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Meet the Birds of Pandemonium

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

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

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

 

Meet Some of the Birds of Pandemonium

 

 Tico, Blue and gold macaw

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

Tico, Blue and gold macaw

Tico, Blue and gold macaw


Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

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

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

 

Continue reading " Meet the Birds of Pandemonium" »

Weekend Reading: First Impressions of Upcoming Books

A luxury of this job is seeing books months before they're published--combing through the mail and the stacks on our desks for the best books to pass along to readers. Here are a few things that we'll be taking a look at over the weekend. Happy Friday!

 

Bad Paper

Bad Paper by Jake Halpern

Jon Foro: Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think. Jake Halpern  introduces us to the billionaires at the top and the hard men at the bottom of an economy spanning many shades of gray. Falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets, this book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun.

Bad Paper will be available October 14.

 
Prince Lestat

Prince Lestat by Anne Rice

Seira Wilson: I’m going to spend as much of the weekend as possible in my hammock with a pile of books that includes, Prince Lestat (October 28)– off to a good start so far, Anne Rice did a nice job bringing me back into the world of the Vampire Chronicles - and Glory O'Brien's History of the Future (October 14) by one of my favorite young adult authors, A.S. King. I’m also going to try the zucchini lasagna recipe from The Skinnytaste Cookbook (September 30) since a friend just brought me a zucchini the size of a newborn…

 
The Remedy for Love

The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach

Neal Thompson: Roorbach’s last book, Life Among Giants, was an Amazon Best of the Month “spotlight” pick and one of my favorite books of 2012. In his new one, he again creates believably damaged, oddball characters: a buttoned-up, cuckolded small-town stud and a bruised, half-starved mystery girl. They end up locked in cabin during a brutal snowstorm, and you kinda know where things might be headed. But how Roorbach gets us there is pretty unexpected, sexy, and intense. The story stuck with me for days.

The Remedy for Love will be available October 14.

 
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Chris Schluep: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel's new collection of short stories. I discovered her later than many, but my admiration runs deep. Jodi Picoult has grabbed me this week as well. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. And I'll be setting aside some time for Harold Holzer's Lincoln and the Power of the Press. It's a doorstop by the author of Lincoln at Cooper Union.

 
Without You, There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Erin Kodicek: I’m about halfway through Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim. It’s about a Korean American journalist posing as a Christian missionary posing as a teacher for the sons of North Korea’s ruling class. It was a surprising concept to me, that the North Korean government would actually enlist Westerners for the purpose of educating their children, but you soon see how it’s made possible by a series of rules and regulations so severe they seem straight out of a speculative fiction novel. So far a fascinating, chilling and very moving peek inside this enigmatic country.

Without You, There Is No Us will be available October 14

 

 

Sometimes It’s OK to Say “I Told You So”

RobPeaceAbout three years ago, my friend Rebecca introduced me to her husband, Jeff Hobbs, who had published one novel and was working on another. Like me, Rebecca is a major reader—our relationship started because we both worked in related parts of the book business—and she wanted my opinion on Jeff’s book. I read the partial manuscript—and was unsure. There was a lot about Jeff’s writing that I liked, but the story (about a marriage, as I recall) didn’t quite hold together. When Jeff and Rebecca and I talked, we talked about how to fix it.

But a funny thing happened in the course of that telephone conversation three years ago. Jeff mentioned that he was taking a break from the novel anyway, because he was trying to deal with his grief and sadness over the death of his friend and college roommate, Rob Peace. He was travelling back and forth to the east coast (the Hobbses live in L.A.) to attend the funeral and reconnect with his and Rob’s old friends. I didn’t know Jeff well at all at that point, but even I could tell that this experience—losing his friend in this horrible way—was just about all he was able to think about.

So I honestly don’t remember who said it first—whether it was Jeff or Rebecca or me—but what I do know is from that moment on, we stopped talking about the novel and started talking about how Jeff, a writer whose main way of figuring things out is to write about them, would honor his friend.We talked about Jeff writing a magazine article that might, if it worked, turn into a proposal for a book. I said I’d help him find an agent or editor to help.

A few months, or maybe it was only weeks later, Jeff showed me a 30-something-page proposal that blew me away. It was knowing, it was journalistic, it was beautiful: all that and more. So I sent it along to a friend, David Black, who just happened to be one of the best agents in New York.

Jeffhobbs
Author Jeff Hobbs

The rest, as they say, is history—if you read the footnotes. Which, in this case, means that David worked with Jeff to turn a brilliant 30 page proposal into an even more complete 80-or-something-page proposal. Within weeks, the book was bought by Scribner, which is publishing it with the enthusiasm and passion it deserves.

