Blogs at Amazon

Trust the Reader: Author Colm Tóibín on "Nora Webster"

Nora WebsterOh, to spend a few minutes talking to Colm Tóibín! Even on a transatlantic telephone call, the sonorous voice comes through, as precise and erudite and charming as you would expect from having read his books. Tóibín is a master of the beautiful, quietly emotional novel, but he’s also very definite in his opinions ("This business that you must like characters in fiction!" he practically harumphs) and rigorous in his locutions. I wish I could have listened to him for hours...

Tóibín's new book, Nora Webster, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month. It will be available October 7.

Many of your books take place in, or refer to, the same county in Ireland where you grew up, and to people you might have known in the town. Who or what was the inspiration for this particular novel about a widow and her children?

My father died when I was 12, and it was just myself and my brother and my mother in the house. And I noticed everything. So while this is not a memoir, it does come from memory. A lot is invented, but what isn’t invented is the silence, the way of handling things. All the chattering, but underneath so much that is not being said. What I set out to do was just to get it right: the story of those years and what it was like in that place. I began to imagine as much as remember. It’s as though I was making a tapestry from two forms of wool: one was called memory, the other imagination. In many ways this is the story of what happened to me, even though it is a novel, not a memoir, and not fully from memory.

Some early reviews have compared Nora Webster, as a character, to Hedda Gabler and Emma Bovary. How do you feel about that?

The way I see it is that she’s sort of Emma Bovary without the adultery, the obvious excitement of a 19th century novel. Yes, the book is about provincial life. And yes, it’s about a woman oddly trapped. And yes, it’s about a woman who is not meek and mild, who can exert herself. And like Jane Austen’s Emma, every so often she does something extraordinarily wrong. She’s oddly damaged in some way or other, but at the same time has many good qualities. Still, you don’t want to make her a fierce mother, an Electra figure, a Medea. She wants to be left alone, but she also wants everyone to come near her. There are levels of ambiguity in her that I thought would be interesting.

You don’t generally write loud, noisy books, and this one is no exception. You seem most interested in designing the small moments, the interior thoughts...

It’s a question of trusting the reader. When you leave out an awful lot, the reader's imagination is pushed very far. It’s a portrait of a sensibility, the same as a painter would paint. One of the advantages of being in New York a lot is going to the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and looking at the Vermeers. It’s not so much creating "scenes"--as ordinary moments. You have to make them luminous, make them mysterious. Make them matter.

Do you feel differently about this book than your others, because it does have an autobiographical element?

There’s an early novel called The Heather Blazing that is like this is in that it goes back to the childhood and the house. The others are based on my having left the town. So yes, the [autobiographical] ones feel different. They have a funny, different texture to them.

Peter Heller (The Painter) Interviews Bill Roorbach (The Remedy for Love)

Peter heller and meThe only thing better than interviewing one of my favorite authors? Having two of my favorites talking books with each other--at a bar.

Peter Heller (author of The Dog Stars and The Painter) recently shared a drink or two with Bill Roorbach at City Park Grille in Petoskey, Michigan--a Hemingway hangout--after which he asked Roorbach about his new novel, The Remedy for Love.

Heller previously had this to say about Roorbach's latest: “I’m not sure there’s another American writing today who can lay down a love story, or any story, with the depth and freshness of Bill Roorbach ... leave it to him to tease out the subtle nuances in the progress of love while stoking a tale that is as gripping as any Everest expedition.”

I'll step aside and let them have at it...

~~

Peter Heller: I took to The Remedy for Love right away, maybe because it’s a shipwreck, desert-island kind of story, albeit inland in Maine, and those are my favorites. Are you a fan of Defoe, Conrad, Coetzee? Or any of the epic non-fiction survival narratives like Shackleton’s?

Bill Roorbach: I love those kinds of stories, and all the ones you mention. Robinson Crusoe was a mainstay of my youth, and the Coetzee version, whoa. Speaking of youth, “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad. I think you’d call it a novella now, a long story based on the author’s own experience.You know it, right? This kid goes to sea on a coal boat and somewhere in the far southern ocean the boat catches fire. But that’s just half the adventure--the rest is getting back to England, which the protagonist manages, much as Conrad did. You can’t rest for a second reading that thing. And that’s just what I was going for, but boiled down to a simple situation--nothing unusual for Maine--that spirals out of control. Add a woman. At first, it’s just about one person trying to help another as snow starts falling, and then it's a disaster. Yet it’s a disaster with certain comforts.

IndexPH: Eric and Danielle are tailor-made not to get along, maybe even to hate each other. Was that fun for you, to throw them into that cabin and bring down the Storm of the Century?

BR: It was fun and painful in equal measure. I liked how Eric’s sweet nature and sense of duty is what gets him involved, and then how her mistrust makes him question his own motives. There he is being helpful, but he needs help, too, and doesn’t even know what he needs.

PH: I was constantly surprised as I read The Remedy for Love. And I’m not easy to sneak up on. Did the characters surprise you as well?

BR: I was surprised writing these two people, for sure. They found ways to reveal depths I hadn’t known about when I started in. I kept having to revise to catch up with them. Several times I had to stop and do several days of research, just to know what Danielle knew, or to understand her experience. Eric, same, though his revelations are quieter. I was also surprised by the way the storm in my story kept growing. Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone would have believed in this storm, least of all myself. But after Katrina and Sandy and all the typhoons that have wreaked havoc in Asia recently, and after recent winters in Maine, well, we’re all just waiting for it to happen.

PH: Well, I loved reading the book, as I said--had to get up and put on wool socks.

BR: I had the same experience, writing in the summer. I’d look up from my keyboard and be surprised there was no snow outside, that it was warm and safe. Like waking from a dream and realizing you haven’t really been thrown off a cliff.

PH: The Remedy for Love, which is so compact and intimate, seems like a departure from Life Among Giants, which is so multi-layered and covers so much time. Is this a purposeful shift?

BR: Life Among Giants took a long time to write for many reasons, but one reason was the huge cast and the grand sweep of time. When it was time to start a new book, I resolved to write one with just two main characters, one main setting, and make the central action happen in just a few days. The manuscript of Life Among Giants was huge, too, and it would take a while to come back from the various stages of editing. I used those months to start The Remedy for Love, one section at a time, and then used the even longer months of waiting for Life Among Giants publication day to keep drafting and stay sane. By the time the Giants paperback tour was done, The Remedy for Love was in production!

PH: You live in a not-large town in rural Maine. The setting of the book is beautifully rendered and you have a way, with this attention to very particular detail, of immersing the reader. The peripheral characters feel very real as well. And what happens when you walk into the local café after a book like this is published?

BR: Luckily, there are no cafés here! But seriously, Woodchurch, the town in the book, only somewhat resembles my town. The people in Remedy are thoroughly fictional. And most all of the action takes place deep in the woods, anyway, so I avoid trouble. Still, I’m sure people will be guessing.

PH: Do you spend a lot of time in the woods? Have you ever feared for your life there?

BR: I spend a lot of time in the woods, yes. Always have, since I was a little boy and didn’t have to home till dark. Now it’s a long walk or ski every day pretty much all year, and a lot of hiking and swimming, that kind of thing. My scares are usually more comic than life-threatening. Once I got lost in the fog and got off trail as it was getting dark. I didn’t mind the prospect of sleeping in the woods, but I didn’t want to miss dinner. So I did the Boy Scout thing of making straight lines by sighting on trees (you know, you pick three trees that form a straight line, walk forward one tree, and find another tree ahead in a straight line, and so on—this keeps you from going in circles, which is how people stay lost) and finally crossed a road, but miles from my car. Once, though, well, I should have feared for my life, but was too dazed to think that way: I’d taken an epic fall skiing far back in the woods here on a very cold morning, like ten below, all by myself, no phone in my pocket, no service out there anyway. I hit my face, snapped my neck back, and I knew I was hurt, even though there was no pain, but I couldn’t get up, couldn’t make myself move—things just weren’t working properly. After a long time in that weather (my sweat freezing), I started to go to sleep. I finally told myself I had to move, and then I did, got back on my feet and skied home a couple of miles. The pain didn’t start for a few days, happily, and the end of the story is a spinal fusion, three vertebrae in my neck. Titanium in there now…

PH: Why the title? This is a great love story that subverts itself from the start. You must have loved Frank Zappa.

