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Recipe Road Test: The Slanted Door's Ginger Braised Chicken

SlantedDoor2014 has been a really big year for cookbooks so deciding which one would be in the top spot for Best of the Year was tough. In the end, though, The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food really has it all. 

Let me start by saying that this cookbook is utterly beautiful and interesting to look through--every single page of text, be it recipe or brief essay, is accompanied by a full page photograph opposite. 

Broken into three acts according to the restaurant's location, The Slanted Door cookbook complements it's recipes with an entertaining history of a restaurant and the modern Vietnamese cuisine that has made it a top destination for food lovers living in, or traveling to, San Francisco for nearly two decades. 

The recipes that pack these pages are gorgeous, well explained, and inspirational.  The Slanted Door's Shaking Beef is one of the dishes I order every time I go, along with a couple of Ginger Limeade cocktails and the Stir Fried Green Beans--recipes for all of these are included in the cookbook, along with a wealth of other mouth-watering drinks and edibles you can now try at home.  Last week I made the Ginger Braised Chicken and it was heavenly.

If your evenings are as hectic as mine, I recommend giving yourself a little time ahead to do the prep work.  It's not too much, but I was really grateful that I'd cut the thin matchsticks of ginger and sliced the garlic cloves the night before.  This is a recipe I will make often in the future--everyone who ate it loved it, and Ginger Braised Chicken makes for a jealousy-inducing lunch the next day. 

MyGingerBraisedChicken

 

Here is what my Ginger Braised Chicken looked like before I put it with jasmine rice. I went a little rogue and used full size drumsticks so I did have to cook it a little longer to accommodate.  I'll stick to the smaller pieces per the ingredients list next time.

If you want to try this one yourself, the recipe and photo from The Slanted Door, our pick for the number one cookbook of the year, is below.

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
BRAISED GINGER CHICKEN
from The Slanted Door by Charles Phan
 
My mother used to make this dish whenever a family friend was pregnant, since ginger minimizes nausea and aids digestion. I like to start with a whole chicken, cut Chinese style (see instructions below), and save the breasts for another use.
  • 1 whole chicken, 2 to 3 pounds
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • ¹⁄³ cup very thinly sliced fresh ginger, about ¹⁄¹6-inch-thick
  • ½ cup rice wine, such as michiu or sake
  • 1 cup chicken stock (page 246) or water
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 3 or 4 Thai chiles, halved lengthwise
  • 6 green onions, white parts only, halved lengthwise
  • Slivered green onions, for garnish
  • Steamed jasmine rice, for serving

Serves 4 to 6 

1. Using a cleaver, cut the chicken legs from the body by cutting cleanly through the joint. Cut the drumstick from the thigh along the joint and, using strong, swift cuts, chop each drumstick and thigh through the bone into three pieces. Cut the wings from the body along the joint, and cut each wing into two pieces, a drumette and wing. Reserve the breast for another use.

2. Place the chicken pieces in a large mixing bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the oil, the cornstarch, and the salt. Toss to coat.

3. In a wide-bottomed clay pot or sauté pan over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for a minute. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the chicken pieces and a few grinds of black pepper and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the rice wine and let simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken stock, fish sauce, chiles, green onions, and a pinch of salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and simmer until the chicken is cooked through and tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Garnish with slivered green onions and serve immediately with steamed rice.

GingerBraisedChickenSlantedDoor

Excerpts from "BOMB: The Author Interviews" - Featuring Colm Toibin, Chris Abani, Patrick McGrath, and Martin Amis

BOMB-Author-InterviewsFor more than thirty years, BOMB magazine has been pairing artists, authors, poets, and painters together for intimate artist-on-artist conversations, more than 1,200 of them so far. In BOMB: The Author Interviews, published last week by Soho Press, the magazine's editor, Betsy Sussler, has compiled an incredible collection of authors interviewing authors: an unknown Jonathan Franzen; Roberto Bolaño, just before he died; Lydia Davis and Francine Prose; Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz; Jennifer Egan and Heidi Juilavits; and many more.

