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"Is It Like You Thought It Would Be?" by Diana Gabaldon

OutlanderThe long-awaited adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's beloved Outlander series kicks off August 9th at 9pm ET/PT on Starz. The author shared with us her thoughts on seeing her books come to life...

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Ever since clips and trailers and stills of the new STARZ “Outlander” TV show have been released, people have been eagerly asking me, “So—is it just like you imagined?” “What’s it like to see these people who’ve lived in your head for so long come to life?” “Did you ever imagine it would be like this?”

Frankly, it’s a bit like the scene in Outlander where Claire asks Jamie—immediately after they’ve made love together for the first time (and his first time ever)—“So was it like you thought it would be?” And—after making her promise not to laugh at him, he confesses, “Almost. I didna realize ye did it face to face. I thought ye must do it the back way—like horses, ye ken?”

As in, yes, it’s a lot like I imagined it (“it” being the show itself), and at the same time, quite different. How so?

1. I have friends who are screenwriters, friends who have worked in the film world, and friends who have had films made of their work. Based on everything I’d heard and read, I was expecting to have nothing whatever to do with the production myself. I was familiar with Ron D. Moore’s work, so had high hopes that it would be good, but figured all I could do was cross my fingers.

Instead, I was startled—though very gratified—at the degree of involvement offered me. Ron and his production partner, Maril Davis, came to my house and spent two days with me, talking through ideas, characters, storylines, etc. We were much on the same wavelength, and as the production got underway, they were more than courteous about including me, asking my opinion on things (though they are, of course, under no legal compulsion to take account of it), showing me scripts and footage, inviting me to the set in Scotland and generally making me feel welcome.

MyOwnHeartsBlood2. I always want to roll my eyes when people say, “Isn’t it exciting seeing your characters come to life?”—because as far as I’m concerned, they’ve always been alive. Still, I know what these people mean, and yeah—it is exciting. Is it like I expected?  No, it’s much better…

Everyone has a mental image of what Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall look like. I actually know what they look like. Now, plainly, no actor alive will look exactly like anyone’s mental image of a character, and I certainly didn’t expect the actors chosen for these parts to look “like” my knowledge of Jamie and Claire. And they don’t.

But. Ron and Maril sent me Sam Heughan’s audition tapes, when they cast him as Jamie. Frankly, I had doubts, having seen some IMDB photos of the man…but five seconds in, and it wasn’t Sam, it was Jamie, right there. Amazing!

See, actors do magic, no less than writers do. And beyond certain minimal physical requirements, it doesn’t really matter what they look like—only that they can be the character they play. And every single actor in this show can do that.

3. Now, I do understand what “adaptation” means, and a bit about how one translates text to a visual medium (I used to write comic book scripts for Walt Disney, and have in fact done a graphic novel (The Exile) version of Outlander). But what I didn’t realize was just how engaging a good adaptation could be.

Ron’s adaptation is very faithful to the original story; anyone who’s read Outlander will recognize it instantly. But there are the small changes, the insertions, the moving of scenes for dramatic cohesion—and all together, these “different” touches give the show a constant sense of novelty and discovery. I watch footage, knowing what’s going on—but wanting to know what happens next.

And you can’t ask more of a good story than that.

The Enduring Hunt for Nazi War Criminals

Nick1Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, yet the search for Nazi perpetrators continues--as does the publication of books about Nazi hunting, even as the last of them die out.

On Wednesday, an 89-year-old Philadelphia man died just hours before a judge ordered his extradition to Germany for his role in the gassing of 216,000 Jews at Auschwitz. Johann Breyer, who served as an armed guard at the notorious concentration camp, was accused of being an accessory to murder, in what will likely be one of the last Nazi cases on American soil.

Nicholas Kulish's recent book, The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Dr. Aribert Heim, co-written with fellow journalist Souad Mekhennet, tells the story of how one of the most hunted Nazi war criminals had been living a secret life in Egypt.

Below, Kulish discusses the enduring mystique of the Nazis, and the ongoing hunt for war criminals, with Neal Bascomb, author of the international bestseller Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi.

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Nick_kulish-3Nicholas Kulish: I once read a quote that all villains are Nazis now. When you watch Star Wars the bad guys are called storm troopers and Darth Vader wears the astronaut edition of an SS uniform. When Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music while perpetrating atrocities it’s Mengele whistling Wagner on the selection ramp at Auschwitz. What do you think accounts for the enduring interest in Nazis?

Neal Bascomb: There have been a lot of murky wars since WWII. Vietnam comes straight to mind, but Iraq, and others, as well. With the Nazis, it is very black and white, and at least in popular culture, they like black and white.

NK: In a way the Nazis mythologized themselves, through the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the emphasis on their polished black boots and lightning insignias. But I'm always struck going through the archives how the crimes of the Holocaust are more deeply evil than I remember them.

NB: Yes, when I first began digging deep into the oral and written history of the Holocaust, the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews, I could not sleep for weeks. It is in the details that the horror really comes out.

NK: I was struck reading your book by the way the Israelis hunting Eichmann had a personal stake in his capture, family and friends who were killed, using skills honed as they tried to survive the Holocaust. Was that part of what drew you to the subject?

Nick_bascombNB: What drew me to the story of Eichmann is the legacy of his trial. By the late 50's, the world wanted to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Historians weren't studying to any great degree. Students weren't learning about it at school. And survivors, many survivors, did not feel like they could openly talk about what happened to them. It was not until Eichmann's trial, the recounting of the horrors that we've both referenced here, that this changed. So here was this great manhunt, spy operation, and it had tremendous positive effects on understanding of the Holocaust ever since.

NK: I found the evolution of German public opinion at the same time to be fascinating. The first great Nazi trials of the post-Nuremberg era were in the city of Ulm. This vacuum cleaner salesman named Bernd Fischer could not accept that his murderous service in the Einsatzgruppen made him unsuited to run a refugee camp. He was given every chance to go away quietly and finally prosecutors said, "We just have to put this guy on trial." The result was a surge of new information about the slaughter in the east and the creation of a dedicated Nazi-hunting team in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

NB: What drew you to the story of SS Dr. Aribert Heim?

NK: Heim was the opposite of Eichmann in many ways. He was a concentration camp doctor and committed terrible crimes but he was not a big fish and no one was really looking for him at first. So through his story, the peaceful life in postwar Baden-Baden, the sudden flight shortly after Eichmann was hanged, the evolution of attitudes toward Nazis can be tracked right up to his naming as the most-wanted Nazi war criminal six decades after the war. The fact that he hid in Egypt and converted to Islam made it irresistible.