BR: I love Zappa. Suzie Creamcheese and Sheik Yerbouti. Hours in Jimmy Naphen’s attic analyzing every nuance of note and word, and appreciating the strange combination of comic lyrics with very serious music. But this title comes from Thoreau. His remedy for love is to love more. Who knew old Henry had ever had a broken heart?

PH: What’s next?

BR: I’m working on the pilot script for Life Among Giants, which is in development at HBO. Still a lot of hoops and hurdles before we’ll get it on TV, but at least I’m getting paid. And also, main project, working on a new novel, which I’ve been calling Lucky Turtle. Takes place mostly in Montana, so I’m getting back out to your territory, also the territory of my youth. And a book of stories, which Algonquin will publish in 2016, The Girl of the Lake.

PH: Danielle reminded me so much of a woman I dated in the late 90s, whose wounded mercury and magic almost killed me. Who was your Danielle?

BR: What’s that? You’re breaking up. And I’ve got to cook dinner anyway. Thanks Peter, great talking! 

~~

>See all of Roorbach's books

>See all of Heller's books

Jane Lynch Gets Mean (fictionally speaking, that is)

MarleneQueenOfMeanEarlier this year, when I found out I was going to interview Jane Lynch during Book Expo America, I kind of got heart palpatations.  I love her in films, particularly Best in Show, saw her play Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of Annie last year (a show I'd never had a particular desire to see until I heard she was in it), and then of course, there's Glee...

Turns out, she's this totally amazing, down-to-earth children's book author. Yes, that's right--Jane Lynch, along with her co-authors and illustrator, have written a funny and smart picture book about bullying.  October is National Anti-Bullying Month, so it's only fitting that we should be talking about Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean  on October 1st.

The main character, Marlene, is a bully who is trying--as many do--to make friends and be popular with other kids, but just doesn't know how, and so resorts to being pushy and mean.  In the video below, Lynch and I talk about Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean, Lynch's own experience as a bully, and creating a character that stays true to her personality but learns how to tone down the sharp edge. 

 

 

How I Wrote It: "Dark, Dirty, Fierce" - Merritt Tierce, on "Love Me Back"

Tierce_headshot_800Who knew the life of a waitress could be so brutal, compelling, and nasty. Merritt Tierce's gripping and gritty debut novel Love Me Back is the story of Marie, a single mom in Texas who can't seem to stay away from the drugs, sex and bad choices that have created an obstacle course between her and adulthood. Fiercely written and uncompromisingly blunt, Tierce (a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree and a Rona Jaffe Award-winner) is a bold writer and a powerful new voice.

~

Ten words that describe Love Me Back?

Dark, dirty, fierce. Woman, mother, sex. Men, appetites, sex. Restaurants.

Reader

I wrote it for myself, and for Marie (the book’s narrator). I don’t write with an imaginary reader in mind, or to satisfy anyone other than myself--I write to make sentences that sound whole and original. I read for the same reason: not to find out what happens next but to hear the best words in the best order. When I say I wrote it for Marie I mean that I was inside her mind and I was trying to tell her story in a respectful, honest way. To the extent that Marie is a version of my younger self, especially in the first few chapters of the book, I wrote the book for all three of us--a way to salvage whatever was important about all that. Writing is the alchemy that refines the joyless experiences of my youth into something of value.
 
Tierce Space

I have a cedar closet that I’ve converted into a writing space. It smells wonderful and it’s small, about two feet deep and four feet wide. I love small spaces and I love being hidden away from the world. I put a rocking chair in there and my husband installed some reinforcements under the closet’s shelf so I can climb up and dream-nap. There are string lights and a paper lantern. On the walls I’ve posted many beloved talismans--handwritten notes from friends, drawings my kids made for me when they were little, some favorite photographs--as well as strong ideas I’ve had over the years, one per notecard.
 
That space is where I go when I can’t write anywhere else in my house. We have seven pets and three children, so our home is rarely quiet. If I’m not at home I can be exceptionally productive in transit. Something about being confined to an airport, or on a train/plane surrounded by strangers, opens the vault. Constraints provoke creativity.
 
Tools

I usually write on my MacBook Air. I write in Word (although I’m recently enamored of Pages), but I never write with the document in typical manuscript layout--portrait orientation, double-spaced, etc. I can’t stand to see that on my screen. The words look vulnerable and weak and I instinctively want to herd them closer to one another. I have a template I use to make the document look more like a book: landscape, two columns, justified, Garamond 13 pt, specific margins and spacing, among other elements I conform. If I could make the white background more page-colored I would. I often set the View mode to Focus so all the toolbars and rulers and menus disappear.

When I write by hand I like Pilot .38 pens. They are hard to find in stores because the tip is so fine, which is what I love about them. And while I’m more disturbed all the time by the firearms violence in this country, it’s not lost on me that I write with a .38 and I do believe that words are extraordinarily powerful. My pen is my weapon.
 
Soundtrack

I need either complete silence or loud, loud, engulfing sound. I finished one of my last drafts of Love Me Back at a goth club in Dallas. I sat in a high-backed red velvet chair at The Church and slipped right into flow state.
 
Fuel

When I’m really writing, especially something new, my body seems to enter a version of suspended animation--I suppose temporarily suppressing its normal operations to push more blood to my brain. I don’t become tired or hungry or thirsty until I’m out of the grip, and then I find I am behind on all kinds of systems maintenance.
 
Inspiration

I love weeding. I took a class on Chekhov from Allan Gurganus, and one of his many wise prescriptions was that we [writers] should all garden. I hadn’t had the yard or time to do that until after I graduated from Iowa, but over the past couple of years I have discovered he is absolutely right. I love visiting my plants every day and weeding is so restorative, for both my head and the flowers. Sometimes I’m disappointed if there aren’t any new weeds.
 
Frequently I fall asleep when I sit down to write, which used to frustrate me. I felt like it was a sign that I wasn’t disciplined enough to just force my mind into a keen, industrious state. But I’ve realized that my brain is actually taking a bath. It’s soaking itself in some sleep to wash off whatever film of clamor or preoccupation has built up. When I awake from these naps I can hear myself more clearly.
 
Walking is a great generator as well. I’ve written about this in a story called Everything I Did in Madrid. In that story, a writer can only have ideas while running--once the heart starts beating hard it gives up the good stuff.

National Book Foundation Announces the List of 5 Under 35

FacesEvery year, book lovers look forward to the National Book Foundation's announcement of their "5 under 35"—a list of young, talented authors selected by a committee of former National Book Award nominees. Each member on the committee picks one of the five new authors. Here are this year's picks and the authors who picked them:

  • Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead, July 2014) Selected by Aleksandar Hemon, 2008 National Book Award Finalist for The Lazarus Project
  • Redeployment Phil Klay, (Penguin Press, March 2014) Selected by Andrea Barrett, 1996 National Book Award Winner for Ship Fever and Other Stories
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, May 2014) Selected by Karen Tei Yamashita, 2010 National Book Award Finalist for I Hotel
  • Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W.W. Norton & Company, March 2015) Selected by Andre Dubus III, 1999 National Book Award Finalist for House of Sand and Fog

Hollywood, Behind the Camera

Hollywood Frame by FrameThe following is excerpted from Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen in Contact Sheets, 1951-1997.