Below are snippets from two of those conversations, featuring two authors featured on Amazon's Best Books of the Year list: Colm Tóibín (Nora Webster), in conversation with with Chris Abani (The Secret History of Las Vegas), and Martin Amis (The Zone of Interest), in conversation with Patrick McGrath (Constance).

~

CHRIS ABANI: I play with sexuality in all my books. There’s an ambiguity to all my characters. In The Virgin of Flames, the protagonist wants to be a woman. I write my characters from the inside out. There’s no spectacle to it, so of course the first question is, Where is your body in relationship to this text? That always fascinates me. Before I wrote this book about this guy who wants to be a woman—I had always prided myself on, while being straight, being not homophobic at all. Until I wrote a scene where the character is finally about to make love to a transsexual stripper but realizes that that’s not what he wants. In fact, he wants to occupy the stripper’s position. And you have that whole Crying Game moment, but instead of the penis revelation being the thing, it’s the penis disappearance. So this transsexual stripper is teaching this guy how to disappear his penis, so that he could wear a G-string were he to perform as a stripper. I researched it on the Internet. My girlfriend at the time read what I had written and said, “This reads like a manual.” The rest of the book was beautiful but then it’s, “Okay, over here we have the penis.” I really had to go there, so I hired someone who performs as a woman. I said, “Okay, show me how to do this.”

COLM TÓIBÍN: Do you have his number? (laughter)

ABANI: I wanted to ask you, did coming out change your interaction with the text or with readership or with editorship or all of this?

ToibinTÓIBÍN: Yeah. For me, writing down the opening section of The Story of the Night and publishing it, was a very big moment. It was like what you were describing, except I realized I was going to go on being it, even if I stopped writing about it. It was like writing down the truth, which is something we should all be very suspicious of. And the question then is that of putting the truth genie back in the bottle. I would like a rest from either being gay, gay, gay or being Irish, Irish, Irish. Some other thing you could be—French, maybe, or very old, or clean-living—I might try. Obviously, being a woman would be terrific. I did it in my first novel so I suppose I cannot do it again. I wish there were more categories. I suppose there will be in time.

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PATRICK MCGRATH: Evil accumulates?

MARTIN AMIS: Evil takes it out of you. Evil’s always been winning.

MCGRATH: Why should evil keep on winning? 

AMIS: Perhaps because the brain is partly reptilian. I have a rather schmaltzy notion of human potentiality which is, in fact, embodied in literature. 

MCGRATH: How do you mean? 

AmisAMIS: It’s a commonplace that literature evolves in a certain way but it doesn’t improve. It just stays there. It’s a model. I think literature has not just been about, but embodies: the best. The best that humans can do. 

MCGRATH: The best moral thought? 

AMIS: The best moral thought. The representation of humanity at the crest of itself. Something like that. In fact, I’ve never understood why the idea of literature as religion was demolished so quickly. It seems to me that would be a tenable way of looking at it. It’s a constant, making something out of the present and the past at the same time. Certainly an elitist thing, there’s no question about that. But it’s an elite open to everyone. 

MCGRATH: Do you see it decaying alongside everything else? 

AMIS: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in fifty years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction.

"Like a Mix of Don Draper and Rasputin": Moving & Shaking in 21st-Century Russia

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New RussiaWhen the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the West rejoiced with the relief that came with the end of the Cold War and the possibility of an era of peace and cooperation. At the same time, its corporations and conglomerates trained a beady eye toward its newly opened markets, and a seemingly virgin economic landscape soon became home to icons such as Coke and McDonalds and Levi’s. But the door was open wide, and tagging along with big business were some seedier characters: organized crime, a youth-and-glamour-obsessed oligarchy, and an entertainment complex hungry for the new concepts of its Western counterparts. That’s where Peter Pomerantsev comes in. Born in Kiev but raised in Great Britain, Pomerantsev returned to Russia as a consultant to its burgeoning film and television—especially “reality” television—industries. What he found was a capitalist’s wet dream: an unfettered cash and service economy with no apparent limits on cash or available services--one where Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, if you can pay for it. At the top of it all sits Vlad Putin, infusing the old TASS tactics with Hollywood flair to create a vision of a bare-chested (bear-chested?) virility and power, of both self and state. Pomerantsev finds himself gazing deeper into this looking-glass world—willingly and otherwise—and he finds it impossible to look away, as will his readers. This is not your father’s Russia, and yet it kind of is.

