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Reading About Climbing with Steve House and Scott Johnson

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston

As a writer for a blog that is somewhat preoccupied with literary fiction and popular nonfiction, it's not often that I have the opportunity (or reason) to go off-topic and talk about a fitness book.

Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, by Steve House and Scott Johnston, is no ordinary fitness book. House is a world-renowned climber and an advocate of the "alpine-style": A fast-and-light, carry-all-your-gear approach that eschews the siege-style encampments and support typical in commercial mountaineering, especially in places such as Mt. Everest. In order to do that ("that" meaning scaling vertical ice walls thousands of feet high with a 20-pound pack on your back), one must be extraordinarily fit. Along with his climbing partner, Vince Anderson, House won the 2005 Piolet d'Or for their ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in the western Himalayas, and his previous book, Beyond the Mountain, won the 2009 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Johnston, also a climber, has skied at the international level and coaches several top cross-country skiers.

If you're serious, or semi-serious, about climbing, this is your book. House and Johnston have put together regimens of varying difficulties that are both comprehensive and intense, while also addressing nutrition, mental fitness, and goal-setting. Though the exercises are nominally climbing-specific, they're appropriate for anyone who spends time in the mountains, or anyone looking to shake up their routine.

But even if you don't know a Prusik from a piton, there's a lot here to love. The book contains dozens of full-color high-altitude climbing photographs, as well as 27 essays by accomplished climbers, including Ueli Steck, Mark Twight, and Peter Habeler. To illustrate the unique nature of this book, House and Johnston (along with Patagonia Books) have provided several images, along with two excerpts:

  • "The Alpinist as Athlete": A summary of House and Johnson's philosophy of training's central role in the success of any climber
  • "The North Face of the North Twin": A short essay by House about a time something went sideways at altitude (the full story is included in Beyond the Mountain)

 Training for the New Alpinism is a book Fred Beckey would love.

 Images from the book (click for larger photographs):

Marko Prezelj climbing the short traversing pitch to the ice in the exit cracks of the headwall. North face of the North Twin, Alberta

Justin Merle chucks a lap near Ouray, Colorado

Continue reading "Reading About Climbing with Steve House and Scott Johnson" »

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!

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.


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

YA Wednesday: Lauren Oliver--To Play or Not to Play

Panic344Lauren Oliver's new book, Panic, is her first return to realism since her best-selling debut, Before I Fall, and our spotlight pick for the Best Young Adult Book of March. Panic tells the story of Dodge and Heather, two teenagers, caught up in a high stakes rite of passage game (called Panic) played in secret each year in their small, poor town.  As I read, I found myself wondering if I would have entered the competition as a teenager, at what point I would likely have quit, and would I even think about it now.   I asked Oliver her thoughts on this and here's what she had to say about the question of to play or not to play...

My new book, Panic, is about a small, rundown town called Carp, in which a sense of isolation, an almost institutionalized boredom, and the social competition native to every American high school combine in one explosive, legendary game.

I didn't grow up in a rundown town--far from it--but my town was certainly small, and we were certainly bored. We did a lot of stupid things in high school: we drove too fast once we got our licenses, and I resolutely and universally refused to wear‎ my seatbelt, for reasons I no longer remember. We mixed whiskey and vodka and chugged it (not recommended). We scored fake IDs in the city, cut class, smoked cigarettes, and bounced from party to party on weekends, looking for something to do.

I wasn't just an inveterate bad-decision maker, though--that was just a pastime. I was also an excellent, ambitious, and enthusiastic student, nerdy and more than a little insecure, trying to conceal my fears and frustrations beneath an attitude of recklessness and indifference.

Would I have participated in Panic back then? Heck yeah. Because Panic, the game, is about more than resistance to fear; it’s about the promise of escape. ‎And although the kids of Carp have real problems to outrun, they're also (like many teens; like myself, at that age) trying desperately to outrun themselves, to escape their identities, their anxieties, their creeping sense that they've inherited a life that is broken or misshapen in some way. Paradoxically, the reason I was so reckless in high school was because of my fears, not in spite of them.  I was hoping that if I could pretend to be fearless I might not only become fearless, but the very things I feared would never come to materialize.

I'm less afraid now than I was at eighteen, and also far less reckless, though I have a deeply ingrained adventurous streak that now finds expression in activity, travel, and experimenting with new things. I'll be the first to hop on a rock-climbing wall or jump out of a plane, fly across the world armed with just a passport and a sense of fun; sample fried insects (not, like, off the street, but in places where people eat insects)‎ or monkfish liver. I've built a life I love. I'm no longer plagued by the insecurities and fears that used to eat at me constantly, the suspicion that if I let my guard down for a second, everyone would know how weak I really was.

