Blogs at Amazon

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

Gabriel Marquez Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian-born author known for his stories that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality--as well as the lines between tragedy and comedy--has died following a bout with pneumonia. As the author of novels including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, "Gabo" was instrumental in introducing Latin American literature to a worldwide audience, and was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts." García Márquez was 87.

 

Author photo courtesty Nobelprize.org.

 

 

 

Lay of the Land: Photos from Arlo Crawford's "A Farm Dies Once a Year"

After finishing Arlo Crawford's memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year, I found myself wanting to quit my desk job and do something that involves working with my hands. The book details Crawford's decision to leave his city life to help out on his parents' farm in rural Pennsylvania. To my surprise, the narrative is as much a curious look at the intricacies of organic farming as it is a rich, poignant portrait of Crawford's family and their relationship to the land and their neighbors. (On top of moving to the country, A Farm also gave me the urge to call my mom and tell her how much I appreciate her.)

If that's not enticing enough, Crawford was kind enough to share a handful of photos of his parents' farm and a few words to go along with them.


Crawford01

These pictures are different than what most people expect when they think "farm," but I love how still and solitary they are. For me, the most distinctive part of growing up on our farm was how isolated and quiet it could be, and how separate it felt from the outside world. The beauty in February is less conventional, but it’s also unadorned and bone-deep.

Continue reading "Lay of the Land: Photos from Arlo Crawford's "A Farm Dies Once a Year"" »

YA Wednesday: Dreaming of Gods & Monsters with Laini Taylor

At the beginning of this month Laini Taylor came to town and we got together to talk about Dreams of Gods & Monsters, the final book in her trilogy.  I first met Taylor in 2011 when I interviewed her here in Seattle for Daughter of Smoke & Bone and we bonded over our shared love of YA novels and John Fluevog shoes.  At the time, I tried not to sound like an obsessed fan girl. Even though I kind of was. And am. 

If you haven't read this trilogy yet, prepare to get hooked on a beautifully told otherworldly story of angels, monsters, and a couple of key humans, enmeshed in love and hate, bound by friendship and family. The detail is so rich, but not cumbersome, that now I picture other angels or monsters as Taylor describes hers, in all their glorious variety and contradiction. I would wear a sandwich board for these books.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters is our spotlight pick for April's Best YA Books, and in this final piece of the puzzle Taylor introduces an additional main character, a woman named Eliza, who ties all three books together in a stroke of storytelling genius.  In the video below, Taylor and I discussed Dreams of Gods & Monsters, the happiness of organic storytelling, and resurrecting Mark Twain.

As for the shoes...well, some things never change and so it was that three years later we had ourselves another Fluevog moment.  Shoe lovers, scroll down to see photos from the interviews.

 

The Interview Shoes:

Daughter of Smoke & Bone interview, 2011 / Dreams of Gods & Monsters interview, 2014

MeLainiShoes2011MeLainiFluevogs2014

Funny Business: Stanley Bing Explains It All For You

The CurriculumDo you have a crazy boss? Do you want to learn to be one?

Longtime Fortune magazine business columnist Stanley Bing (How to Relax Without Getting the Axe, What Would Machiavelli Do?) has mapped out for you -- in charts, graphs, ten commandments, and Power Point -- why people succeed in business, whether they're trying or not. His new book, The Curriculum, is a most serious spoof of what you could learn (or not) in an accredited b-school. Why pay a quarter of a million dollars in tuition, when you can buy that knowledge here for less than .02% of that.

Here, for example, is Bing's interpretive comparison of Lower, Middle and Ultra-Senior managers.

The Curriculum

We asked Bing some of our favorite questions. Read more about influential books, impressing his son, and predicting the future of technology here.

Amazon Asks: Stanley Bing on Influential Books, Impressing His Son, and Predicting the Future of Technology

Bing If you've read Fortune magazine anytime in the last 20+ years, or, for that matter, if you've cruised the business book world, you already know Stanley Bing: the funniest "business" writer on a very crowded block. Tomorrow, we'll unveil one of the riffs from his newest book, The Curriculum. But for now, we thought we'd grab him for a second, in between high level business meetings and attacks of corporate angst (is there a diff?), to get his answers to some of our favorite questions.


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

The Curriculum is a rigorous course of study designed for business students or interested professionals who want to achieve power and success without enduring the tedium, stress, and expense of a traditional MBA.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, because it's discursive and hilarious; Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks, because I can't, generally, and occasionally would like to; and Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune, because I loved it dearly as a child and get slightly lachrymose after a few drinks late at night and start ordering things.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Top Five (in no particular order):

  • Moby Dick, except for the long section on how to cook a whale;
  • The Metamorphosis, particularly the funny parts;
  • The entire History of Crime series, from Roseanna to The Terrorists, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which are the motherload of all subsequent Scandinavian crime fiction;
  • The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by George Simenon, an incomparably perfect little novel about what can happen to a conventional person when the structure of his life unravels;
  • The Shining by Stephen King, because it's the last book that I had to read with all the lights on.

 

Important book you never read?

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I tried. But there are now some mountains that my brain can no longer climb.

Book that changed your life?

There are probably quite a few, but I'll name two. The first is Crime and Punishment, because I read it at exactly the right moment in my teens sometime, and it seized me the way no other book had until that moment; it seemed like a whole world had opened to me that was in some fundamental way more real than my own. I loved it. I was also really influenced by The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, which took an anthropological view of the corporate organization, viewing it basically as a totalitarian bureaucracy, a perspective that is very useful to me in my own work, which makes me sound very serious, I know, but there you have it. Oh, and I should probably also mention that reading my way all the way through Sherlock Holmes gave me a lifelong love for crime and detective fiction.

Favorite book(s) as a child?

I already mentioned Albert Payson Terhune, and I inhaled his books about his elegant, preternaturally intelligent collies throughout my childhood. I had no idea at the time that he was sort of a Nietzschean crypto-racist, with all sorts of views about superior bloodlines and terrible stuff like that. I thought he wrote very moving and exciting dog stories, you know? Also loved Booth Tarkington's Penrod books, which were all about being a ten-year-old boy in a placid, lovely, small-town America when I was one. I also remember getting a tremendous kick out of a series about cave people at the dawn of time I got at my local library that I now cannot find anywhere online at all. They were big and fat and immersive and if anybody reading this has an idea of what they might have been, I'd be obliged to you.

What's your most memorable author moment?

I was with my son at a Bob Dylan concert. It was intermission and some guy who wasn't too old came up to me and said, "Hey! You're Stanley Bing!" and shook my hand. "That was cool, Dad," my son said. We didn't cry and embrace or anything, but it was a good moment. I'd also have to say that being on Charlie Rose a while back about one of my books was a real thrill. I felt like a real, authentic author the whole time. And I say that not only because it's true, but because it's possible that Charlie may be reading this and it would help get me on his show again.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

"I would love to have the power to stop waking at 3 a.m. every night to check my e-mail."