All that sounds hyberbolic, right? But it's all there. And to demonstrate, Pomerantsev has provided short biographies of some of the book's most interesting players. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


Peter Pomerantsev (photo by Natasha Belauskine) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: A Cast of Characters

By Peter Pomerantsev

 

Vladislav Surkov: The Kremlin "Vizier"
"Egor could see to the heights of creation...."

The hidden author of the Putin system, Surkov trained as a theater director, made his name as a PR guru before going on to become one of Putin's right hand men, running Russian politics like a mix of Don Draper and Rasputin. In his spare time he pens satirical, self-referential novels about cynical political operators who have sold their souls, writes rock lyrics and essays on modern art. When asked for his reaction to being sanctioned by US and EU for playing a key role in the annexation of Crimea Surkov answered: "I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Oliona: A Moscow Holly Golightly
"It's all true, you can really have the life; it's not just in the movies!"

Oliona has come to Moscow from a bankrupt mafia-run mining town to make it as a gold-digger in the city's decadent clubs. She's quite open, even proud of her bag of tricks, and attends a gold-digger school where she's taught how to seduce and keep an oligarch: never wear jewelry on a first date, she learns, dress down- so that he wants to buy you presents. But she's hitting her mid-twenties and that might spell the end of her career. She worries her sugar daddy is going off her, while her generation dream of Putin as the ultimate sugar daddy of them all.

Vitaly: Gangster Turned Film Director
"Usually you’d be one of my victims. But in this case we'll be partners."

Vitaly used to be a gangster in Siberia. Then he took all his all-gotten gains and ploughed them into the movie business. But they're no ordinary movies. He makes films about his own life, with himself in the main role, and his gangster buddies playing themselves. He spent years behind bars watching gangster movies and thought they were all fake: only a real gangster can make a real gangster movie.

Jambik Hatohov: The Fattest Boy in the World

Jambik Hatohov is 7 years old and weighs over a hundred kilograms (220 pounds), making him the biggest boy in the world. He lives in the North Caucascus, in a part of the country where the choice growing up is between being a wrestler or a Jihadi. His single mum thinks she can use Jambik's weight as a way out of the squalor, and hopes he can become a TV star. Meanwhile more and more "black widows," the name given to suicide bombers form the North Caucascus, make their way to Moscow to blow themselves up in the name of Allah.

Yana Yakovelva: Imprisoned Business Woman
"You think prison is something bad that happens to other people. And then you wake up and my God you’re a convict."

Yana was a poster girl for the new, capitalist Russia, running her own petro-chemicals business and living what seemed like a perfectly successful, Western-style life. But in Putin's Russia, normality is only ever an illusion. When some high-level bureaucrats want a piece of her company they throw her in prison on trumped up charges--and Yana is plunged into another Russia of convicts and corrupt courts. As she fights to get out, she finds her own case leads right to the top of the Kremlin.

Alexander Mozhaev: The Guardian Spirit of Old Moscow
"The drama of human lives is written in the buildings. We will be gone; only places remain."

The city is destroyed to make way for neo-Stalinist skyscrapers, and Mozhaev tries to save the last vestiges of the old town. This is more than about just buildings, in a system which is misusing history in the name of tyranny the fight for the city becomes a fight for a different sort of Russia. Mozhaev is the last romantic in a city of corruption.

Ruslana Korshunova: Supermodel
"I'm so lost, will I ever find myself?"

