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Recipe Road Test: Honey Molasses Candied Almonds

SweetAlchemyI don't watch a lot of T.V. but Top Chef is one of my must-watch shows and when Top Chef: Desserts was on, I was equally obsessed because I have a serious sweet tooth.  Case in point, it's 9 in the morning as I'm writing this and I'm eating cake.  Don't judge.

Yigit Pura not only won the first season of Top Chef: Desserts (and was really fun to watch while he did it) but he also creates the most gorgeous--and delicious, let's not forget that--confections at his Tout Sweet Pâtisserie in San Francisco's Union Square.  You can add another star by Pura's name for his luscious new cookbook, Sweet Alchemy: Dessert Magic, our pick for one of the Best Cookbooks of August.

So many recipes I want to try...Baked Berry Meringue Kisses? The ones I've eaten from his shop are heavenly...Earl Grey Tea-Infused Chocolate Truffles? Lemongrass & Ginger Ice Cream? Every page has something wonderful on it and the way Pura presents the recipes is super straightforward and friendly-- he tells you exactly what to expect in each step and how to get it done. Voila!

When I was flipping through the pages of Sweet Alchemy for the third or fourth time, the Honey Molasses Candied Almonds recipe jumped out at me, even without one of the many brilliant photographs you'll see throughout the book.  Perfect recipe road test material before the holiday weekend. 

The instructions gave me the choice of microwave or stove top for melting the molasses and honey together (um, microwave, please), told me how to incorporate the nuts for even coverage, and how to roast them to golden perfection.   I didn't have the Maldon sea salt the recipe calls for, so I used Himalayan pink sea salt instead, but I'll get the Maldon next time (cook and learn...) for more salty contrast. Below is a picture of my new favorite cocktail snack, and since they can be stored for up to 2 weeks I'm flagging this page in my book for holiday hostess gifts. 

A word to the wise on making your own Honey Molasses Candied Almonds (bonus - you can use other nuts if you'd like): scarf some down right away because once other people get a taste of these nuts they'll be gone in a flash!  

   HoneyMolassesAlmonds

Honey molasses candied almonds

The sweet coating and a perfect pinch of sea salt combine with toasted almond flavor to create an addictive treat. I like to have a stash of these to set out for guests on a cheese board. Play around with your favorite nuts in this recipe. YIELD: 3 CUPS (500 G)

500 g/2 cups plus 2 tbsp water

500 g/2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

455 g/1 lb blanched whole almonds

20 g/1 tbsp honey

5 g/1/2 tsp unsulfured molasses

1 large pinch Maldon sea salt

Line a 9-by-13-in (23-by-33-cm)baking pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

In a medium stainless-steel or enamel-coated saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Place the saucepan over high heat, and when the mixture comes to a rolling boil, immediately turn the heat to medium. When the sugar is fully dissolved, about 30 seconds, turn the heat to medium-low.

Add the almonds to the saucepan and poach for 30 to 45 seconds to blanch them. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the almonds into a large mixing bowl and let cool. When they are still warm to the touch but not hot, about 5 minutes, the almonds are ready to work with again.

While the almonds are cooling, combine the honey and molasses in a separate, small bowl. Microwave the mixture for 15 to 30 seconds, until it is viscous and easy to mix. Stir gently to combine. Alternatively, place the honey and molasses in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, or until heated through and easy to stir.

Pour the honey mixture over the almonds and toss gently until the almonds are evenly coated. Sprinkle the sea salt over the nuts and toss to coat. Spread the almonds evenly in the prepared baking pan. Toast in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Every 4 to 6 minutes, gently shake the pan so that the almonds roll around and cook evenly. When the almonds are golden brown, remove the pan from the oven and place it on a cooling rack. Cool completely.

Once cool, the almonds are ready to serve, or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 weeks.

Sweet Note: This recipe can be used with most nuts, including hazelnuts or pistachios or even pumpkin seeds. The molasses lends a complex flavor to these sweet little nuggets.

Graphic Novel Friday: Sci-Fi Summer

There are still a few days of summer to enjoy, and everyone is talking about science fiction and the blockbuster that ruled them all: Guardians of the Galaxy. Heck, we covered the comics, too! If you’ve seen the film and want to read the next big things in the genre, then turn your star-gazer below to our top three picks of new graphic novels that explore space, time, and beyond:

Trillium by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo): Writer/artist Lemire goes off the deep end, and readers who follow him will be richly rewarded by the journey’s end in this 2014 Eisner Award Nominee for Best Limited Series. Protagonists Nika (from the year 3797) and William (from 1921) find themselves at a cross-time crossroads, their destinies impossibly intertwined. Lemire plays with the book packaging and panel structures to literally shape the two narratives, and he invents his own alien language (a key is provided in the collection). It’s heady, daring, and satisfying.

The Bunker Vol. 1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari (Oni Press): Originally released via comiXology, this title gained a strong following thanks to its topsy-turvy plot: five friends hike into a forest to bury a time capsule, only to find one already there when they start digging—and it’s big. The bunker they unearth holds envelopes with letters written by their future selves, detailing an impending apocalypse. Initially, the letters seem to encourage extinction prevention, but the present-day friends quickly realize that ulterior motives may color the messages. Can they trust their future selves—and if the letters are true, can they trust each other?

Letter 44 Vol. 1: Escape Velocity by Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque (Oni Press): Two disparate stories, one set on Earth and one in space, rely heavily on paranoia and action. On Earth, President Blades takes office only to discover that the previous regime kept many disturbing things hidden from the American public—chief among them a mysterious, alien space cannon and the American crew sent up to intercept it. As Blades encounters increasing subterfuge and danger the deeper he looks to the stars, the crew engages not only alien technology but the terrifying truth behind it. Plus, one of the crew members is pregnant, and nobody will name the father’s identity. The tension mounts with each chapter, and the tiny moments of payoff only serve to keep the pages turning.

My oxygen tank is just about dry, Omni readers.  What summer comics have you searching the stars for more?

--Alex

How I Wrote It: Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” and 5 Books for Labor Day

BethBeth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.

Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.

“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”

In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.  

~

FactoryWhat sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?

I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).

How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?

Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.

What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?

He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.

I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.

What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?

Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.

How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?

I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.

Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?

Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.

~

Recommended books:

Hairstons1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes. 

2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance. 

3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend. 

4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos. 

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses. 

~

> Visit Macy's website

> Follow her on Twitter


 

Five Tips for Dinner Party Success

BigBeautifulMessHandmadeHomeI have a crafty spirit but if I'm REALLY going to make something it better have simple instructions and require a minimum of easy-to-find supplies.  This is why I love Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman's book, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home (an August Best of the Month pick). 
 