Nick2NB: You did such a marvelous job of tracking his years in Egypt. Just fascinating how he transformed into this whole other life. And you see this again and again, even in such an ordinary life of Breyer, the Auschwitz guard recently arrested in Philadelphia.

NK: It's something you find in other genocides, in Rwanda or in the Balkans, both places I've worked as a journalist. People who would otherwise never have received so much as a speeding ticket commit monumental criminal acts. Can people really understand, looking at an 89 year old at an arraignment hearing, why these trials still matter?

NB: It is an understandable instinct to say about these individuals who are now and again arrested... "Look he's an old, old man. There's no more harm he can do. What's the point? Just let him live out his days in a shabby house." But then you have to take a step back, realize that the point is less about punishment against this one man, and more about the fact that seeking justice should be timeless.  There should be no expiration date. When Ben Gurion gave the order to go after Eichmann, it had very little do with Eichmann and much more to do with two things: One, remind the youth of Israel why their state needed to exist; two, remind the world what the Nazis did to the Jews during the war. That's why these trials must continue.

 

The Men (and Women) Who Knew Too Much: History's Most Notorious Spies

Nobody knows spies like Ben Macintyre. With Double Cross, Agent Zigzag, and Operation Mincemeat, the London-based author established himself as the master chronicler of spooks and subterfuge, a biographer of the most eccentric personalities ever to dwell in the shadows of diplomacy. (Macintyre is also a regular dweller of our Best of the Month lists.) His latest, A Spy Among Friends, tackles the story of the man who may have been the most damaging double-agent in history: Kim Philby, Britain's top spy-hunter charged with catching Soviet moles, who all the while spilled deadly secrets to the Soviets themselves.

We couldn't think of anyone more qualified than Ben Macintyre to ask for history's most notorious double-crossers, and unsurprisingly (spoiler alert) Philby made the list.

 

A Spy Among Friends

 

History's Five Most Notorious Double-Agents

by Ben Macintyre

The FBI has coined an acronym to describe the motivations of the spy: MICE, which stands for Money, Ideology, Coercion and Ego. Some spies are inspired by simple greed; others by pure conviction. But the greatest spies of all are a driven by something that defies categorization: a love of espionage, an addiction to the thrill and danger of subterfuge, and a dedication to this most fickle of professions for its own sake. The most successful and notorious spies in history have all possessed this peculiar quality: they each fell in love with spying itself, and remained besotted, prepared to take the most appalling risks to remain one step ahead in the lethal espionage game. These are the most dangerous spies of all, because they cannot be controlled by money or blackmail, by appeals to their vanity or ideology. They do it for love of the game.   

Eddie Chapman
Chapman was a burglar, con man, and gangster in pre-war London, who happened to be in prison in Jersey when the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands. He struck a deal with the Germans to spy against Britain in exchange for his freedom. Trained at a spy school in occupied France, he was parachuted into Britain in 1942, and immediately defected to British intelligence. For the rest of the war, he spied for Britain, while pretending to spy for Germany. The British code-named him “Agent Zigzag,” because they could never be sure whose side he was on. The Germans never realized the game he was playing, and even awarded him the Iron Cross for services to the Third Reich. After the war, Chapman immediately returned to a professional life of crime.

Richard Sorge
Ian Fleming, the creator James Bond, considered the half-German and half-Russian Richard Sorge to have been “the most formidable spy in history.” A committed communist, Sorge spied for the Soviets in Japan at the start of the war, supplying vital military intelligence gleaned while ostensibly working as a journalist. He even informed Moscow that Japan was not planning to attack the USSR, which enabled the transfer of Soviet troops from the east to defend Moscow and changed the course of the war. Sorge was eventually betrayed, captured by the Japanese secret police, tortured into confessing, and hanged in November 1944. In 1964 he was recognized as a Hero of the Soviet Union.  

Juan Pujol
Pujol was a Spanish chicken farmer, who managed to get himself recruited as a German spy at the start of the war while always intending to spy for the Allies. He is one of the very few spies in history who set out to become a double agent.  Ensconced in a safe house in London, Pujol (codenamed Garbo, on account of his acting abilities) not only supplied reams of false information to the Germans, but invented no fewer than twenty-nine additional sub-agents, all of whom were entirely fictitious, and wholly deceptive. He was one-man band, with a huge, invented orchestra. Pujol was, in a way, a spy-novelist, creating an imaginary world and then luring his German spy-masters into the illusion that it was real. He played a pivotal role in the run-up to D-Day, successfully convincing the Germans that the invasion would come at Calais, and not Normandy, thus tying up thousands of German troops. After the war, he took on a false name, and vanished into obscurity.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow
Greenhow was not technically a double agent, since she only ever spied for one side (the Confederates during the Civil War), but she was undoubtedly America’s most successful woman spy. Socialite, diplomat and secret agent, she ran an extensive spy network in Washington, DC, during 1861, helped to bring about Union defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run. Betrayed and captured, she was imprisoned for five months and then deported to Richmond. Undaunted, she then represented the Confederacy on a diplomatic mission to France and Britain, and was drowned after her ship ran aground on the return journey. Greenhow was a ferocious ideologue, but a most effective spy: “Instead of loving the old flag of the stars and stripes, I see in it only the symbol of murder, plunder, oppression, and shame,” she said.
 
Kim Philby
The notorious British spy and KGB agent was recruited to the communist cause in 1934, and went on to achieve something no other spy has managed: he got himself recruited by the enemy spy-organization, namely Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6. By 1944 he had become head of the Soviet counter-intelligence section of MI6, responsible for attacking Soviet espionage around the world, exposing Russian spies and breaking up the USSR’s spy rings. In other words, he was in charge of hunting people like himself. Tipped as the future head of MI6, he used his position to extract a multitude of secrets from his friends in British and American intelligence, and did spectacular damage by betraying everything to Moscow. Hundreds, if not thousands, died as result of Philby’s betrayals, for which he never expressed a single word of remorse.

Philby was the most remarkable example of a spy acting, in the end, out of pure love for the game of espionage. Philby was a master spy, addicted to the thrill of betrayal, whose willingness to manipulate and double-cross his friends allowed him to survive uncaught for three decades, and then escape to Moscow to spend the rest of his days. Philby is the greatest double agent in history.