Why am I telling you all this stuff, which is inside-baseball at its most arcane? Because now, on the eve of the publication of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, I find myself sitting with the book, with pre-pub reviews, with Goodreads commentary, and finding my eyes fill up with tears. Yes, I’m proud to have been a small part of something so great, but this is Jeff’s book all the way—though Jeff, in his characteristically humble way, corrects me by saying “It’s Rob’s book.” But what I’m moved by, as Rob Peace’s story, honored by his friend Jeff Hobbs, goes out into the world, is that an awful lot of people are feeling the way I felt when I first talked to the Hobbses about this years ago: Rob Peace’s life story is not only worth telling, it must be told. So here’s my shameless plug: if you haven’t read this book yet, do it now. You don’t want to be the last one on your block to join the conversation about race and friendship and family in our time.

And, after you do, you can say I told you so.

How I Wrote It: Lin Enger, on "The High Divide"

LinSet in the 1880s, mostly in the wilderness of the Montana Territory, Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, tells the sweeping story of a man on the run, from both his family and his past. It's also the story of the bloody history of the northern plains, the slaughter of bison herds and of the native Plains Indians. The High Divide (on sale 9/23) is one of our Best Books of the Month editors' picks in literature and fiction.

~

Origins

This novel comes from three places:

First, from my lifelong fascination with the American bison, the buffalo, an interest I attribute to a family legend dating back to 1884, when my great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, supposedly shot and killed one of the last wild buffalo in Dakota Territory. The animal was drinking from the stock tank behind his sod barn.

The second source (related to the first) was my discovery some fifteen years ago of a bit of history I found remarkable, and remarkably ironic. I came across it in a book called The Time of the Buffalo, by Tom McHugh. In 1886, William Temple Hornaday, curator and chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., realized the museum possessed not one good specimen of the American bison.  Aware that the animal was near extinction, he organized in the fall of that year an expedition into Montana Territory to collect specimens--a hunt that resulted in the “harvest” of 25 bison, which Hornaday then fashioned into a lifelike panorama that stood on display in the Smithsonian until 1957.

Third, and entirely unrelated to the first two--and for reasons I cannot fathom--I’ve long wanted to write a novel about children forced to go in search of a missing father. And it was this father I invented, and his wife and their children, who became the focus of the novel.

I should add: my best stories come from the collision of two or more very divergent ideas.

HighReader

I didn’t know it when I started, but by the time I finished the novel, I was writing to remind readers in this forward-leaning country to pause, take an honest look back, and remember how we came into possession of the continent we occupy. It is not a noble story, and those who lived it--those on every side of the struggle--suffered all kinds of losses. And in fact the story has never ended. As a third-generation immigrant, I couldn’t tell it from a Native perspective, but I was able to tell it from the point of view of a soldier caught up in the Indian Wars, and from the perspectives of his wife and his sons, who (like the families of all war veterans) fall into the category, you might say, of collateral damage.

Space

Not exactly by choice, I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself?  Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886. I also wrote in other places: coffee shops, libraries, hotel rooms, anywhere. Writing a novel is such an immersion experience--you have to take it with you; it refuses to be left at home.

Since finishing the book, my wife and I have downsized into a smaller house, and I recently acquired a standing desk (salvaged from a library) that I’ve placed along the empty east wall of our bedroom. That’s where I’m writing the next book.

Tools

I write first drafts with a mechanical pencil on narrow-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Then I type that draft into a MacBook and start the work of rewriting and revising. For this book, I made an effort to complete the first draft quickly; I was teaching full-time and had only one or two hours a day, but I was still able to finish the draft in about six months. At every writing session I filled between two and four notebook pages with a very small cursive script. When I write letters or academic prose, I work on the laptop keyboard, but when I write fiction I need the personal connection of my fingers gripping the pencil, the lead script scratching its way onto the lined paper. Often, I am able to move more deeply into the world I’m making if I take off my glasses (I’m very near-sighted) and bend my head right down into the words as they appear. Anything to erase the distance between myself and the story, which seems to exist as a thing apart from me.

Words

As a professor, I read all the time--books I’m teaching, student papers and stories, masters’ theses.  I’m always having to push my own work aside. And so when I can finally turn my attention to it, when I’m finally looking at a space of time ahead of me, writing time--especially summers--it doesn’t take much to prime the pump; the flow is there, and the writing comes pretty fast and joyfully. Which is not to say it isn’t hard work. It is. But hard work can be fun, draft after draft of it before scenes and characters have taken on the lives I envision for them. I wrote five drafts of this novel, and not one person read it until I was satisfied that it was finished.

But what am I reading now? The Grapes of Wrath. An old college friend recently told me he’d just read it for the first time, and that shamed me into giving it another try. Wow. Steinbeck’s vision, his compassion, his encyclopedic rendering of a place and time, it’s blowing me away. When I’m working on a first draft, though, I don’t have the mental space to read other people’s fiction--or to read much of anything besides what is required of my teacher-self. Once in revision mode, I’ll read again, preferably fiction writers whose sentences I admire: James Welch, Cormac McCarthy, James Salter.