In sections for each room of the house, as well as outdoor spaces, the authors emphasize making the design fit your lifestyle and offer enough ideas to cover about any decor direction.  From how to revamp a piece of garage sale furniture, arrange pictures or collectibles in an interesting way, or take a plain vase and turn it into something special, the ideas in this book are all things even I feel like I could do--and I'm actually inspired to do them!  
 
Besides all the great projects, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home also has a few ideas for hosting a simple gathering with ease.  Here are a handful of suggestions from the authors on how to set yourself up for a fun, low stress, dinner party that still has those special touches but won't leave you regretting the cost.

 

Five Tips for Hosting a Budget-Friendly Dinner Party
By Emma Chapman and Elsie Larson, authors of A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home


When faced with the task of hosting a dinner party it can be easy to have a freak-out moment. What if you don't have enough chairs and someone is left standing all night? What if you run out of food or booze? What if everyone is bored? What if someone is allergic to sugar, garlic AND gluten? Also, what is gluten? Why does all your furniture all of sudden look threadbare and cheap? Or worst of all, every host's biggest fear, what if no one comes?

First off, take a deep breath. Next, know that you already have what it takes to throw the most epic dinner party—you just need to think creatively. No matter your budget here are five tips to host the perfect dinner party. WineCheese

1. Make personalized menus. These could be handwritten, formatted like a ransom note or crafted from nothing more than construction paper and crayons. Get creative. Be funny or formal, whatever your style. For a few dollars you've just elevated your dining room into a restaurant-grade atmosphere. You've shown your guests there was thought and planning put into the night and it's gonna be delicious.

2. Get creative with seating. Oh, you don't already own a million fancy chairs? Not to worry. Why not rearrange your furniture to suit your night's needs? It will totally add a bit of whimsy to the evening. You could even enlist guests to help you if needed. Or what about hosting your dinner party on the floor or around a camp fire in your backyard? Whatever you decide, you can be sure it will make the night more memorable to guests.

RecycledCenterpieces3. Reimagine items to use for decor. Sometimes people call this upcycling. The basic idea is you reuse an old item that you would have discarded for another purpose. Save all your empty wine bottles, beer bottles, or soup cans, then clean them and reuse as flower vases for a pretty and inexpensive centerpiece.

4. Fancy up your table settings. Even if all you own are mismatched plates from various flea market trips, add unity, color and personality to your table with handmade cloth napkins. You could sew your own or purchase plain napkins and add designs with fabric paint. You could even make extra sets and send some home with guests!

5. Collaborate with food costs. As fun as it would be to create a seven course meal paired with a different wine for every course, it's likely your budget just isn't going to stretch that far. It doesn't need to. Allow guests to help provide a portion of the meal or make it BYOB. A true friend never expects others to pick up the full tab on everything.

Above all, have fun and focus on connecting with your guests. Dinner parties, despite the name, are not actually all about the dinner, they’re about creating memories with people you love. So get out of the kitchen and don't stress about all the little details: be fun, have fun and enjoy the ones you’re with!

Weird Science

What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning strikes in the world hit the same place at once? What if there was a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed?  With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. In the same style of his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome and inscrutable in your elementary school days--but were never sufficiently answered. 

Enjoy this exclusive thought-experiment from the author (and it's not even included in the book). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be available in hardcover and Kindle on September 2, 2014.

 

Q: If you built a very smooth ramp from the highest point on Earth (Mt. Everest) to the lowest (Dead Sea), then stood at the top on a rolling office chair, would you roll down? How fast would you go?

So you got bored in a meeting and decided to take your chair for a ride.

What If by Randall Munroe



Bring oxygen tanks. And food.

A ramp connecting Mount Everest to the shore of the Dead Sea would have a very gentle slope of only 1/10th of a degree. If you were standing on it, it would seem flat.

The slope would be so gentle that the chair would need precision bearings or a pneumatic air cushion to reduce friction enough to roll—and even then, air drag would limit you to a terminal velocity of about running speed.

What If by Randall Munroe



You'd also need the ramp to be enclosed. The top of Mount Everest pokes up into the jet stream, a river of hurricane-force wind wrapped around the planet. Unfortunately for you, that wind is going in the wrong direction. Without something to shield you from it, it would blow you back up the ramp.

Ok, let's go!

What If by Randall Munroe



You depart the peak of Everest, trundling slowly west, and the ground falls away beneath you. You glide out over the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas without coming close to touching another mountain.

After two days, you leave the mountains behind and slide across the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

What If by Randall Munroe



You then cross southern Afghanistan and pass into Iran, where you finally sink low enough to breathe without oxygen tanks.

In central Iran, you hit the ground for the first time since you started rolling. Your track intersects a mountainside near the peak of Shahan Kuh. You pass through a convenient tunnel and emerge on the other side.

What If by Randall Munroe



You cross from Iran into Iraq, sinking lower and lower. Because the air is several times denser here than at your starting point, your terminal velocity has dropped from running speed to jogging speed.

A little over two weeks after you started rolling, your ramp sinks low enough to touch the desert. In western Iraq, you fall beneath ground level and enter another tunnel. You cross from Iraq into Jordan over 600 meters below the border.

What If by Randall Munroe



You roll through the darkness for four days, passing completely under Jordan, and finally emerge into the light on the shores of the Dead Sea.

After twenty days, you and your faithful chair have reached the end of your journey from Earth's highest land to its lowest. You take a swim; in the dense saline water, you float much higher than normal. Be careful not to get any in your eyes.

What If by Randall Munroe



And now you should probably get back to that meeting. They'll get mad if you don't return the chair.

What If by Randall Munroe




What If by Randall Munroe

"We Should Have Brought More Pemmican." (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)

August 2014 marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out in the Endurance on the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition," a mission to trek 1,800 miles from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea on the far side of the continent, crossing the South Pole on the way. The events are well known. The ship was trapped, eventually sinking under the hull-wrecking pressure of the ice. Shackleton's men were forced to make camp on the floe, drifting on the sea before reaching the barren rock of Elephant Island--more than a year since the boat had first become ice-bound. Only a desperate and heroic effort by Shackleton and a few of his men saved the crew from certain death: a 15-day, rough-water sea journey in a small, ramshackle craft, followed by a 36-hour mountain crossing to reach the whaling stations on the Island of South Georgia.

While Shackleton's tale has earned the most fame over the last century, his is not the only story of a Voyage Gone Very Wrong. Here we present six books chronicling the pitfalls of the age of polar exploration.

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfed Lansing

Widely considered the definitive account of Shackleton's ordeal. Lansing's exhaustive research--including information drawn from interviews with 10 surviving members of the expedition, and the diaries and personal accounts of eight more--resulted in this immediate and engrossing account of disaster, courage, and redemption.

