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Five Questions with Elaine Lui and the Squawking Chicken

The Squawking Chicken's opinions are not for the thin skinned or weak willed. Canadian gossip blogger and TV talk show host Elaine Lui has spent her life getting to know the woman who raised her. She makes no apologies for her mother's aggressive personality; rather, she celebrates it with Listen to the Squawking Chicken, one of our Best of the Month books in April and a Mother's Day recommendation. In addition to acting as a personal memoir, Lui's book serves also as her mother's biography, detailing the life of a young girl growing up in Hong Kong to a young woman raising a child in a new country to a mature woman facing health issues. As such, we see her toughened by negotiating with members of the Chinese Triads, supporting her own parents in financial crisis, and other intense, personal experiences.

In the follow she said/she said, we asked Lui and her mother to answer five questions. The answers, like the book, say so much about the special relationship these two share.

Elaine Lui

How would you describe your mother/daughter relationship?

Elaine: My ma, the Squawking Chicken, was asked this question recently. Her answer: "I think we are more like sisters because I look so young". Everyone laughed. And while ma certainly doesn't lack for self-confidence about her appearance, she was definitely joking. Ma has always been my Mother. And our relationship as mother daughter is at once fulfilling, infuriating, and forever honest. Ma is my first and worst critic. She is also my most ardent supporter and my loudest cheerleader. In return, I would like to think that I am her fiercest soldier.

Squawking Chicken: I cannot do anything for Elaine anymore. She is mature. So I make her the soup. That's how I can help her to do her job. I worry if she don't drink the soup she will be sick. Healthy is important. I will always worry about her. Even though she is 40, she is still my baby. But she is 40, not 20. So she must take care of her skin.

What does "success" mean to you?

Elaine: Success to me means that I've been able to make my own choices and that I've worked hard in pursuit of the opportunities that those choices have made possible. Success is always having options. When you have options, when there are alternatives, you will never be stuck.

Squawking Chicken: I did not have success. I had nothing – no school, no business. We are immigrants. Our family did not have much. Elaine is successful now. I think I did a good job.

What is one thing you're scared of and why?

Elaine: I am afraid that my ma will stop squawking. I'm afraid that one day I won't be able to hear her. I'm afraid that if I ever stop being able to hear her, I won't know myself.

Squawking Chicken: I don't want to die! I say to my doctors, don't let me die! My daughter is on TV and an author, I want to show off!

Squawking Chicken

What is the perfect Mother's Day gift and why?

Elaine: For my ma, the perfect Mother's Day gift is straight up cash money. So that she can take it to the casino, her happy place, and play slots for as long as she wants.

Squawking Chicken: Money, of course.

If readers take just one lesson away from "Listen to the Squawking Chicken", what do you hope it will be?

Elaine: That love isn't homogenous. It doesn't look the same from mother to mother, daughter to daughter. That my mother loved me as much as any mother loved a child, even if her way was unconventional.

Squawking Chicken: I want to help people. My family life was hard. But even if you have hard times, you can still be OK. Maybe this story will help the people to know that.

Photo of Elaine and her mother courtesy of Dexter Chew.

YA Wednesday: Dreaming of Gods & Monsters with Laini Taylor

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

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

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

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

 

The Interview Shoes:

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

MeLainiShoes2011MeLainiFluevogs2014

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

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

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

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

 


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley

 

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

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

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

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

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

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

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

Sleep-donation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic Novel Friday: Comic Magic with the Rat Queens

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

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

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

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

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

--Alex

YA Wednesday: The Best Books of April

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

AprilBOTMIAprilBOTMII AprilBOTMIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight Feature: Phil Klay, Author of "Redeployment"

I had the chance to sit down with Phil Klay, author of our March Best of the Month Spotlight Pick, Redeployment. Check out our feature-length profile of Klay, in which he discusses his short story collection, his deployment in Iraq during the surge, and the myths of war that he finds disingenuous.

Klay_splash_blog

"Sous Chef," an Homage to the Idiosyncratic Families Who Run the Best Restaurants

Sous-Chef-Gibney-2

Photo (c) UNGANO + AGRIODIMAS

Reading Michael Gibney's Sous Chef--a debut that plays at the outer bounds of memoir--may be the closest most of us will ever come to living a day as the second in command in a Michelin-starred New York City restaurant.

Written in the second person, it's intense, dramatic, and immediately devourable, but Gibney also turns out phrases to savor: this is kitchen writing on par with Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter. While Gibney doesn't challenge Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential characterization of kitchen folk as "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths," he renders their efforts to beautifully prepare every plate they send out to satisfy the ravenous multitudes authentically noble, verging on heroic. 