Inspiration

My inspiration was the research I did in order to get things right--or try to. I read books about the bison, about Native American history and culture, about the Indian Wars of the late-nineteenth century, about the settlement of the West. The temptation, of course, was to keep on reading and put off the writing, because there was never a time when I thought, “Yes, now I’m ready: I know everything I have to know.” Never happened. I just had to plunge in and trust I wouldn’t drown.

Temptation

I have this terrible inclination, as soon as the writing starts going well, to push away from the desk, notebook, or laptop, and go do something absolutely unnecessary--make something to eat or mow the lawn. It’s like some part of my self doesn’t want the writer part to see the project through. So I have to be constantly on guard against this urge. On the other hand, when I find myself struggling with a scene or a sentence or a plot turn, beating my head against a wall and unwilling to give up until I find the answer, that’s when I have to force myself to leave the writing for a few minutes and go for a walk. And if I do that--just step away--many times the problem will dissolve, almost by itself, and I can return to my desk with a clear path ahead.

~

Lin Enger is an Iowa Workshop graduate, the author of the novel Undiscovered Country, and the recipient of a James Michener Award and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ascent, Great River Review, Wolf Head Quarterly, and other journals. He teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Visit his website: www.lin-enger.com.

 

The Gray Areas of Gray Matter: Author Matt Richtel on Information Overload

A Deadly WanderingIn 2006, a pair of rocket scientists died on a Utah highway, killed in a collision with a student named Reggie Shaw, who had been texting at the time of the accident. A Deadly Wandering uses this moment to launch itself into an investigation/rumination on the increasing presence of technology in our lives, probing for answers to the question How much is too much? This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it. The result is anything but: Richtel has combined his savvy as a New York Times science reporter with his skill as a writer of technology-infused thrillers to weave two separate, if related, stories together: the tragedy—and ultimate redemption—of Reggie Shaw, and the deleterious effects of technology on our brains, bodies, and culture. A Deadly Wandering is a riveting blend of humanity and science.

We asked Richtel some questions about Shaw and the growing influence of information in our brains and our culture, and his response was much more detailed and enthusiastic than we could have hoped for--it's the same energy that drives this masterful work of narrative nonfiction.

A Deadly Wandering, available in hardcover and Kindle on September 23, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month for September 2014.

 


Matt Richtel on A Deadly Wandering

How did you come to the story of Reggie Shaw?

I first met Reggie for a story about distracted driving that I wrote for The New York Times. In more than two decades in journalism, I’ve met hundreds of fascinating people. Few like Reggie. He has a depth of character, a candor, quiet wit, the All-American kid laid bare through tragedy, dark truth and, ultimately, redemption. He became the first person, or one of the first, charged with negligent homicide in a texting and driving death. And he was, in many ways, the last person you’d ever expect that to happen to. Ordinary guy, good guy, turned hunted and haunted criminal, turned hero.

At what point did you realize that this story had potential beyond the tragedy of the accident? What compelled you to write the larger story about technology and society?

Although the Reggie story stuck with me, and he and I stayed in contact, I wasn’t particularly compelled to write a book about it, not at first. Instead, I kept studying and thinking about the science: what was so alluring about technology; what was it doing to our brains? Why would Reggie, a thoughtful, smart 19-year-old kid send a meaningless text while driving at dawn in the rain, while going 55 miles an hour? I realized that I had formulated some ideas about just how magnetic our devices had become, how irresistible, and they were steeped in science that is both decades old and emerging. I’d talk to scientists about my thesis and they’d say: Yes, yes, you have to write about this. Something is happening to our brains and you’ve got to write about it.

But those were just ideas. And, from my standpoint, ideas don’t make good books. Certainly not great books. Great books are stories. They are about people, characters, and passions. That’s my bias, anyway. I want to be swept away by a narrative. Reading, to me, should be fun. Think: Unbroken or Into Thin Air.

In the years I spent learning about the science, I got to know the scientists. You want to talk about characters. These are brilliant, funny, quirky, opinionated people. They laid the groundwork for how we, as a society, understand the brain. They also have their quirks. One of the foremost experts has a license plate that reads “attend.” When I asked him why, he said: “Because turn off your #*^& cell phone is too long.” Another neuroscientist holds crazy Friday Night parties in San Francisco with the most famous technology people, and with musicians and the digerati. One of the great early scholars, whose work after World War II helped shape how we think about the brain and its relationship with technology, told me incredible stories about the early days of neuroscience.

Now I was starting to see story lines; the story of how we understand the brain, the people who help us understand it. There was a context around Reggie’s story, and, at that point, I didn’t realize just how incredible his story was.

So I spent many months talking to Reggie and the people around him in the little town in Northern Utah that he calls home. I heard extraordinary stories from Reggie’s family, those who defended him, hunted him and prosecuted him, sentenced him. It’s not so much that their stories were so unusual, but they were so candid, so open – stories about terrible childhood abuse, personal tragedy, minor life infractions, small town reflection, great love and loyalty, lust. As one character described Reggie’s town: it is like Friday Night Lights. These personal tales, far from being incidental or irrelevant to a story of distracted driving, were quite integral. The way these characters see themselves, and the world, informed how they saw Reggie, and the idea of attention, and the idea of distraction. They are us, so is Reggie, but willing to share in vivid candor their role in a great drama.