American Spymaster

Meet Jack Devine. Something of a real-life George Smiley, he is a 30-year veteran of the CIA who, among a lot of things, ran Charlie Wilson's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, knew a thing or two about the Iran-Contra affair long before the rest of us did (including the president?), and tangled with some of the agency's most notorious double-agents. In Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story, Devine has written a fascinating memoir of his time overseeing the agency’s spying operations, while also critiquing its policies and direction--arguing that covert ops (i.e. actual undercover operatives on the ground) is the best, most effective use of the CIA’s talents, rather than its increasingly paramilitaristic role during a decade of war. Devine has managed an unlikely accomplishment: enhancing the aura of the agency while stripping away some of its myths, in the process producing a clear-eyed and forthright account from an intelligence insider.

 

 

Mr. Devine stopped by our offices for a candid--and lengthy!--chat about the book, his career, as well as some other notable current events. Good Hunting is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for June 2014.

 

YA Wednesday: Rainbow Rowell on "Landline," the 90s, and Disney theme parks

LandlineIt's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Rainbow Rowell and when I met her in person a month ago, it only confirmed my suspicion that she's as fabulous in person as the books she writes. 

Her latest, Landline, is classified as an adult book, but like her YA titles, there is no set age required for entry.   Landline tells the story of a marriage floundering in the wake of career, kids, and the daily grind.  Rowell uses a trick of time to allow her main character, Georgie, to revisit how she and husband Neal found each other and the final hurdle that resulted in a proposal.  Simultaneously, Georgie experiences present day self-doubt, questioning if they should have ended up together in the first place but seeing all the things she loves about Neal in new light. 

Whether you can relate to the marriage or not, at the end of the day it's a story about how two quirky, flawed people can fall in love and take that leap of faith more than once in the same relationship.

I sent Rowell some questions about the book and other things I wanted to know via email:

Seira Wilson: Have you been thinking about/working on this book for a while?  Was Landline always the title?

Rainbow Rowell: I have, yeah. I started plotting it at the same time as Fangirl. I'm not sure why I wrote Fangirl first — maybe because it felt lighter. Maybe because I thought someone else was bound to write a great novel about a fanfiction writer.

I always knew this book would be called Landline. I thought that was such a great title for a novel — I couldn't believe it was up for grabs.

SW: There's a pivotal point in Neal and Georgie’s relationship that Georgie revisits—what moment does that remind you of in your own life (in a relationship or otherwise)?

RR:  Hmmm ... My husband and I never had a breakup the way Georgie and Neal do. But there was a time when we had to decide what to do if we got jobs in different places — and we decided to move together.

SW: Do you have an old-school phone like the yellow one in Landline?  A Metallica t-shirt?  What meaningful object do you have, or wish you had, from the late 90s?

RR:  I have an old red rotary phone.   [um, soo jealous of this!  SW]

I don't have a Metallica T-shirt, but that was a nod to my husband who loves Metallica.

I actually have tons of stuff from the '90s. I still have my favorite shirt, and my favorite vintage sports jacket. I have watches. Stationery. A pair of purple-with-red-ladybugs Doc Martens mary janes. 

I have a hard time letting go of things.

SW: What aspect of your characters—Eleanor, Cath, Beth, Georgie—are most like you?

RR:  Oh, good question!

Eleanor has my stubbornness. The way she does things that she knows will make her stand out — even though she doesn't really want to stand out.

Cath has my anxiety. And my tendency to lose myself in fiction. Also my taste in emergency dance music.

Beth has my sense of humor. When I was writing Attachments, I gave her every joke I'd make myself. (She also has my arms.)

Georgie is good in a room. I'm also good in a room -- even if I'm more terrified than Georgie ever is. And she has my work/family tension. I've never been in her situation, but I know what it's like to feel like there isn't enough of me to go around. 

SW: You’ve written two adult books and two YA books that adults also love—do you approach the writing differently?

RR: No, I don't. I just try to get inside the characters' heads and see the world the way they would see it.

SW: I’m going to Disney World this fall with my 7-year-old and I see from your bio that you like to plan trips there—what three things should be on our “must-do” list?  Are you a roller coaster person, and if so, loops or no loops? What about Disney World do you most enjoy?

RR:  Ha! I love Disney theme parks. I love the theming, the attention to detail, the way every design element — and every sound and every smell — help tell the story.

I'm not much of a roller coaster person, but Disney isn't about thrill rides anyway. 

I have a 7-year-old, too, and a few of our musts are: It's a Small World (because it's gorgeous); the night-time castle show (magical!); and the Norwegian bakery in EPCOT (try the school bread).

SW: What are you working on now/next?

RR: I just finished the first draft of a YA fantasy, so I need to revise that. I think it will be out next fall (unless my editor hates it). And I'm working on the screenplay for Eleanor & Park.

Horses of the Apocalypse: Scott Cheshire's American Epic

Scott_cheshire

A blurb from Philipp Meyer hails Scott Cheshire's debut novel, High as the Horses' Bridles, as "a great new American epic." At first glance, the page count of Bridles seems too slim to be an epic. But within its swift 300 pages, Cheshire's thematic scope is cast wide, capturing a number of deeply intertwined American ideas.

In many ways, the book is a lens into the expanse of American faith and how unshakable it is, even when that relationship is conflicted. From its opening pages, Bridles is heavily doused in apocalyptic language. Twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk delivers a doomsday prophecy to a crowd of four thousand parishioners, all of whom belong to a sect that closely resembles the Jehova's Witnesses. The scene is electric, rapturous.

At Housing Works Bookstore Café in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, where Cheshire wrote most of the novel, he explained his interest exploring America's roots—founded on both religious and apocalyptic ideas.

"If you look at [the country's] very basic mission, which is 'to become a more perfect union', even that phrasing is about benevolence, which is ideally what religion is about: to become better and better and better," Cheshire said. "And there's something even kind of apocalyptic about it. You're striving to get better and better to get to a place of perfection."

High as the Horses' Bridles does a magnificent job unpacking great swaths of the American psyche through a much smaller, more specific family drama. There are strong traces of Cheshire's personal history throughout the book. After the first act, the novel jumps ahead twenty years. Josiah—now Josie—has returned to Queens to take care of his dying father after a decade away from the church.

Continue reading "Horses of the Apocalypse: Scott Cheshire's American Epic" »

Bill Gates Sells a Business Book

BusinessadventureWhat's the best business book Bill Gates has read? In a recent article, he named Business Adventures by John Brooks, sending it to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list. (It currently sits at #4.)

The billionaire/philanthropist heard about it from another great reader. "Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: 'It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,' he said. 'I’ll send you my copy.' I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks."

If you're interested in a 1960s collection of New Yorker articles, one that's beloved by two of the richest men in America, you should check it out. I know I'm going to. The only problem is you'll have to wait until September 9th to get the paperback edition--because it was out of print until Gates gave it his Seal of Approval.