Would I play Panic now?‎ Absolutely not. I'm not running from anything. I don't need money to escape. And I'm lucky enough to say there's really nothing I could win that I don't already have. ---Lauren Oliver


Guest Essay: Rene Denfeld on Translating Life into Fiction for "The Enchanted"

The Enchanted"Write about what you know," they say. Author Rene Denfeld, who has several nonfiction books to her name, took that advice to heart when writing her powerful debut novel, The Enchanted. Told from the perspective of a death row inmate, the story, in large part, is about the inmate in the next cell and the work of "the Lady," an investigator who is trying to help him avoid execution. Drawing upon her own experiences investigating death penalty cases, Denfeld brings us inside the prison walls, deep into death row, and beyond.

We asked her to tell us about how her own experience influenced her writing, particularly with "the Lady." Here's what she had to say.

The EnchantedNot long ago, I was interviewing a man on death row.

He appeared angry with me, and I asked why. He turned haunted eyes towards me and said, "You brought the outside in."

For decades, he said, he had been trying to forget there was an outside. It was the only way to cope with being locked in a fetid prison cell. Now here I was, smelling of fresh air, with the bloom of winter sun on my cheeks, and he was furious.

I had reminded him of the greatest thing he had lost: hope.

In my job as a death penalty investigator, I spend a lot of time talking to men like this: men in prison cells, waiting for death.

My work is very much like that of the character of the lady in my first novel, The Enchanted. Attorneys hire me to investigate the lives of their clients--men and women facing execution.

Like the lady, I track down long-ago family members, and childhood friends. I find teachers based on pictures in ancient yearbooks. I dig up forgotten records in mildewed file rooms, and often locate witnesses starting with nothing more than a first name.

And most importantly, I spend time with the clients, making a safe place for them to tell me their secrets.

My job is painful and difficult, but I love it, because I get to learn the answers to the most critical question of all --"Why?"

Why are people the way they are? Why do people do such terrible things to each other? Why do some survive bad childhoods, while others succumb to rage and violence?

It fascinates me that for all our focus on crime--the movies, the novels, the television shows--we so seldom dig deep to find out why. We spend a lot of time in our culture telling each other what's wrong with people, but rarely do we stop, and just listen.

Like the lady, I find that most of the people I interview have been waiting a lifetime for someone to listen. Poverty, crime, and abuse have created vast swaths of the population who are silenced. They are our caste of invisibles, unseen and unheard.

Until, sometimes, their actions speak for them--and then it is too late.

For me, listening led to this novel. I listened to the voice of the narrator much as I have learned to listen to the voices of men on death row, their family members, and the families of their victims.

I feel honored to be entrusted with the truths of others, as real and painful and beautiful as they can be. Each secret told is a gift, the chance to truly understand another person.

I have been brought to my knees by the raw courage that can exist in victims and survivors. I've been humbled by the naked humanity of the penitent. Mostly, I've been astounded at the ability to find joy and hope and celebration even in the most despairing of circumstances.

Writing The Enchanted, there were times when I recognized myself in the lady. I also come from a difficult background. Like her, I've used my hardships to make room in my heart for others. But she made it clear that she was her own person, with her own story. She was not me--none of the characters are.

And yet, we share a comon humanity. We all have pain and sorrow. We all share the unquenchable human need to be heard, to be seen, and hopefully, accepted--to find a reason to let the outside in.

National Reading Month: Kate DiCamillo on the Power of Stories

KateDiCamilloMarch is National Reading Month and today is World Read Aloud Day, so we are kicking it off with a guest post from children's book author Kate DiCamillo that brought a lump to my throat (yes, I'm a total sap but don't judge 'til you read it...).

Probably best known for her novels Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, DiCamillo has had quite a year already.  At the start of 2014 she was named the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, a post voted on by a panel of booksellers, the Children's Book Council, and the Library of Congress.  Then when the Newbery award winners were announced at the end of January, DiCamillo took home the medal for Flora & Ulysses (an Amazon Best Children's Book of 2013), marking her third time as a Newbery recipient (she won the medal for Tales of Despereaux in 2004 and an honor for Because of Winn-Dixie in 2001).  DiCamillo is a powerhouse advocate for reading and getting books into the hands of children and, as you'll see in her post below, she does it with immense grace, gratitude, and always a touch of humor.