See also:
--South: The Endurance Expedition
--The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander 
 
 

 


In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Amazon's Spotlight selection for the Best Books of August, 2014. Award-winning author Hampton Sides recounts the tale of George Washington De Long and the U.S.S. Jeanette: Sailing out of San Francisco Bay and into the waters of the Arctic, the ship was was abandoned by its crew after becoming locked in the pack ice--setting the stage for a gripping story of perseverance and survival. Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep says Sides has done "a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction."


 
 
 

 Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin ExpeditionFrozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out for the Artic to “penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America.” It didn't work out. Despite the best scientific equipment the day had to offer, the crew and the expedition’s two ships disappeared without a trace. The mystery persevered for more than a century, until the makeshift graves of a few missing sailors were discovered on a remote island, and modern forensics unlocked the grisly secret of their demise: Franklin's expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive the unforgiving landscape. (The link above is for the Kindle edition. A new paperback edition is due in October.)

 

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time ForgotFatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan


Poor John Rae. Perhaps the most successful Arctic explorer of his day, the largely self-taught Hudson Bay man charted thousands of miles of previously unknown territory along the northern Canadian coast in ships, on snowshoes, and canoes. He also uncovered the fate of Franklin's crew. Unfortunately for Rae, Franklin's cabal of dogged supporters suppressed the truth through a campaign of character assassination, effectively obfuscating Rae's achievements for more than a century.

 

 

 

 The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea PartyThe Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Almost everything about the Shackleton expedition went sideways. Sent on a mission to cache supplies for Shackleton's Antarctic traverse, the men of the Aurora were stranded when their ship broke from its moorings during a storm, vanishing into the sea. The Lost Men vividly recounts the two years before they were rescued, drawing on journals to recreate not only the objective hazards they faced, but their mental, emotional, and  interpersonal challenges, as well.

 

 

  

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KarlukThe Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

The Gilligan's Island of all the ill-conceived polar expeditions, with sadly predictable results. A year before Shackleton launched his own wildly-successful-by-comparison voyage, the Karluk--a ship deemed inadequate by it's apparently incompetent captain--set forth to prove the existence of a continent beneath the Arctic ice. They didn't find it. Not just because it doesn't exist, but because their ship was locked in the ice and pushed north before succumbing to Siberian waters. And that's when things got really dark.

Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Jacket Design

Peter Mendelsund, over a long and influential career as a book jacket designer, has added his deft touch to many volumes--many of which would be recognizable to any book lover. Martin Amis, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jo Nesbø, and James Gleick are just a few of the authors to benefit from his work, and his striking jacket for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly contributed to its success. Forget the cliché; a well designed jacket can boost attention for a book of modest expectations, and transform a good book into a phenomenon.

Mendelsund is now the author of two books of his own, both of which consider the visual--and vital--power of literature, but in different ways. What We See When We Read is an examination of the gestalt of reading: How words on the page enter our brains and are internalized, becoming pictures, sensations, and emotions. There are many titles about books and reading, but What We See goes far beyond simple enthusiasm in its search for meaning.

Cover presents some of Mendelsund's most iconic work, illustrating his creative process through early sketches, interior art, and many, many rejected drafts. He has shared some of that insight here, offering examples of his unrealized inspirations, commentary on why they didn't work, and the final results (the drafts are presented first, followed by the finished jacket).

 


The Fallen

by Peter Mendelsund

 

My cover ideas get killed. (Pretty frequently, actually.) Whether killed by dint of a client's caprice (or good sense) or culled by my own hand, a lot of my ideas never make it to the printing press. Here are a few of those which never saw the light of day....

 Plato’s Republic

The obvious thing here was to attempt some version of the allegory of the cave. This, the image below, seemed like a more modern version of same (The "shadows on the wall" that Plato’s cave-dwellers watch is a television—natch). Perhaps, in retrospect, this one was a tad too cool and knowing. It resembles nothing so much as a Vampire Weekend LP. (Though: Is that really so wrong?)

Plato's Republic comp   Plato's Republic final

 

The Castle, by Franz Kafka


My initial idea for a cover for Kafka's The Castle was this impossible chess game below. Kafka's books always seem to me like games in which the protagonists are not privy to the rules.

The Castle comp  

The Castle final

 

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser

I love the drama inherent in a book jacket covering up a book. Lift the jacket—something is revealed. This, the comp below, would have had a three-quarter-sized jacket, which, when slid up, revealed the case beneath. The idea here was to play off Millhauser's title, and somehow represent the same tension between the pleasurable and the hazardous. I also wanted to accomplish this in a cartoon vernacular (one of the great stories of this collections is "Cat 'n Mouse," a kind of existentialist Tom and Jerry). I illustrated this one myself.

Dangerous Laughter comp 1   Dangerous Laughter comp 2
"Dangerous

 

Peace, by Richard Bausch

A gripping, penetrating, little single act drama. The moral quandaries faced by a squadron of US soldiers trudging through Italy in the winter of 1944. The idea here was to make a landscape which, itself, comprises camouflage; as if the war and the world itself had merged. The style here is very mid-century—almost as if Hemingway had written a WWII novel.

Peace comp   Peace final

 

By Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read   Cover

MacGyver Your Food

FoodHacksMy family jokes that I can make always make somethin' out of nothin' in the kitchen, but what I usually  come up with is pretty pedestrian. Peggy Wang's Amazing Food Hacks is going to make me look like a kitchen magician instead of just a fridge scavenger. 

Her book has 75 tricks between the chunky covers: "Banilla Wafer Sandwiches" (peanut butter, banana, and sprinkles)--um, yes please.  "Better Than Crack" Crackers that are little more than oyster crackers, a packet of ranch dressing mix and a trip to the oven?  Bye-bye Chex mix.  Wang makes it easy and she's got a great sense of humor as you can see for yourself in the guest post below, along with a couple of examples from the book.


One of the challenges that comes up constantly for me as an editor at BuzzFeed is figuring out what even qualifies as a life hack. As I started pulling together recipes that would eventually constitute basically the longest, most glorified BuzzFeed list of my life which is this book, I began to doubt my ability to discern an actual food hack from just a weird and interesting recipe. I began to have existential debates over the addition of avocado to egg salad, which is a completely legit way to transform a pedestrian sandwich filling to something I would gladly shove into my mouth with a spatula. I vacillated between whether simply adding avocado to a dish makes a life hack (in the end, it did, as per my editor, and it is quite transcendent if I may say so myself).

AvocadoTips

Ultimately, I felt like the test was taking something you didn’t think would work — and having it turn out even better than you could have ever expected.

My favorite stories from testers went something like, “This recipe sounded sorta weird and gross and then I made it and was pleasantly surprised and ended up eating the whole thing to the point of making myself completely sick, which is half this recipe’s fault but also half my own fault for having no self-control whatsoever.”