A Russian supermodel, star of a Nina Ricci ad, who killed herself by jumping from a NY skyscraper. She seemed perfectly happy, wasn't into drugs, was preparing to go to university. What lead to her death? Was it a tragic love story? Could it have been murder? And is her death connected to that of another top model who also died by jumping from a high-rise, this time in Kiev?

The Night Wolves
"We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia."

As Moscow plunges into a messianic fervor sects bubble to the surface. None is more striking than the Night Wolves, a Russian Hells Angels biker gang who have found God and see themselves on a mission to save the Russian soul from the decadent, Satanic West. Their faith combines Orthodox Christianity with a worship of Stalin and heavy metal. Surkov, as ever, is in the background, making the Night Wolves national stars as the Kremlin toys with a dangerous, and surreal, religious nationalist ideology.

Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich
"This is a very Russian story, with lots of killers, where the president himself is almost a killer."

Two Russian oligarchs--now based in London--who are fighting the largest private litigation in history. Berezovsky, the older mentor known as the "Godfather of the Kremlin," accuses his protégé, Abramovich, known as the "Stealth Oligarch," of "acting like a gangster" and extorting a five-billion-dollar company from him. The trial opens up the insides of the Putin system, showing how it is increasingly growing to influence the West as the Russian super-rich descend onto London, Monaco and New York.

Vladik Mamyshev Monroe
"I want to try on every persona the world has ever known."

A performance artist, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. In a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin and Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints and where "performance" is the buzz-word Vladik is a mascot and prankster philosopher. But as the new Russia tumbles from decadence to madness, from glamour to dictatorship, he finds himself appalled at the very cult of performance he celebrates: "Putin will eat up our country," he writes. "One day we will reach into the cupboard and reach for our clothes and they will turn to dust in our hands because they have been eaten by maggots."

 

Author photo by Natasha Belauskine

Video: An Interview with Author and "Font Nerd" Lena Dunham
-- "I Love the World of Books"

DunhamPraise for Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has come from all angles: David Sedaris (“A fine, subversive book”), Judy Blume (“Always funny, sometimes wrenching”), George Saunders (“smart, honest, sophisticated, dangerous, and charming”), Miranda July (“hilarious, artful, and staggeringly intimate.”) At Amazon, our reviewer Brittany Pirozzolo called it “Thoughtful, hilarious, and exquisitely-written … like reading your quirky big sister's diary.” 

In this interview (taped at Book Expo America in New York back in May), the writer, creator, and star of HBO’s hit show Girls discusses how writing was actually her first love, and has remained a passion, as has reading. “I love the world of books,” she said.

Writing the essays that comprise Not That Kind of Girl gave her back the “one on one relationship with writing” that she’s missed while working on Girls.

Not That Kind of Girl was Amazon's Best Book of the Month "Debut Spotlight" in October, and was named one of our 100 Best Books of 2014.

Best of the Year: Celebrity Authors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2014

It's becoming a thing: Each of the past few years, when we announce our editors' picks for Best Books of the Year, we also share a list of our favorite writers' favorite books.

This year we asked some of the biggest names in books, fashion, film, food, music, and more--all of whom have recent books of their own--to tell us about three books they loved in 2014. See which books Anne Rice, Brooke Shields, Lena Dunham, Norman Lear, Tory Burch, George Clinton, James Franco, Mark Bittman, Alan Cumming, Martin Short, Diana Gabaldon and others chose as their favorites.

The full roster is in alphabetical order below, or you can visit the Celebrity Picks page on Amazon.com.