Introduction, by Author Karina Longworth

In the pre-digital era, contact sheets offered a quick, visual summary of a photo shoot, and photographers, editors, and even subjects would make marks directly on the printed contact sheet pages to signify which images should be printed (and which absolutely shouldn't), how they should be cropped, and whether or not more shooting was needed. Once a frame of film was exposed, it couldn't be deleted, so contact sheets always include "mistakes" -- moments which the photographer, or the subject, may not want anyone to see. The contact sheets in Hollywood Frame by Frame are interesting for all of these reasons, and more. Most movie stars are given approval over which images of themselves are used for publicity purposes, and from the 1950s through the 1970s, the key way stars approved images was by making marks on contact sheets. Publicity departments, too, would use contact sheets to select the right, and wrong, ways to present the images representing a specific film or star. In allowing a glimpse into which images of stars like Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and James Dean commercially useful and which weren't, these contact sheets tell stories about how star personas are invented, while also exposing aspects of the individual celebrities' personalities which the entire industry of celebrity myth-making usually tries to squeeze out. 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Paramount/The Kobal Collection/Howell Conant)
 
Bus Stop
Bus Stop (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
 
Giant
Giant (© Sid Avery/mptvimages.com)
 
Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (Photo by Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West (Photo by Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Raging Bull
Raging Bull (Christine Loss)
 
Rear Window
Rear Window (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
 

From the Archives: How I Wrote It - A Conversation with Ken Follett

KenFollett_credit Barbara FollettWith the recent publication of Edge of Eternity, the third book in Ken Follett's massively epic Century Trilogy, I thought I'd re-share this conversation I had with Follett two years ago, when he published the second book in the series, Winter of the World.

We discussed his obsession with the Twentieth Century and his admiration for Stephen King.

~

I have vivid memories of my dad loaning me his copy of Ken Follett’s 1978 break-out bestseller, Eye of the Needle. I was in eighth grade and it was my first stab at a fat, hardcover grown-up book, which triggered a lifelong taste for literary spy thrillers. (Trevanian’s Shibumi and The Eiger Sanction were other teenaged discoveries). Not content to remain a contemporary thriller writer, however, Follett has explored other genres and eras in his varied and ambitious career, most notably the wildly successful Middle Ages stories of Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, World Without End.

Based on the success of World Without End, Follett began planning another long historical story that would mix real and fictional characters, “something with the same kind of scale and sweep,” he told me. The result is The Century Trilogy, an epic exploration of the wars and turmoil of the Twentieth Century. Winter of the World, the second book in the trilogy (the sequel to Fall of Giants), goes on sale today. I recently spoke with Follett by phone about the origins of the trilogy, how he brings his concepts and characters to life, about re-reading Dickens, and clipping photographs from magazines.

Why the Twentieth Century?

It struck me that this is actually the most dramatic century in the history of the human race. We had most of the terrible wars that we've ever had, we had revolutions, and we had enormous change, on a scale that’s never been seen before. And yet, of course, most of my readers were born in the Twentieth Century – so it’s where we all come from.

Once you’ve decided what the period is going to be, what’s next for you as far as creating the characters and the story?

FollettIt occurred to me almost immediately that this wasn’t one book, and it occurred to me to split it into three, and for each book to be based around a war--so it’s the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. So that gave me the structure. And then I worked for about six months on the overall concept--reading and research--and loosely planning the whole trilogy. And then I focused on the first book, Fall of Giants, and read in much more detail about the period, and began to block out the story. 

[For research, Follett relied heavily on The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, by Erik Hobsbawm; History of the First World War and History of the Second World War, by Basil Liddel Hart; and Orlando Figes's works on the Soviet Union. "He includes a great deal of colorful detail, which of course is exactly the kind of thing that the novelist wants to get hold of."]

Continue reading "From the Archives: How I Wrote It - A Conversation with Ken Follett" »

October is National Reading Group Month

Ggr_logo_rightOctober is National Reading Group Month and it's nice to see some of our favorite books of the past year make the annual "Great Group Reads" list.

Sponsored by the Women's National Book Association, each year a committee selects a list of books for reading groups and book clubs.

Below is this year's list, with the publisher in parentheses. (*An asterisk denotes a book that our editors had selected as a Best Book of the Month pick.)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)*
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (Back Bay Books)*
LilyCataract City, by Craig Davidson (Graywolf Press)
Children of the Jacaranda Tree, by Sahar Delijani (Atria)
The Commandant of Lubizec, by Patrick Hicks (Steerforth Press)
Euphoria, by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)*
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)*
Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe (Soho Press)
Marching to Zion, by Mary Glickman (Open Road Media)
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt (Little, Brown)
The Orphans of Race Point, by Patry Francis (Harper Perennial)
Painted Horses, by Malcolm Brooks (Grove Press)*
Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement (Hogarth)
The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber (Skyhorse Publishing)
RosieThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (Simon & Schuster)*
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books)
An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay (Black Cat)
What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins (Twelve)
Where Somebody Waits, by Margaret Kaufman (Paul Dry Books)
The World of Rae English, by Lucy Rosenthal (Black Lawrence Press)

The list was selected by a 26-member committee composed of writers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, publicists and dedicated readers, whose goal is to bring attention to underrepresented titles from independent publishers, small presses, and lesser-known midlist releases from larger houses.

For more general information, visit NationalReadingGroupMonth.org and wnba-books.org.

Graphic Novel Friday: Hello Kitty(!) at 40

Hello Kitty is 40 years old. How did this happen? I remember first encountering Hello Kitty’s visage in a puffy sticker pack belonging to my sister. Then she appeared on purses, backpacks, notebooks, clothes, cards, and soon celebrities began to co-opt her image—and then Hello Kitty was everywhere. To celebrate the 40th anniversary milestone, Perfect Square enlisted significant talent to tell 40 stories (plus one for good luck) in the life of Hello Kitty and her friends. The results are a lot of fun, no matter the age of the reader—and now I’m online looking for vintage Hello Kitty puffy stickers.

Top 10 Reasons to Read Hello Kitty, Hello 40: A 40th Anniversary Tribute

10. “Cast the Pie,” Chuck BB’s story, sets Hello Kitty and her crew in medieval times with cloaks, eye patches, helmets, torches, and a scary dragon.

9. Juan Calle sends Hello Kitty into outer-space in “Lost & Found,” complete with a lovable alien cyclops.

8. That cover…you cannot resist…that adorable cover.

7. Full color interior, although a few artists employ beautiful black and white pages as well.

6. The artists appear to be free to express their indie selves—like Theo Ellsworth’s weird Hello Kitty rollercoaster ride to…well, I’m not sure, or Cynthia Liu’s mushroom-laden “Hello Kitty in Dreamland.”

5. The spooky-themed stories like “The Picnic of Peril” by James Turner and “A Frightful Night!” by Brian Smith—perfect for trick-or-treaters in October.

4. Gene Luen Yang pits Hello Kitty against a minotaur in his story.

3. Every few pages, the stories stop to give the artists a chance to write “What Does Hello Kitty Mean to You?”

2. This is Hello Kitty at age 40. In another 40 years she will likely rule us all. Best to appease her now.

1. Reading or even flipping through this book is the equivalent of smiling: it’s infectious and best passed to a nearby friend.

Happy Birthday, Hello Kitty! (File under: things I never thought I'd type)

--Alex

Weekend Reading: Dames, Games, and Ghosts

As we put the finishing touches on our October reading and our Best of the Books of the Month lists, our attention turns to November as we try to get a jump on reading for the next round. (This good feeling of "being ahead" lasts about a week.) Here are a few things that we'll be taking a look at over the weekend. Happy Friday!