 

Peter Sis Shares Early Sketches and Talks About "The Pilot and the Little Prince"

PilotLittlePrinceAn acclaimed children's book author and illustrator, Peter Sis' book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtainabout his childhood in Cold War-era Prague, won a Caldecott Honor in 2008.  Most recently Sis turned his attention to the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Pilot and the Little Prince.  This picture book for older children (ages 6-up) tells the remarkable story of the author of the children's classic, The Little Prince, and Sis' passion for his subject leaps off the page. This is one of our favorite books for this age--actually, it's a fascinating read for anyone who's read The Little Prince--and we made it one of our Best Books of 2014 So Far.

During Book Expo America in New York last month, Sis was kind enough to do a video interview and share some of his early sketches from his studio in Manhattan.  He's a fascinating storyteller, and watching him quickly flipping through the sketches while speaking so candidly about them is something I found immensely enjoyable. 

 

 

Amazon Asks: “War of the Whales” Author, Joshua Horwitz

Joshua Horwitz spent six years researching the story of the marine biologist and the environmental lawyer whose battle against the US Navy and its secret underwater sonar programs went all the way to the Supreme Court. The result, War of the Whales, is one of those rare nonfiction books that reads like fiction – in this case, a delightful mashup of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Stephen Ambrose and David Halberstam.

War of the Whales was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Month “Spotlight” pick for July. In my review I described it as “a gripping and wholly original tale of the ecological side effects of national security” and “a rare trifecta of a book: important, highly readable, and stunningly true.”

I reached out to Horwitz to ask about his favorite books (duh, Moby Dick), and, as a bonus he shared a couple of cool whale photos.

Describe your book in one sentence?

Whales and submarines collide inside world's deepest underwater canyon. 

Or: Two men take on world's largest navy to save whales.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Favorite books about whales?

Moby Dick -- what else?

Favorite book as a child?

Tarzan, King of the Apes series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

What are you obsessed with now?

How few books teenagers--including my daughters--seem to be reading for pleasure.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My appetite(s).

What do you collect?

Daughters, apparently. (I've got three.)

Favorite line?

Where lies the final harbor whence we unmoor no more? (from Moby Dick)

What's next for you?

More reading, less writing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever got?  From whom?

From Martin Scorcese, as returning NYU fillm alum speaking to us wannabees, on editing. (He was speaking about film editing, but applies equally to text.) -- "Begin with a scalpel, end with an axe."

Graphic Novel Friday: Happy Birthday, Batman!

Batman_75Happy Bat-Birthday! The Caped Crusader turns 75 this year, and to commemorate, DC Comics will release two 400-page hardcover collections chronicling the adventures and darkness surrounding the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker. Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years and The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years release next week, featuring 75 years of stories by Bob Kane, Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil, Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III, Scott Snyder, Paul Dini, and many more.

Until those tomes hit the shelves, we put our cowls together and identified our five favorite Batman stories-–not a “Best of,” please note! Want to tell us your favorites, Omni readers? To the Bat-comments!

5. Batman: Son of the Demon by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham: Batman falls for Talia al Ghul, the beautiful and dangerous daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, one of Batman’s greatest villains. Their romance leads to a strange alliance between an often shirtless Batman and Ra’s—and its decades-old consequences lead directly into Grant Morrison’s Batman & Son storyline, proving that great stories are never forgotten. [Note that this particular story is contained in a new collection with two other related stories.]

4. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola: Mike Mignola! Victorian-era Batman! Mike Mignola! Jack the Ripper! Need we exclaim further? This self-contained story is revered among fans for its artwork and clever, creepy storyline.

3. Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale:  Batman must face his entire rogues gallery in a murder mystery that spans 12 months. Loeb and Sale’s portrayal of Batman is both classic and contemporary: smart, determined, and muscle-bound. "I made a promise to my parents..."

2. Batman: Nine Lives by Dean Motter and Michael Lark: Say what? This Elseworlds tale (like Gaslight) may be new to readers, but it’s an atypical look at Gotham, where familiar heroes and villains are turned on their heads andBatman_bm reinterpreted in inventive ways. It also involves a murder mystery, and it's a doozy.  [Note: this collection is out of print and available via our third party marketplace.]

1. Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla: Perhaps the greatest Batman arc in the past decade, The Black Mirror houses two very different stories—both of which trouble Dick Grayson. Yes, our #1 pick is a Batman story without Bruce Wayne! Grayson assumes the mantle and takes the Batman character in a different direction, one worth reading multiple times for how often Snyder gets it “right.” This collection is sure to influence Batman writers for decades to come.

Disclaimer: We excluded any Frank Miller stories from this list, given their importance and length of the shadow they cast over any Bat-list.

--Alex

George Hincapie: Lance's Loyal Lieutenant

George Hincape learned early on that he was made to race bikes. The Queens-born son of a cycling fanatic, he rode early, fast, and occasionally recklessly. As a teenager, he discovered a passion for racing, often testing his talent against older riders, winning frequently and rising through the ranks of competitive cycling. Eventually he crossed paths another racer of enormous ability, the young Lance Armstrong. And as a young man,  Hincapie turned pro and headed for Europe, where he built a reputation as a rider of prodigious natural talent, tactical acumen, and relentless dedication to the success of the team. While he continued to pursue individual success, he found fame when he joined Armstrong for what was (officially then, maybe unofficially now) the most successful run in the history of the sport: Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France victories. While Armstrong was the brash and arrogant team leader, "Big George" rode faithfully at his side, shepherding him through danger and doing the hard, selfless work necessary to win the most prestigious bike race in the world.

 

The Loyal Lieutenant

 

Unfortunately, the story didn't end there. 

The dirty details of doping have been discussed at length elsewhere: see Tyler Hamilton's The Secret Race for a gritty/gripping insider's account of performance enhancing drugs, while Wheelmen and Cycle of Lies provide detailed histories of Armstrong's rise and long fall into disgrace. Now Hincapie has written his own account of his career, The Loyal Lieutenant: Leading Out Lance and Pushing Through the Pain on the Rocky Road to Paris (with Craig Hummer). Like Hamilton and almost every successful bike racer of that era, Hincapie was caught up in the wave of PEDs and all its paranoia. But unlike his former teammate, he doesn't necessarily offer a mea culpa for his participation. He is neither proud nor dismissive, but instead focuses on the culture of cheating and his eventual choice to race without drugs.

We talked to Hincapie at Book Expo America about his experience as a cyclist and a teammate, and his efforts to clean up the sport he so clearly loves.

 

YA Wednesday: July Favorites

It's the middle of summer and Seattle is scorching hot these days.  The best I can do under the circumstances has been to hide out with a fan and distract myself with books.