These stories served as a nice counterpoint to my incredibly utilitarian way of thinking about food hacks: I just wanted something incredibly easy that my exhausted self could make after a really long day out of the sad remnants of my refrigerator.

So basically, this book weaves between those unexpectedly yummy but weird recipes, as well as just the ones that have personally made my life easier as a terminally lazy person. I like to think of these hacks as spanning from the practical to the practically insane, which will hopefully cover just about all of your culinary needs.-- Peggy Wang

DippableGrilledCheeseRolls

YA Wednesday: Talking to Chris Weitz and Jennifer E. Smith

YoungWorld GeoMeYouEarlier this year I had the great pleasure to sit down with two delightful YA authors to talk books. 

Chris Weitz, best known for his work in film including the movie adaptations of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass,  just released The Young World, a dystopian novel (the first in a series) set in New York that is also one of our August Best YA Books of the Month.  

Jennifer E. Smith is the beloved author of several contemporary YA novels that deftly navigate the waters of teen relationships with humor and creativity, including this year's The Geography of You and Me.  

On a random note, when we were talking both authors shared major league baseball hopes for this year and it's interesting to see how things have shaken out. Chris Weitz hoped the Yankees new pitcher Masahiro Tanaka didn't turn out to be a dud (so far so good, though he's coming off an injury...) and Jennifer E. Smith was pretty adamant that the Cubs were going to take the 2014 World Series.  Well, there's always next year...

Below is a transcript from our chat.


So, what would be the elevator pitch for your book?

Chris Weitz:  It’s basically about a group of kids making their way in a post-apocalyptic New York in which every convenience and comfort they're familiar with is gone.  So it’s a New York that has fallen into a chaos of warring tribes, and how they will function in that world.

Jennifer E. Smith:  I keep joking that my book has the best elevator pitch ever because it starts in an elevator. It’s about two teens who get stuck in elevator during a major blackout in New York city and end up spending an evening together on a really magical night in the city where you can actually can see the stars because all the lights are out. It’s loosely based on the blackout that happened in 2003.  Then, as the title might suggest, with Geography, it sort of spins off into other locations from there, but it all begins in an elevator in New York on a very dark night.

Chris Weitz: That was a great blackout...

Jennifer E. Smith: Yeah, it was really fun. I won’t tell you all about my experiences since we’re on the record here, but it definitely included more alcohol than cute boys and elevators.  It was one of those nights that felt sort of out of time, once people realized that nothing was seriously wrong everybody was out on the streets, people were giving away beer before it got too warm, and giving away ice cream before it could melt, and New York took on this almost celebratory atmosphere. It was a really memorable night.

Weitz: It’s funny because I think I found the one single thing that unites our books, because my book was partly inspired by the blackout amongst other things, this is sort of New York without electricity and the way that people behave when everything they’re used to goes out the window.

Chris – you’ve directed films adapted from YA novels and written screen plays, was writing a novel a logical next step for you?

I’m not sure it was a logical step, especially looking back.  Given how much harder it is to write a novel than a screen play, it’s a highly illogical thing to do...  but, in a sense, adapting as many books as I have, and I was a literature major in university, that’s where I thought my life was going to be concentrated. Making films was kind of a way to deal with my love of books in a positive way, so it isn’t totally unreasonable that I would turn my attention to trying to write something.

And why young adult?

Weitz: Well, at the time that I decided to do this, I was receiving a lot of submissions of YA and some were great and some were less so, so I thought, well, I may as well give it a go myself.  And I had certain things that I’d been thinking about that I wanted to explore further that kind of come out in this--not necessarily YA related stuff but actually stuff about economics, sociology, and politics.

Jen, you’ve written YA and one middle grade, do you think you’ll write adult in the future?

Smith: I think always it’s fun to explore different creative outlets. The middle grade was really fun for me because all of my YA books are for a similar audience, so the middle grade was very different.  I was once telling somebody that the three things I would never do were: write middle grade, write fantasy, and write for boys, and I literally came out of the lunch and was like, ok, now I kind of want to try… So I think it’s a similar thing with the adult side, I think if the right idea came along it’d be something new to try and something exciting, so we’ll see.  But I really love YA, I think that’s kind of my sweet spot, I feel like I’m 16 at heart and it’s a genre I really love and the audience is amazing for YA books.  It’s just so much fun meeting teens, they’re so enthusiastic.

The YA writing community is really great too, isn’t it?

Smith: It really is, everyone is so supportive and generous, it’s a great little corner of the industry to be part of.

Chris, as someone just coming into this community, have you found that to be true?

Weitz:  I have and it’s also I think that this time in life, maybe from middle school through this period, is a period of really fervent reading.  I remember that from when I was younger, and that’s really wonderful. There’s also a tremendous desire to see  people succeed, to want to see the best in things, as opposed to, if you look at literary fiction, the extraordinarily snarky, kind of difficult, social landscape that that represents.  I think there’s a weird barrier to entry in literary fiction as far as ideas go, I think that young adult is where a lot of the most interesting fiction is actually being written because it’s not as caught up in questions of style.

I think the interesting ideas and openness is part of why so many adults are reading YA fiction...

Smith: Yeah--I get as many emails about my books from people in their 30s and 40s as I do from people in their teens.  Everyone is sort of 16 at heart, somewhere down deep.  Like what Chris was saying about the way you read at that age, there’s such a joy to it, whereas now you start reading a book and you have to go to work so you put it down, but as kids, I remember just tearing through books (I guess I still do now, but…) you can’t get enough and you find an author you love, you read everything they’ve written and then you look for  everything that’s similar to what they’ve written, and you’re obsessed.  And it’s such a joyful way to read.

Smoking Gun: 5 Crime Novels Elmore Leonard Might Have Loved

LeonardA year ago, we lost a legend of American crime and suspense writing.

Elmore Leonard died on this day at the age of 87, after a six-decade career that produced dozens of crime novels, westerns, and short stories, many of which found their way to big and small screens (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Justified).

Today is also the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, whose posthumously-celebrated pulp and horror stories inspired such writers as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, who once credited Lovecraft with having "an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction."

In honor of Leonard and Lovecraft, here’s a look at some recent and upcoming books that both men might’ve appreciated--menacing, suspenseful, and smart, with tough-talking characters both flawed and hardened, set in not-so-friendly locales, from dive bars to mob hangouts, rural cabins to reservations, from the Deep South to Duluth.

Kent

Windigo Island, William Kent Krueger

Two teenage girls disappear from an Ojibwe reservation called Bad Bluff. When one of them washes up dead on the shore of Lake Superior, former sheriff turned private investigator Cork O’Connor vows to find the other girl. His search takes him to dark places and in the path of some very bad men.