 

A Sudden Light

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Neal Thompson: Set almost entirely inside a crumbling mansion outside Seattle, this is a sprawling, big-hearted story about a boy, his woe-is-me father, his creepy-hot aunt, his demented grandfather, and the ghosts of his timber family’s past. For fans of Stein’s mega-bestseller, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and it’s four-legged hero/narrator, Enzo, this might not be the follow up you were expecting. It's got ghosts, not dogs. But in my view, that’s a good thing, and a bold move by Stein not to write Enzo II. (Available September 30)

Also reading:

 
Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong

Chris Schluep: I first read her book, Islam, about a decade ago. I followed that up with A History of God, which as much as any other source has informed my understanding of religion. In her new book, Armstrong traces the relationship between religion and violence through history—but her thesis is not what you might expect. She does not see a deep correlation between the two. That’s counter to what it seems most modern people think, which makes this book very interesting reading. She’s a fine, patient writer and super-smart. (Available October 28)

Also reading:

 
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

Seira Wilson: A suspenseful true crime story about 1920s Hollywood and the birth of the motion picture industry as we know it. In the high stakes world of production, distribution, and stardom, friends become enemies and rivalries run deep. Mann charts the trajectory of the times through the previously unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, and a man with his own deeply buried secrets. Would-be starlets, intoxicating fame, drugs, scandal, and power plays make for a fascinating nonfiction page-turner. (Available October 14)

Also reading:

 
The Game of Our Lives

The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt

Jon Foro: Although it gets a bit tiresome to hear soccer described as "the world's game," that distinction offers the unique opportunity to compare playing styles and leagues across the globe in an almost anthropological way ; i.e. by placing each in context of their economy and culture, they become lenses through which we can examine the larger character and history of a country itself. Goldblatt's book takes a look at England's wildly successful Premier League and its Thatcher-era resurrection from the ashes of hooliganism and tragedy. Also, I just love soccer a lot. (Available November 11)

Also reading:

 

You Said It: Customer Reviews of Amazon's Best Books of the Month

Now it's your turn. Here's what a few Amazon customers are saying about five of the books we selected as the Best Books of September. We should point out that since all of these are books that our editors deemed “best” of the month, we’re only including 5-star reviews. To get the full range of opinions--after all, everybody's got one when it comes to books--click through to the book page.

~

BoneThe Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Loved this, says K. L. Cotugno

Impossible to quantify. He writes like no other. Today he said there must be five elements to make a novel work: style, character, plot, structure and ideas. At least, I think that list is accurate. And that is what makes his work so involving. He can carry you away or center you, and the dystopian future he envisions, frightening as it may be, is truly believable. (Read the full review.)

~

A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, by Matt Richtel

Amazing, says Kristine Lofgren

More than a story about a tragedy, it is a tale with a cast of characters that will change the way you look at people and will absolutely change the way you look at the technology in your life. Richtel isn't encouraging people to step back into some 17th century tech-free zone. But he is encouraging readers to look at their own behaviors and find the courage to be honest with oneself. Highly entertaining, endlessly informative and gorgeously written. (Read the full review.)

~

FrenchThe Secret Place, by Tana French

Literary Fiction That Just Happens to be a Mystery, says Bonnie Brody "Book Lover and Knitter"

I found it difficult to put the book down. Ms. French has a magical way with words, a unique gift of narrative that is solely her own. At times I wanted to call it magical realism but it is not quite that. The novel grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let me go, even when it was finished. Ms. French wants to show the complexity of human nature and she navigates the internal and external worlds of her characters with a shimmering quality. (Read the full review.)

~

CosbyCosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker

Bill Cosby IS a very funny fellow!, says Deborah

Basically, I was THOROUGHLY caught up in this book. It's a long read, over 500 pages but completely worth it … The author does not ignore Cosby's human faults, and even Cosby doesn't want to dwell on them, but they are noted. This has become one of my favorite all time books, ....and now I'm going to find all my old Cosby recordings and play them again. I encourage you to do the same. (Read the full review.)

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WhatifWhat If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Essential Reading, says R. Eisenberg

Randall Munroe treats each question as if it had the gravity (a lot of gravity questions here- sorry) of your typical 'is there intelligent life in the universe?' (or on Earth, for that matter) yet maintains the attitude of early Bill Cosby- 'Why is there air?' This is one of the most captivating and thoroughly enjoyable books I have seen in a long time. (Read the full review.)

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11Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandell

A near-perfectly crafted text in terms of structure and style, imbued with a haunting depth of feeling and heart, says B. Capossere

“Quiet” and “lovely” are not usually words one reaches for when describing a post-apocalyptic novel. Not with the reverted-back-to-savagery cannibals; the road-raging-mohawk-sporting highway warriors; the gleeful told-you-so rat-a-tat of survivalist gunfire, or the annoying mumblespeak “braiiinnnnss” from the shambling zombies. But quiet and lovely are exactly the words I’d use to describe Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic novel from Emily St. John Mandel that is happily missing all the above and shows the modern world ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a gentle murmur. (Read the full review.)

A Conversation with Liane Moriarty, on Being a "Normal" Housewife

LiesLiane Moriarty broke through last year with her book The Husband’s Secret, still a bestseller both here and in her native Australia. This year, just on the eve of the publication of her next bestseller –- Big Little Lies -– she sat down with Sara Nelson to talk about what it’s like for a “normal” housewife to become one of the biggest success stories of the past few years.

Their conversation took place at Book Expo America in New York.

 

The Observer: David Cronenberg's Consuming New Novel

CONSUMED by David CronenbergAt some point in the late 70s or early 80s, David Cronenberg entered my house (read: my brain) through a late-night, and probably surreptitious, cable screening of Scanners. Like the set-top black box with its two-inch dial that switched the input between SHOWTIME and TV, that movie flipped a switch in my head, with its story of psychics and conspiracies and literally exploding heads. I was, after all, a young man of a certain age (who might have read a lot of horror), and I was hooked into his visions of Mugwumps, Brundleflies, and doppelgänger lady-doctors.

So, though it's been a while since I've checked in with his universe, I was intrigued when I saw an advance copy of his first novel, Consumed. On the top, it's about Naomi and Nathan, a pair of journalists and off-and-on-again lovers, in pursuit of parallel stories: for Naomi, the brutal murder of an iconic French philosopher and her fugitive husband; and for Nathan, the latest research project of Dr. Roiphe, who claimed fame through his discovery of an eponymous STD. At the bottom, they stumble into a strange and unnerving world of body modification, conspiracy, and... 3-D printing. Like many of his characters (again: literally), the story morphs and grows in unexpected directions. It's hard to explain, and it would probably only confuse the issue if I tried. I probably don't have to explain that it's not for everybody. But it's Cronenberg stuff: challenging, ambitious, and incisive in his inimitable way.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with him on the telephone, and I learned some things: Don't call what he does "body horror"; if you think you know what he's thinking, you're wrong; relax, because he's thoughtful and fascinating. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Consumed is available in hardcover and Kindle on September 30.

 

I read the book over the last two days—I really enjoyed it—and I spent yesterday trying to find a succinct way to describe it. It has a lot of the themes of your earlier work: disease and doppelgangers; bugs; self-mutilation and manipulated reality; mysterious powers. It’s called Consumed, and there areseveral kinds of consumption happening in the book. There’s a lot of stuff. How would you describe this book that you’ve written?

I absolutely wouldn’t describe it [laughs]. You’ve done a very good job. Honestly, working on it from the inside out, you don’t start—or at least I don’t start—with a concept, at all. It just grew organically from the characters; it has thriller elements and so on, but I don’t think it really qualifies as a thriller. It has even some slight sci-fi elements, but I wouldn’t at all call it sci-fi. Though, obviously, you can see connections with my movies, but it didn’t feel like to me. It felt completely different. So I’m really at a loss to describe it myself, other than to present the book itself. I think I’m really too much inside it to have that persepective.

It includes, in a big way, a lot of that “body horror” of your earlier work. Sex and disease, and now cannibalism. Did you intend you return to that, or is it something that just happened?

“Body horror” is an expression that somebody came up with, and I’ve never used it, myself. And I actually don’t even think it’s accurate, because it’s not really a question of horror; it’s a question of almost wonder. It’s always been my feeling--first subliminally, and then explicitly--that the first fact of human existence is the human body, and that that is what we are. So much of art, and particularly religion, tries to steer away from that reality, or that understanding, and suggests that we must transcend the body--that we can live outside the body after the body dies, even. The afterlife and so on. I’ve never believed any of that.

If you’re going to be examining the human condition--what it is to be a human being, which is maybe the most broad definition of art that you can have--you immediately have to deal with the reality of the human body, in some way or another. And of course, if you’re a painter or a filmmaker, someone in the visual arts, the thing that you are dealing with the most is the human body. As a filmmaker, that’s what we photograph the most: the human body. That’s the essence of what we do. So, to say “body horror,” to me, is completely diminishing and a simplistic version of what my concerns are.