Holly Black
Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman
Grace Bonney
Grace Bonney
Tory Burch
Tory Burch
George Clinton
George Clinton
Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming
Christopher Paul Curtis
Christopher Paul Curtis
Kate DiCamillo
Kate DiCamillo
Ree Drummond
Ree Drummond
Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham
Cary Elwes
Cary Elwes
Gayle Forman
Gayle Forman
James Franco
James Franco
Alan Furst
Alan Furst
Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon
Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande
Dorie Greenspan
Dorie Greenspan
Grumpy Cat
Grumpy Cat
Deborah Harkness
Deborah Harkness
Laura Hillenbrand
Laura Hillenbrand
 Gina Homolka
Gina Homolka
 Jeff Kinney
Jeff Kinney
 Norman Lear
Norman Lear
 Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman
 Jane Lynch
Jane Lynch
 Lianne Moriarty
Lianne Moriarty
 B.J. Novak
B.J. Novak
 James Patterson
James Patterson
 Stephanie Perkins
Stephanie Perkins
 Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult
 Anne Rice
Anne Rice
 Sarah Richardson
Sarah Richardson
 Brooke Shields
Brooke Shields
 Martin Short
Martin Short
 Lara Spencer
Lara Spencer
 Brandon Stanton
Brandon Stanton
 Garth Stein
Garth Stein
 Amy Stewart
Amy Stewart
 Brad Thor
Brad Thor
 Scott Westerfield
Scott Westerfield
Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer
 William Gibson
William Gibson
 Sean Brock
Sean Brock

How I Wrote It: An Interview with Cary Elwes, on His Memoir, "As You Wish"

ElwesCary Elwes discusses his new memoir, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, a behind the scenes look at the filming of the cult 1987 classic.

In this exclusive interview, filmed this summer in New York, Elwes says he was inspired to write the book after meeting with the cast and crew at a twenty-fifth anniversary reunion in 2012. "I felt that the time was right to tell my story," he said.

"The making of the film was really a collaborative effort. We're like one big family ...It's not just my book it's theirs as well, it's all of ours."

The book contains never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, including backstage stories and secrets.

Guest Review: Michael J. Fox on "The Pollan Family Table"

PollanFamilyTableThe Pollan family is expanding a presence in our kitchens that began with Michael Pollan’s ground-breaking book, The Omnivore's Dilmena. Now it's the Pollan ladies, matriarch Corky and three sisters Lori, Dana, and Tracy, in the spotlight with The Pollan Family Table, a new cookbook that begs to be read and shared, used widely and often (we chose it as one of our Best Cookbooks of November).  

Beautifully photographed, the recipes are personal and accessible, with enough variety to easily put together a delicious meal for guests or night after night for family.

Besides the recipes, I also really like the section called Sage Advice that covers everything from replicating buttermilk using 2% and lemon juice to removing corn silk using a damp paper towel. 

Below, Michael J. Fox, married for more than two decades to Tracy Pollan, shares his thoughts on The Pollan Family Table.

PollanFamilyWomenCropped

 


 MichaelJFoxIn the interest of full disclosure, you should know that the authors of The Pollan Family Table are my wife, Tracy Pollan; her sisters Lori and Dana; and my mother-in-law, Corky. My brother-in-law, Michael Pollan, the Carl Sagan of food, wrote the foreword. Spoiler alert: my review is a rave.

How could it not be? Notwithstanding the fact that I’d like to keep my place at that eponymous table—one that I’ve had the privilege to hold for some twenty-five years—I can honestly and enthusiastically report that this collection of recipes, reflections, and gorgeous color photographs is a thoughtfully conceived, beautifully realized, invaluable asset to any family making dinner plans. Moreover, it’s a paean to those moments, however brief or infrequent they may be, when we gather the people we love and share a meal.

So much can get in the way of preparing and convening for a regular family dinner. But this book offers solutions to those problems with simple recipes that cater to any taste or occasion, running the gamut from soup (Creamless Broccoli Soup with Whole Roasted Garlic and Frizzled Leeks) to nuts (Key Lime Pie with Walnut Oatmeal Crust).

And there is something in this book you will love, no matter your appetite or dietary restrictions. Even nonvegetarians will rejoice at what I believe to be the most perfect veggie burger on the planet, the Supreme Crispy Quinoa Vegetable Burger. Seafood lovers are well served here, too, with favorite recipes like Smoky Sautéed Shrimp. And just looking at the Citrus-Roasted Chicken with Grand Marnier triggers a Proustian flashback, bringing to mind not only the aroma and juicy, subtle flavor but also a cascade of memories, conversations, plans hatched, jokes and stories told and retold at family get-togethers. The familiar food and setting provide a continuum. Proust describes it as “Time regained.” Marty McFly might exclaim, “You built a time machine . . . out of a beef tenderloin?”