For the Best YA Books of July list, you'll see something a little bit different--a nonfiction YA title.  Now, this is not to imply that there hasn't been great nonfiction YA titles in months past, but this one, The Family Romanov, was so good it took the spotlight.   I hope you find a book on this month's list to help you beat the heat...

 

FamilyRomanov300The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
There have been no shortage of books written about the Romanovs, particularly the mystery surrounding Anastasia.  The Family Romanov covers some familiar ground but Fleming maintains the perfect balance of detail without overkill, and achieves that "you-are-there" feeling.  Alternating narratives tell the story of the last Tsar's family in the context of the time, not only what was happening in their lives individually and collectively, but also the lives of average Russians. This is some of the most engaging nonfiction I've read in a while and for anyone with an interest in this period of history, The Family Romanov will not disappoint.

 

QueenTearling300The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
This novel is not listed as young adult, but it speaks so well to that reader that we didn't see an age designation as a reason to keep it off the YA list for July.  In book one of a promising new fantasy series, a young woman born to be queen and raised in exile embarks on a quest to save her kingdom from an evil sorceress called the Red Queen.  I really loved some of the fairy tale elements--magical jewels and  loyal knights, a dark queen vs. a simple girl with hidden strengths and royal blood--along with the Game of Thrones style political intrigue.  Definitely a story to immerse yourself in this summer.

 

 

 

ShadowHero300

 

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Sonny Liew
I'm not a huge graphic novel reader but this one by the author of the Michael L. Printz award winner, American Born Chinese, and last year's National Book Award finalist, Boxers & Saints, totally grabbed my attention.  In The Shadow Hero, Yang resurrects a Chinese comic superhero from the 1940s, the Green Turtle, and creates his own origin story for the masked crusader.  In Yang's vision, it is a mother's will that pushes young Hank to accept his destiny and become the Green Turtle, in order to fight the crime plaguing the people of Chinatown. This graphic novel has a great classic comic book feel to it while at the same time playing on more sophisticated cultural references and shifts.  If you only read one graphic novel this summer, make it this one.

Sinner300 

Sinner by Maggie Stiefvater
Maggie, oh, Maggie. How thrilled I was to see a companion novel to the Shiver trilogy coming out this month!  Thrilled but then a little nervous too...what if I didn't like it as much?  Senseless, I know, but many years in this business has left me cautious at times.  Plus, it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised (of course it's fabulous!), right?  In Sinner, Cole St. Clair is back in Los Angeles with a spot on a dodgy internet reality show and determined to rekindle his passionate but toxic love affair with Isabel Culpepper.  Their story makes for compulsive reading and fans of the trilogy will love the return of some Wolves of Mercy Falls characters, but this one can also be read as a standalone.

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

MockingbirdFor fifty years, journalists have trekked to Monroeville, Alabama in search of Harper Lee. Normally, they leave town without even setting eyes on the famous but reclusive author. But in 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills wrote to Harper Lee's older sister, Alice, whom she eventually met. It was the beginning of a long conversation—which Ms. Mills recounts here in this exclusive essay:

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When the Chicago Tribune sent me south on an assignment in 2001 to write about Harper Lee’s hometown, I never imagined the adventure that awaited me. I certainly never imagined that I would meet the author herself. Lee had remained famously, ferociously, private since a few years after her first and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

We like to think we know which questions have the power to change our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? Will you marry? Stay in your hometown? You can weigh those decisions, give them the thought they are due. Then everyday questions come along, and they turn out to carry that power, too. That’s the suspense of life, the serendipity. On that August day, my quick answer to my editor’s simple question, “Want to take a trip?” changed the course of my life and work for more than a decade.

After a nearly a week of talking to people around Monroeville, I knocked on the door of the house where the Lee sisters, Alice and Nelle Harper, lived, never expecting it to open. I had written Alice Lee, the then-89-year-old attorney who served as gatekeeper to her sister, known locally as Nelle, to tell her I would be in town and why.  

Alice opened not only the front door but the door to their lives as well. Soon, to my even greater surprise, I met Nelle. She arranged to come for a conversation at the Best Western where I was staying. From that meeting, a friendship with both sisters began, as did a years-long conversation about their lives and work.

At first slowly, then with increased gusto, Nelle shaped my own work, and how I viewed their town and the South. To the sisters, it was critical that I first understand their region, that I see them in context. Early on Nelle told me “To understand Southerners, you need to understand their ties to their church and their property.” And so I was off on a different kind of assignment, the Lee sisters’ guide to the South. I attended churches of all kinds in their corner of the Bible Belt, interviewed their friends and family, and took long drives with them through the small towns and rural areas they knew growing up. 

Marja-Mills-Chris-Popio-(2)My newspaper story ran in 2002 and I was on to other topics, while staying in touch with the sisters. My struggles with lupus made daily reporting increasingly difficult, however, and eventually it became clear I would have to find another way to work. In the fall of 2004, with the sisters’ blessing, I began renting the house next door to theirs to work on what became my memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.

The Lees were ready to share more of their stories. Share them they did, on long country drives, on leisurely afternoons at their home and, with Nelle, often over afternoon coffee at McDonald’s or Burger King. “I know what you can call your book,” Nelle told me over one such coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air. “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delaney Sisters but titles aren’t copyrightable.’” Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years was a bestselling book about two African American sisters reflecting on their lives.

The Lees fascinated me as sisters. Alice was the oldest of four siblings. Nelle was the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, as much mother to her as sister.  Neither married or had children but in other ways they took very different paths.  Alice lived most of her life in their small hometown.  Nelle moved to New York as a young woman and stayed, eventually dividing her time between Manhattan and Monroeville. Alice was petite. Nelle wasn't. Alice wore only skirts, even on the week-ends. (Nelle referred to her as “Atticus in a Skirt.”) Nelle made casual pants and shirts her daily uniform. Alice worked at her law office until she was 100 years old. After the success of her novel, Nelle never held a traditional job. The never-ending press of interest in Nelle and the novel, however, was work in itself.  

The Lees didn't make big concessions to modern technology and conveniences, either. If a routine worked, they stuck with it. Nelle and I did laundry together at a Laundromat the next town over. The sisters faxed because Alice's hearing made using the phone impossible. But computers were not in the picture. Nelle used a manual typewriter to answer some of the correspondence that still poured into their post office box.

For all the sisters told me about their lives, I learned as much simply from seeing how they lived them: with a passion for books and history, church and community, friendship and family, and very little interest in material things. Television they had little time for, except when it came to football and golf. Their modest red brick house in Monroeville overflowed with books, but when it came to things such as wardrobes and furniture, they found simple things that worked for them and stuck with the same for decades.   