Now I had the potential for a great book. At its core, it is the weaving of two narratives. One is a tragic car wreck, gumshoe investigation, historic prosecution, defiant defendant and zealous pursuers, all glued together an intense human drama. The other is a scientific journey, one that starts with the birth of neuroscience in 1850, and tells the very human stories of the neuroscientists and their discoveries. The two story lines intersect, remarkably enough, because one of the leading scholars in neuroscience and the science of attention wound up testifying in Reggie’s pre-trial hearing.

In sum, the book weaves together these narratives: an irresistible human drama with the story of how we understand the brain and its relationship to technology. Through the lens of these stories, we come to understand the value of attention, its fragility, and the assault it faces in the digital age. The book is a narrative, in the truest sense, not a lecture, told through story and character. At least that is what’s intended.

Author Matt Richtel (photo: Meredith Barad)

The book includes some of the latest science about humans and our ability to absorb and accommodate an ever increasing amount of information and input. What surprised you the most in the research?

Here’s what most surprised me: we often are not using our electronic devices for the reasons we think we’re using them or say we’re using them. We say we need to stay in touch. We say we’re afraid of missing out on something important. That’s certainly true some of the time. But much of the time it is not true. We are using our gadgets because we can’t help ourselves; we are so accustomed to the stimulation that, in its absence, we feel bored. We love to click the keys and make something happen on the screen. We love to feel the little adrenaline rush when we make new information appear, whether or not it is relevant or valuable. The devices are like slot machines, with levers to pull to give us a squirt of dopamine. There is a debate whether or not to call this “addiction” or merely extremely habit forming. In any case, I now look out our devices much differently than I did several years ago. These are brain stimulation devices. That doesn’t mean they’re all bad, not at all. One of the reasons they are so stimulating is that they can and do lead to the exchange of valuable information, crucial communications, entertainment. But not as much as we imagine or advertise.

That thing in your pocket? It’s got you by the brain and it is not letting go.

How much is too much? At what point do tools designed to improve efficiency have the opposite effect?

There is this wonderful study I learned about for the book. It’s the “chocolate cake” study, and it helps answer this question. In the study (I’m oversimplifying a bit), subjects entered a room and were asked to choose whether they wanted to eat a piece of chocolate cake or have a bowl of fruit. Here’s the twist: some of the study subjects, prior to entering the room, were asked to remember a handful of numbers. The scientists discovered something remarkable: the study subjects who were asked to remember numbers tended to choose the chocolate cake, while the study subjects who didn’t have to remember numbers chose the fruit.

What’s the point?

The brain is very sensitive to information overload, even in small doses. The amount of information we are remembering and juggling can impact even small decisions, and in unconscious ways. Now translate that into how we use our devices; if we are overloaded, even a bit, it can impact how we relate to every aspect of our lives. It can, without being too hyperbolic, impact the idea of free will. Will you choose fruit or chocolate cake? Will you make a good decision about work, your children, etc, etc?

So, to answer your question directly, I believe you need to create enough down time from your devices to clear your head. You need to be free of information overload to even make decisions about how much to use your device. In concrete terms, take a walk without your device, take a Saturday or Sunday with the power button in the “off” position. Take a vacation where you disconnect altogether. This includes disconnecting from radio, TV and other media, which are sources of information, obviously. Disconnecting, I believe, and the science supports this, will give you a clearer head to figure out how much you need to stay disconnected to make good, clear-headed decisions. It will differ person-to-person, but, whoever you are, a clear head is needed to make the good call.

What do we find so alluring about information? Where in our relationship with technology do you think it began in earnest?

In a word, information is “survival.” Our need for information – from knowing that fire burns to knowing what time to show up at a meeting – determines so much in our daily lives. That is the first reason that information is alluring.

In that respect, language itself is a crucial technology, a critical human innovation that lets us communicate information in a short-hand way. If I can tell you that fire burns, then you don’t have to thrust your hand into the fire to find out for yourself.

With books, we could distribute ideas to masses. With phones, we added sound and intonation and urgency. And now with mobile devices, we can do so from anywhere, anytime.

Who could deny the extraordinary utility? These devices tap into the deepest primitive need to be informed and to respond to sources of information to find out if they represent opportunity or threat. One way to think about it is to think about the idea of being a caveperson, eons ago, in the jungle. If someone tapped on your shoulder, you’d have to turn around immediately to find out if that person was a threat, or maybe was offering food. Today, when the phone rings or a text comes in, it’s like being tapped on the shoulder by anyone, anywhere in the world. Quite literally, a billion people could be tapping you on the shoulder. How can you resist this primitive call for information – even when you’re behind the wheel?