Every family’s story develops around its own table. You share the moments, both seminal and trivial, that over time become your life. For us, it’s a banquette in the breakfast nook of our New York apartment. In the chaotic process of raising four children, we have put in so much time around our own table—not only with meals but also with homework and art projects and games of Clue—that Tracy and I have had to reupholster the bench seats at least half a dozen times.

But the definitive PFT is the trestle table in the dining room of Corky and Stephen’s Connecticut home. As the family multiplied, there became less and less space for new spouses and their offspring and weekend guests, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. Corky says that she and Stephen “were determined the family tradition would continue, with everyone able to sit together, rather than relegating the youngest to ‘the kids’ table.’ So ours became the ever-lengthening table.” When the table grew too large for the room, Corky and Stephen extended the house, knocking out a wall in the dining room to provide extra space for another half-dozen happy cousins.

So, yes, this is a book of delicious recipes, complete with pantry and market lists and tips on essential utensils and homespun advice; but what makes it compelling on the human level is its insistence that the family meal is not a thing of the past. The Pollan Family Table reassures that best intentions can be put into action and the results can enrich your family’s life in ways that are both harmonious and healthy. Corky, Lori, Tracy, and Dana share what they know so you can share with those you love. As I said, full disclosure: you knew it was going to be a rave because, after all . . . this is what my life tastes like. -- Michael J. Fox

Moonshine, and an Interview, with John Grisham

GrishamThe first time I met John Grisham was eight years ago in a bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia, his home town. I was there to give a reading from my second book, and Grisham was in a back room signing stacks of copies of The Innocent Man. The store owner (I think it was New Dominion) kindly brought me into the back room to meet the man--he was signing more copies that day than my book probably sold in its lifetime--and he graciously spent time asking about my book (the story of southern moonshiners and the birth of NASCAR) and eagerly shared a swig from the jar of moonshine I'd brought along for the reading. 

So, is there a connection between that day in Virginia, and his new book, Gray Mountain, also set in Virginia, about a city lawyer battling Big Coal? 

Nope. None whatsoever. I just never get tired of telling people I sipped moonshine at a bookstore with John Grisham. (See below. No, that's not a wig.)

Earlier this year, I spoke with Grisham (at Book Expo America, in New York) about not only his then-unnamed twenty-seventh novel, Gray Mountain (which went on sale last week) but about his first book, A Time to Kill, and his decision to revisit those characters 25 years later, in 2013's bestselling Sycamore Row. "It was really enjoyable going back to that locale, with those people," he told me.

~

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> See all of John Grisham's books

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Gisham-moonshine

The Only Way Out of the Apocalypse Is Through

Station ElevenPublished earlier this year, Claire Cameron's novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness, ending their world as they know it. It's a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves to propel us through.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven--recently announced as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction--deals with the end of the world on a much larger scale: A doomsday virus that wipes out 99% of humanity. We thought it would be interesting if the two authors spoke about the new book and the inspiration behind it.


Claire Cameron Interviews Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven

Station Eleven, the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has been called, "an ambitious and addictive novel" by The Guardian and "equal parts page-turner and poem" by Entertainment Weekly. Author Ann Patchett said, "I wouldn’t have put it down for anything." 

The novel jumps back and forth between a post-apocalyptic world and the start of a flu epidemic that had wiped out 99% of the world's population twenty years earlier. This sounds like a dark story, and it is. But, as with the best tragedies, St. John Mandel manages to show beauty and hope in the gloom. It is also expertly crafted. She weaves time and develops characters in a non-linear and convincing way. It's a riveting read.

As a writer, the moment I finished the novel I wanted to know more about how it was written. I interviewed St. John Mandel by email. --Claire Cameron

Claire Cameron: What was the first spark of inspiration for Station Eleven?