When I was nine years old, my mother checked Beverly Cleary’s Ribsy out of the public library, and read the book aloud to my brother and me.  We read a few chapters of the story every night.  The three of us sat side by side on the flowered sectional couch in the Florida room.  The Florida room had orange shag carpet.  Its walls were paneled in cypress, and we could see Lake Minnehaha from the large bank of windows that faced south.

On the floor, stretched out parallel to the couch, was our dog Nanette.  Nanette’s flank rose and fell as my mother read, and the dog would raise her head off the floor and look at us every time we laughed. 

We laughed a lot. 

Ribsy is a funny book.

There was a lamp by the couch.  And as the darkness outside grew darker, as the lake disappeared into the sky, as more of the story got told, the light by the couch seemed to grow brighter.

We were a pack of four: my mother, my brother, the dog and me.  In the book, Ribsy the dog was lost.  But we were all safe inside.  We were together.

That was over four decades ago.

Nanette is gone and my mother is gone.  My brother and I live far away from each other. 

But every time I see the cover of that book, every time I see a picture of Ribsy, I am transported back to that time, to that cypress-paneled room, to the flowered couch, to the lamp and the laughter and the safety.

Reading together is a very particular kind of magic.

When I meet teachers and librarians who tell me that they read aloud to their classrooms, I always try to make a point of thanking them.

Reading a story together brings us together: large groups, small groups, packs of four and packs of two.  When we read together, we come in from the darkness, the cold.

It occurs to me as I write these words, as I remember the darkness outside that room in Florida, that I never explicitly thanked my mother for reading to us.

So, I will thank her here, now, in the best way I can, by encouraging other people to do what she did for me, and for my brother.

I will ask you to read aloud to your students, your children.  Read aloud to your husband, your wife.  Read aloud to your dog.

Push back the darkness.

Sit down beside somebody you love. 

Turn on a light.  Open a book.

--Kate DiCamillo

For more on Kate DiCamillo, you can check out our Omni interview with her about Flora & Ulysses (before it won the Newbery) and here are *some* of her books:

FloraUlysses160 Winn-Dixie MagiciansElephantTaleDespereaux160 EdwardTulane BinkGollie160

    MercyWatson160 LouiseChicken160 MercyWatsonPrincess160TigerRising160

Peter Liney Dissects "The Detainee"—a Big Spring Books Selection

The DetaineeThe book I'm most excited about this spring, and therefore my selection for the Big Spring Books Editors' Picks, is The Detainee, the debut novel by British author Peter Liney. From the moment I read the book's description months ago, I was antsy to get my hands on this one. And once I read the first page, I didn't put it down until I'd turned the last --literally. It's the story of a 60-something man named "Big Guy" Clancy. He used to be a tough guy for the mob, but now he's just another aging prisoner on an island where society ships all of its garbage, including the elderly and the infirm. Kept in line by satellites armed to kill at any sign of attempted escape or violence, Clancy and his neighbors are in constant danger whenever the fog rolls in; that's when the satellites malfunction and island's other residents get their violent kicks.

The island felt so vivid to me, and Clancy was such an unusual choice for a hero. I asked Liney to tell us more about where the idea for the island came from, a little more about this old man through whose eyes we see the story unfold, as well as the socio-political concerns that provided the author's own underlying motivation to write this book. Here's what he had to say.

One day, while on a trip to New York City, I ran across a remarkable exhibition at the Public Library on garbage, more precisely, the massive landfill on Staten Island. Most of the people there weren’t terribly interested; they gave it a quick glance and hurried by in search of more exciting things. I stood there with a big smile on my face. I didn't actually shout "Eureka!", but the sentiment was written across my face for all to see.

I saw this huge island of garbage, where all those who society regards as disposable, who can no longer support themselves—the old, the sick, unwanted children, hardened young criminals who have no one willing to pay for their incarceration, etc. -- are shipped out and told they're taking part in the Island Rehabilitation Program, a new chance at life, when in fact they're to be prisoners, enduring the most squalid and terrifying existence, unable to escape because of the constant threat of immediate death.

Now I had my setting and situation; where was my hero? What manner of person could cope with all this and prevail? Clancy was a professional "big guy" with a lifetime of crime behind him. Just for him to be seen walking the streets was enough to enforce the rule of his master. But as I said, no one useful gets sent out to the Island. No matter how much he hates it, the truth is, Clancy is old: his muscles have started to sag and lose their strength, and as years have passed on the Island, he's become a grouchy and reclusive figure that most people wish to avoid.