BingWhat are you obsessed with now?

Two decades ago, around the time I started doing my column for Fortune, I believe, I wrote a humor column prognosticating a future where people would have cranial implants to replace all existing forms of electronic communications. I now believe it was a sort of Jules Verne moment for me, when I thought I was blowing sci-fi smoke, but I was actually predicting a likely future. I am now obsessed with the idea that very soon, before we know it, digital wetware will replace glassware to create surgically enhanced humans who will eventually form the genetic stock of the next iteration of humanity, rendering Homo Sapiens as defunct as our predecessor, Homo Neanderthanensis. I don't want to be around when that happens, by the way, but I would like to have my consciousness digitally preserved and housed in a pleasant place for later insertion into a fully functional cyborg when that's possible.

What are you stressed about now?

Putin.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My Martin D-18, which was built the year I was born and bought in a pawn shop in Cincinnati as a present for me when I was eight years old for $90. It's just as nice as it ever was.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The best piece of advice I ever got was to stay one drink behind the most senior officer at the table or party. The worst piece of advice was to eat the worm at the bottom of a bottle of mescal one night at a boondoggle in San Diego.

Who's your current author crush?

Mark Bittman. He's actually convinced me to eat like a Marin County hippie before 6 p.m. It's the 6 p.m. part that's brilliant. Every day there's light at the end of the vegetable tunnel.

What book you wish you'd written?

Who Moved My Cheese. Not because of the message -- which is truly deplorable, viewing employees as tiny rodents whose masters may move their sustenance at will -- but because the book probably took 20 minutes to write and has now sold a hundred billion copies. It's the Quarter Pounder of business books.

What's the last dream you remember?

Just last night I dreamed that I was required to go back to the past and perform a certain task without upsetting the natural order of the future. I saw my boss when his hair was black. I saw several colleagues again, who I have missed, actually, since they left the corporation. I saw a 1995-era Cadillac stretch which seemed to be waiting for somebody more important than I was. It was very detailed and interesting. Then I woke up and realized that most of the philosophical issues in my dream have already been dealt with in The Terminator. I'm still thinking about it, though.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

My favorite method of procrastination is to do something else that needs doing, but not quite so imminently. Sleeping is also good, as is drinking until you really can't do anything very well anymore. And let's not forget about Amazon Prime. You guys have some seriously excellent content on there.

What do you collect?

Guitars, cameras, watches, yoyos, and comics. Some other things, too, but those are the main ones. Not all at once, of course. Sort of alternatively, never quite dropping any one, but focusing now and then on each. Right now there's a vintage acoustic guitar I don't need that I have my eye on.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

That's easy. A few years ago, a reader became annoyed at something I had posted on my blog. He shot off a note that was brief and to the point: "Your an idiot," he said. "Your" an idiot! I still feel wonderful when I think about it.

Digital Exclusive: Sue Monk Kidd on Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday"

Sue Monk Kidd and Oprah are together again! Kidd's The Invention of Wings was previously an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection. Now she's chatting with Oprah on the Emmy Award winning OWN Network series "Super Soul Sunday." Here's a digital exclusive that you won't see on the show, to whet your appetite.

Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday" interview with Sue Monk Kidd airs April 13 at 11 a.m. ET, and can also be seen at Oprah.com.

Rabbit, Write: Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

Updike by Adam Begley It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.

* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters

Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.

 


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley

 

1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.

2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.

4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.

5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!

How I Wrote It: "All I need is my laptop and a comfy chair" - Alice LaPlante

LaplateWhen a respected plastic surgeon mysteriously dies in a Palo Alto hotel room, a novice police detective immediately suspects foul play--especially after discovering that the man had three wives in three different cities. With that setup, Alice LaPlante's A Circle of Wives explores the mysteries of love and marriage, trust and suspicion. Based on a true story that occurred eight years ago in Standford (where LaPlante teaches creative writing), A Circle of Wives is LaPlante's second novel. (Her first was the bestselling Turn of Mind).

In addition to writing fiction--she has another novel coming out next year, and is working on her fourth--LaPlante also writes non-fiction. She described for me her somewhat unorthodox method of starting each day with some fiction writing, and then flip flopping throughout the day. "I keep my fiction and my nonfiction on the screen, and I move between them," she said.

LaPlante also discussed recently losing her home to a fire. The first thing she reached for when the fire broke out? Her laptop.

 

Amazon Asks: Bob Saget Gives a PG-13 Glimpse of the Man Behind "Dirty Daddy"

Dirty DaddyYou've likely seen actor/comedian Bob Saget on TV. Question is, which Bob Saget did you see? The family-friendly Saget of "Full House" and "America's Funniest Home Videos" fame is oh-so-different from the potty-mouthed button pusher who cameo-ed as a misogynist neighbor on "Entourage" and a drug-addicted actor on"Huff," appeared in the blue comedy documentary The Aristocrats, and starred in his own HBO stand-up special "That Ain't Right."

Now, as an author, Saget has written a bridge between his two extreme personas with Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian, one of our April Best of the Month selections in Humor & Entertainment.

Characteristically tangential, in Dirty Daddy Saget jumps from endearingly genuine to sophomorically silly to jarringly vulgar without warning. Somehow, between the exasperated "Oh, Bob"s, the heartwarming "Awwww"s, the head-nodding "Right on..."s, and the cringe-worthy "Ew, really!??"s, we get to know him from his own tainted perspective. He shares a behind-the-scenes look at "Full House," name-drops comedians who influenced him (Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor) and random celebrities he's encountered (Quentin Tarrantino, Jimmy Stewart), remembers career milestones like his first time on The Tonight Show. He also drags his family into it, discussing relationships with his mother, grandmother, sisters, and kids.

But we wanted to know Bob Saget, Debut Author a bit better. So, we presented him with our favorite questions and begged him to keep the answers "printable." What we got back was (with a couple of exceptions), surprisingly sweet.


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

It doesn't take long to explain, but before I'd go into an elevator to pitch it, I'm basically the kid who'd push the button on every floor to make sure they're a captive audience.

Dirty Daddy is about how the different aspects of my life have intersected. How I became what some people consider a "dirty" comedian, when all I've ever done is try to entertain my way through a life that often has a huge amount of heaviness in it. The book is about loss, survival, the love of comedy, and my testicles.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

A stack of several books I've yet to read, a few DVDs I've yet to watch, and a tiny cheesy alarm clock that's had the same miniature battery in it for ten years. It's outlived my last three relationships.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Jitterbug Perfume

Important book you never read?

Pride and Prejudice

Book that changed your life?

Charlotte's Web

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Dirty Daddy

What's your most memorable author moment?

Writing for 48 hours straight with no sleep to meet a deadline. Most Adaptation-like moment I'd prefer never to repeat in my life if possible.

Preferred reading format: print? digital?

I will always prefer a hardback book, but I'm drawn to digital because it's so easy to acquire them when I'm having a need-to-read moment.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

I'd be really happy to be able to stretch myself to be as wide or narrow as I felt like being at the moment. Take up the whole doorway, or be able to slide myself under it. You asked.