In this respect, the technology is playing so powerfully to our primitive wiring that it can “hijack the brain.” That’s how the scientists put it to me. The lure of the device overpowers us to the point where it diverts focus away from other demands, like driving, or dinner with your spouse and kids or even walking down the street (for those who’ve walked into a tree while checking a sports score on the phone, you know you are).

Do you hope that this book makes readers reconsider their own digital habits? Have you changed your own?

Yes, I hope they will reconsider their habits, on the road and off of it. I hope they will take a complete break when driving and then, when not driving, take regular breaks from digital stimulation. I’ve done both. The reason is because I’ve learned, through lots of research, that I have limited brain power. We all do. And the more we are constantly stimulated, the more we deplete our neurological tanks, text by text, angry-bird game by angry-bird game. Until we are depleted to the point of being unable to process information, whether about work, our relationships, homework, and so on. This is doubly true of young people, whose brains remain under development. The more they are constantly stimulated, the less able they are to make good decisions and the more they crave the stimulation, creating a wicked cycle. But why do I care whether people are connected all the time? Where do I get off sounding so preachy? Perhaps I should retreat to the position of husband, father, friend, co-worker; I’d like to be around people who are engaged with the world, paying attention to it, listening, processing. I’d like to be a person like that. I think it makes me a better dad and husband, a better voter and writer, and thinker.

Is legislation an effective tool against “distracted driving”? What would you say to those who would decry “nanny state” prohibitions? Is there anything that can change our behavior?

I want to be careful not to be too prescriptive given the fact I’m a journalist and a New York Times reporter, and to try to maintain some objective distance. That said, two things are very clear: (1) texting while driving is extremely dangerous (in the moment like being blind drunk); (2) people know it’s dangerous and they do it anyway. In other words, the problem isn’t about attitudes. The attitudes are already consistent with the risks. But the behaviors are not. People continue to take extreme risk.

What we know historically is that behaviors change through public education and tough laws. The fact that behaviors haven’t changed – even though attitudes have changed – suggests to some people in public health that the laws must be toughened. Without fear of real penalty, like big fines or loss of driving privileges, people might not change behavior, so goes the theory. If you feel that’s the nanny state, then you might feel that drunk driving laws are the nanny state too.

Finally, some public health people feel the current no-texting laws are confusing: you’re allowed to use your phone to dial or call up a music program but not to text. When can you touch your phone and when can you not? It’s a gray area for drivers and a gray area for law enforcement. Without more clarity, these folks say, it’s going to be hard to get behaviors consistent with what everyone seems to know: it is potentially deadly to look down at your device, manipulate it, even get so lost talking on it on it that your attention gets diverted from the road.

Will the Reggie Shaw case become a touchstone moment or a missed opportunity?

I certainly don’t think it’s a missed opportunity. Put another way: Reggie pours his heart out to audiences around the country, telling them not to get distracted while driving. In that way, he has redeemed himself like no other person I’ve ever met. Many people I talked to about him – people who once demonized him – now say he is an American hero. So no, not a missed opportunity.

But is it a touchstone? Good question. I think that it can be if we are ready for his message. This, I would say, is true of lots of people in history, leaders, whose messages have been unpopular, right up until the point they’ve become popular, the public receptive. Reggie and others like him will become leaders when we are ready to listen. And I don’t know yet whether we’re ready. We may not know until it happens.

Which other writers of “narrative nonfiction” do you admire?

I’ll mention three books and writers.

For me, Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a work of magic and art of the highest order. It’s about the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, the things they carried. Honestly, I’m not sure that it qualifies completely as non-fiction in that it plays with truth and our emotions as it essentially asks the question: what is truth and what is perception of truth? In that way, it is a kind of new new journalism, an acknowledgement and embodiment of the idea truth and reality depend on the camera angle and the camera man’s perspective. And all told within the confines of a great story.

Similarly The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, about the execution of Gary Gilmore, is a story that is an incredible personal saga and story while also, almost incidentally, raising great moral questions. The reporting is so detailed, so excruciatingly vivid. In fairness, Mailer calls this “a true-life novel,” suggesting he took some liberties. But I can’t imagine there are many, knowing how much reporting went in and how well documented that reporting is.

But if I had to pick a model of narrative nonfiction, at least for purposes of my book, A Deadly Wandering, it would be Into Think Air. Simply, it’s an irresistible story, magnetic, impossible to put down and then, by the end, you realize you were so swept up in a story that you didn’t realize you learned a whole bunch about a subject that may or may not have been interesting to you. Same with Unbroken. And, to a large extent, The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. This is high art; teaching under the auspices of entertaining, or is it the other way around?

Portrait of "The City": San Francisco, 1940-1960

San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960As a fourth-generation San Franciscan, few are as familiar with the City by the Bay as photographer Fred Lyon. His new book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960, not only captures it iconic sights and sites--the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, cable cars, the hills and the fog--but also the iconoclastic, if sometimes off-beat geniuses that made it great--a group to which Lyon firmly belongs. We're thrilled to present dozen incredible images from the book, accompanied by Lyon's own captions.