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes, and it was illuminating to see how they went about their day to day life in Monroeville. Both Nelle and Alice spent their time on books and friends, and, when it came to money, you would never know Nelle’s novel had brought her wealth. They did donate, quietly and generously, to church and education funds and various charities.

I am so much richer for my time with them. Spending time with these fascinating, intelligent, witty women was a lesson in living life on your own terms. They valued words far more than wealth--and their daily lives reflected that.

I’m reminded of a story Alice told me. When Nelle was studying in England in the 1940s, one of the Oxford boys she knew was going to London because he had a letter of introduction to a member of Parliament. “Something had happened that his girl couldn’t go,” Alice said, “and he asked Nelle Harper if she’d like to go. And she went. I think maybe they bicycled all the way in but, you know, it’s not far. And they were having tea on the terrace and this man who was hosting them excused himself from the table for a short time and returned with somebody.” Alice paused and looked at me with the relish of a cook about to serve a delicious dish. “And that somebody was Winston Churchill.” She continued, “Nelle Harper was so shocked and so overcome she couldn’t remember what she said. . . . Nelle Harper’s letter back home [to us] said, ‘Today I met history. I met history itself.’  

When I think of my time with the Lees in Monroeville, I feel the same way.

-- Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

(Photo credit: Chris Popio)

What to Eat This Week: Haute Dogs

HauteDogs500HStill recovering from the excitement of the World Cup finale?  Hotter that hot outside (and inside for those of us without air conditioning...) and don't feel like spending a ton of time on dinner?  My solution: hot dogs.  But not just any dogs--these shall be Haute Dogs, straight from the pages of this very fun and beautifully photographed cookbook.  Here are two of the recipes, both of which seem appropriate as hot dog homage to the streets of Brazil where soccer fans recently wept and to our own book editors World Cup obsession here in Seattle. 

São Paolo Potato Dog - (from page 89 in Haute Dogs)
Place of Origin: São Paolo, Brazil
Other Names: Cachorro Quente Completo

 SaoPauloDog

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re looking for the craziest hot dog in the world, you’ll likely find it in Brazil. Brazilians take their toppings seriously, and though favorite add-ons  vary from city to city and region to region, you’ll almost always find potato on the hot dogs here. The cachorro quente (pronounced ka-SHO-ho KEN-tche, which translates simply as “hot dog”) is one you’ll find at street carts across São Paolo. Try it completo, with everything, but be warned: it won’t be easy to get your hands (or mouth) around!

 

 

 

Ingredients:
Mashed potatoes
Vinaigrette (store-bought or from scratch, page 160)
Canned or frozen yellow corn
Canned or frozen peas
Classic bun
Beef and pork hot dog
Ketchup
Yellow mustard
Mayonnaise
Chopped tomatoes
Potato chips
Grated cheddar cheese

Kitchen Note: See page 127 for recipes for classic buns, beef and pork hot dogs, condiments, and vinaigrette.

Prep: Make mashed potatoes and set aside, keeping warm if necessary. Whisk together the vinaigrette, if using homemade.Heat the corn and peas until hot according to the instructions on the package.

Assembly: Get out a classic bun. Grill a beef and pork hot dog as instructed on page 16. Coat the inside of the bun with mashed potatoes and place the hot dog on top. Top the dog with a line each of ketchup, yellow mustard, and mayonnaise. Add a handful each of corn, peas, tomatoes, potato chips, and cheddar cheese and finish with a spoonful or two of vinaigrette.

Rio de Janeiro Dog: Eighty-six the mashed potatoes and add a hardboiled quail egg.

Paraíba Dog: Eighty-six the mashed potatoes, potato chips, and peas. Top with potato sticks or crispy shoestring fries.

Minas Gerais Dog: Eighty-six the mashed potatoes and peas. Top with a mixture of cooked ground beef, carrots, red peppers, green peppers, and onions. (Minas Gerais is a Brazilian state known for its distinctive take on the Cachorro Quente.)

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Seattle-Style Hot Dog  (from page 83 in Haute Dogs--and these can indeed be found at a popular food cart in downtown Seattle, just look for the long line of people...)
Place of Origin: Seattle,WA
Other Names: Cream Cheese Dog

SeattleStyleHauteDog

 

This strange Seattle creation likely came to be in the 1980s or ’90s when modern variations and the idea of haute dogs began influencing recipes. Not only are these dogs almost impossible to find outside Seattle, they can be tricky to find within Seattle as well. That hasn’t stopped this deliciously spicy and creamy dog from collecting a cult following. Loaded with veggies, jalapeños, sriracha, and cream cheese, these dogs are all about thinking outside the bun.

 Ingredients:
Oil, for sautéing
Finely chopped white onions
Sliced jalapeños
Chopped cabbage
Classic bun
Polish sausage or hot dog
Cream cheese, room temperature
sriracha

 

Prep: Warm a splash of oil in a skillet over medium heat. add onions, jalapeños, and cabbage and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften and brown, about 10 minutes.

Assembly: Get out a classic bun. Slice a Polish sausage or hot dog in half and grill it (as in the Flattop Method for split Dogs on page 17). Spread enough cream cheese on the inside of the bun to coat and place the sausage on top. Top with a handful of onions, jalapeños, and cabbage. Add a few drops of sriracha on top.

Let cream cheese come to room temperature before spreading so that it glides smoothly onto the bun.

Kitchen Notes: Anything goes! Use Polish sausage (kielbasa) or a hot dog of your choice. Originally from Vietnam, sriracha is a bright red hot sauce that’s skyrocketed to fame in recent years. It’s available at most grocery stores and other sources (page 162).         

 

 

Of Maps and Memories: Francisco Goldman Interviewed by Daniel Alarcón

Interior_circuit

Daniel Alarcón, author of At Night We Walk in Circles, sits down to talk with journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman, about driving — and grieving. --Sara Nelson


Daniel Alarcón: So first of all, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle is a beautiful book: part memoir, part map of an infinite city, part meditation on mourning, part reportage. One of the things I love about it is that it seems effortless, straddling all these genres with great elegance. So I want to begin by asking how you conceived of this book when you started writing it. Was there a plan? Did you worry about genre?