Some of the ideas I used for The Detainee have been jangling around in my head for years -- like a set of keys in my pocket whose purpose I had long forgotten. Several of these ideas weren't so much ideas as they were concerns. With the advances in healthcare, greater life expectancy, and a falling birth-rate, populations of the developed nations are getting much older. And suddenly, there are more elderly people than young, causing a strain on social services and healthcare for the aging population.

Another thing that was troubling me was why was I living in one of the most monitored societies on Earth? A place where cameras are constantly spying on me. Big Brother, Big Sister, Big Momma—they're all out there the moment I open my front door. Where am I talking about? North Korea? Russia, perhaps? Somewhere under the rule of some crazed dictator? Actually, it's the United Kingdom. You can spend practically your whole day being spied upon by one camera or another. They tell us they're there to safeguard us. Which is food for thought. What if they aren't there to protect us? What if they are really there to protect a certain status quo in the government's power? Exactly how far would they be prepared to go to maintain this status quo? Possibly as far as the hellish world of The Detainee?

It sounds grim -- it is grim, I know -- but if I had to use only one word to describe the theme of The Detainee it would be hope. More than anything, I wanted to write a book about the fact that we humans thrive on hope; that like those seeds that lie in the desert, year after year, with nothing to sustain them, then with just a drop of rainwater they bloom into the most spectacular of flowers. Clancy's the same. He's living in a desert—a pitiless, God-forsaken, garbage-strewn wasteland; yet one day he happens upon someone who inspires him and gives him hope. He's ready to fight back.

"Harriet the Spy" Turns 50

Harriet50AnnivCover_400In the last couple of years we've seen some of our favorite children's books--Where the Wild Things Are, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Giving Tree, Amelia Bedelia--celebrate their 50th anniversaries.  Now it's Louise Fitzhugh's beloved story of the intensely curious aspiring young writer, Harriet M. Welsch--a.k.a Harriet the Spy, marking the half-century milestone. 

Half a century sounds so, well, old, doesn't it?  Michael D. Beil, author of the Red Blazer Girls series and the upcoming Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits (April 8), thinks old, in this case, translates to the wonder of pre-Google discovery and characters that are still believable five decades after they first appeared on the page.

In his funny and delightful guest post below, Beil joins the ranks of Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, in paying tribute to this iconic children's book that so many of us hold close to our hearts. Here's to another 50 years of inspiring young readers, Harriet.

Harriet the Spy at 50

My wife and I recently started an Old Fogey Jar. Whenever one of us says something that sounds suspiciously old-fogey-like, a dollar goes in the jar. Fogey talk is easy to identify because it usually begins with a recognizable phrase. For example:

Kids today . . . 

When I was a kid . . .

We didn’t have X and we all survived. (X equals Bike helmets. Car seats. IEPs. The list goes on.)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

And, of course, that all-purpose favorite: The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

At the risk of losing yet another dollar to the jar (which I am filling at an alarming rate, I’m afraid), I’m going to say it: far too many of today’s kids are miles behind Harriet M. Welsch in one essential category: simple curiosity. Unlike in Harriet’s pre-Google, world, the answers kids seek are often just a click or two away. The concept of learning something they don’t need to learn, of simply sitting on a library floor surrounded by books, is foreign to them. It’s not the ease of finding the answer that’s the problem; rather, it’s the loss of those random and accidental discoveries kids make when they’re looking for something else.

Of course, they don’t all have an Ole Golly, who may just be the wisest human being in the history of literature. She reads Dostoievsky before bed; quotes Wordsworth, Emerson, and Keats; and urges Harriet to “find out all you can, because life is hard enough even if you know a lot.” Ole Golly was a life coach before people even knew that they needed such a thing. (There goes another dollar.)

Harriet is not only interesting; she is interestED, in everything and everyone. Like Jane Goodall living with the chimpanzees in Tanzania, Harriet realizes that the only way to truly understand the inhabitants of her Yorkville neighborhood is by observing them in their natural habitat—in other words, by spying on them. And like a portrait by an artist who paints exactly what she sees, completely disregarding how subjects see themselves, Harriet’s notes are honest, unvarnished, and often unflattering depictions. And does she take her job seriously! When her mother restricts the amount of time she can “play” with her notebook, she says, “I’m not playing. Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!” Harriet may not be entirely likeable, but fifty years’ worth of readers have admired her, and aspiring writers continue to be inspired by her imagination, intelligence, curiosity, and single-minded determination to be a writer.