What are you obsessed with now?

At the moment, the fantasy of being able to stretch myself as wide as a doorway, or be able to slide myself under it.

What are you stressed about now?

The state of the world. How desensitized we have become as people. How much we have to do to help this planet and its population. I am also stressed because once I am flattened out so thin to be able to slide under a doorway, I may never be able to ever be unflattened so I could be regular sized again.

What are you psyched about now?

The future. I have no plan except to take care of the people I love. I have no agenda, nothing to control. I'm psyched about what I can contribute that can be meaningful to myself and to others. I'm also looking forward to one day meeting a person has that same non-agenda. In the creative sense, I'm looking forward to collaborating with people I have mutual respect for to create some really good work. In the immediate sense, I'd like a nice piece of salmon that's not too pink inside and yet isn't too dry or crisp either. Nothing worse than a piece of dried out fish.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

A pair of leather lace-less high-top All Stars my daughters gave me two birthdays ago. They're always coming apart at the sole, but I will keep repairing them until the end of time because they mean so much to me.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club and Lit. I love her unabashed honesty and conviction to everything she believes in.

Pen Envy - Book you wish you'd written?

The World According to Garp. I was influenced by its fascinating and funny characters along with what could be deemed absurd with stream of conscious story lines that somehow made its whole world seem entirely possible.

What's the last dream you remember?

My mom, who we lost a few months back, came to me and the basic info imparted was-- everything was going to be alright; she was so proud of me; that the book was going to be received well by a lot of people. She told me how much she loved me seemed to infer I was going to find some new healthy romance--that she would not be involved with from the other side in any meddling fashion. Finally, some Freudian Relief.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

My favorite procrastination is to make the choice to have valuable times with human beings that I care about instead of holing myself up alone to get my work done. The conflict is the temptation to get the omnipresent assignment completed. The selfish and usually pointless approach is to try to get both done simultaneously--accomplish your work at hand while begging forgiveness of those close to you while you're basically working in front of them during what could've been specifically 'quality time.' The favorite method of vice is to diss all responsibility be work or social, go off by myself, and enjoy a good steak and a great glass of wine. Oh yeah, and my kids are there too.

What do you collect?

Sweet desk items my daughters buy me. Could be a plastic necklace, or a felt pen with a face dressed in a Christmas hat. Also enjoy a good glass pyramid to store my deepest wishes and dreams in. My favorite collections are gifts from my daughters that come from them knowing me, and knowing what items give me focus and meaning, There's a ceramic tiny ant eater or similar creature sitting my desk named "Pushkin." He's not named after the Russian Poet. If anything he is a mockery of anyone else ever named "Pushkin." I like him very much.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

The one (and there were several) from a young girl who thanked me for being part of "Full House" because her childhood was similar to the one depicted in that sitcom I was the father in. She said it was the only show she could watch with her dad, since she'd lost her mom, that they could sit and talk about their feelings after. She credits a show made for exactly her, a teenage girl audience--helping her get through how hard it was to live without her mother in her life.

Favorite line in a book?

Part of Tom Joad's speech from The Grapes of Wrath. It's lengthy but I think of it often:

Tom: "Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark--I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build --I'll be there, too."

What's next for you?

I don't know, but I'll be there.

A Peek Inside "What Would Lynne Tillman Do?"

What Would Lynn Tillman Do?What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is a collection of 35 essays from a brainy, funny American thinker and writer--the kind of person able (and willing!) to dispense observation and advice on everything from great writing to Chet Baker to the Internet and how it has changed society. In other words, she's a know-it-all, in all the best ways: warm, wise, and, when it's called for, pointed in her criticisms. As someone said, she's not a malcontent, but she is discontented sometimes. She has also crossed paths with some of the greatest creative minds of the last several decades. (The book is introduced by Colm Toibin, after all.) Here we have Lynne Tillman's story of her interactions with the great 20th century expatriate writer, Paul Bowles.


In 1972, I was living in Amsterdam, and decided to edit an anthology of American writers abroad. Paul Bowles reigned as the preeminent American abroad. I told my Dutch publisher that his presence in the book was essential, and assured him that Bowles would definitely be in it. All bravado. I was a complete unknown. Anxiously, I wrote a letter to Paul Bowles, requesting his important participation. Shockingly fast, he wrote back, Yes.

I can't remember what Bowles first sent me. But soon the book's publication was delayed, and whatever piece it was, he had given it to someone else. I quickly and humbly asked for another piece; he amiably sent one along. I really didn't know what I was demanding of such a distinguished, sought-after writer. I knew nothing, I was a kid, and all my ideas about being an editor came from reading literary histories and writers' biographies. I had requested unpublished material from everyone. The long delays continued, and every piece Bowles sent me was eventually published somewhere else.

After the first publisher reneged—the novelty division was dissolved—a second publisher came forward to save the book, a friend with a small Dutch press who promised to bring the anthology out, fast. He didn't. I'm not sure how much time passed, but once again I needed to ask Bowles for new writing. Now he had no unpublished work at all, nothing to give; he was very sorry. Desperate, I wrote: Don't you have anything? I don't care what it is. Bowles kindly mailed a few poems he'd written in the early 1930s, noting that they weren't very good, but I could use them if I wanted. He didn't have anything else. Again, he was very sorry.

It never occurred to me that he might have been, with excellent reason, courteously bailing out of my long-sinking enterprise. But I was young, naive, hopeful, and these traits, mixed with others, allowed me not only to ignore that possibility but also to agree with his negative assessment of his poems. Yes, they're not very good, I wrote him. Of course I'll publish them anyway. You must be in the anthology. But, I pleaded, don't you have anything else? How about letters you wrote home from Europe?

Not long after, an airmail letter arrived, on onionskin as ever, but thicker than the one page he usually sent. He, or a helper, had typed copies of two letters he had written his mother on his very first trip to Europe. He had traveled there with composer Aaron Copland; Copland had been his music teacher, then a close friend. In one letter Bowles tells the hilarious tale of their sailing to Tangier. The second was written after he and Copland had settled in Tangier, about their travails with their piano, and also about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who were their friends. Use the letters if you want, Bowles wrote. I read them over and over, delighted with each line, and also by glimpsing his intimate and sympathetic relationship with his mother; I knew he despised his father. (In his autobiography, Bowles admitted to wanting to kill him.) Now it was worth it, every delay, everything—the letters were jewels.