Some people--[for] my interest in insects, because they find insects kind of creepy or scary or whatever--call it “insect horror.” [laughs]. But to anybody who loves insects, who is fascinated by them and thinks they’re wonderful, horror is completely the wrong word. So that’s how I feel about this “body horror thing.” I think it’s a misnomer. ... Everybody’s obsessed with their bodies in one way or another, whether it’s in the context of sexuality, or it’s in the context of growing up, or it’s in the context of aging, as I have been doing myself. That’s why I think that it’s a shorthand that is too short. It’s misleading, actually.

You intertwine the physical elements of the story with a lot of commentary on consumerism, that very obviously ties into the title. You write at one point, “Consumerism and the internet had fused.” What are you trying to say about the effect of that sort of ubiquitous availability of everything, of instant gratification?

I’m saying many things, and it’s hard to summarize. And in a way, I’m really being an observer, rather than a critic or commentator, through my characters. I have a couple, a French philosophy couple who are modeled somewhat on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and their philosophy is an attempt to redeem consumerism. It’s very easy to demonize consumerism, they feel, and to say it’s a bad thing. But they are saying, No, it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a very human thing, and a good thing. And that it inspires passion and obsession and focus on creativity, and human creativity, and the creativity involved in creating consumer items, and so on. Now, in some way I’m satirizing them. But in another way I’m saying, But you know, they could have a point. In other words, this isn’t a book with messages for the world. It’s really a question of observing and meditating on things and trying to find the reality and the truth that are actually quite complex, and cannot be boiled down.

That’s similar to your films in that you don’t just stop at one or two ideas. Often they just keep going; where you think you’re going to find some kind of resolution or meaning, they actually keep exploring deeper into the void.

Well, it’s because I feel that there are no absolutes. It’s very difficult to find to find something that’s an absolute. In fact, there probably is no such thing. Even the question of What is reality? And certainly that is dealt with in the novel, as well. Especially as it’s communicated by the Internet: The reality as mediated by the Internet is a very iffy thing. But I say, to the extent that reality is neurology, the Internet makes perfect sense. You know, you’re sitting in a room, you have your pet dog at your feet. You’re both occupying the same space in the room, basically. But there are two completely separate realities there: the dog’s reality and your reality. If you were suddenly in the dog’s head, and had the dog’s sense of smell, and hearing and particular kind of vision, suddenly reality would be a completely different thing for you. And of course, people use drugs and alcohol and so on in order to derange their neurology so that they occupy a different reality. Reality is actually not an absolute; it’s a variable for each sentient being. And the Internet makes that a really, really kind of obvious, forceful thing because, as we know, reality as presented by the Internet is incredibly variable and deceptive. The interesting thing for me about writing a novel is that there was—compared with movie making—a lot more freedom.

David Cronenberg by Myrna Suarez

Is there something about the novel form that facilitated the story, more than film?

I could not have made—I would not have done this—as a movie. The structure, for example. There’s a 40-page section where Aristide Arosteguy [the Sartre character mentioned above—ed.] gives you a first-person monologue. You can’t do that in a movie. You’d have to find some other cinematic structure for it. And I find screenwriting is a really strange hybrid kind of writing, because the only thing you write in a screenplay that actually—literally—gets up on the screen is the dialogue. It’s a very rigorous, compressed, demanding form, which does not encourage kind of intimacy and great expressiveness and discursiveness. It’s like a haiku as opposed to an epic poem. ... And I found that writing a novel was much closer to directing than it was to writing a screenplay, because you cast it, you do the costumes, you do lighting, you do the editing, you do the music. None of those things you actually do in a screenplay, because you have a whole crew that’s going to do that stuff for you. So, for example, nobody likes you to describe in really great detail what somebody’s wearing, or what their face looks like, because you’re going to cast somebody who doesn’t look like that. And you’re going to have a costume designer who doesn’t want to do what you suggested in the screenplay. So you leave that stuff out. It’s a very strange hybrid kind of writing, screenwriting, and I felt very freed to move around within the world of the novel. And when I finished it, I thought, Yeah, of course the next step is to make a movie out of this book. And then I thought, But you know it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, you’d kind of have to completely change your approach to it because it isn’t really all that amenable to the screen form. And then, I finally thought, I actually don’t want to make a movie out of this book, because I’ve done it already. I would be bored, you know? It’s like trying to put it into a tiny container that just can’t absorb the entire… all the fluids.

That would be an intense movie. Speaking of moving around inside the novel, another kind of consumption in the book is consumer electronics. And it occurred to me that they are electronics that consumed their users, and your characters are obsessed with them, at least Nathan and Naomi. You have a lot of detailed descriptions about lenses and ISOs and things like that, so your characters kind of see the world through their lenses and their devices.

They do.

Is that, in any way a surrogate for yourself as a filmmaker in creating this book?

I don’t think so, although… No, I really don’t think so. It probably has more to do with my own techno-obsession. I’ve always been a geek. I couldn’t wait to get rid of typewriters and get into word processing; I couldn’t wait to get rid of film and get into digital. ... I’m happy with the way all of those things have developed. But of course, my understanding of technology is that it is, however complex, an extension of our bodies and our brains. Even when it comes to massive war machines. And so it’s natural that the technology comes back and sort of burrows back into us, because it is us.

In the 50s in sci-fi, there was a lot of the perspective that technology is inhuman and dehumanizing. But I always thought that was wrong, because it is only human: We are the only ones who create technology that way. And so it is an expression of every aspect of ourselves, the good parts and the bad parts. Nathan and Naomi are just doing what comes naturally, to allow their nervous systems to fuse with digital technology. Because without thinking about it that way necessarily, they recognize it as themselves. It’s sort of the return of the technological extension: It kind of curves back and fuses with us again. And of course, kids who are younger even than you [full disclosure: I am 46, ahem--ed.], never mind me, it’s even more obvious. I mean, a three-month old playing with an iPad. They can do it.

I don’t have a critic’s perspective in that I’m illustrating this in order to show you how bad it is. I’m just illustrating it. I’m just commenting on it. I’m observing it. And I’m not tipping it one way or the other, but I’m letting my characters tip it one way or the other as it affects their lives. It has all the good and the bad of what it is to be human. And so some of it is really great and good and creative and positive, and some of it is really hideous. [laughs] As we see every day on the Internet.

There are often behind-the-scenes agencies in your work, and this time it’s North Korea, which is a fascinating place right now.

That’s a first for me, really, because it’s an actual entity. Usually I invent those.

What was it about North Korea?

It’s strange. It kind of popped up organically and spontaneously from the section [from the book] of the Cannes Film Festival; suddenly there was a North Korean film there, and it just sort of sprouted from there. But of course, I’m always exploring the ways that human beings create reality, shape reality for themselves. The characters in Crash created a strange subterranean underground reality for themselves. And of course, religions do that. Cults do that. You even see brand cults...

So obviously there’s an innate human desire to create sort of a communal reality. In my movies, I’ve been dealing with it on a small scale, small conspiracies, relatively speaking. But suddenly you have North Korea, which is a whole country where a kind of artificial reality has been created. Of course, all totalitarian countries do that, in one way or another. I knew the story about the kidnapping of the film director by the Korean president. It just all sort of clicked, and suddenly there was this strange North Korean element. But it does connect with all those other communal, reality-creating groups that I’ve dealt with.

While reading this, you sense or you want to sense, influences that you might have had. American Psycho came to mind for its brand obsessions. Poe, because I felt this really strong House of Usher thing with the Roiphes [a father-daughter pair with a strange relationship and one really strange compulsion]. And Gibson, for all of his bio-techno stuff. Are there books or authors that are top of mind for you when you think about your filmmaking and writing?

You know, I think I’m beyond the point where I could be influenced by current writers. I think my literary tastes were formed very early on. So, I go back to Nabokov and to Burroughs. But I read [past tense] a lot of sci fi. ... There are so many influences in one way or another. It’s the question of Is it really an influence, or are we both being influenced by the same things in the zeitgeist, you know what I mean? I can’t really sort out what is an influence or what is just We’re on the same wavelength.