Learn more about Fred Lyon in the "Living Through the Lens" trailer at the bottom of this page.


San Francisco in the 1940s was irresistible. It still is, but for a brash young photographer recovering from New York’s fashion world, it was feast. Two bridges, steep hills with tiny cable cars, fog, Chinatown, plus a booming postwar optimism, all fed my hungry camera. It seldom had a chance to cool off.

In those headlong days it was impossible to imagine living past thirty.  Anyhow, who would want to hang around when life’s over?  Now however, as I turn 90, Princeton Architectural Press has given these San Francisco images a new life in our book San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940 – 1960. What a birthday present!  

Seen again, from this distance and in the context of change, the content displays a relevance  beyond nostalgia. The City isn’t static, it’s a work in progress.  Still, as we plunge forward, our recent history can guide us, perhaps soothing and even providing an occasional chuckle.

Notes on a handful of images:

Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, seen from atop Russian Hill, framed by the windshield of my Riley drophead coupe (separate fenders and headlights!).
 
Cityscape looking south from a plane over the bay.  In the foreground, Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, while downtown fills the distance with newer buildings and the south waterfront.
 
Above the Golden Gate Bridge:  The pilots of the small seaplanes I used for aerial photography never wanted to go as low as I did during our flyovers of the Golden Gate Bridge, but this viewpoint has an immediacy that excites me.  Old Fort Point nestles under the South Anchorage (at top).  And just look at that traffic.  It hasn’t been that sparse in decades.
 
The crew that paints the Golden Gate Bridge works from one end to the other and then starts all over again.  During the weeks of shooting this story my role  changed from a curiosity and the painters became protective, averting several reckless moves of the demented “camera guy”.
 
This display of laundry was a familiar sight in North Beach, traditionally an enclave of Italian immigrants and Chinese, in the days before automatic appliances.
 
Seen through a telephoto lens from Telegraph hill, the Lombard Street grapevine zig-zags down Russian Hill.  Headlights trace autos’ wiggly brick path.
 
Small boys at play on a steep hill above Broadway in North Beach.  This vertical city encourages imaginative vehicles for a swoop down the slope.
 
A pair of old skates and a couple of young buddies often equaled two “coasters” for the steep sidewalks of North Beach.  Daring races often ended abruptly, with a scrape or two.
 
A cable car at the foot of California Street prepares for its crawl up from the waterfront and the financial district to the top of Nob Hill.
 
On Grant Avenue in Chinatown, a street lamp is readied for the annual festivities of Chinese New Year.
 
Castle Street, on the south slope of Telegraph Hill, frames Coit Tower and epitomizes San Francisco’s reputation as the capital of film noir.
 
A foggy night at Land’s End, above Sutro Baths.
 

The Best Books of September: Some Old Friends and Some New Surprises

BoneclocksSeptember’s Best Books of the Month are out, and featured among our Top 10 picks is the #1 book on Amazon right now (the title may be a surprise to some). But first things first:

Spotlight: Our spotlight selection for September is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. There’s something different about the publication of this novel—something that wasn’t there when Mitchell ‘s previous works were published. He’s always been beloved by his fans, but it appears that there are more of them now. Watching the reception of The Bone Clocks is watching a cult writer come to the mainstream.

DeadlywanderingPick #2: Matt Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering is one of those books that makes selecting the Best of the Month a special experience. It’s safe to say that the Amazon editors didn’t see this one coming until they read it. This is a book about one of the first deaths on the highway as a result of texting and driving. In the words of Senior Editor Jon Foro, “This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it." And indeed A Deadly Wandering never flags. It is partly an examination of how technology affects our lives, partly an exploration of a terrible tragedy, partly a story of redemption; and definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

SecretplacePick #3: Tana French’s last novel Broken Harbor was a Best of the Month selection in 2012, so it’s no surprise to see her here again. Of her latest novel, The Secret Place (Book 5 in the Dublin Murder Squad series), Senior Editor Seira Wilson writes, “As in her previous books, just when you think you’ve solved the mystery another curious twist appears and French keeps you guessing right up until the very end.” French is clearly a writer at the top of her game. That she's managed to extend that game for five novels (her first was the smash hit Into the Woods) is especially remarkable.

CosbyPick #4: Despite his immense fame, there has never been a major biography of Bill Cosby until now—a surprise, given his nearly ten-year dominance on NBC, not to mention his many other contributions (my personal favorites: Fat Albert and "Noah"). Sara Nelson, Editorial Director for Amazon Books and Kindle, writes of the book, "the portrait that emerges here is of a guy who has worked tirelessly and earnestly to change the race conversation in this country, one silly bit at a time." Or, if you're familiar with his Noah bit, cubit by cubit.

WhatifPick #5: And now for a slight surprise... Our #5 pick for the Best Books of September is currently #1 on Amazon.com. That book is What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. So who is this guy and what is What If? Munroe is a former robotics researcher who now runs the blog xkcd full-time. As you might gather, the blog provides serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, and it's wildly popular. Apparently quitting the 9 to 5 gig is working out for him. Congratulations, Randall Munroe!