Lynn TillmanOver those years, the anthology had gone through many transformations. Mostly I added people: it was hard for me to say no to friends, even those who weren't writers. When the second Dutch publisher stopped answering my letters, I finally gave up, though the book had been designed, typeset, and was actually on boards. I knew it would never be published. Curiously, I took this failure in stride, seven or eight years of work and waiting, making promises and breaking them. By then I was doing other things, living in New York and writing. Maybe more significant, the anthology had come to feel unnecessary to me, a leftover from an existence I no longer had or wanted. I'd done it, and was done with my romance of the American abroad—along with the rest of the world. Being in Europe had helped me unlearn some of what I'd been taught or unconsciously believed. Any writer knows that what's left out is as essential, if not more so, than what's there. Unlearning works that way. I unlearned the model of being an editor like Ezra Pound with T.S. Eliot, the unconscious belief that America was the center of the world, and that honesty meant saying what I thought and always being direct. (The Dutch and the English, former competitors for world dominance, taught me the wisdom of waiting as well as withholding.) As to new lessons: I learned I could be miserable anywhere in the world. I learned I really was an American.

Bowles and I continued corresponding, hardly ever mentioning the ill-fated anthology. He had suffered much worse fates than the ups and downs of publication, of course, specifically, the slow, sad decline of Jane Bowles and her death in 1972. In some ways I think he was forever amused by something invisible buzzing around him, and that something kept him going. Maybe he was amused just to be alive.

(c) 2014 by Lynne Tillman. From What Would Lynne Tillman Do? published by Red Lemonade

Kindle Singles Roundup, Including Colum McCann's First Short Story in a Decade

Longform digital stories seem to be having a prolonged moment, an ongoing honeymoon in the marriage between storytelling and the digitization of the written word. Pioneered by Kindle Singles, Byliner, and The Atavist, and hailed as an antidote to the dying space alloted in newspapers and magazines for short stories, novellas, and longer works of journalism, I've enjoyed watching more and more authors experiment with the form, in both fiction and nonfiction. In the coming months, Omnivoracious will begin featuring occasional roundups of these bite-sized stories. Or is that byte-sized?

Below are five recent notable stories, available in the Singles store, including Gone, a literary thriller from National Book Award winner Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin, Transatlantic). Though McCann got his start writing short stories--he calls them "small imploding universes"--Gone is his first short story in ten years. Scroll down to read a Q&A with McCann and his publisher, Byliner.

Gone Gone, by Colum McCann

A single mother and her 13-year-old adopted son, who is deaf, live alone on the west coast of Ireland. Early one morning, the son walks down to the sea with his new wetsuit, and disappears. Investigators suspect the mother, who is racked with guilt: "A wetsuit? Why in the world? What sort of mother?"

The Death Factory The Death Factory, by Greg Iles

On the even of the much-anticipated release of Natchez Burning, Iles's first novel in five years, the author has crafted a prequel of sorts to the novel, an appetizer in which his long-running protagonist, Penn Cage, confronts more of the dark family secrets that continue to haunt him.
Baby Steps Baby Steps, by Mara Altman

This is Altman’s fourth Kindle Single, continuing her blunt, funny, and very popular explorations of the adventures in adulthood. Previously she's written about facial hair, orgasms, stand-up comedy, and diamond engagement rings. Here, she confronts the prospect of motherhood, from the expectations of others to her own ambivalence.
Brian Greene: The Kindle Singles Interview Brian Greene: The Kindle Singles Interview, by Rivka Galchen

Author and journalist Galchen (named by The New Yorker as one of 20 Writers Under 40) interviews physicist Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos), who recently launched a series of free online science courses at World Science U (WorldScienceU.com). Here, he discusses string theory, Einstein, Higgs boson, and the nothingness of empty space.
Sleep Donation

Sleep Donation, by Karen Russell

When an insomnia epidemic afflicts America, an organization called Slumber Corps recruits healthy sleepers to donate sleep to insomniacs.  Though soundly in sci-fi and Orwellian terrain, the corruption and greed of the story give it an urgency that feels as if it could've been ripped from today's headlines.