We talked with Gibney about why he wrote it, how he created the characters, why he considers it a memoir, and which books he finds essential--plus a bit about his new restaurant, opening in Manhattan this summer.

Sous-Chef-Shadow On his storytelling mission

I’ve always been interested in writing, and I’d made attempts at other subjects. But when I found cooking as my subject, I realized that this was the story I had to tell, the one I knew best. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been cooking, and it’s entrenched itself in my life. Even though people have been (at least over the past decade or so) really interested in what goes on in restaurants, it’s such a beautiful and intricate world, and it’s so dynamic that there’s much more to be added to the picture. I felt like this was the time to make my contribution.

My mission was to pay homage to the cooks, to the kitchen itself, to the calling. It’s not a story about me. It’s a story about all these people that do this every day. These people work hard in the service of others, an honorable undertaking. It’s a weird, idiosyncratic family of people, and there’s all the love and dysfunction of a family. We’re in it together. We’re here to help each other help the people in the dining room get the nourishment, the satisfaction, and the delight that they’re looking for as well. I want to let people know how beautiful that dynamic is.

On the “characters” that populate his story

The vast majority of the characters in this book are all actual, singular people I worked with, and many of the names are still the same. With each one, my task was to capture the best example of the fish cook and the meat cook and the entremetier, drawing from the people that I know. When it came to the chef, that was really difficult, because what “chef” means to me is an amalgamation of a lot of different people. So in order to stick the landing with the chef character, I borrowed the appearance of a particular guy and the résumé and backstory of another particular guy and the attitude of another guy--three people who are all very dear to me. The restaurant itself is primarily one place, with characteristics borrowed from others to make it as crisp a picture as possible.

On why he wrote a memoir in second person

I regard Sous Chef as a memoir, because this was my lived experience. It’s a sticky argument, but I’m not betraying the trust of the reader--this is just the reality of what it’s like. I wrote it in second person because the kitchen—not me—is the star of the show. I’m not trying to say, “Look at all my trials and tribulations. Look at what great food I made.” I’m saying, “Picture yourself in this role that I’ve lived. This is what a day will look like for you.”

On essential cookbooks and food writing

There are loads of amazing newer cookbooks out there, like Eleven Madison Park and To the Bone, the Paul Liebrandt that just came out.

French-LaundryBut you have to give credit to the godfather of these modern cookbooks: Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook. It changed the game for what we could expect from a cookbook in terms of the beauty of the food, treating the food with a tender touch in the pictures, and how in-depth the recipes are. But also the supplemental material, where Keller riffs on their philosophy at that restaurant and the reasons they did certain things. The French Laundry set a new tone for how we should be thinking about professional cooking in this country, and that was a really formative book in my life as a cook.

Then there's The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher. She’s the godmother of this kind of writing. She in her sort of Dorothy Parker way fuses light, beautiful language with really informative subject matter. She turned me on to nonfiction, especially food writing. Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras is another visual lodestar that changed my own plating game. And A Return to Cooking by Eric Ripert put me back in touch with how important it is to think not just that you’re a badass restaurant cook, but to remember what cooking is all about on a personal level, on a home level.

I really appreciate Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef, and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat is another game-changer--he opens up and he’s like, “This is what I do. I’m not going to apologize for it, and I just try really hard.” There’s some naked vulnerability with that, accompanied by a power and audacity that I really appreciate.

The list really goes on. But I’d also have to include every Chez Panisse cookbook, where they explained, like, where they get the pig. Alice Waters started this whole awareness of where the pig is from, where the lettuce is from, what the earth is like that the carrots are plucked from.

We’d have to order in some lunch if you want to continue this conversation, but those are my essentials.

On his new restaurant, opening soon

It’s a fairly large space in Midtown, Manhattan, with a few different kitchens, not unlike a place called Eataly, Mario Batali’s place. The upstairs restaurant space will be my own, and I’m working with a team of two other people to open the entire space. It’s a large venue, and it’s been a long time coming. These things are slow moving, but we’re getting close, which feels great. We’re aiming and hoping for mid-summer.