Tune in next week for a quick summary of picks 6 through 10 in September's Best Books of the Month.

Jennifer Holm and Esther Ehrlich: Best Books of September

14thGoldfish400Two of my favorite kids' books this month (both on our Best Children's Books of September list) are Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish and Esther Ehrlich's Nest.  They are very different stories, but have strong family relationships and spunky main characters in common--I think the same reader would really enjoy both.

The Fourteenth Goldfish (our spotlight pick) is clever, funny, and thought-provoking.  I loved eleven-year-old Ellie's grumpy inventor grandfather who teaches her about the power of science and belief and being no less than one hundred percent yourself.  I laughed A LOT reading this book and recommended it to three people just last night.  Not even kidding.

Set in 1972, Nest is a powerful story about Nest400eleven-year-old Naomi, called "Chirp," and the tremendous change her family undergoes as the result of physical and mental illness.  Over the course of the book they bring out the best and worst in each other, anger and love competing for space.  Chirp finds solace in the birds near home and in an unlikely friendship with the neighbor boy who has family problems of his own. This is a book that made me hug it to my chest and heave a big sigh when it was over.  Fans of Jenni Holm's books like Turtle in Paradise would like this one.

These two authors recently got together and shared their conversation:

Jenni Holm: Your book is just gorgeous. Was there a specific moment in your life that inspired it?

Esther Ehrlich: Thanks, Jenni! No, there’s not a specific moment that inspired Nest but, I think, a lifetime of moments. The spark for the book was an image that came to me of two sisters dancing in the road together in a summer rainstorm while their mom, a dancer who wasn’t feeling well, watched them from the porch. That image captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go, and the rest of the book unfolded from there.

Jenni Holm: I have all brothers, so I really enjoyed how you delve into relationships between sisters. Can you talk a little about that?

Esther Ehrlich:  I grew up in a family with four children born within five years of each other, three girls and one boy. I guess I couldn’t imagine writing a story without siblings, but I could imagine a few less of them! Chirp having one sister just felt right.

There’s something so powerful and unique about sister relationships; they’re amazingly intimate, but you don’t choose them. Sisters can be dramatically different from each other, yet there’s a deep bond that links them together. Chirp and Rachel have such different personalities, but in ways that really matter, they’re similar—they’re both loyal, smart, observant girls with a huge capacity to love.

Jenni Holm: You developed a wonderful sense of place and time. How did you go about doing your research? 

Esther Ehrlich:  Oh, the research! I spent a fair amount of time making sure that this bird would be doing that thing at this time of year there. I depended on a wonderful guide I found online that was specific to the birds on Cape Cod. And I listened and listened to birdsongs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. I wanted to do the birds justice—choose the right bird for the right mood/situation.

Most of my research was about double-checking the accuracy of my memory of the early 1970s. What did it say on the box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers? What Stevie Wonder song would Chirp and Sally most likely be dancing to in the basement? When did that commercial with the owl saying “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”run? I also dug up an old menu from Howard Johnson’s so Dad could order a “grilled-in-butter frankfort” instead of just a plain old hot dog!

Jenni Holm:  It's great having a story starring quiet yet observant children. Were you like this as a child? Why did you decide to write these sorts of characters?

Esther Ehrlich: Wow, good questions! To answer the second question first, I feel like I made very few conscious decisions about the characters, especially about such fundamental qualities like their personalities, what makes them who they are. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but the process of writing characters, for me, is much more about following their lead, paying attention to their quirks, what they reveal in little and not-so-little ways about themselves as the story develops, than about a deliberate choice I’m making. I never said to myself, “I think I want to write about an eleven-year-old girl whose eyes are wide open to the world but who doesn’t talk much to other people about her experiences.”

That said, my mother always used to say to me, “You don’t miss a trick, Es!” which I took as a compliment. I was definitely a kid who paid attention to pretty much everything. Of course, this also meant that I was very tuned in to what was going on with the people in my life—my family, friends, kids at school, teachers—and my accurate or, I’m sure, sometimes inaccurate ideas about how they were feeling. There was a vigilant quality to my observing. What is this person feeling and what is it that they need from me? No one who knew me as a kid would have described me as quiet—I was definitely a talker and still am. But the truth is, especially as a kid, my most peaceful and therefore happiest time was when I pulled back from the hard work of being vigilant and just spent time, quietly, by myself. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone with my bunnies in the backyard, brushing their fur with a soft toothbrush, trying to teach them to sit and stay, and just hanging out in the grass or fall leaves or snow.

Jenni Holm:  Anything you would like to add?

Esther Ehrlich: Well, I’d like to thank you for your interest in Nest and me, but I’d especially like to thank you for all of your writing. You give feisty, smart girls—and kind boys—a good name, and I appreciate that!