Read Amazon editor Kevin Nguyen's interview with Russell.

~~~

Colum-McCann-Credit-Dustin-AkslandIn this Q&A between McCann and our friends at Byliner, McCann talks him about his heritage, his craft, and Gone.

Byliner: You grew up in Ireland, a country you’ve noted has been “shaped by books.” Last summer, Charlie Rose asked you what it means to be Irish. You answered, “We have an ability to sing, and the ability to tell a story, and the ability to live our lives out loud. … We seem to embrace a lot of different experiences. Also, we have that sort of lurking sadness.”  Was it from that lurking sadness that you pulled Gone?

McCann: I suppose Gone has several elements of lurking sadness. It exists there in the landscape too. The cottage out on the edge of the water. The single mother. The struggle against the darkness. The loneliness at the end of the year. Not your typical Christmas story, that’s for sure!  But I wanted to invert the expectations, too, and hopefully Gone does that in some way. It turns the tables. There’s a line in there about metal pipes embedded in the stone walls--in an odd way the wind moves over the mouths of the metal pipes and makes the wall sing.

Byliner: Mark Twain is famously credited with saying, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” The perfect word matters, because the relationship between the word and a reader’s understanding of it (and reaction to it) matters. But sometimes it’s very hard to put into words a specific feeling. There’s no translation that’s true enough, good enough. Tell us about how that influenced your decision to make Rebecca Marcus, the mother in Gone, a translator.

McCann: I was fascinated by the lack of a word for a parent who has lost a child. We have no word in English. I thought for sure there’d be a word in Irish but there is none. And then I looked in several other languages and could not find one, until I found the word Sh’khol in Hebrew. I’m still not sure why so many languages don’t have a word for this sort of bereavement, this shadowing. And so it seemed a good thing to turn my character into a translator. And then there was the Jewish aspect which attracted me also. There are fewer and fewer Jews in Ireland, but we still have one of the most famous Jewish characters in literary history, of course, in Leopold Bloom. So there was a direct reference to language there also.  

Byliner: Gone is your first short story in a decade. What brought you back to that form, and how does that form differ in routine from writing a novel?

McCann: I love short stories. They’re like small imploding universes. They are very tightly bound and controlled. I’d been wanting to write one for ages but just got tangled up in novels. The novel is the same in the sense that it is also a universe, but it explodes outwards with all that shrapnel going in several different directions. I don’t see too much difference in the forms except for the fact that writing short stories is like sprinting rather than long-distance running. Novels are more difficult simply because they are longer and require more juggling, but short stories are closer to perfection, if you can get the language right.

Byliner: As a writer, you create characters and their stories. How has writing helped you to "create" your own life?

McCann: Oh, I’m a complete and utter fiction. Then again, we all are. We shape ourselves by our imaginative reach. 

Byliner: When accepting the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction, you told the audience that being allowed to tell a story and listen to a story is a privilege. “Stories are democracy,” you said. “They are the purest form of engagement.” Is there one particular book that stands out for you as having engaged you and inspired your desire to write?

McCann: There are thousands of them. I hate to choose one. But Ulysses is up there. As is Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter. As is Berger’s To the Wedding. As is True History of the Kelly Gang. As is, as is, as is, as is … oh, I could go the length of my bookshelves and beyond. 

Amazon Asks: Christopher Priest, author of "The Adjacent"

The AdjacentOne does not simply read a book by Christopher Priest (The Prestige, The Glamour, etc.). It is not a casual, relaxing, kick back and enjoy type of experience. His books are often intentionally confusing, reality-mangling, complex adventures in which the reader must be a vigilant participant, attentive to hidden details and willing to dig deep into the layers. Priest's latest, The Adjacent is no different. The story shifts across time and space, between similar yet different characters. Sometimes it provides real links between them, and sometimes it provides red herrings... and rarely is there solid evidence as to which is which. Oh, and if you expect him to tie it all up in a pretty package by the last page, you've simply come to the wrong author. It's just part of his frustrating charm.

And so, anticipating that any questions we ask about The Adjacent will only result in our having more questions than we did to begin with (not to mention ruining the experience of reading for anyone who hasn't yet), let's focus on Priest himself. We asked him to answer a few of our favorite questions, and, true to form, we received answers that beg further illumination (which, of course, we know we'll never fully get).


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

He was a 21st century photojournalist with a camera that changed reality, she flew a Spitfire in World War 2, they were supposed never to meet.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, The Red Line by John Nichol, the latest edition of "Fortean Times".

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie, The Magus by John Fowles, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, A Sort of Life by Graham Greene

Important book you never read?

Almost everything else. I never got past the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace.

Book that changed your life?

Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

What's your most memorable author moment?

Finishing a book.

Preferred reading format: print? digital?

Print

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Perfect pitch.

What are you obsessed with now?

The forthcoming film of The Glamour.

What are you stressed about now?

The forthcoming film of The Glamour.

What are you psyched about now?

The forthcoming -- no, scrub that. The advent of spring and my cats are bringing in half-dead small animals.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Property is theft.

Author crush -- who's your current author crush?

Self-love is a sin.

Pen Envy -- Book you wish you'd written?

2666 by Roberto Bolano, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

What's the last dream you remember?

Never can remember them.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

Questionnaires.

What do you collect?

I never collect anything ... I accumulate stuff. Mostly books and cameras.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

"Dear Chris -- I loved your new novel. Brought back all those sexy memories. My lawyer will be in touch."

Favorite line in a book?

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.)

What's next for you?

The forthcoming film of The Glamour. The forthcoming stage play of The Prestige. My new novel in progress. A non-fiction work about aviation.

Up All Night: Karen Russell on Writing "Sleep Donation"

Sleep-donation

If the power of books is to bring people together, then there's perhaps no example more literal than the Craigslist missed connection I stumbled across just minutes before interviewing Karen Russell. The posting, titled (sic) "karen russel cutie - w4m", was written by an Austin-based woman who met a man reading one of Russell's books at a coffee shop. They hit it off, sort of.

"I said, "hey. karen russell. Right?" And i flashed you the cover of my book. As if you didn't KNOW i was reading it. We talked for a few minutes. You didn't even know. You didn't even know that um. You didn't even know that she had written other books. But i felt a connection."

I forwarded the link to Russell, who, delighted by the idea that her work could play matchmaker, said, "I want these people to find each other, and then I want to officiate at their wedding." Speaking with Russell, I found her sense of humor arresting, her laugh totally charming — a little surprising considering the darkness and moodiness of her latest work, Sleep Donation (one of our Best Books of the Month picks for March and a Kindle Single). It's a clever, haunting novella about a dystopian world where insomnia has become a fatal epidemic. The story follows a young woman named Trish who works at Slumber Corps, a company that helps those who are able to catch some Z's the ability to donate their shut-eye to the sleepless. Those familiar with Russell's previous work — her two short story collections, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and her novel Swamplandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — will find the same sci-fi and fantasy-mashing sensibilities here. Russell attributes her category-bending to a childhood reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy and not recognizing the lines between the different genres.

"I actually had so little awareness of what distinguished Jane Eyre from A Handmaid's Tale. When I was a kid, they all just read like great stories to me," she said.

Her influences include many classic sci-fi authors, such as Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley. But since her world experience first came from novels, her reality is grounded in fictions that existed to critique the real world. She jokes that her upbringing was like visiting the fantastical version of Paris at Epcot Center, then actually visiting Europe decades later.

Continue reading "Up All Night: Karen Russell on Writing "Sleep Donation"" »

Peter Matthiessen Dead at 86

Matthiessen2Peter Matthiessen died today at 5:15pm EST after an illness of some months. He was 86 years old.

Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he embarked for France, where he co-founded The Paris Review. (He later disclosed that he was working for the CIA at the time and used the Review for cover.) An active environmentalist and champion of human rights, Matthiessen produced such great works as The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. His epic Shadow Country, three novels that he painstakingly reworked into one volume, covers the life of Edgar J. Watson, Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer. Shadow Country won the National Book Award in 2008. 

Matthiessen worked up to his death, and his last novel In Paradise, set during a spiritual retreat in Auschwitz, will be published on April 8.

The Amazon editors recently spoke with Peter Matthiessen.

Graphic Novel Friday: Comic Magic with the Rat Queens

I’m an easy mark for a great cover. So when I saw Fiona Staples’ jaw-droppingly action-packed, expressive, and funny cover to Rat Queens Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery, I had to give it a chance. The good news: writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and interior artist Roc Upchurch (great name alert!) craft one heck of a cast of fantasy characters. The better news: there’s more story on the way. The bad news: ha, there is no bad news!

The Rat Queens are a close-knit band of “battle-maidens” who take the odd assassin job or two...or three—heck, they’ll kill anybody if the price is right. But they have dangerous competition from similar assassin guilds like elves, dark mages, giants, and—you get the picture. The fantasy tropes are all here, but Wiebe spins them into a funny frenzy that never stoops to parody. The characters are full of motivation and personality instead of being stock cardboard spoofs.

Betty the elf, for example, isn’t a snooty, aloof elitist, rather she’s the type of friend who packs “candy and drugs for dinner” when she and her fellow Rat Queens go on a hunt. Dee, the beautiful cleric, is part of a “blood drinking, squid-worshipping sect of Nrygoth,” but she’s lost the faith. Add a Rockabilly mage and a battle-ready, hipster dwarf and these queens are fierce, sassy, and…sassy—it’s worth repeating that they are all very sassy.

Upchurch’s artwork does not disappoint, either, as he catches these characters in quiet, expressive, and sword-swinging moments. When the Queens quip, Upchurch captures their smirks, wrinkled lips, and sneers; his jagged edges highlight Wiebe’s sarcastic script, and the fight scenes? Crisp and easy to follow, which immensely helps when the pages are so fun to flip to get to the next laugh or blood spillage.

Rat Queens is one to watch and read, and it’s the sleeper pick in April’s Best of the Month selections for Comics and Graphic Novels. Don't let them catch you napping.  

--Alex

YA Wednesday: The Best Books of April

Usually it's May that has a ton of amazing books, but this year April is tearing it up with goodness.  So much so, that when it came time to whittle them down to a list of four books for Best of the Month, it just wasn't gonna happen.  So there are six books on April's Best Books list, every one a keeper. 

AprilBOTMIAprilBOTMII AprilBOTMIII

Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor
Anyone who knows me has probably heard me talk about how much I love Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy. This is the final book that I've been waiting for for two long years, and it was worth it.  Taylor wraps things up beautifully but without closing the door on the possibility of more from the incredible world she built in these books.  An important new character and setting is introduced and some of my favorite things from the earlier books are revisited.  It's hard to talk about without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that I would wear a sandwich board for this series.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Ava Lavender is a girl born with wings. Not angel wings, but bird wings. Aside from this, she is a normal teenage girl and what unfolds in these pages is Ava's self-discovery, the history of tortured love that plagued her family for generations and may or may not continue, and the mad imaginings of Nathaniel Sorrows who becomes obsessed with Ava and brings this incredible tale to a crescendo.  There is  magical realism, passion, love lost and love found. A powerful debut novel from an author to watch.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Page
We are not in Kansas anymore...Amy Gumm is living a lousy life in Kansas when she gets caught in her trailer during a tornado and dropped into Oz. In this Oz things are very different than when Dorothy arrived.  In fact, ol' Dorothy is no longer the sweet innocent who just wanted to go home, but instead she returned to Oz, seized power and became an evil tyrant, cruelly punishing all who defy her.  And Amy Gumm, the new girl from Kansas? Turns out she's the one who needs to kill Dorothy and free the land. This twist on The Wizard of Oz is dark, disturbed, and may have L. Frank Baum rolling over in his grave.  And guess what?  There's a sequel. :)

What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzpatrick
April is when it really starts feeling like summer is just around the corner, and this follow-up to My Life Next Door sets just the right tone with a coastal island romance.  But don't get me wrong, there is meat on these bones.  Fitzpatrick knows how to write a love story that also has powerful discoveries and consequences that give her characters authenticity and make her books more than just fluffy summer romance reads.  Gwen Castle is a teenager who just wants to escape it all--her hometown, her family legacy on the island, and especially rich boy Cass Somers.  A coming-of-age story wrapped in a love story that is the best kind of read for days spent on the beach, or just wishing for summer.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares
This is time travel for even the non-science fiction reader.  A group from many decades in the future goes back to 2014 in order to correct things that led to the harsh world they came from. These visitors are supposed to assimilate as much as possible, but are also given a strict set of rules about their behavior and are closely monitored by the leaders.  Prenna is one of these travelers and a high school student who starts falling for a "time-native" and simultaneously questioning what she's been told about the group's mission and motives.  In her latest, Brashares has written an instantly inviting novel that led me to a reinvigorated appreciation of love and freedom.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy by Kate Hattemer
Reality shows have effectively replaced the sitcom, and if you watch reality TV or ever thought about what it would be like to participate in one of the series', you'll want to read The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy.  Set at an arts high school in Minnesota, Ethan and his closest friends are the outliers who don't appreciate the taint of For Art’s Sake, a reality t.v. show being cast and filmed at their school. As Ethan and the others' underground protest takes hold, questions and betrayals crop up in unexpected places.  Vigilante Poets is a funny contemporary novel about friendship, standing up for your beliefs, hamster love, and the truth in "reality."

Eve Harris and Deborah Feldman in Conversation

ExodusThe Marrying of Chani Kaufman In the last two months, authors Eve Harris and Deborah Feldman have each published books that focus on Orthodox Jewish communities. Exodus, one of our Best of the Month selections in Biography & Memoir in March, is a follow-up to Feldman's bestselling first memoir, Unorthodox. In it, she attempts to rediscover herself and her roots after taking her son and leaving the strictly religious Hasidic community she grew up in in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Similarly, Harris' debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, is set in an Orthodox community in Hendon, North London. It was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and it is one of our Best of the Month selections in Literature & Fiction this month. We brought these two authors together to discuss the writing process, how their books were received, and what's up next.


Deborah Feldman: What was your reaction when you heard that The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was longlisted for the Booker Prize?

Eve Harris: Of course the Booker was a huge shock – I felt like I'd woken up in a parallel universe! And nothing has been the same since.

DF: Had it been a long process writing the book?

EH: I had actually had a hard time writing the book. Having never written a novel before, the structure was the biggest challenge. I ended up with a lot of colored post-it notes stuck to two flattened cardboard boxes donated by my local corner shop. Each note represented a chapter and each color represented a different character. I moved them around until I felt dizzy! Writing is a grueling, lonely slog, but the days when it just felt right and my characters leapt off the page were the best. And then having the book longlisted was just incredible.

Your first book, Unorthodox, also got a lot of attention, and was clearly quite controversial in some circles. Were you surprised by that reaction, and how has the approach you've taken with Exodus differed from the way you set about writing Unorthodox?

DF: I can't honestly say I was surprised by any of the reaction, actually. But the writing process for the second book was certainly a little different.

I decided to write Unorthodox in the present tense, because I was twenty-two years old at the time, and still felt very much entrenched in the story. As a result, it has a strong coming-of-age feel. I actually like that, because many of the books that inspired me when I was an adolescent were written in a similar tone, like Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Anza Yezierska's The Bread Givers. Yet when I started writing Exodus, I immediately reverted to past tense, even though many of the events that take place in the book are relatively recent. Leaving the community allowed me to become a much more reflective person in the past five years.

Otherwise they were both written in a similar time frame, with much of the same processes and rituals, although I've managed to fine-tune my method somewhat through practice, which is nice.