Videodrome, for example. I think it, in fact, has influenced a lot of the people that later might be considered to have influenced me. It’s a tangle, and it’s very organic--it’s like the neurons tangled in your brain. [laughs] I don’t mean to say this in order to suggest that I’m beyond influence, but when it comes to writing a novel, I’m more influenced by prose style and so on. And I wondered what my voice would be; I had no idea. It just came out, and I have no idea what it might remind somebody of. But in terms of the content--as opposed to the way it’s expressed on the page--[it was] formed long ago, I would say.

With your work, I’ve often been compelled to laugh. Often it’s real uneasy laughter, of course. Is humor intentional?

Oh, I hope so. If it’s not, then I’ve really screwed up. [laughs] No, I mean, there’s a famous incident where someone at Cannes asked me Have you ever considered doing a comedy? And I’ve said I don’t think I’ve done anything but comedy. All of my movies are funny, certainly on one level or another. That’s another reason why the whole “body horror” thing has to be very minimalistic. And I would say Consumed is definitely a really funny book. It’s dry humor in some ways, I would say. I think it’s kind of tender and sensitive and quite passionate. ... In any case, there is humor everywhere in the book, on every page. Definitely.

Behind the Book: Lauren Oliver on "Rooms"

RoomsSince her debut novel, Before I Fall, Lauren Oliver has established herself as a beloved author of young adult novels, most recently with Panic, one of our Best YA Books of the Month (March 2014).  Oliver has also successfully ventured into the world of children's books in recent years, and yesterday her first book for adults was released. Rooms is another shining example of what makes Oliver so popular, and in the same way that her YA books are often sought out by older readers, I think many of her young adult readers will fall in love with this one. 

Rooms is the story of a fractured family, a house haunted by the past, and connections between the living and dead told through the voices of multiple narrators.  Earlier this year, I met up with Oliver at Book Expo America in New York to talk about Rooms, what it was like to write her first adult novel, ghost stories, and what's next--as you'll see in the video below, this is an author who stays busy

Books referenced in our interview with Lauren Oliver:

TurnofScrew VanishingGirls

Goodreads Interviews David Mitchell

Our thanks to our friends at Goodreads for this interview with David Mitchell, whose new novel, The Bone Clocks, is Amazon's Best Book of the Month Spotlight pick for September.

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MitchellIn the literary world David Mitchell is the stuff of legend. He's been nominated for the Man Booker prize five times, with critics and legions of fans consuming his works. Some of his forays are straightforward, such as the linear historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Others not so much. The novel Cloud Atlas rubber bands from time period to time period and back and forth between genres with dizzying acuity. The works are always formally complex, opus-like, ambitious—and funny. Mitchell's latest is just another piece of the puzzle. The Bone Clocks centers around Holly Sykes, a divining rod for psychic phenomena who is somehow caught in the middle of a war between two immortal groups: one that needs to devour humans to subsist, the other that can reincarnate without killing. We coaxed the Irishman writer to tell us about opera, Scully versus Mulder, and how he loves Goodreads member questions.

Goodreads: Let's start with not your average question. Joseph Formaggio, a Goodreads member and associate professor of physics at MIT, has a question for you. He says, "In his book Ghostwritten (which I very much enjoyed and placed as my top ten books I have ever read) he invokes a physicist named Heinz Formaggio as a character. As a physicist whose last name happens to be Formaggio, I was always curious whether he completely fabricated the name or somehow flipped through some list of graduate students and settled on mine. :) I could also say it was complete coincidence, but that seems to go against much of the theme in Ghostwritten anyway."

BoneDavid Mitchell: Ooooooh, I love that question. Well, in 1989, I taught English at a summer school for Italian high school kids in Edinburgh. I had a student named Nicola Formaggio. I know that the name means "cheese," and what a name. I keep a name bank in my notebook where I write great names that I find that I could never make up. Formaggio was there. Heinz is somehow Germanic. Formaggio is Italian. I think that section of the story happened in Switzerland, which is both German and Italian, so I imagined a German woman falling in love with an Italian man and them having a kid called Heinz Formaggio. That's my answer. What an original question! Never answered it in my life.

Crowd-sourced interviews are kind of my favorite. Of course the questions are going to be more diverse than any sane individual journalist could ever think of. Bring them on!

GR: Well, many of our members are interested in how you structure your work, "the multiverse"—the interlocking narratives, fragmentation, and jumping from one story to another, often skipping from the past to the future. Goodreads member Simone Mailman compares your work to "a fugue or a symphony." What draws you to that approach?

DM: I think it has something to do with the fact that I basically write novellas, not novels. My optimum parabola is about 80 to 120 pages long, rarely much shorter, rarely much longer. This means to build up novels from these novellas I need to interlock, interconnect, and insert hyperlinks.

GR: Goodreads member Alonso declared, "Fragmentation is an essential part of your narrative form." He adds he'd like to know if it comes from the decentralized and fragmentary Internet age as described by Marshall McLuhan or if it's a personal preference.

DM: Fragmentation is an essential part of my work—is it? I haven't been asked to think of this before. I can see why a reader would say that. I do leave a narrative in midair and move on to the next narrative, apparently having left the previous character dangling off a cliff. However, I do come back to it eventually. I would respectfully suggest that my narratives are more apparently fragmented than they are really fragmented.

GR: Then there is the concept of time in your work. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was historical fiction, "Cloud Atlas bent genres and jumped from the historical past to the recent past, the modern era and present, and finally to two versions of the distant future," and The Bone Clocks similarly skips from one time period to the next. Goodreads member Ted Flanagan asks, "Do you find one period more or less suited for your brand of thematic storytelling or narrative devices? Do you enjoy one more than the other?"

DM: It's not that I tailor what I want to write to narrative styles of the past, present, and future. It's just...I have ideas for books. Some attract me more than others and beat the competition, and that becomes the book at hand. I then have to sit down and work out how to tell it. I will use any means at my disposal in the past, present, and future of literature to help me do that. It makes a weird sort of sense...the book decides what the narrative style will be. It's the book that decides whether I use tricks from past masters, from present masters, or I try to concoct my own, which you might want to call the future because it hasn't happened yet.

GR: In The Bone Clocks several of the characters from your previous novels make an appearance, such as Luisa Rey from Cloud Atlas and Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It's a unique aspect of your work, the level of interconnectedness between books. To take it a step further, Goodreads member Marlon would like to ask, "Do you see your work as an artist [creating] one contiguous whole and view each progressive novel as a continuation of what came before? Or is it just something a bit clever and fun for you as a writer to include as an aspect of your work?"

DM: For my first two or three books it was the latter. Now more and more it's the former. I'm beginning to see an über-book that overlays everything I write. Everything I write is an individual chapter. The answer has changed over time. I see it as an architect of an ever-morphing building that puts out tentacles, adds stories, and billows deeper. Very interesting!!

GR: For readers—and I imagine you as well—having those characters reappear in your books is almost like being able to spend time with an old friend.

DM: It means I never have to say good-bye to anybody. It's less like spending time with an old friend and more like hiring an actor who you know will bring the certain character traits to the new production.

GR: That comment indicates that you are in complete control over your characters. Some writers we interview feel as if the characters are leading them around.

DM: I'm in control of the hiring and firing, but when you take somebody on, you then need to read the story from inside their skin and through their retinas. How they see things can still surprise you. I don't want to make that sound mystical. It's not really mystical. You can't always predict what your imagination will do—and amen for that.

GR: In The Bone Clocks Holly Sykes is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena...

DM: It gets even madder by part five. She's not only a lightning rod—by that point she's a chess piece in a wildly fluctuating game of chess between two circles of immortals. So what you just said gets amplified, and the knob gets turned up to 11 in part five.

GR: Speaking of psychic phenomena, do you believe in much of it? Reincarnation? Telepathy?

DM: I believe in the possibility of reincarnation. I can't believe in the certainty of it because I've got no proof. I went to a psychic at a seaside resort in Kent, and he was rather like Dwight Silverwind in The Bone Clocks. He's generally perceptive, clever, fake, but occasionally he's quite sure of some things. I would be more of a Scully than a Mulder.

GR: Did the psychic in Kent tell you anything that was true?