She’s also believable, which is why kids (who couldn’t care less what critics think!) like her. I’m not usually a black-and-white kind of guy, but when it comes to adults, I think there are two basic types: those who remember what it was like to be a kid, and those who don’t. At the school where I teach, I have colleagues in both camps, and to be honest, I don’t know which type makes better teachers. When it comes to writing for children, however, it’s no contest. The ability to recall childhood memories and emotions, to channel one’s inner child, is critical to the creation of realistic, believable characters. Obviously, Louise Fitzhugh had that ability in spades. As for the rest of us, we just have to silence our inner fogey and keep trying until we get it right. ---Michael D. Beil

Sophie Hannah and the Horror of Noisy Neighbors

The Orphan ChoirWhen I have the pleasure of meeting British novelist Sophie Hannah in person, some of the first things I will tell her "about me" are these: Catty-corner to the rear of my apartment lives a man known to blare Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other "un-ignorable" classic rock as late as 3 a.m. on a weeknight with his windows wide open. On the opposite diagonal corner lives an extended family that spends almost every summer weekend in their back yard blasting salsa music and playing basketball until at least midnight. Downstairs resides a magnificent burlesque dancer who sometimes has to listen to a single song many, many times while she creates new routines; she married a (ridiculously talented) jazz trumpet player whose casual music listening results in the steady thump thump thump of an upright bass carrying through the ceiling to my wooden floor and straight into my brain.

I'll tell her these things because she'll understand that, at times, my haven from the heartless world can feel like a torture chamber from which there is no escape.

Reading her latest novel, The Orphan Choir, almost hit too close to home for me. It's the story of a woman who reaches her emotional and psychological limit as an inconsiderate next-door neighbor ignores her noise complaints. The psychological toll -- feelings of abandonment and self-doubt -- is palpable as her story reaches and then surpasses the boundaries of reason and reality.

In the guest article that follows, Ms. Hannah explores just how bad a fictional neighbor can be.

My new supernatural thriller, The Orphan Choir, starts with a nightmare scenario that is so common that people rarely discuss just how awful it is: the problem of noisy neighbors. Because it's so ordinary and has happened to us, or to somebody we know, it does not seem horrific -- until you have suffered it day after day, that is. The noisy neighbor in The Orphan Choir is called Mr. Fahrenheit (because he plays "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen in the middle of the night!), but, despite his nuisance noise-making, he is probably not the character in fiction that I would least like to live next door to. Here is a list of fictional characters I would hate to have as neighbors:

Jane Eyre Character: Mr. Rochester
Novel: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Rationale: Especially not if my bedroom were in the converted attic. Screaming Bertha in the adjoining attic would not be fun to listen to at night.
Wuthering Heights Character: Heathcliff
Novel: Wuthering Heights
Author: Emily Brontë
Rationale: Cathy's ghost knocking at the window at all hours would wake me up, especially if the knocking at the window was accompanied by her rendition of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights song (and, let's face it, if it wasn't that would really be a missed opportunity).
Heart of Darkness Character: Colonel Kurtz
Novel: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad
Rationale: Hearing him moan, 'The horror, the horror' every time his alarm clock went off at 6 am would be a bit of a downer.
Bartleby the Scrivener Character: Bartleby
Novel: Bartleby the Scrivener
Author: Herman Melville
Rationale: I could be doing him an injustice, but I would imagine he would prefer not to turn down the volume when listening to music.

If I could pick my ideal fictional-character neighbor, I would pick Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. She doesn't look as if she'd listen to loud stadium rock all night long, and we could get together and compare notes about our exes, bitchily. That might be fun. Luckily, I'm pretty scruffy, so I wouldn't even mind getting covered in cobwebs!

The Best Books About Getting Eaten

Claire CameronClaire Cameron's new 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. The novel, written in the honest and unfiltered voice of the young girl, is a compact, tense survival story (and as wilderness instructor for Outward Bound and Algonquin Park in Ontario, Cameron knows her stuff); but it's also a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves that propels us through. But the bear. The bear looms large.

You know what they say: Write what you know. As it turns out, Cameron is a connoiseur of man vs. beast books. Here she presents her top titles about the ultimate struggle--and,occasionally the ultimate taboo. (And because I am also something of specialist, I couldn't resist adding a few of my own.)