Quake

Brainquake, Samuel Fuller

B-movie director Fuller, who died in 1997, left behind this pulpy, violent, throwback of a novel about a "bagman," Paul Page, who's paid to transport cash for the mob. He also has a rare brain disorder that causes seizures. When he witnesses the murder of a gorgeous mob wife, well... think Tarantino.

Cain

One Kick, Chelsea Cain

As a child, Kick Lannigan had been kidnapped and held captive for five years. Now, at age twenty-one, she's a kick-ass investigator trained in guns, explosives, and martial arts (think Lisbeth Sander)--and the obvious choice for a wealthy arms dealer who needs help finding children who have been abducted.

Ace

The Forsaken, Ace Atkins

In Jericho, Mississippi, flawed but earnest county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out to prove that the nameless black man who 36 years earlier had been accused of rape and murder, who was hunted down by a self-appointed posse and lynched, was innocent. But is Colson as innocent as he seems?

Girl

The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, a young inner-city art teacher, leaves a bar with a handsome, smooth talking stranger. Instead of a one-night stand, Mia finds herself in a rural Minnesota cabin, the victim of a kidnapping gone awry, regretting the biggest mistake of her life and hoping her wealthy family can find her.

~

40And don't miss the latest from Dean Koontz (The City); C.J. Box (Shots Fired); Tim Weaver (Never Coming Back); and an excellent new thriller by Dwayne Alexander Smith (Forty Acres).

And here are six more Leonard-esque novels, coming soon:

 

Matthew Thomas Is Going to Carry That Weight

Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the burdens of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.

Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:

What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart.

Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)

 

 

Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)

Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?

It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens—initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who’s born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can’t overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.

I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years—the last eight years—while I wrote.


Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family’s history?


It’s rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn’t entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.


Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?


A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out—unconsciously—of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.


Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.


So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There’s a lot of hype building around it.


It’s been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It’s also amazing to be here because it’s such an unbelievably huge event... it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can’t take it all in at once. But it’s a big thrill to be here.

We Are Not Ourselves

How I Wrote It: Karen Abbott, on Maverick Women and the Civil War

Karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1719461246While sitting in Atlanta traffic years ago, Karen Abbott noticed the bumper sticker on the pickup truck in front of her: "Don't blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis." She realized that many southerners not only felt residual pride for their long-ago Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but that they were "still fighting the Civil War down here."

From those origins comes Abbott's new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, the story of four female spies, two from each side, including one who disguised herself as a male soldier in the Union army. The book is a thrilling look at the forgotten role subversive women played in the Civil War. "They didn't have political discourse. They didn't have access to the vote. What could they do?" Abbott said.

With playfulness, enthusiasm, and a bit of naughty, Abbott gives us an energetic and witty new take on the Civil War. It's a story as much about women's rights and breaking marital shackles as it is about espionage and subterfuge. Her curiosity is contagious, as is her admiration for the maverick women who "longed to be useful" in a man's war.

Abbott is the bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. We spoke with her at the annual Book Expo America in New York, in late May of 2014.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy goes on sale Sept. 2.

~

~

>See all of Abbott's books

>Visit her website

>Follow her on Twitter

Even More End-of-the-World Books: Customer Picks

StandLast week I wrote about a few doomsday books out this summer, including Emily St. John Mandel’s forthcoming Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble.

I also asked for some suggestions from our Omnivoracious readers and Facebook followers. We received a handful of shout-outs for Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which was also on our original list) and lots of love for Stephen King's The Stand. On Facebook, Terry said King "brings it in that book" and Malina called The Stand "a must!" 

Here are more suggestions from our friends of dystopian fiction:

  • Michele: HELLO??? How about The Passage by Justin Cronin!
  • BlindTodd: I think "Blindness" always stands out to me as a book that shows us just how fragile society is.
  • Laura: Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh is very good.This follows a group of friends as resources become scarce and society starts to crumble. An interesting different view of what might be our end.
  • Patsy: Alas Babylon
  • Dave: #1: Walter Miller, "A Canticle for Leibowitz." #2: George Stewart, "Earth Abides."
  • June: The HAB Theory by Allen Eckhert. I read it in the 70's , long before global warming became an issue. It utterly moved me. I was running around for weeks telling people "we are doomed!" Warning, do not read the book's last sentence ahead of reading the entire book. actually, really should not have said that, 'cos now you will not be able to resist......
  • Elizabeth: On The Beach
  • Sarah: 1984 by George Orwell, The Stand by Stephen King ... can't pick just one!
  • Stacy: The Chemical Gardens series, Z for Zachariah, The White Mountain trilogy
  • Aaron: Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren" or maybe Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun"
  • Ralph: How could you leave out "The Stand" by Stephen King, and "Swan Song" by Robert R McCammon?
  • David: "Rescue Party" - Sir Arthur C. Clarke. (Actually a short story, but still...)
  • Ryan: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
  • Andi: My absolute favourite? Z for Zachariah. Doesn't even matter that it's theoretically a kid's book.

 

Daniel Levitin on Getting Organized, Choosing Priorities, and the Importance of Daydreaming

LevitanDaniel Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is a comprehensive look at the evolution of information, the neurobiology behind how we think, and how we can become better organized in a world of distractions. I reached out to Levitin to learn more about his background and some key points to the book.

Read on for an interview with Daniel Levitin.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Chris Schluep: Tell us a little about your background.

Daniel Levitan: I dropped out of college as a math major and became an entrepreneur. I started working for a small record company, 415 Records. It was a full time job, but as a start-up, we didn’t have much money — we poured it all back into the company. So during those first few years,  I also worked as a data analyst at AT&T and Wells Fargo Bank (my math background came in handy). That led to me being hired as the executive assistant to Ed Littlefield, who at the time was on the boards of Wells Fargo, General Electric, Chrysler, and Del Monte Foods. I learned a lot from Ed about business, critical thinking, and organization—a lot that found its way into this book.

We built up 415 records over a period of eight years and sold it to Sony in 1989. I then started my own production and consulting company, and consulted to every major record label and a number of rock bands.

I went back to college at Stanford in my 30s to study neuroscience — I wanted to know more about the science behind how the mind works. I received my PhD in 1996 at the University of Oregon and then completed post-doctoral training at Stanford Medical School and UC Berkeley. I started teaching and  running a laboratory at McGill University in 2000. Since 2013, in addition to my work at McGill, I'm the Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI, a new top tier undergraduate program that is part of the Claremont Consortium. This is a very exciting opportunity to put into practice a lot of what neuroscientists have learned about the science of learning.

CS: This is the most complete book about the mind and how to organize it that I’ve ever read. How long have you been working on it?