Emily St. John Mandel: I wanted to write something quite different from my previous three novels, all of which were generally categorized as literary noir. I'm happy with the way they turned out, but I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for crime writers and crime fiction. It's just that I don't want to be pigeon-holed as anything, and I love film and theatre, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the life of an actor.

At the same time, I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, this place where rooms fill with electric light at the flick of a switch, water comes out of faucets, and it's possible to cross the Atlantic in an afternoon. One way to write about the modern world is to contemplate its absence, which is why I decided to set parts of the new novel in a post-apocalyptic era. I think of the book as a love letter in the form of a requiem.

CC: How did you imagine the disaster specifically, the flu epidemic, in your novel?

ESJM: I imagined an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu—with some variant in the viral RNA resulting in a freakishly quick incubation period—making the jump from pigs to humans on a farm in the Republic of Georgia. In early drafts, the initial outbreak was quite specific and detailed: a teenaged girl who lives on the farm kisses her boyfriend, who's traveling to Moscow that afternoon. The following day, passengers on a plane from Moscow to Toronto begin to feel ill a few hours into the flight. This is also true of passengers in other airplanes bound for other continents, and in trains and buses bound for other countries. I imagined a mortality rate of 99%.

The Bear

The Bear

by Claire Cameron

CC: I was struck by a character who watched an airplane take off, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?” Do we live in an era of beauty?

ESJM: We do, although it's also of course an era of ugliness and horror. We live in a world filled with spectacular things that we too often take for granted, and flight is an easy example of that. I don't always enjoy flying. It's often a horribly uncomfortable experience. But the fact that it's possible is incredible, isn't it? I've been fielding accusations of being easily impressed since childhood, but in my defense, a lot of things are impressive.

CC: Your novel shows that even in the face of disaster humans can be good to each other, which is a different world than is depicted in many post-apocalyptic stories. Are you hopeful about human kind?

ESJM: Generally, yes. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of people on the world really just want to go about their business, raise their families, and live peacefully. But with regard to this book, the key here is the timing. Post-apocalyptic stories are often set in a period of chaos and mayhem immediately following a societal collapse. I assume that such a period would occur, but I was more interested in writing about what might come after that, fifteen or twenty years after the collapse. I assume that the entire world wouldn't be consumed by mayhem forever, because mayhem isn't a sustainable way of life over the long term.

CC: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Canada. Did this influence your novel?

ESJM: Yes. Delano Island in the book is an ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and the book is partly set in Toronto, where I went to school.

CC: Station Eleven is a literary novel, but it also uses some of conventions of genre – suspense, science fiction and elements of horror. How does genre influence your writing? Do you think about genre or conventions when you write?

ESJM: I've always just set out to write literary fiction, with the strongest possible narrative drive. My ideal of the perfect book is Donna Tartt's The Secret History; it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.

I try not to think about genre while I'm writing, because the whole question of genre seems completely arbitrary and amorphous to me. If a literary novel is set partly in the future, does that somehow make it less "literary" than a novel set in present-day suburbia? If a literary novel has a crime in it, is it automatically crime fiction? Ultimately, these labels have more to do with marketing than with the content of the work itself. Case in point: my first three novels were generally marketed as literary fiction in North America, but I'm a thriller writer in France. Same books, different marketing strategies.

CC: The traveling symphony has a line from Star Trek on the side of their caravan: "Because survival is insufficient." How important is art to our lives? Does it change how or why we live?

ESJM: I think it's very important, and it does change the way we live. Survival is never enough for us, and we find examples of this in the most desperate places on earth: people play musical instruments in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.

 

See more books by Claire Cameron and read more--including the proper way to split firewood--at www.claire-cameron.com.

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

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

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

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

Tell me about the the origins of The Innovators

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

InnovatorsHow is this book different from your previous books?

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

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

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

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

Tools

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

Soundtrack

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

How do you relax and recharge?

Long swims to clear my mind.

Research

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

What surprised you?

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

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> See all of Walter Isaacson's books

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Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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