Recipe Road Test: Best Guacamole EVER

SeriouslyDelishGood guacamole can be the entire reason for going to a particular restaurant, but there is also a lot of mediocre guac out there--especially at my house...  I've tried the package of guacamole seasoning from the grocery store. So wrong. I've tried winging it with avocado, lime juice, hot sauce, and the occasional dalliance with sour cream.  Also no bueno. 

Seriously Delish has a lot of great recipes (it is, after all, one of our Best Cookbooks of September) but when I saw how sweet house guac, I knew that was the first recipe to try.

I made it for a group recently after a day of sun, boating, and beers, and it was hands-down the best guac I've ever made and one I'd be proud to serve again.  I attribute this to the copious amount of lime, the finely chopped jalapeno and red onion, and the right amount of salt.  Fresh, bright, and delicious, the recipe is also mighty generous and was perfect for our hungry group of eight. Next time I'm going to try one of Merchant's recommended ways to "trash up" my guac (starting with bacon, of course). I failed to take a picture of my own bowl of how sweet house guac which I blame on beer and the desire to eat this as fast as possible.

Below is the recipe and photo from page 92 of Seriously Delish.  

SweetDelishGuacamoleHow sweet house guac

I have been known to eat an entire bowl of guacamole by myself in one sitting. To say that I am in love would be a severe understatement. It would probably even be offensive. Over the years there has been a lot of guac to cross my path. I’ve determined what I love and don’t love, and this is it. My number-one preference is for the dip to remain completely authentic in flavor—so I don’t want any sour cream or yogurt mixed in. I am happiest when my red onion and jalapeño are finely diced and when my tomato is mostly seeded. Lots of salt and pepper are a must. And the limes—well, they are the key. Oh, and so are the margaritas.

MAKES 3 cups • TIME: 10 minutes

4 very ripe avocados, halved and pitted

Juice of 2 limes

1 large tomato, chopped

1⁄2 red onion, diced

1 jalapeño chile pepper, diced

1⁄3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Scoop the avocado flesh into a large bowl. Add the lime juice, tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, salt, and pepper. Mash the avocados with a potato masher or a fork—you can leave it as chunky as desired. Taste and season additionally if desired.

NOTES: For all of you cilantro haters out there who claim your guac tastes like soap, simply leave it out. No biggie. And if you want to trash up your guac (aka, one of my favorite things to do), feel free to add some juicy mango chunks or crispy bacon. I’ve done it, my friends. It’s fab.

Good Morning! Now Pack Me a Lunch.

School started in our district this week and while I'm excited for all the new things my daughter will be learning, I'm less enthusiastic about the return of the daily lunch packing chore.  And let me just say that there are few things more irritating than doing the blurry-eyed lunch creation (especially if I have to deal with meat and mayo at 7 a.m.) only to have it return half eaten. Grrr...  So, I've been checking out some of the books on the subject of kid lunches that have crossed my desk.  Below are a couple I'm most excited about.  Also, if you are a parent who leaves the occasional note tucked in with the sandwich, there are these really great note packs that are the perfect size and come in all different themes.  Yes, I do this.  It's nice.  My mom used to do it sometimes (and believe me, it doesn't happen every day in my world, either) and I still remember how much I loved seeing that little surprise at lunchtime.  

 

BestLunchBoxEver

 

Best Lunch Box Ever by Katie Sullivan Morford
This book knows my pain. In the first section there is a whole strategy for weekend do-ahead tasks that will make Monday morning (and Tuesday, and Wednesday...) much easier.  There are new sandwich ideas--everything from how to upgrade a turkey and cheese to mini pita sandwiches for kids who love little bites, to packing salads with kid appeal.  There is even a little section at the end for after-school snack ideas that are healthy and tasty.

 

 

 

 

 

BestHomemadeKidsLunches

 

The Best Homemade Kids' Lunches on the Planet by Laura Fuentes
Now we're talking expert lunch box advice here.  Author Laura Fuentes has a website (MOMables.com) dedicated to helping busy parents come up with healthy fun lunch that kids will actually eat.  In the book she collects over 200 recipes including some that are gluten-, soy-, and/or nut-free.  One special touch is the addition of a chart at the back of the book where kids can rate the different recipes.  A great way to get kids involved and build a repertoire of tried and true winners.

 

 

 

BeatingLunchBoxBlues

 

Beating the Lunch Box Blues by J.M. Hirsch
J.M. Hirsch recognizes that working parents are often trying to pull together lunch for themselves along with the kids', so Beating the Lunch Box Blues is good for both. The recipes include twists on a traditional sandwich, such as pizza sushi, salads, and noodle dishes.  The book is the result of a blog Hirsch started, chronicling the lunches he made for his son every day.  So he knows whereof he speaks when it comes to getting out the door with something good for both of you in hand.

 

 

 

 For those of you who like to add a little hello to the lunch, here are a couple of my favorite mini notes:

   Who wouldn't want a note from Snoopy?                                                     Bright die-cut notes

 PeanutsNotes MacaronNotes

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