just did," he told me. "What was it about ther '30s? I don't know, but there was this bursting of creativity that came along."

Speaking at the annual Book Expo America conference in New York, we also discussed the 1984 trip he took through Europe, on assignment for Esquire. "I came back a changed person," he told me. Interestingly, he rarely visits Europe these days, which is far different from the version of Europe he writes about. "I'm used to another Paris," he said.

Proudly "blue collar" in his approach to writing, Furst is already pounding out the next novel, two pages per day, every day. "I can't fool around and wait for inspiration," he said. Like one of his own characters, he still writes on a typewriter, a Lexmark. "Descendant of the mighty IBM selectric," he gushed proudly. "I think I write better on a typewriter." 

An Interview with Karin Slaughter, Author of "Cop Town"

CoptownKarin Slaughter is one of the best crime writers around. Her novels are distinguished in part by a rare depth of character, a rare depth that is smart enough to step out of the way of the plot so that readers will keep turning the pages. Her latest is Cop Town—her first stand-alone novel—about a female cop trying to get by in 70s Atlanta. As a rookie cop, Kate Murphy has an uphill climb. But that's just the beginning of her difficulties, with news of a brutal murder and the shooting of a beloved fellow cop.

I caught up with Karin Slaughter at Book Expo America, where we sat down to talk about her book, her research, why she likes to write about Atlanta, and more.

She was an absolute pleasure.

 

An Interview with Lily King, Author of "Euphoria"

LilykingLily King's Euphoria is our Spotlight pick for the Best Books of June. This enchanting novel is based loosely on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and of it, Sara Nelson wrote: "This is the best kind of historical novel--the kind that sent me running to read more about its real-life inspiration."

It's a book that can be read on several levels, and our entire team got behind it. Some admired Euphoria for its potent sense of love and adventure, while others were drawn in by the drama and the revealing examination of how people study other cultures. Booklist summed it up as "a powerful story, at once gritty, sensuous, and captivating," and I couldn't agree more.

I was happy to get a chance to talk to Lily at the Book Expo America this year:

 

 

YA Wednesday: Best YA Books of 2014 So Far

Scary, but true--2014 is basically half over. There are still a LOT of great books to look forward to this fall (Skink--No Surrender, BelzharThe Infinite Sea, etc.,) but this is the time of year when we look back at the ones we've loved over the first six months of the year and do the painful work of picking our 20 favorite YA novels.  The first five are below, and you've heard me rave about them all before so I will spare you another round.  Just know that all the books on the list are ones that I highly recommend--I'm hoping you see some of your own favorites and find a few new ones here, too.

                     Best Teen & Young Adult Books of 2014 So Far

 BOTYSF_YA_Collage

 Here's a taste - the first five:

1. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: Not kidding. love love love this book.

2. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor:  A perfect example of how fantastic YA literature can be, whether you are 16 or 46A must-read trilogy in my book.

3. Hollow City by Ransom Riggs:  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a tough act to follow but Hollow City is compulsive reading and well worth the time between books.  I hope Riggs hurries up on the next one, though...

4. The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkowski:  Star-crossed love and a new heroine to watch.  Throw in a richly imagined world of class warfare, politics, intrigue, and constant action and you've got the first book of an original new trilogy.

5. The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson: A powerful and ultimately hopeful contemporary novel about the effects of war on those left behind.  Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest.

See the whole list here

 

An Interview with Biz Stone, Twitter Founder and Author

BizA while back I had the pleasure of talking to Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and author of Things a Little Bird Told Me. Twitter's origin story begins with brainstorming sessions held at Odeo, a podcasting company in San Francisco, where Stone worked after working at a company called Blogger. In the interview below, Stone talks about why they held that brainstorming session, what it was like to get Twitter off the ground, and why you should probably buy your developer a phone if he doesn't have one.

Stone doesn't come from a technical background (at one point, he was a book jacket designer) and his childhood was far from privileged. What he did have was a sound work ethic and the ability to think outside norms—a quality that characterizes so many business successes. In Things a Little Bird Told Me, I found a compelling and inspiring character. The same goes for our conversation below.
Chris Schluep

 

BizStoneAudioFin


Amazon's Best Books of 2014 So Far

It's that time of year.

This morning, the Amazon Books Editors (that's us) are happy to announce our choices for the Best Books of the Year So Far. Not content to wait a full year between best of the year lists, we each take stock of all the books published from January through June, convening in windowless conference rooms to advocate (argue) and compromise (weep) over our personal favorites. At the end of the day, we pack up our hurt feelings, bruised egos, and quiet resentments and prepare to do it again the next day.

As usual, there was no shortage of great books to consider. Just our top 20 features a masterful biography of a literary giant, the triumphant swan song from a three-time National Book Award winner, and a true-life tale of billionaires, art, and cannibalism. In all, we chose our favorite books across 17 categories, including kids and teens. Browse our top 10 selections below, and see them all in our Best Books of the Year So Far store.