DL: I've always been fascinated by organizational systems — how record stores arrange their records, how hardware and grocery stores arrange their products, how libraries classify books. So you might say the book has been percolating for many years. The actual writing of the book took four years. Everything I know about the subject is in this book, along with what I've learned along the way about productivity, efficiency, and decision making. Although it may not seem obvious, decision making is related to efficiency: most decision making can be facilitated by more optimally organizing the information at hand.

CS: Why has life become so complex?

DL:  The information explosion is part of it. By some estimates, we humans have generated as much information in the past twenty years as in all of human history before them.

Just one hundred years ago, if you got a PhD in biology, for example, you probably knew as much as anyone in the field knew about it — you were a world class expert. Now, you can get a PhD in biology studying the visual system of the squid and still not know everything that is known about that.

Also, we're being asked to do more. Because of the rise of shadow work — part of a shadow economy of labor that isn't reckoned in the GNP — all of us are doing things that used to be done for us by others: we pump our own gas, make our own airline reservations, bag our own groceries. Think about something as simple as trying to get to the right person in customer service or tech support. It used to be that switchboard operators would route us to the person we needed to speak to. Now we have to navigate ever more complex voice menus.The computer age was supposed to bring us more leisure time. Instead, it allowed companies to offload a lot of the work they used to do in the name of customer service onto customers.

CS: What’s the chief difference between Highly Successful People (HSP) and the rest of us?

DL: The ones I've met don't have different brain structures, as far as I can tell — it's not like they have some module the rest of us lack. It's just that they have a little bit more of some qualities all of us already possess: they're a little bit more focused, a little less distractable, a little more driven. But the chief difference is that they've adopted systems to help them be more efficient, and they guard their time jealously — among other things, they don't spend more time on a project or decision than it is worth. (And by worth, I don't just mean financial worth, but the emotional and physical costs of following certain paths.)

Also, they ask the right questions, which is an underappreciated skill. It's what great leaders do. Why? Because not all questions are equally vital.  Successful people in any domain are able to identify the questions that can push understanding forward.

CS: How can we be more like HSPs?

DL: We can adopt some of the systems that they've devised. They make lists, prioritize tasks throughout the day, practice "productivity hours" where there are no interruptions from phones or email, and they ask the right questions when confronted with new information. There's a lot about asking the right questions in Chapters 6 and 7.

CS: You decry multitasking. How would you convince the many fans of multitasking that they’re using the wrong approach?

DL: As a neuroscientist, I know that we humans are very good at self-delusion. It's always helpful when there are studies that can help separate our intuitions from reality. And the reality is, based on dozens of carefully conducted experiments, we don't actually do several things at once. Instead, we shuffle rapidly among them, one after the other.

Multi-tasking is not always problematic, and sometimes it's necessary. But if you have a serious task to do, you have to hunker down and do it and not a dozen other things.

Part of the illusion is tied into how the brain's reward system works. Everytime we accomplish some task, no matter how small, and every time we learn some new piece of information such as from a social networking newsfeed, our brain doles out a little hit of dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Doing all these little tasks in rapid succession make us feel good. But it's short lived, like a sugar high. And in fact, sugar is part of the story. The brain needs glucose to function — that's the fuel that keeps brain cells firing. Every decision, every small task, every new piece of information, burns precious glucose. After a couple of hours of multi-tasking we feel tired and depleted because we've literally depleted the store of energy in our brains. And we have far less to show for that two hours than we would if we had been uni-tasking.

CS: Procrastination: does everyone do it, and how can we avoid this habit?

DL: Procrastination is a very human tendency. I think we all proscrastinate to some extent. The trick is not to prcorastinate the important tihngs like your annual physical or a diabetes test. But if it's time to replace the furnace filters in your house, and you procrastinate for a week or two, that's really not a big deal.

There are lots of tricks for avoiding procrastination. Perhaps the best is to arrange the external  environment so that temptations reduced. I wrote a lot of this book in public and university libraries and I mindfully did not sign into their wireless system. Having the internet unavailable is a great boon to work. Now of course we need the internet for research and for information. In my case, I simply made a list of things I needed to look up on the internet and looked them up later.

Another trick is to carefully prioritize your To Do list, and identify when your most productive time is. My most productive time used to be after dinner, and I'd stay up until 2 or 3 working intently. For the last ten years it's shifted to early mornings and I get up at 5:30 and go right to my desk and write. The trick is then this: Whatever is most important, make sure that you carefully carve out time to do it during your most productive hours and don't let anything else interfere with those sacred hours.

One thing that we all do is that we imagine what will be the perfect environment or set of circumstances that will allow our creativity to flow and our productive selves to emerge unbridled. Of course this is true to an extent. If you're a painter, you need paint and brushes. If you're a scientist, you need a laboratory. But you can't you let your search for the perfect environment prevent you from actually getting started. You'd be surprised what people get done in less than ideal environments. Just look at the cave paintings of Alta Mira or the great art that came out of concentration camps in World War II. Or of course Tolstoy writing his novels after a grueling day as an office clerk.

My favorite story about this is John Fogerty. He wrote all these great songs about nature — Up Around The Bend, Green River, Born on the Bayou — and he wrote them all from a one bedroom apartment in El Cerrito and Oakland. His imagination was his environment, not the urban landscape.

Another related idea is what my friend Jake Eberts (producer of Gandhi, Dancing With Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy) used to call "eating the frog": find the most unpleasant task you have to do and do it first thing in the morning. If you hate exercise, do it first when  your gumption is highest and you can get it over with.

CS:   Talk about a little about the importance of day dreaming.

DL: Daydreaming is when our thoughts meander from one to another. It tends not to be linear, and it allows us to forge new connections between concepts and ideas that we didn't know were connected. It turns out that daydreaming is the default state of the human brain, and the time when we are apt to be most creative. We've all experienced this. There's a problem we can't solve, we keep coming at it from different angles and finally give up. Then, suddenly, while we're doing something else — usually something relaxing and daydreamy — the solution comes to us. And it's usually a solution that we wouldn't have seen before, one that required connecting things that weren't otherwise connected. That's the daydreaming mode, what neuroscientists call the default mode or the task negative mode of attention (because you're not actively engaged in a task). The first part of The Organized Mind is devoted to sharing what we now know about the brain's attentional system and memory — why we remember some things and not others — and how all of us can use that information to improve our daily lives.

"Crusty Pandy" and the Art of Modern Taxidermy

There is something going on.

Four years ago, we selected Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy as a Best Book of the Month for March 2010. I quote myself: "[Still Life] will tell most readers as much as they need to know about erosion-molded rats and replacement lips, ears, and eyelids, but it's the culture of iron-stomached men (and occasionally, women) that practice the art of skinned carcasses and stretched hides--those who wield 'the calipers and the brain spoons'--that Milgrom's after." She had found that something, and (at least) three new books document it, whatever it is.