Francisco Goldman: I didn’t know it was going to be a book when I started. Its origins go a year or so back, when I began to talk to an editor at The New Yorker about doing a piece on my “driving project” — how I was going to overcome my phobia over driving in Mexico City by using the Guía Roji, that fat and fabulous book of Mexico City street maps, that book of “infinite roads” so indispensable to every Mexico City taxi driver, like an I Ching: close my eyes, open to a random page, jab my finger down, and then try to drive to wherever the finger had landed. That was the idea and I’d agreed with that editor to give it a go, even though I didn’t have a formal assignment. I also owed Grove, my publisher, a third magazine piece which they wanted to bring out in a book alongside two other pieces I’d published earlier that year, one in The New Yorker on children of the Dirty War-disappeared in Argentina, and another in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on Camila Vallejo and the student movement in Chile.

My plan was to carry out the driving project in the summer of 2012, in the DF (The Distrito Federal a.k.a. Mexico City). But it turned out to be a summer in which a lot happened in my life, a dramatic, wild, transformative summer during which, as my Chilango or Mexico City friends liked to put it, I hit “rock bottom,” and then “resurrected.” That spring/summer began with the approach of the fifth anniversary of the death of my wife Aura [Estrada, a grad student and writer], and with the sadness and walled-off emotional loneliness of grief, a feeling that seemed like it was never going to end. The summer ended with me most unexpectedly falling in love again. In between were months of out of control, self-destructive behavior, culminating in a night (the “hit bottom” night) of absurd violence. These were transformative months for Mexico too, with a national election that returned the PRI to federal power, and a massive student movement that seemingly arose out of nowhere, a youthful desperate surge of hope and resistance aimed at preventing the election of the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto as president.

Continue reading "Of Maps and Memories: Francisco Goldman Interviewed by Daniel Alarcón" »

Gumshoe 101: Your Guide to Becoming a Self-Made Detective

Deborah Halber's new book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, digs into the underground network of self-made detectives working to solve mysteries of unidentified human remains, using modern tools to put names and faces to thousands of John and Jane Does--often in unofficial competition with the police, as well as each other. Here Halber offers her guide to becoming a successful shamus for the Information Age.

Skeleton Crew

 

Essential Tools and Tips for Becoming a Successful Private Investigator

by Deborah Halber

Just to be clear, I would make a lousy PI. A reviewer noted that in my newly released narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, my writer’s voice is "inflected with the gritty timbre of a noir detective; it’s hard not to imagine her spitting the words out of the side of her mouth." I’d say in real life I’m more bumbling TV gumshoe than ace detective Philip Marlowe. More Columbo or Cloiseau than Veronica Mars.

Maybe that’s why I’m in such awe of the web sleuths. The real-life Sherlock Holmes wannabes you’ll meet in my book have the patience of a ox, the attention to detail of a neurosurgeon and the visual acuity of a shark, which, I’m told, can detect glimmers ten times weaker than anything humans can see. One self-proclaimed amateur sleuth has such a spot-on visual memory that she’s able to peruse dozens of photos of missing people and compare them in her mind’s eye to facial reconstructions of unidentified human remains. Another tirelessly combs through records of persons reported missing in the general vicinity of a discovered body, working her way outward in concentric circles through counties, cities, states.

Also key is the ability to look at grisly photos without running screaming from your computer or face-planting in a dead faint onto your keyboard. There are repositories of images--artists’ reconstructions, vivid color portraits, crude pencil sketches, cartoon-like illustrations, and distorted clay dummies sporting wigs, like something out of a beautician’s academy for the hopeless--a Facebook for the dead. There are also actual morgue photos barely Photoshopped into presentability. It takes a strong stomach--or a fascination with the macabre--to click past “may be disturbing for some viewers.”

Once you’ve narrowed your search--noting, say, this missing person from Wisconsin looks a lot like that facial reconstruction of remains discovered in Florida--you get to delve into the details. Height? Weight? Scars or tattoos? There’s a mind-numbing mountain of data to sift through--and any given data point is not necessarily accurate. A website devoted to Princess Doe--an unidentified young homicide victim found in Blairstown, New Jersey, in 1982, her face bludgeoned beyond recognition--lists almost 100 potential matches, all young women loosely fitting her description, all reported missing after 1975. The amount of work involved in sorting through these leads would be daunting for even the most seasoned detective.

 

Phoenix unidentifieds


Yet the problem is formidable and well worth the benefits of crowdsourcing: The National Institute of Justice estimates that some 40,000 unidentified remains--the population of Wilkes-Barre or North Miami Beach--are stowed in the back rooms of morgues, crematoriums or buried as Jane and John Does in potters fields. No one in the medicolegal community seems to “own” the Does, but web sleuths using sites such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and the Doe Network have “adopted” well-known ones such as Princess Doe; the Lady of the Dunes in my home state of Massachusetts; and the Boy in the Box, found murdered in Philadelphia in 1957.

Many of the web sleuths are motivated by a genuine desire to help families of the missing. Dig into the attributes of the most successful and efficient web sleuths and you’ll find people whose motives are pure, whose diligence is noteworthy, and whose eyes are much sharper than mine.

Recipe Road Test: Jalapeno Poppers from "Man Made Meals"

Last week my fellow editor, Neal, wrote about Steven Raichlen's recent visit to talk barbecuing and his new cookbook, Man Made Meals.  I also got to meet Raichlen when he was here and after flipping through the book while we talked, decided I would try making the Cheese-Stuffed, Bacon-Roasted Jalapeno Poppers for my Fourth of July party.  Sound mouth-watering? It should, because they totally are.  Below is my road test of this recipe--what worked, what didn't, and one happy accident to repeat.

Jalapenos400

 

First off, the recipe says large jalapenos, and I took that to heart--the ones I used were around 4 inches long and pretty stout.  This worked well for stuffing them with cheese, though I  quickly realized that cutting the pepper in half versus cutting the cap off (both methods are mentioned), was the way to go because, frankly, I couldn't get the cap back on again.

 

 JalapenosStuffed

 

 

The recipe suggests you use whatever cheese you like--I decided to try three: colby, pepper jack, and cream cheese. I wasn't sure how full to pack in the cheese (I did the math but what does 2oz in matchstick pieces of cheese look like?), so I went with my usual motto regarding cheese, "more is better."  I also skipped the cilantro.  It's a polarizing herb and the people that hate it, really hate it and can taste the tiniest bit.  I'll try adding the cilantro to the cheese next time when I'm making a smaller batch.

 

  JalapenosGrillReady

 

 

Raichlen's recipe calls for artisanal bacon, which, for the sake of not going to another store, I chose to interpret as "thick-sliced." But somehow I ended up with regular ol' thin bacon, so instead of a half slice per pepper, I wrapped a whole slice around each one (like cheese, more bacon is better in my world...) and they looked pretty good.