Michael Gibney began working in restaurants at the age of sixteen and assumed his first sous chef position at twenty-two. He ascended to executive sous chef at Tavern on the Green, where he managed an eighty-person staff. Over the course of his career, he has had the opportunity to work alongside cooks and chefs from many of the nation’s best restaurants, including Alinea, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Bouley, Ducasse, Corton, wd~50, and Momofuku. In addition to his experience in the food service industry, Gibney also holds a BFA in painting from Pratt Institute and an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

A Peek Inside a Best-Seller...for Babies

Peek a WhoThere are some children's books that fly a little under the radar but are parent favorites year after year. These are not books by the "S's" (Seuss, Sendak or Silverstein) or books with characters that show up as a PBS show or on nursery decor.  These are the unsung staples of a first library, and Nina Laden's Peek-a-Who? is one of them. 

Published in 2000, this board book with die-cut pages is one I like to recommend for baby showers or toddler birthdays, and hundreds of customer reviews sing it's praises.  This month, Laden released a companion book, Peek-a-Zoo!, which made our first list of Best Books of the Month for Baby-Age 2.  Fourteen years is a long time between the two books and we were curious about the how, when, and why now of Peek-a-Zoo! Here is Nina Laden on writing the new book and a peek (I can't resist) inside her studio and early sketches.

 


Peek a WhoIt was the year 2000. Some people were worried that the world would end, or that the Y2K virus would cause computers all over the world to crash. But I was anxious about my very first board book, Peek-a Who?

I'd published several picture books that were very well received, but had never planned to do board books. But I got to the stage when all of my friends started having babies and I wanted something hip, cool and interactive to give them, something more "me" than the typical "A is for Apple" and "B is for Ball" book Little did I know that Peek-a Who? would basically become "The Little Book That Could," as I've been calling it for years. My take on the game of peek-a boo struck a chord with parents and kids, and has sold beyond my wildest expectations. Even with that success, I am not the kind of author who likes to do series and didn't immediately plan a follow-up I just don't think that way. I am constantly trying to reinvent myself, mostly so that I won't get bored. But as the years went past, including some difficult years spent managing some family crisis, and Peek-a Who? continued to sell better with each passing year, I began to think of new board book ideas.

 

Backyard
Nina's backyard studio
Inside Studio
The inside view of Nina's Seattle studio

 

Interior SketchesAt first I played with eyes and noses of different animals and creatures and sent these ideas to my editor, Victoria Rock at Chronicle Books. They just didn't work on all of the levels that they should have, and for me those levels are: a good rhyme, fun images that have some sort of game or guessing element, a surprise at the end, and a way to end with the child reading the book. Then one day, the clouds parted. So many people had told me how much they loved the zoo image in Peek-a Who? and I realized that I could create an entire board book with zoo animals.

I did a thumbnail dummy and I rounded up a group of animals that all rhymed with the "oo" sound: MEW (kitten), KANGAROO, GNU, COCK-A DOODLE-DO (rooster), EWE, and the mirror at the end.

I sent these thumbnails off to Victoria and after we discussed them, I drew them full-sized and then I even started painting the kitten for the first spread. Something was bugging me, though and I wasn't quite sure what it was. Then I got the email from my editor saying "these really aren't all zoo animals." Yeah, that was it. They weren't. The kitten was replaced with a tiger cub. The kangaroo stayed, but the gnu failed the audition and was replaced with a cockatoo. The rooster became a panda eating bamboo, and the ewe went away because I had come up with too many spreads! (I may have to do a farm version of the book in the future.)

 

Mew Bamboo

 

Peek a ZooOnce we had the animals all set and my sketches approved, I painted all of the interior illustrations. I love painting in the technique I created for my board books, which involves painting the paper black first and then making it look like a wood-cut.

I had known basically what I wanted the cover to look like from the beginning, but we had to go through a few different background patterns. I had started with leopard spots, tiger stripes and peacock feathers. The tiger stripes won.

It was truly a lot of fun to create Peek-a Zoo! I've also embraced the idea of creating a series of "Peek-A Books." The good news is that there are so many great words with "oo" sounds to play with. But don't worry, I won't be doing Peek-a Tattoo. Or maybe I will. You never know.

Peek a Zoo SketchPeek a Zoo Sketch Concepts

Case Closed? Art, Cannibals, and the Fate of Michael Rockefeller

Savage-Harvest-jacket-omni“I think I can make it.” In 1961, while on an expedition to collect pieces for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art, Michael Rockefeller and his traveling companion were plunged into the warm waters off New Guinea. The billionaire scion tied two empty gas cans to his body for floatation and swam for shore, and by most accounts, he made it. But what happened there, when he encountered members of the Asmat tribe--a culture marked by ritual violence and cannibalism--has been long debated. Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics. So, did he make it? Read our Q&A with Hoffman and decide for yourself.