First, the historical perspective. Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy depicts what a diorama project might have looked like in Dr. Moreau's classroom: the collected Victorian scenes of an inexpert-yet-dedicated squirrel stuffer, whose children and parlor sitters have been replaced by kittens, rodents, and lambs, many sporting additional heads and appendages. It's a quaint horrorshow.

For aspiring post-mortem engineers, the forthcoming Taxidermy Art: A Rogue's Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself inspires with profiles of visionaries at the cutting edge of biological mash-ups, and instructs with a tutorial on the basics of skinning, degreasing, and mounting. According to professional deviant John Waters, Taxidermy Art is “so appalling, funny, grotesque, weirdly charming, and highly informative that even I was creeped out.” This is getting dark.

But if you're looking for something on the lighter side, Crap Taxidermy celebrates the weirdest of this weird pursuit with the best specimens from "the Internet's largest image depository of crappy and awesome taxidermy": a menagerie of googly-eyed roadkill, cherished pets, and other animals of unknown provenance that's funny in the way that Eraserhead was funny.

Enjoy these selections from Crap Taxidermy (including the titular "Crusty Pandy"), and if you make it all the way through the gallery, be sure to watch the instructional video at the end. It made me eat my words above about the gender dynamics of carcass stuffing.

Happy Friday!

 

Secret Life of Opossums

"Secret Life of Opossums" (pg. 27); Photo by Paul Lim (Flickr: Fudj)

Fox with Eye Transplant

"Fox with Eye Transplant" (pg. 10); Photo by Andrew Murray (Flickr: MrAndrewMurray)

Curtain-Twitching Opossum

"Curtain-Twitching Opossum" (pg. 80); Photo by Kate Perris (Flickr: Dansette)

Continue reading ""Crusty Pandy" and the Art of Modern Taxidermy" »

Graphic Novel Friday: Gilbert Hernandez's Big Year

At the end of July, hard-working and prolific artist and writer Gilbert Hernandez won the Eisner Award for Best Short Story (“Untitled” in Love and Rockets: New Stories #6), to which he stated, “The biggest surprise was the story they chose; a wacked-out fantasy that I didn’t think anyone would take seriously. All in all, it’s a great honor.” From long-running familial dramas, all-ages adventures, grindhouse terrors, erotica, and the…wacked-out, every new or collected work from the now Eisner Award-winning artist is reason enough to investigate and celebrate. For longtime fans and soon-to-be devotees, 2014 presents plenty of opportunity to explore Gilbert’s latest and newly collected stories.

July: Fantagraphics expands their Love and Rockets library again with Luba and Her Family, a collection of later-period L&R works from Gilbert. 

September: A fall two-fer month—first is Bumperhead, an original graphic novel from publisher Drawn & Quarterly that’s billed as a tangentially related story to last year’s Marble Season. It’s a beautiful, oversized black and white hardcover. Then all eyes will be on Love and Rockets: New Stories #7 (Fantagraphics),  where Gilbert follows up his Eisner Award-winning story with new shorts alongside brother Jaime (who also won an Eisner this year: Best Writer/Artist for Love and Rockets #6).

October: Gilbert never shies from the explicit, and readers should be prepared for plenty of passion in Loverboys from Dark Horse Comics, an original graphic novel that promises a “torrid romance” between a young man and a woman who used to be his seventh grade teacher. 

December: OK, we’re still holding our breath for the delayed-but-gotta-be-worth-it Love and Rockets Reader: From Hoppers to Palomar by Marc Sobel. It promises a comprehensive, academic, and in-depth look at what makes Love and Rockets so rewarding.

Just in case you missed it: In May, Dark Horse Comics published Fatima: The Blood Spinners by Gilbert, which is a bizarre, gore-drenched zombie tale that truly sets itself apart from any other zombie comic. 

What a year--congratulations, Gilbert Hernandez!

--Alex

Chip Kidd, on Designing Haruki Murakami's 5-Fingered Book Cover

Murakami2 Murakami-kidd

“You know, in a sense we were the perfect combination, the five of us. Like five fingers.”

So declares Ao Oumi--better known as Blue--to Tsukuru Tazaki, otherwise known as Colorless. They and their other three friends--Aka (Red), Shiro (White), and Kuro (Black)--were inseparable in high school. But that changes abruptly when, during the summer break of Tsukuru’s sophomore year of college, the other four suddenly cast Tsukuru out. They forbid him to ever contact any of them again, for no apparent reason, and thus begins his agonizing journey to find out why.

When considering the design of Haruki Murakami’s masterful Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I wanted to make something that not only demanded to be held, but decoded too. I guess you could say the same thing about 1Q84, but this was going to be completely different, because it’s such a different book. Just logistically, the title is so much longer, while the text itself is so much shorter. That demanded a smaller trim size, which also bulked the book out to feel like a box that needs to be opened.

The five fingers analogy is only mentioned that one time, but it really stuck with me. I decided to make Tazaki the ‘thumb,’ the anchor that unifies the other four yet is separated from them. When you first look at the book, you may or may not see the hand, but  it doesn’t really matter. What you definitely see is that there is something going on behind the facade. The ‘fingers’ are actually windows, holes that give onto an entirely different scene that relies on the visual iconography of Tokyo’s subway/rail system--a universe unto itself where Tsukuru finds solace and eventually a livelihood as an engineer. The friends become train lines, and Tsukuru intersects each them, one by one.

As with every book by Mr. Murakami, this was a thrill to work on. I was able to design the interior too, and I should add here that along with Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, there is definitely something weird going on with the page numbers. I can’t really say what it is, but if you search carefully enough--definitely a theme of the story--you’ll come to understand.

--Chip Kidd 

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1Q84

How I Wrote It: Ben Mezrich, on His New Novel, "Seven Wonders"

BenaboutBen Mezrich is best known for his bestselling geeks-to-riches nonfiction stories, particularly Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, both of which became major motion pictures. In Seven Wonders, on sale Sept. 2, Mezrich returns to his roots: fiction. Don't worry ... there are still geeks.

Seven Wonders features an Indiana Jones-type character, Jack Grady, an adventurous anthropologist who sets out to learn who murdered his estranged mathematician brother, Jeremy, who had uncovered some ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies during his research into the Seven Wonders of the World.

The first in a planned trilogy, writing Seven Wonders was a liberating experience for Mezrich, freeing him to write a thriller and at the same time indulge his lifelong obsession with mythology and ancient cultures. "I loved every minute of it," he said. "I felt untethered--although a lot of people have felt that I've been untethered all along."

Mezrich spoke with us during a visit to Seattle.