DM: I think he was reading me, and that's a valid skill. Just because a psychic is fake and has no psychic ability (because arguably there is no such thing), that doesn't mean the psychic is incapable of doing good for the person who has gone to see them. Sometimes a fake psychic can function as an untrained counselor or inadvertently help a person with a problem understand something about himself or herself. Now very often that doesn't happen, and they just take the money of the gullible. I don't want to dismiss every psychic as a charlatan, because even if there is no such thing as psychic phenomenon, it can sometimes be good for someone to have an objective pair of ears—[even] if they need to pay for them.

GR: Your work takes you to some very dark places. Do you ever get nightmares while writing your books?

DM: No, in a way my novels are the lightning rods for my nightmares. I do love a good nightmare. I kind of wish I had a few more—well, that's a very rash thing to wish for because people have been in war situations and really do have them, so it's vaguely rude to them to express what I just expressed. But certainly I love hearing about people's nightmares. If my daughter wakes up with a nightmare, then I'm first there to parasitically extract the juicy details. You can't really invent them. You get some really good nightmares from your kids sometimes.

GR: You have a personal connection with Japan; you've lived in Hiroshima, and your wife is Japanese. Goodreads member David asks, "In several of your books (number9dream, Jacob de Zoet, Ghostwritten) you have portrayed Japanese characters in an extremely convincing manner, not only in characterization but in the actual style of narration that I have come to be familiar with as an avid reader of Japanese fiction (not to mention spending much time in Japan). I have never seen another Gaijin writer who has been able to so closely ape Japanese conventions of narration and characterization (not James Clavell, certainly not Arthur Golden). I would love if you could relate some of the means and processes by which you did your research and 'got into the mind-set' of this particular cultural style."

DM: Thank you very much. Means and processes? Lived there. Learned some of the language. Married one. Read the seminal texts. Read some of the great turn-of-the-century Japanese novels and think about what they have in common: certain austerity of style, certain poetry of understatement. Apparently there is no word in Spanish for "understatement," but I think it would be very easy to say in Japanese.

If you live anywhere for eight years and keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed, then you tend to understand what it is about that culture that makes it distinct. You can then relate that to your characters. You come to understand the invisible, unwritten constitution by which Japanese people live. You ensure that your characters obey the same constitution or abide by the same constitution of behavior and of speech. No mystery really. Just observation.

GR: Could you recommend a few Japanese books?

DM: Sure. I recommend The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. Another one I'd recommend is a book called Silence by Shusakū Endō.

GR: What books have influenced you as a writer?

DM: About 2,000 ones. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Also The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.

GR: You've written several librettos for opera. How did you decide to embark on that experience, and how does it compare to writing novels?

DM: I've only written two. Just to learn from. I wanted to learn about the opera world for a novel I'll write one day. It's a peculiar form—a total art form. You have narrative, visual arts, costume, choreography, orchestral, and vocal music. All glued together with the logic of dreams. It's a strange, beautiful art form, and I am intrigued by it, but for the time being I'll be concentrating on novels. I would view my way as a librettist as a foray.

GR: The way you describe it sounds a bit like the concept often attributed to Wagner: Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of creating a work of art that synthesizes multiple forms and creates a sort of über-artwork.

DM: I think I just unintentionally plagiarized Wagner. Thank you for pointing that out. That's who I must have heard it from. He's dead, right, isn't he?

GR: Wagner definitely made art on a grand scale. Your written work has a similar element of Gesamtkunstwerk, pulling from various narrative techniques, styles, visions to create something larger and impactful. It's very symphonic, your work. You've got the brass trumpeting, the strings pushing the melody forward in big curlicues, the layers of drums and woodwinds.

DM: I do build bold, big narratives from novellas, in that I do build them up more than publish novellas one by one. I suppose that I'd agree that I'm a maximalist, so analogies, metaphors with symphonies or operas would not be inappropriate. I use transitive double-negatives like that: "would not be inappropriate." That's a bit of an operative trait in itself, isn't it?

GR: It's unique, that opera world.

DM: I think if you're in that world, opera is the real world. Our world is just a pale, inconsequential hive of bland little people.

GR: Tell us about your writing process.

DM: I drink tea and write at the kitchen table when the kids are at school. It's a nice, airy room in the house, and it's out of Internet range, so I can't be tempted to waste time, looking stuff up on news websites. I feel wasting time brings postponement.

GR: Last one! What's next?

DM: Not as immersed as I'd like to be, but I'm knee-deep into my next one. I'm writing a novella before I start on the next novel. Some bits and pieces that I wanted to give a home to. So yeah, I'm knee-deep in my next shortish project.

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> See more author interviews at Goodreads

 

The Best Books of September: Part Two

Last week I wrote about the Editors' first five picks in September’s Best Books of the Month and promised to write about the rest of the picks this week. Here they are:

BettyPick #6: If you want to hear straight from the woman who has spent nearly forty years as the legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, Betty Halbreich's I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist is the book for you. Amazon's Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, certainly was interested. As she wrote in her review of the book, "I want this woman who practically invented personal shopping 40-plus years ago to come to my house, analyze my closet – and retool my wardrobe, and, thus, my life." But Nelson points out that there's much more to the story. Halbreich had to recover from a tough marriage, a nervous breakdown, and the forces of the times that were opposed to working women—all before she could reinvent herself. In Nelson's words, "let Halbreich take you back to a time when women wore brooches, men donned hats, and everybody had a guiltless cocktail before dinner."

MandelPick #7: What would it be like to lose everything you have and have ever known? Emily St. John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven asks that question, then it asks another: What would you then try to get back? As Amazon Senior Editor, Neal Thompson, writes, "What’s touching about the world of Station Eleven is its ode to what survived, in particular the music and plays performed for wasteland communities by a roving Shakespeare troupe, the Traveling Symphony, whose members form a wounded family of sorts. The story shifts deftly between the fraught post-apocalyptic world and, twenty years earlier, just before the apocalypse, the death of a famous actor, which has a rippling effect across the decades. It’s heartbreaking to watch the troupe strive for more than mere survival. At once terrible and tender, dark and hopeful, Station Eleven is a tragically beautiful novel that both mourns and mocks the things we cherish."

HobbsPick #8: Jeff Hobbs' nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League doesn't try to hide behind its title. You know from the start how it's going to end. But getting there is where the real story lies. The author, a novelist by trade, was the Yale roommate of Rob Peace, a brilliant kid from Newark who overcame incredible odds to get out of his rough neighborhood and begin to make a life for himself. As you read the book, you grow to love Rob. You will root for him even as you find yourself angry at some of the decisions he makes; and you're there beside Hobbs as he uncovers more and more about his former roommate's life. This is a riveting and heartbreaking read, as Rob Peace seems always to have been on the outside—the resented geek in the hood, and the inner city black man in the Ivy League. For more on how the book about Robert Peace got written, see here.

AtwoodPick #9: She's baaack. Margaret Atwood returns with Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, of which Amazon's Erin Kodicek says, "these tales are fun, which is odd considering the sinister current that runs through many of them." Kodicek points to the stories "Revenant" ("one of three cleverly interconnected tales"), as well as “The Dead Hand Loves You” ("Atwood playfully skewers the horror genre then gleefully indulges in it"), and “Torching the Dusties” ("ominously tongue-in-cheek") as standouts. "Fans of Margaret Atwood will certainly delight in this collection," says Kodicek. "But beware, the Stone Mattress will make groupies of old and new readers alike." 

 

WatersPick #10: Sarah Waters is back, too. the author of Fingersmith and The Little Stranger has written a novel set just after World War I entitled The Paying Guests. The novel settles in with the widowed Mrs. Wray and her 26-year-old daughter, Frances, who pass each day in their home outside London very much like the day before. But Amazon's Kodicek writes, "Take a deep breath as you’re reading, because as soon as you are you lulled into the calm cadence of these lives, the Wray’s tenants—the 'paying guests' they have taken in to help with the bills—turn everything topsy-turvy, and by the novel’s conclusion, you have gone from straight-up period piece, to love story, to edge-of-your-seat crime thriller."