Before I put together this list, I had no idea how many of my favorite books involved getting eaten. As I write about survival and am interested in fundamental questions of human nature, I suppose it makes sense. Hunger is a great motivator.

Hunger also strips you down to the basics. What you are willing to eat is relative to your position in life. It also changes given your situation. I will never forget, after losing my food while in the mountains, how I saw the meaty calves of my companion in a new light.

While the books on this list are varied, some new, some old, many fiction and others full of facts, all deal with one of the most fundamental questions of life: Who gets to eat and who gets eaten?

--Claire Cameron


The Grizzly Maze The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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The story of a father and son who struggle to survive as they walk across a scorched America. Food is scarce and none can grow. Eating, scavenging and the lengths others will go to secure a meal is McCarthy’s way of showing us inside the mouth of desperation.




 The Edible WomanThe Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood


Atwood’s first novel is about Marian McAlpin who can’t eat, but also becomes convinced that she is being eaten. It is a glimpse of the great author’s earlier work and an interesting snap shot of feminism in 1969 (depressingly modern). You won’t look at cake the same way again.



The Lord of the Flies Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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A plane does down and leaves a group of English schoolboys stranded on a deserted island. From the pigs perspective things are eaten, but I sometimes wonder if what was actually consumed by this book is our ability to see little boys as anything but brutal.





 Jaws Jaws by Peter Benchley

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When this was first published in 1974, it was generally accepted that great white sharks ate people by choice. Now we know better, but in the book the shark is the most terrifying thing to humans—a beast that reminds us that we may not be at the top of the food chain after all.




The Orenda The Orenda by Joseph Boyden (released May 2014)

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Boyden’s ambitious novel, about the tangled relationship between the Iroquois, Huron and Jesuits in the mid-1600s, challenges our assumptions with fully realized characters on all sides. This comes with an unflinching look at violence. Power struggles are called into question through consumption: What if one human eating another was not evil, but rather the ultimate act of reverence? 


Moby Dick Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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In the age where we commit to doorstops like The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate Moby Dick as ‘just the right length’? This is the story of the Nantucket whale hunt when it was booming. While the whalers often worried about cannibals, it’s the sperm whale that becomes hell bent on limbs for lunch.



In the Heart of the SeaIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

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After re-reading Moby Dick, I was hungry for tales about whaling. One of the best is Philbrick’s book that tells the true story of a whaling ship. The Essex from Nantucket was rammed and sunk by a bull sperm whale in 1820. The story of the surviving men inspired Moby Dick. Cannibalism included.


  A Modest ProposalA Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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A classic work of satire published in 1729, the writer proposes that the poor Irish should address their economic troubles by selling their children as food for the wealthy. Told in a straight and exacting tone, the modern reader can’t help but feel a connection to the 99 percent.



The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic ExpeditionThe Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander

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This is the best recount of Shackleton’s journey. After being stranded, Shackleton knows that securing food is the only way to survive. The sled dogs go quickly. While the author found no concrete evidence that the eating of upright mammals took place, the thought lay in the minds and the humor of the men.  


White FangWhite Fang by Jack London

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This novel starts in the Yukon with two men and their sled team who are stalked by a pack of starving wolves. Told from the improbable point of view of a wolf-dog, it’s a story about fate, struggle and respect. It will leave you wondering about all the things your dog could be thinking, when only one is certain: She gets hungry. 



Alive Alive by Piers Paul Read


Many have seen the film adaptation of this novel about a rugby team from Uruguay that survive a plane crash, only to be stranded in the Andes Mountains of Chile. After some of the group start to die, this book becomes about making hard choices about what they will eat. When outside the reaches of civilization, how far will they stray from it to live?



Life of Pi Life of Pi by Yan Martel

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A Japanese cargo ship, carrying an immigrating family and zoo animals, sinks in a storm. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. In case you haven’t read it I won’t say more, but this novel shows how we tell stories about food and how we get it. These are fundamental to how we justify our sometimes brutal actions.

Read the Book

The Bear

The Bear by Claire Cameron

Print | Kindle


Five More Real-Life Man-Eaters

The Grizzly Maze

The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans

Print | Kindle

The Tiger

The Tiger by John Vaillant

Print | Kindle

The Bear

The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey

Print | Kindle

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by John Henry Patterson

Print | Kindle

Savage Harvest

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

Print | Kindle

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

April 2014

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