EH: That's so interesting, especially for someone who is just starting to work on their second book. I hope I will be able to fine-tune my method, too. I have an idea for the next book, but right now I am focusing on being a mum to my two-year-old and continuing to promote The Marrying of Chani Kaufman.

What are you working on next?

DF: I'm actually working on two different projects at the moment. One is a collection of narratives that focuses on unique ethnic identities and the role they play in a globalized society, and the other project is an in-depth look at the contrast between several women from very different cultural backgrounds who are exploring their sexuality in a unique and thought-provoking way. Both of these works are very concerned with the intersection between cultural identity and a globalized future, but I don't know which of these books will be completed first at this point, or if they might even end up coming together as one project. I feel like you really can't know what a book is until it's actually done.

EH: That's certainly true. Chani changed a lot throughout the writing process, but the central part of the story was always the same. I had taught at an ultra-Orthodox girls' school, and during that year I also got married by an Orthodox rabbi. So I experienced a lot of what Chani goes through as a bride and afterwards started thinking about how strange the Charedi world is, in a lot of ways. I was in a writing course and actually working on a set of short stories, which my tutor was pretty unimpressed by – not least because everyone else in the class was already working on their novel. But after having my confidence knocked I set to work again, and when I next read to the class, a few weeks later, it was the passage that would become the first chapter of the novel. That's how it all started!

DF:  As I've said, there is an emerging canon of books dealing with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish experience, and I count your book among works by Chaim Potok and Naomi Ragen. I would say that Potok has a strong male perspective, specifically in The Chosen, and Ragen has a powerful female one. What's interesting about The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is that it manages to have a very gender-neutral perspective on the Hasidic community: when you read it you feel that the male and female characters get equal billing in terms of depth and impact. This is one of the reasons I found the book so startling.... I'm so glad you weren't discouraged and went on to write [it].

“I Felt I Could Go Deeper with Art” – An Interview with Peter Matthiessen, Author of “In Paradise.”

Peter_Matthiessen-CREDIT-Linda-GirvinNote: Sadly, Peter Matthiessen died today, April 5th, at 5:15pm EST after an illness of some months. He was 86 years old.

Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he embarked for France, where he co-founded The Paris Review. (He later disclosed that he was working for the CIA at the time and used the Review for cover.) An active environmentalist and champion of human rights, Matthiessen produced such great works as The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. His epic Shadow Country, three novels that he painstakingly reworked into one volume, covers the life of Edgar J. Watson, Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer. Shadow Country won the National Book Award in 2008. 

Read on for our recent interview with Peter Matthiessen--

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

Peter Matthiessen, three-time National Book Award winner and esteemed author of both fiction and nonfiction, has never backed away from writing about difficult subjects. In his new novel In Paradise he sets his story in the mid-90s, at a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz—the result is a book that is as profound and searching as anything he has written before. In Paradise is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of April

The Amazon books editors recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Matthiessen some questions about In Paradise

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

Chris Schluep: When I first started reading the galley, I thought, “I didn’t know Peter Matthiessen was Jewish.” But you’re not. How aware of this were you while writing the novel?

Peter Matthiessen: I was aware that I wasn’t Jewish, of course, and I was only somewhat hindered by doubt on that score. It was more that I wasn’t qualified in other ways. I wasn’t a veteran of the camps, and perhaps more important, I hadn’t lost family in them; some people don’t think you’re entitled to write about the camps unless you’ve had first-hand experience of them. And of course I was humbled by the many powerful accounts of life in the camps: who needed mine? If I couldn’t bring something fresh to it, why do it at all? Nonetheless, there was a strange experience I wanted to write about.  In the mid-1990s an international group of more than a hundred went to Auschwitz. We chose to go in the winter, because that was the toughest time for the prisoners, and we stayed in the former SS barracks and meditated on the selection platforms in all weathers. It was a way of honoring or “witnessing” for the more than a million who had died there. In addition to the violent impression the place itself made on us, so grim and relentless—the towers and gates, all that barbed wire, the few decrepit barracks still standing--most of us experienced a peculiar event in the course of our stay there, a manifestation of … something. I couldn’t purge myself of the wish to write about it. I’d kept a journal of my time there, and later I sketched out a factual account, but I found no way to do justice to the experience with the bare facts, which were nebulous. Under those circumstances, I felt I could go deeper with art, with a novel. As a character in the book, an old painter, says, “The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art.”

MatthiessenCS: One of your greatest gifts as a writer is the ability to express authentic outrage in the face of injustice. Is this something you’ve actively sought to do throughout your writing career?

PM: I’ve mainly sought to keep my voice down, let the evidence speak for itself.  Which is not to say that I wasn’t really angry about certain situations– Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, the neglect of American Indian people, the systematic exploitation of the environment for unworthy purposes that results in its ruin. I’ve always lived by Camus’s idea that the duty of the writer is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and perhaps that’s more true of the death camp victims than anybody else. I don’t want to urge good behavior on people – I don’t think that’s my role--but there’s nothing in human nature that separates us from the potential for doing such evil again. We all have this capacity – we can’t only blame it on the Germans.

CS: Do you view that as a part of your writing legacy?  

PM: I’ve never really thought about my “writing legacy.” I’m not sure I have one.

CS: One of the characters—Anders, the evolutionary biologist—questions whether a potential for evil behavior can be called “unnatural” or “inhuman," and there’s a great Solzhenitsyn quote in the novel along the same lines. Where do you fall on this? How does your understanding of Buddhism inform your reaction to evil? 

PM: I have to agree with Solzhenitsyn (and Anders) in the tragic absence of any more sensible explanation. To get to the bottom of evil has taxed far greater minds than mine, at far greater length, so I’ll avoid the temptation to define it definitively. But Buddhism has a teaching, which comes in three parts: We shall not do evil; we shall do good; we shall do good for others. The last part is key. I have to agree with his Holiness the Dalai Lama – the only essential virtue is kindness, compassion. To the extent that everybody in In Paradise, including my main character, Clements Olin, is trying to behave decently, to be open to the others on the retreat, the book recommends that. But in a few cases, it’s a painful recommendation. I quote someone in the book as having said that the point of life is to help others through it. Essentially that would be a Buddhist thought, and at my best, so to speak, I try to go along with it.

CS: If I were to summarize the book to someone, I’d say it’s about art, spirituality, and love in the face of the void. But that seems too schematic, and it narrows it. 

PM: Those labels all apply, of course, but others do, too.  I never describe it if I can help it. I try to avoid restraining it that way.

CS: It’s evident in reading the novel that you’ve read much literature on the Holocaust. Could you provide a short reading list for our readers?  

PM: I think Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz is the one absolutely essential text, because it’s so concentrated, and he expresses himself so vividly and beautifully. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski (who is the subject of Clement Olin’s research in In Paradise) captures the lunatic aspect of the whole phenomenon of the death camps – how terrible and how ordinary they were, the disgusting food, the living circumstances that sooner or later would kill you, as they were designed to. Borowski just describes it; Levi spells it out. And then there are the extraordinary diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, a wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful young Dutch woman, with a family, a lover, aspirations to be a writer, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. And you read with dread, because very quietly, through the eyes of this enormously sensitive person, you see the Holocaust developing, life narrowing down, and you know that these people are going to get arrested, sooner or later.

CS: Is there a book you haven’t written that you would like to write? 

PM: Many. Where do I start?

Page to Screen -- Spring to Summer 2014

With or without warmer weather, summer is on its way. And plenty of book-based stories are about to appear on our TVs and in movie theaters. We've rounded up the trailers for a few of our favorites below and an even bigger list of upcoming book adaptations in our Page to Screen store.