 

PitreDebut Spotlight: Every month, the editors pick a debut writer whose book we loved and who we plan to keep an eye on through the coming years. In September that was Michael Pitre, a marine who served two tours in Iraq and the author of the novel Fives and Twenty-Fives. The title refers to the ground rules a road team follows when bomb searching. As Senior Editor Neal Thompson writes, "When they stop to repair a pothole, they first scan the immediate five meters; a bomb detonated in that circle would obliterate them all. Next they sweep the twenty-five meters in every direction. In putting us right in the heat and the dust, inside the helmets and Kevlar vests that chafe the skin, Michael Pitre shows us that the battlefields of modern warfare are far more complex and bizarre than the American public might imagine." The story is told from three unique perspectives: a platoon leader, his medic, and their American culture-loving Iraqi translator. Thompson writes, "Pitre is a nervy, funny writer, with an ear for dialogue and banter. And he’s not shy about commenting on America’s role in the world, and on the haunted postwar lives of its soldiers." Learn more about Michael Pitre here.

See you again next month. Until then, you can find all of the Amazon Editors' September's Best Books of the Month here.

Season of "The Witch": Fairy Tales for the Modern World

The Witch: And Other Tales Re-ToldIn a world that loves to categorize writers – he writes horror, say; she’s a journalist – Jean Thompson is uncategorizable. In fact, the only consistent thing you can say about the author of several award winning novels and collections (my favorite: Who Do You Love?) is that she’s always interesting and good – and, yes, surprising. This month Thompson releases a new collection of tales that seem Halloweenish, The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told, in that they’re inspired by fairy tales – grim and not so – of her youth. We asked Thompson to complete a specialized version of our Amazon Asks.

The Witch will be available September 25.

What’s the elevator pitch for your book?

I rewrote some classic fairy tales with ordinary people as characters. It's great, really!

What inspired you to do that?

I'm interested in what makes stories compelling, and what gives them staying power. Fairy tales reach so far back into our collective past, and new versions of them constantly evolve and surface. We seem to have a very human need for stories that end with the triumph of the good, the innocent, the brave, the virtuous, with obstacles overcome and the world set to rights. And often enough, only some kind of supernatural intervention can overcome the very long odds of this happening. There's a lot of wish fulfillment you can't get anywhere else.

Your books usually address the everyday experiences of ordinary Americans. Fairy tales almost always have magical elements. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the mundane in this book?

I'm a connoisseur of the mundane, in that everything I write comes out of closely observed ordinary life, and is grounded in reality. There are no fairy godmothers in The Witch, no amazing transformations, or rather, anything that might partake of the magical can also be explained by psychology or circumstance. And yet, if this doesn't sound too contradictory, I believe that the world we live in is the only real source of magic: of delight, of unexpected fortune, of second chances, new beginnings, of all that transports us.

These tales, as you’ve rewritten them, are quite subversive, politically and socially. (Cinderella has a drunken encounter; Hansel and Gretel deal with the foster care system) How do these stories reflect your own political views?

Thank you for introducing the word 'subversive', which I shall promptly add to my lexicon of self-description. Subversive sounds so much better than cranky and mistrustful. I guess I'm not inclined to take things at face value, or to believe official party lines. In politics, this probably stems from coming of age during the Vietnam war and later Watergate, when even the paranoid were a little shocked to discover the extent of official lying. In my fiction, I'm fond of characters, especially young characters, who see through cover stories and lectures to real motives. Yes, I suppose I was a difficult child.

What’s the last dream you remember?

I have a lot of fairly detailed anxiety dreams: forgetting appointments, not being able to find keys, and most often, being lost or trapped in some strange landscape or building with doors that won't open, endless staircases leading nowhere, and the like. Always happy to wake up.

What’s your most memorable author moment?

Giving a bookstore reading of a story where a character has a blind date with a man who had an unrequited crush on her many years ago in college, then afterwards, signing a book for a guy who once asked me out many years ago in, etc. Memorable, and not in a good way.

What superpower would you most like to have, not including invisibility or flight?

The superpower I'd choose, if invisibility is off the table: I'd like to be able to win arguments. With anybody, about anything. So there.

Ma, Pa, Yo, and Up: Celebrating Two-Letter Words, with Roz Chast

101Last week, cartoonist and illustrator Roz Chast was named a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction for her illustrated memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? She's also recently collaborated with singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) on his quirky-cute book, 101 Two-Letter Words, which goes on sale next week. (Sept. 29, Norton)

101 Two-Letter Words is an ode to Scrabble-friendly words such as et, id, and aa (a type of lava). Each of the 101 words is accompanied by a four-line poem by Merritt, and a cartoon by Chast, who calls herself a fan of Merritt's music and who recently told the Wall Street Journal that the collaboration "was so much fun."

That's how we'd describe the book, too--so much fun.

Here's a sampling...

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A few no-brainer two-letter words: at, go, hi, no, up.

A few of the more obscure ones: ka, oe, qi, xu, za.

 

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Merritt explains in the book's introduction that, as a musician who's often on the road, he plays a lot of Words With Friends on his phone. He started writing these poems as mnemonic devices to help him remember the two-letter words that were acceptable in Scrabble.

 

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 ~

RozWith the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt has written, produced, and recorded ten albums, including 69 Love Songs, which was named one of the 500 best albums of all time by Rolling Stone.

Roz Chast has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1978. Her cartoons have been collected in What I Hate, Theories of Everything, and The Party After You Left. She also illustrated The Alphabet from A to Y, with Bonus Letter Z, the best-selling children’s book by Steve Martin.

> See all of Roz Chast's books

Meet the Birds of Pandemonium

The Birds of PandemoniumWelcome to Pandemonium Aviaries. Here, more than 350 birds spanning 40 species have found sanctuary under the care of Michele Raffin. Her passion for these exotic creatures--through rehabilitation of injured animals, breeding, and the return of as many as possible to their natural habitats--is doing the hard work of (hopefully) pulling many back from the edge of extinction.

The Birds of Pandemonium is the story of Raffin's extraordinary efforts, but she's far from the only star. We meet many of the birds themselves, and through their personalities (and you'd be hard-pressed not to consider them individuals after reading these pages), we come to understand the challenges they face and the importance of ensuring their continued existence and success.

Enjoy these images and short biographies of some of the book's more memorable characters.

 

Meet Some of the Birds of Pandemonium

 

 Tico, Blue and gold macaw

Tico is extremely intelligent and can pick just about any lock. A trickster who loves to play practical jokes, he will mercilessly mimic other animals—and then watch as I become totally confused and slapstick ensues. Tico used to enjoy dancing with me, his body hugged to my chest, his head resting under my chin, until he dumped me for Mylie, a gorgeous Catalina macaw.

Tico, Blue and gold macaw

Tico, Blue and gold macaw


Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

When Gwen died of a heart attack, her grieving mate, Lancelot, cried so mournfully that I began the search for a new mate for him. Today, almost 40 percent of green-naped pheasant pigeons (GNPPs) in the U.S. live at Pandemonium, the largest population in the country. GNPPs are threatened due to the destruction of their native New Guinean tropical rain forest and there are very few places that have been successful at breeding them. Pandemonium Aviaries is one of those places.

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

 

Continue reading " Meet the Birds of Pandemonium" »

Books-to-Film: Jonathan Tropper's "This Is Where I Leave You" -- Watch the Movie Trailer

When Jonathan TropTropperper's novel This Is Where I Leave You was published in 2009--and soon after named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Year--our reviewer, Daphne Durham, described the book as "wickedly funny ... as much about a family's reckoning as it is about one man's attempt to get it together."

Tropper's protagonist is now being portrayed by Jason Bateman, in the film of the same name, which is releasing this weekend. It also stars Tina Fey and Jane Fonda.

Listen to Durham speak with Tropper in this audio podcast.

At the time, Tropper described his protagonist as a man "dealing with the complete unraveling of his life ... he just wonders how much further he has to sink before he starts climbing back up."

In her review, Durham called Tropper "a master of the cutting one-liner that makes you both cringe and crack up.

"But what elevates his novels and makes him a truly splendid writer is his ability to create fantastically flawed, real characters who stay with you long after the book is over."

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