 

Updike

1. Updike by Adam Begley: This biography of the American master goes far beyond simple chronology of this complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where his real life bled into his novels. Detailed and compulsively readable, Updike is essential for admirers, and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature.

 

The Book of Unknown Americans


2. The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henríquez: Henríquez’s powerful novel captures readers with the quiet beauty of her characters and their profoundly rendered experiences as immigrants in America. Following nine families who arrived in the States from South and Central America, Henriquez has crafted a novel that is inspiring, tragic, brave, and unforgettable.

 

Redeployment

3. Redeployment by Phil Klay: The strength of Klay’s stories, all about the Iraq War or its aftermath, lies in his unflinching, un-PC point of view, even for the soldiers he so clearly identifies with and admires. These stories are at least partly autobiographical, and yet, for all their verisimilitude, they’re also shaped by an undefinable thing called art.

 

Continue reading "Amazon's Best Books of 2014 So Far" »

What to Read in Litchfield Prison: Dana Reinhardt on "We Are the Goldens"

WeAreTheGoldensI'm a big fan of the show Orange is the New Black, and it's been interesting to see the commentary on binge-watching since the long-awaited second season released.  Many readers can relate to this experience, it's basically the same thing as when you "just-one-more-chapter" yourself into finishing a book that's sucked you in, even if it's 4 a.m. and you have to work the next day. 

I recently had the unique experience of binge-reading Dana Reinhardt's book, We Are the Goldens (one of our Best Young Adult Books of June), and also binge-watching Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, where I was very pleasantly surprised to see the same book I'd just burned through, being read on the show by no less than the maven of Litchfield prison herself (that would be Red). 

I wanted to find out if Reinhardt was already a fan of Orange is the New Black, and what it was like to see her book on the T.V. show everyone's talking about.  Here's what I found out about these questions and more:

Q: For a reader just learning about your book, tell me about We Are the Goldens

Dana Reinhardt: We Are The Goldens is about two sisters, Nell and Layla, who are extraordinarily close, and it’s about what happens when that sort of closeness is threatened, as it inevitably will be, by individual choices. It’s written in the form of a confessional from Nell directly to Layla as she struggles with whether to keep her sister’s secrets. It’s about kids of privilege growing up with overly trusting and distracted parents. It’s about inchoate morality. It’s about the blurry lines between love and friendship. And it’s one big (slightly twisted) love letter to the city of San Francisco.

Q: The book is shown on the new season of Orange is the New Black – were you already a fan of the show?  What did that feel like, to see your new book in that context?

Dana Reinhardt: I’m a huge fan of the show. I think it’s some of the smartest writing on television. The characters are so complex and I love the way as a viewer you get to know them before you really know them, that is, before you know who they are outside of the microcosm of the prison system and what set of circumstances led them there. Seeing Red, the grand dame of Litchfield, reading my book was an absolute thrill, particularly as that moment arrived on our screens just as the debate blew up about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature. Clearly Red is not embarrassed. Nor are the many other OITNB characters shown with YA novels in their hands.

Q: What do you think makes We Are the Goldens such a good crossover adult read?

Dana Reinhardt: I see most young adult fiction, especially realistic young adult fiction simply as coming of age literature, and who doesn’t love a good coming of age story? I know I do. But this book in particular works for the adult reader because it raises some questions about parents and teachers and the environments we trust our children to that maybe aren’t simple to answer. I didn’t want to write a black and white story, and though I know some young readers will see it that way, I don’t think adult readers will.

Q: You’ve said that To Kill a Mockingbird is your favorite book – were you a teenager when you read it, and was it assigned reading?

Dana Reinhardt: I don’t remember what grade I was in when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe 9th? I know I didn’t come to it on my own, because left to my own devices I’d have just re-read a Judy Blume book for the thousandth time. But whenever it was that I was assigned that book, my sense of the world forever shifted. It moved me on every level and I remember thinking: this is a perfect book. I go back to it every 10 years or so, often with a sense of trepidation. What if it isn’t as good as I remember? What if it isn’t perfect? It is. And it is.

Q: What are you reading now and how do you decide what to read next?

Dana Reinhardt: I often read several books at once. Usually I’m listening to something on audio while I take my daily walk in Golden Gate Park with the dog. Sometimes I choose silence, if I need to work out a plot point in whatever I’m currently writing, but most often I listen to YA. I find that most YA lends itself well to audio and it’s where I do the vast majority of my YA “reading”. Right now I’m listening to Siobhan Vivian’s The List, which is wonderfully complex. As far as books that I hold in my hands, I know I’m a little late to the party, but I just recently discovered Tana French. I’m not generally a reader of mysteries or detective novels so I resisted her for a long time, but finally enough people I know and trust pushed hard enough and all I can say is… Whoa. She is a gorgeous writer. I’m also currently re-reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, her companion books on grief and loss and aging. They are the sorts of books to which you will want to return as, inescapably, their themes will impact your life in some way. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

 

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