Divergent, the first book in Veronica Roth's Divergent Universe series, is officially an adaptation hit! The movie, starring Shailene Woodley (The Descendents) opened March 21, and two more are already planned to follow Roth's trilogy. Here's a glimpse of what you can now see on the big screen.

While everyone's trying to predict what will happen if George R.R. Martin doesn't finish A Song of Ice and Fire fast enough, "Game of Thrones" returns to HBO for its fourth season on April 6. This season draws from the second half of the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords. HBO has released four trailers for the season, but this one's my fave (maybe because Arya is my favorite character and that cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees "Cities in Dust" is wickedly perfect!)


 

The news recently broke that another of author John Green's books (Paper Towns) will be getting the Hollywood treatment soon, but right now, let's enjoy The Fault in Our Stars, starring... oh look, it's Shailene Woodley again! You'll also see Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern. It opens June 6.


 

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are starring in an action movie called The Edge of Tomorrow, opening on June 6. But if you're looking for the book it's based on, check out Hiroshi Skaurazaka's breakthrough sci-fi novel All You Need is Kill.


 

The How to Train Your Dragon movies don't correspond directly with the book series by Cressida Cowell. Guess you'll just have to read them all before seeing How to Train Your Dragon 2, opening June 13.


 

The Giver, Lois Lowry's children's novel about a utopia that's not what it seems, was published way back in 1993, but it's hitting the big screen this summer on August 15. Australian actor Brenton Thwaites takes on the lead role of Jonas, with Alexander Skarsgård as his father. Other faces you'll recognize: Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Swift...


National Poetry Month: Q&A with National Book Award Winner Mary Szybist

Mary Szybist
photo by Joni Kabana

I can't think of a better way to kick off National Poetry Month than by conversing with the recent winner of one of poetry's highest honors. Mary Szybist is the author of two books of poetry: the eloquent and musical Granted, and this year's winner of the National Book Award in Poetry (and our Best Poetry Book of the Year), Incarnadine. We're extremely fortunate that Mary was kind enough to take some time away from her position as associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon to answer a few questions on the new book and poetry-at-large.


Aside from its obvious connection to the word "incarnate," the word incarnadine, in a literal sense, refers to a particular shade of red. How did you settle on the title of this book?

Incarnadine swirls around one of the iconic scenes of incarnation, the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the scene in which Christians envision God entering into this world, into a body, into time—so that obvious connection is an important one.

The color, however, is important too. "Incarnadine" originally meant pink or flesh-color, but since Shakespeare's famous use of it in Macbeth, it has come to mean blood-red. Incarnadine is especially haunted by the iconic figure of Mary, who is almost always portrayed by painters in blue and red; those are the two dominate colors in this collection. In the notes at the end of the book I include a short passage from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot explaining why earth appears blue from space: "And why that cerulean color? The blue comes partly from the sea, partly from the sky. While water in a glass is transparent, it absorbs slightly more red light than blue... the red light is absorbed out and what gets reflected back to space is mainly blue." I call the book Incarnadine, but blue is the color most often mentioned and described in the poems. In my mind, both colors are always at play.

If one reads about your work across the web, they'll often come upon the phrase "intimate spaces." How does space into play in poetry and Incarnadine, which speaks often to the Christian scene of The Annunciation and a literal inhabitance of the body?

I am interested in the distance between things: the distance between people, the distance between humans and animals, the distance between our conceptions of what is divine and what is human. Sometimes these distances can be vast but they can also be charged and intimate spaces, like the space between Mary and the angel that painters have often rendered so beautifully. I was grateful to Stan Sanvel Rubin for noting in his recent review in Water-Stone Review that "the subtle grammatical difference between "incarnadine" and "incarnation" opens a slippage in connotation which is more than a trick; it's a gap that Szybist's writing wants to fill. The rift opens further with the doubled referent of the name claimed both by the living poet and the subject of the sacred story." I am writing into the space between things: the distance between Mary and the angel, the distance between the Virgin Mary and the personal Mary who is me.

Do you see the poem itself as a space to be stepped into, and if so, what does that mean for the inhabiter (the reader)?

Yes, in a sense I do envision a poem as such a space. "Stanza" is Italian for "room," but traditionally we don't just talk of poems as rooms: we refer the "body" of a poem. Haven't we all wondered to what extent we would be ourselves were we to inhabit a different body? Though our bodies change, sometimes radically, we do not get to try out other bodies. Poems allow us imaginative play: they allow consciousness--which is articulated through language--to try on different linguistic forms, different linguistic bodies. As the poet John Ashbery has said, "The world does change, in the telling." I think that we do too.

IncarnadineThe narrator of Incarnadine has such a focused attention to images of the Annunciation which occur around her, and one can't help but assume a desire for spiritual understanding in that voice. The Annunciation itself, however, seems to take off from another place: Mary is found, favored, chosen, inhabited, acquiesces. Is the notion of being spiritually discovered important to this book, to you, or to spirituality itself?

I think there is only so much we can do to achieve real understanding of any kind, no matter how much we might desire and work toward it. I think often of Simone Weil's words: "I know by means of my intelligence that what I do not understand is more real than what I do." I don't think this is call for passivity but a call to recognize the reality of what we do not comprehend. I try to write toward points of empathy. This may or may not help make me more open to receiving insight or understanding or grace (perhaps all of which are forms of being "spiritually discovered," as you so wonderfully put it), but I consider it one of my best hopes.

There's always an undeniable musical quality to your poems. Do you find that lyric and music to be an organic part of your writing (as it would seem to the reader) or is it something you actively seek? And is it essential to the poem?

Perhaps both versions are true: it is an organic part; I seek it out. I love Emily Dickinson's response to Higginson when he criticizes her rhymes. She explains: "I thanked you for your justice—but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp—" In comparing herself to a horse who depends upon the jingling bells to "cool" and ease her heated labor, she suggests that she couldn't move through the difficult journeying of her poems without that music. In this vision, the bells are not an organic part of the horse's tramp (they are separate from the rhythm of the hooves on the road), but the tramp does depend on them: they are not merely decorative additions. This all resonates with me as very true. The music is necessary.

It's likely because of the intimacy present in your poetry that I can't help but feel both Granted and Incarnadine contain a fair amount autobiographical narrative. How important is it that your poems be actively connected to your life and mind, if at all?

My poems are connected to my life and mind, but I think what is active about the connection is this: I do not write to record or map experience; I write out of a desire to enlarge it, to go beyond myself. Although I have in myself the strong desire to be settled, to choose an identity and point of view and rest there, I finally agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson: "People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." I write in an attempt to unsettle myself.

So far, you've published two books of poetry. You spoke to this some in your acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, but do you believe that there are some thoughts only poetry can express? Could you see yourself writing a novel someday?

I am awed by great novelists in part because I don't have the sensibility to conceive of and write a novel. When it comes to writing I would rather, like Emily Dickinson, "dwell in Possibility—," which she unabashedly characterizes as "A fairer House than Prose--/More numerous of Windows—/Superior—for Doors—" I am just as interested in the way that language speaks us as I am in expressing things through language. If I were to make special claims for poetry, they wouldn't have to do with the subjects that poetry best expresses. In my acceptance speech I quoted Paul Connolly who said, "I believe that it is not arguing well but speaking differently that changes a culture. Poetry is the place where speaking differently is most prevalent." A change in language can be a change in perception. As a general rule, it is harder to speak differently when your language must convey information, develop plot, and so on. Often all I ask of a poem is that when it speaks of something, it speaks of it differently.

And the vague question I'm sure you're getting way too often right now - what's next for NBA winning poet Mary Szybist?

I have been trying to write new poems. I have been thinking about the spiritual journeying of Teresa of Avila and the spirit houses that snagged my imagination when I visited Laos, but the real answer to your question is: it will be a surprise for me too.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

April 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30