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>See all of Mezrich's books

  Seven

Amazon Music Book Club: Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy on Self-Help Books & Graphic Novels

Thanks to our friends at the Amazon Music Notes blog for this "Book Club" Q&A with Travie McCoy, frontman for Gym Class Heroes, discussing self-help books and graphic novels. Amazon Music Book Club explores the literary influences on today's musicians.

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Reading has a formative effect on a person, inspiring how they see the world and understand their place within it. This seems even more pronounced for artists, who take pieces of everything they experience with them into their own creations. With that in mind, we want to know how reading and literature influence your favorite musicians and the songs they’ve written.

Travie McCoy, frontman New York City’s rap/pop/rock outfit Gym Class Heroes, has always loved books and has been interested in stories and how they can be told from an early age. Although literary references only occasionally pop up in his songs, McCoy--who’s currently working on his second solo album--is deeply influenced by what he reads. We spoke with Travie about his history with reading, how much self-help books can actually help and his love for graphic novels.

What sorts of books were your entry point into reading as a kid?

I loved Roald Dahl books and anything by Shel Silverstein. Where The Sidewalk Ends and stuff like that. I also loved Where The Wild Things Are. But I think Shel Silverstein was my favorite. He actually came to my school and spoke when I was younger and it blew my mind. It was really awesome. Those types of books were my sh*t. And then we’d have book fairs and the Choose Your Own Adventure books came out, which I loved. I loved graphic novels, too. Hellboy, which I am still a fan of.

What’s your most memorable reading experience from your childhood?

There is a book called The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. That was the first book I read without anyone telling me to or having to write a paper on it. I just picked it up and read it. It was a really cool book. It was about this kid who got out of the ghetto and became a boxer. It was really intense. I finished it and I was like, “Whoa, I read a book!” I didn’t have to and there was no consequence if I didn’t, so it was awesome.

Do you still feel that sense of wonder when you finish a book now?

Kind of! It feels good to have the last few pages left and knowing you’re about to finish it. The last five or six pages is always completely good stuff so I get the trembles when I get there. It makes me happy. That’s the best feeling.

Is there a certain type of book you’re drawn to now?

I love self-help books. When you’re younger you think you know everything and then there are these people who are older and have been through everything you’ve been through and have written books about it. I started buying them. I’ve always drawn to the self-help section of any bookstore.

Do you find that they really do help you?

Yeah. There was a book a friend of mine gave me that started my self-help journey. It’s a book called Meditation In Action. It’s a book about how to deal with stress while you’re actually in the situations. You think about meditation as being in a peaceful place, but this is more dealing with the workplace or other people on a daily basis. It was a cool book. I read it three or four times.

What are you currently reading?

A friend of mine gave me The War of Art. Going into writing the record I’m writing now I hit a wall and he was like “Yo, if this book doesn’t help you I don’t know what will.” It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s been super helpful as far as when I do get writers block. I have tricks now to get out of those times or getting my mind off knowing that I do have writers block.

As a fan of graphic novels, could you suggest a good place for readers new to the genre?

Frank Miller. He did the Sin City series. They’re really easy to read and the illustrations are amazing. I thought the books would be ruined in the movie and the movie just made me more excited to read more Frank Miller. The story is really bold. There’s not a lot of words but the ones that are there are really powerful. If anybody wanted to jump off into graphic novels those would be the starting point.

Does the books you read directly influence your songwriting?

Yeah, of course. Anything I find valuable and knowledgeable sticks with me, and I think that knowledge is passed on, whether it’s in conversation or song. I think the last time I put something I read directly in a song was on Gym Class Heroes’ album The Quilt. There was a song called “Drnk Txt Rmeo.” I took some lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and twisted them. I don’t know if anyone has actually caught on to that yet. It was pretty fun.

Is there a certain book you would recommend to fans of your music?

There isn’s a certain book, but anything by Shel Silverstein, if fans of my music want to understand where my writing is coming from. They were funny, a lot of them had rhymes to them, the stories were great. My music is telling stories a lot of times and adding some humor and rhymes. Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl helped a lot with that.

YA Wednesday: A Picture is Worth...

AddisonStoneWhen I heard the premise of The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone I was intrigued. I figured it would be really good or really bad with not much wiggle room in between.  So I sat down to read a chapter or two and didn't get up until I was finished. 

Author Adele Griffin has written a memoir of the life and mysterious death of Addison Stone, a young artist-turned-celebrity, as told by her fans, friends, and enemies.  The book comes with photographs of the beautiful, petulant Stone and her art.  Addison Stone has a mesmerizing story. Addison Stone isn't real.  And the more I read, the harder it got to remember that none of these people are real.  So good.  Best of the Month good.

In the guest essay below, Adele Griffin shares the story behind the story (behind the story).


The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone is an imagined memoir about a small town girl who burns through the New York art scene as bright as a comet, and goes out just as fast. Inspired by the oral history Edie: American Girl, I saw the interview style of that groundbreaking book as a way to release myself to writing exclusively what I loved most: voice.

Addison’s story unfolds in memories and anecdotes as her family and friends, peers and rivals, dealers and buyers, all bear witnesses to her troubled, startling, wondrous life. As I created each voice in the drama, I was always conscious of how vividly I saw these people, and how hard I wanted to hear them.

The more real it became, the more I wanted to deliver “proof.” I’d always envisioned a photo insert as a way to showcase Addison’s talent, but soon it was clear to me that if the book was a layer cake, the next layer would have to be full-color illustrations.

And so Addison was ultimately a compendium of four women—three professional artists and one Pratt student—who all came together as a portfolio of talent that would define one artist’s gifts. With real art on the page, now my characters never needed to describe imaginary art, which can get stale or precious pretty fast, especially when it transports us to nowhere specific.

But a memoir also requires biographical intimacy. I had Addison in sketches and paintings, but where was Addison the girl, the young woman? Fate or a lucky break brought the electric Giza Lagarce into my home, and from the first photograph we took, I could feel Addison’s soul touch down. Giza also licensed me her childhood snapshots, family photos and candids. This all became the stuff of Addison Stone’s life, and again I was able to hold onto my cast of narrators without diluting them as vehicles for dumping in the description.

Oral histories are tantalizing glimpses of people as perceived by themselves and others. The roundtable style fascinates me because the endless rotating point of view allows us to enter the story and draw our own conclusions. In my “final Addison” Michelle Rawlings’ haunting portraits, that rotation is visually echoed in a looped reflection of identities that blurs the line of muse, model, artist, author. But for me the best visual gift of ADDISON STONE is that I was liberated to create a story of characters simply for character’s sake. This is where the story feels most real and pure as a work of my own imagining. And this is where I hope it will resonate. --Adele Griffin

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

August 2014

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