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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.

National Book Award Finalists Announced

Drum roll, please. The National Book Awards shortlist was broadcast this morning. Celebrating the best in American literature, the winners will be announced at a ceremony on November 19 hosted by best-selling author, Daniel Handler (you might know him better by his other name--Lemony Snicket). So, without further ado, I give you this year's finalists, who about now must be penning particularly well-crafted acceptance speeches, just in case.

NBA FinalistsFiction:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Nonfiction:
Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
Tennessee Williams by John Lahr

National Book Award FinalistsPoetry:
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
The Feel Trio by Fred Moten
Second Childhood by Fanny Howe
This Blue by Maureen N. McLane

Young People’s Literature:
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Noggin by John Corey Whaley
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

 

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

2014 National Book Award: The Longlists

The titles long listed for the National Book Awards have been trickling in this week and today the final category, Fiction, was announced.  Some of the titles that have appeared on our Best Books of the Month lists are included but we'll have to wait until October 15th to see which books make the list of finalists.  We usually do a pool in the office with our predictions for the winners in each category--last year our Director, Sara Nelson, was the most prescient.  Do you have any thoughts about who should take home the National Book Awards this year?

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Fiction:

 

Nonfiction:

 

Young People's Literature:

 

Poetry:

 

 

Graphic Novel Friday: Gilbert Hernandez's Big Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a year--congratulations, Gilbert Hernandez!

--Alex

YA Wednesday: Walter Dean Myers 1937-2014

BEA2012_WalterDeanMyers_250I'm so sad to hear that Walter Dean Myers passed away. I had the pleasure to meet him at BEA in 2012 (pictured here), when he was the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and he was delightful.  Myers said that books gave him solace during troubled times as a young person, and in turn his books have touched many young lives. 

The author of over 100 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Myers won the Coretta Scott King Award multiple times, including a 2014 Coretta Scott King Honor for Darius & Twig.  He also received two Newbery Honors (for Scorpions and Somewhere in the Darkness) and his book, Monster, was the inaugural winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, a National Book Award Finalist, and a New York Times bestseller.  His futuristic young adult novel, On a Clear Day will be published this fall (September 23).  He will be sorely missed.

"I think my life is special. In a way it seems odd that I spend all of my time doing only what I love, which is writing or thinking about writing. If everyone had, at least for part of their lives, the opportunity to live the way I do, I think the world would be a better place.”--Walter Dean Myers

2014 James Beard Awards: The Winning Cookbooks

In the next few hours, the James Beard Foundation will bestow its prestigious Restaurant and Chef Awards at a swanky Lincoln Center event considered by many to be the food world’s Oscars--but I was more excited about the awards already announced over the weekend for the best cookbooks published in 2013. Here’s a run-down of the top award winners, along with my take on why you’ll want to make these books a permanent part of your cooking library. Hearty congrats to all of this year's cookbook winners!

HestonCookbook of the Year -- Historic Heston by Heston Blumenthal: The legendary self-taught UK chef already had one James Beard feather in his cap for The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (Best Photography), but Historic Heston is the book that demonstrates why Blumenthal is so often called a culinary alchemist, a wizard, a magician, and why his Fat Duck has twice been voted the Best Restaurant in the World. Here, he recreates thirty historic British dishes for the 21st century--playfully, meticulously, and beautifully. The book itself is a stunning slipcased number, emblazoned with a gold crest that commands you to "Question Everything." One of few cookbooks destined to become an heirloom. Watch this trailer to better appreciate its grandeur.

 

Diana-KennedyCookbook Hall of Fame Winner: What Julia Child was to French cooking in America, Diana Kennedy is to Mexican. She first went to Mexico in the late '50s, when she married Paul Kennedy, foreign correspondent for the New York Times. At the suggestion of Craig Claiborne, she started teaching Mexican cooking classes in '69 and published her first cookbook in the early '70s, and she went on to become the most celebrated authority on regional Mexican cuisine. We're thrilled to see her recognized for her marvelous books.

 

Midwestern-TableAmerican Cooking -- The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen: The popular host of Food Network's Heartland Table, Manhattan-trained chef and Minnesota native Amy Thielen is putting the Midwest's oft-overlooked cuisine smack-dab in the middle of American foodie's culinary radar, where it belongs. Her debut cookbook features 150 recipes for "dishes featuring our lake fish and our abundant venison, and vibrant takes on pot roasts and meat pies, recipes from simple salads to more elaborate preparations for headcheese and red current jelly" (Michael Ruhlman). We'll pass on the headcheese and take seconds of everything else.

 

Art-French-PastryBaking & Dessert -- The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer with Martha Rose Shulman: Oh, to be born into a long line of pastry chefs! Jacquy Pfeiffer learned to make pastry as a child in his father’s bakery in Alsace, but lucky for us, he's generously shared the good fortune of his birth: In The Art of French Pastry, he breaks down--with equal parts precision and charm--the techniques that are second nature to him, starting with the basics and expanding into a true master class. If pastry intimidates you in the least, this is the book you've been waiting for.

 

SmokeGeneral Cooking -- Smoke: New Firewood Cooking by Tim ByresThe most primal flavor has found its champion in Byres, proprietor of Smoke and Chicken Scratch restaurants in Dallas. Drawing inspiration from the full spectrum of Mexican, Texan, and Southern flavors and techniques, he takes deeply delicious creative leaps, while still balancing his spice and smoke with fresh acidity and sweetness. We dare you to savor this book and not be inspired to start a fire--or build a smokehouse, or dig a pig pit, or make a peck of pickles.

 

More 2014 James Beard Award winners:

Beverage -- The Cocktail Lab by Tony Conigliaro

Focus on Health -- Gluten-Free Girl Every Day by Shauna James Ahern

International -- Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop

Photography -- René Redzepi: A Work in Progress by Ali Kurshat Altinsoy, Ditte Isager, René Redzepi, Lars Williams, and the Noma Team and Historic Heston by Heston Blumenthal

Reference and Scholarship -- Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine by Adrian Miller

Single Subject -- Culinary Birds by John Ash

Vegetable Focused and Vegetarian -- Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

Writing and Literature -- Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

 

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

Mary Szybist
photo by Joni Kabana

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Wednesday: 2014 Teen Choice Finalists

Voting has opened up for the 2014 Teen Choice Award and the finalists are a handful of the best books from last year.  You have until May 12th to vote, but why wait?  The winner will be announced on May 14 at a big gala event during Children's Book Week.

Here are the finalists:

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Vote for your favorite

 

2014 Newbery Honor Winner: Kevin Henkes on "The Year of Billy Miller"

YrBillyMiller300I'm fascinated by watching illustrators draw, and award-winning author/illustrator Kevin Henkes graciously agreed to have a chat about The Year of Billy Miller (one of our Best Children's Books of 2013) AND draw one his most beloved characters, Lilly (Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, among others) on camera when we met up at Book Expo America.  

When I say that Henkes is an award-winning author, I don't mean it lightly--he's won the Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon, a Caldecott Honor for Owen, a Newbery Honor for his middle grade novel, Olive's Ocean, and this year he took home two awards: a Newbery Honor for his latest book, The Year of Billy Miller and a Geisel Honor for Penny and Her Marble, the third book in his new beginning reader series.  Henkes is truly a jewel of the children's book world, and a delightful, down-to-earth guy who was really fun to meet and talk to.  We chatted about how he decides which format to write next, where the story for Billy Miller came from in his own life, and about the fact that he's never had a main character that was a dog.  You can watch him draw in the first video below, and the second is our conversation before and after.

 

 

 

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