Learn more about Savage Harvest, an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for March 2014.

 



What drew you to the mystery of Michael Rockefeller?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael.  In my 20s I saw Dead Birds, the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me.  Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place.  His death took on the quality of myth - Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners - an idea echoed by the press accounts of the time.  Wrote a LIFE photographer, after a day of searching for Michael: "they say if a man falls in the mud he cannot get up without help..."  Which I knew not to be true - the Asmat had been rolling in that mud and spreading it on themselves and walking in it and living in it for 40,000 years.  

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren't alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.  And there was enough about Michael's disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn't a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.


Savage-Harvest-MRBeardedYour book opens with a horrifying, detailed depiction of what might have happened to Michael Rockefeller in 1961, if he had been killed by cannibals. How did you conduct the research for this?

That description is based on the Dutch priest Gerard Zegwaard’s seminal examination of Asmat head hunting practices, published in the American Anthropologist in 1959.  Zegwaard was the first Westerner to spend any time among the Asmat and he spoke the language and delved deep.  Cannibalism was an offshoot of head hunting, an all-important sacred ritual necessary to keep the world in balance and for restoring life in the community, and it was conducted according to formal charters and prescriptions.  It was not random.  If Michael was killed by the men in Otsjanep, as I argue, what happened would have closely followed standard Asmat ritual practice.   

You write, “If I asked anyone about cannibalism, they would acknowledge it. Sure, we used to eat people, now we don’t. They didn’t want to talk about it.” Given the central roles that vengeance and violence played in Asmat culture, is it possible that cannibalism existed in the 1960s, or even later?

Head hunting and ritual cannibalism were still the rule in Asmat in the early 1960s, when Michael disappeared, and there were scattered reports of it well into the 1970s.  

The Rockefeller family resisted the idea that Michael was murdered, and even traveled to New Guinea, in part to dispel the worst rumors. What were the factors that influenced this resistance?

I can’t speak for Michael’s family, but I think they clung to the idea that he disappeared at sea because the Dutch government never told them otherwise and actively denied what it was in fact investigating, and because, of course, the idea of anything else is pretty horrifying.  And they wished to keep everything private, as well.  

Savage-Harvest-SauerDid you seek assistance from the Rockefeller family for the book? Did they participate at all?

I made various efforts to contact Michael’s twin sister, Mary, which all drew a blank.  We have since made contact, but no one from the family helped in any way.

Rockefeller’s disappearance occurred at the moment Asmat society (and similar cultures) was being exposed to the modern world. What were the factors in play, and was Michael’s fate a consequence of that upheaval, at least in part?

Yes, in every way.  Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he personally was not the target, but he was traveling in a culture under siege, one in which all of their most sacred and meaningful activities, the very things that defined them as human beings, were being suppressed, sometimes violently, by a growing tide of Westerners backed up by modern firearms.  Had the Dutch patrol officer Max Lepre not killed the four most important men in the village of Otsjanep in 1958, Michael would be alive today.  And his murder might have become public knowledge at the time if the governments of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United States hadn’t been engaged in a geopolitical struggle over the future of western Papua.  

What was the most dangerous or uncertain moment of your own research?

I only felt in danger once when we were in rough, difficult seas crossing the mouth of the Betsj River.  I never feared for my personal safety from the people, but they intimidated me at first and it was not easy physically or emotionally to be among them at first.  They were hostile to questions about Michael Rockefeller and that was difficult.  I had to learn their language and live with them for a month before I came to understand them.  

Are your heroes journalists, anthropologists, or adventurers? Or journalist-anthropologist-adventurers?  Who are they?

Interesting question.  I’d say I admire most those people who can combine adventure with beautiful writing, whether they call themselves anthropologists or journalists or whatever.  People who can capture not just the physical essence of a place, but the complex emotional lives of human beings, themselves included.  People like Wifred Thesiger or Tobias Schneebaum or even George Orwell.

What were the five (or more) books most influential to your own work?

So hard to narrow it to five!  Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons (beautiful story and narrative with simple, precise writing); John Hersey’s Hiroshima (perfect prose with deep reporting); Capote’s In Cold Blood (the edge of the envelope of the line between fact and fiction); for this book in particular I thought often of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and the way he was able to get inside the heads of the Somalians who attacked the Americans, which I try to do a bit with the Asmat; and last, again for this book, I often thought of lots of great thriller writers in terms of pacing.  It is a complex story, but it’s also a murder mystery and I wanted it to read like one.  

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April 2014

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