 

You can cook the poppers in the oven or on the grill, and I went for the latter.  The grill, in my case, having been lid-down and shoved in a corner since last summer.  Much to my chagrin, I had completely forgotten how warped (and, let's face it, kind of nasty) the grates are and how much it resembles a grill you might find on a sidewalk with a free sign taped to it.

GhettoGasGrill

 

 

But no matter!  It was July 4th, the cocktails were flowing and a jacked-up grill is just one of those things you take in stride.

 The peppers charred (though admittedly unevenly), the cheese melted and oozed out the sides a bit (I no doubt overfilled them), and some of the bacon fell off, but those Cheese-Stuffed, Bacon-Roasted Jalapeno Poppers were delicious!

There was no consensus regarding the best cheese, though I think my personal favorite may have been the colby.  And probably as a result of an uneven grill, the peppers didn't soften as much as they appeared to in the cookbook photo, but having a little crunch left in them turned out to be really nice and I'll definitely try to duplicate that next time.  FinishedPoppers

A Debut to Remember: Celeste Ng's "Everything I Never Told You"

CelesteNgOne of my favorite books of the year is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading it, but I'd heard good things about the novel, and it quickly drew me in. In the end, I tore right through it. As I say in this interview, there isn't a false note in the book.

I only hope that my praise for Celeste Ng's debut doesn't raise the bar so high that it can't meet readers' expectations.

Here's my interview with Celeste Ng:

 

A Conversation with James Browning, Author of "The Fracking King"

James Browning's The Fracking King is an engaging story about a high school junior named Winston Crwth. "Win," as he's called, is at Pennsylvania's Hale Academy (his third school in as many years), and he's there on a "Dark Scholarship" (paid for by the fracking concern, Dark Oil & Gas). He's also a big Scrabble fan.

Browning populates his novel with quirky, memorable characters, and he does a fine job of combining Scrabble, boarding school, and fracking to create a story that's both entertaining and provocative. The Amazon Editors liked it so much, we picked it as a July Best Book of the Month

FrackingKingI had the pleasure of talking to author James Browning, who aside from being an author, is a spokesman and chief strategist for Common Cause, a government watchdog group:

Chris Schluep: First of all, are you a scrabble fanatic?

James Browning: Scrabble was the only game at which I could beat my step-father, a man who believed that children should be “seen and not heard.” I also played constantly with my mother, and my brother and I played about 300 games one summer when we were supposed to be painting our father’s house in Palo Alto, California.

CS: Can you tell me where the idea for the novel came from?

JB: The novel was mainly inspired by a meeting I had in Harrisburg in 2008, with a legislative aide who looked like Bartleby the Scrivener. He warned me not to use the “c-word” in Harrisburg—by which he meant “corruption”—which was a pretty amazing thing to say because the whole point of my job with Common Cause was fighting government corruption.

This meeting and the feeling I got while working in the state capitol—that I was stuck in some lost novel by George Orwell—gave me a real sense of urgency and feeling of responsibility as I began to look at the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Winston Crwth’s own journey to boarding school and then to Harrisburg is also the story of the power of a single word, “fracking,” in the hands of the right person. 

CS:  How long did it take you to write the book?

JB:About two years, but I’ve been writing fiction and hoping to publish a novel for a long time. I wrote a different Scrabble novel back in 1998 when I was in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—a story of Scrabble and doomed love.

CS: Why did you choose to set it in a boarding school?

JB: Boarding school is the thing that woke me up politically—as much because I believed in non sibi, “not for self,” the motto of Phillips Academy Andover, but also because of a lingering sense of shame that I did nothing when several of the not-rich kids in my dorm were expelled for breaking school rules for the second or third time, when the rich kids seemed to get four, five, or more chances.

CS: Are you afraid that it will be seen as "just a Fracking novel"? Because it isn't.

JB: The Fracking King can be read as a fracking novel, or a Scrabble novel, or a novel about a kid trying to survive high school. Or as I told my oldest son, a budding icthyologist, the book is like a cuttlefish, which can change colors to look like sand, a rock, a snake.

CS: What's next for you?

JB: I’m writing a novel about reading for the blind, a sort of older sibling to The Fracking King.

I used to work as the night manager at a studio that recorded textbooks for blind and dyslexic students and it was my job to catch any mistakes before these tapes were sent to the master library. The readers were wonderful, very dedicated, and would describe things like the “honeycomb” shape of certain molecules in a way that a blind person could imagine running their hands along the inside of the molecule.

Many years later, I’m still remembering mistakes that got by me, that got by all of us, and which were then copied and sent to who knows how many listeners. The new novel imagines what would happen if some of those mistakes were sent into the world and accepted as reality—and how you would try to fix them.

 

Graphic Novel Weekend: Interview with Max Brooks

This weekend variant edition of Graphic Novel Friday arrives with an exclusive interview.  Hope everyone had a great July 4th holiday!

Author Max Brooks continues to re-think and refine the zombie phenomenon.  From World War Zthe blockbuster novel that led to the blockbuster film, and the follow-up/send-up The Zombie Survival Guide his name is cemented in the zombie canon. This month, he launches a new graphic novel with Avatar Press that takes another wild look at zombies (and vampires!) in The Extinction Parade. Mr. Brooks nicely took time to answer a few questions over email:

Q: You have two new collections out this spring, The Harlem Hellfighters and The Extinction Parade. What’s your comics origin story—what first inspired you in the medium?

Max Brooks: I can’t remember how old I was, but it was a time before the Berlin Wall fell. We used to spend our summers on a little strip of sand off New York called "Fire Island." I fished and swam and rode my bike everywhere, but one thing I didn’t do was read. Being dyslexic, reading was a real chore. And then I found ROM: Spaceknight at the general store and I recognized it from an action figure I had. It was the first king sized annual. I hadn’t intended to read the whole thing, but before I knew it, I was on the last page. That was the first time in my life I’d ever voluntarily read something, ANYTHING cover to cover, and I still own that exact issue.

Q: The Extinction Parade began as a short prose story. What led to its translation into comics? What aspects did you have to re-think when converting it for Avatar Press?

Max Brooks: Converting from prose to comics is no easy task. For one thing, you can’t ignore any information. In prose, I don’t have to describe anything that’s not integral to the story. Out of sight, out of mind. A comic book is visual. The reader sees everything. I have to pay attention to clothes, hair, architecture, every detail I want to be accurate. Because The Extinction Parade takes place in Malaysia, where I’ve never been, I have to use 3D satellite images to show the artist where our characters are and what we, the readers, would see in the background.

Q: The Extinction Parade is filled with storytelling, from character-to-character moments to detailed narration boxes. What is your method of scripting comics? Are you more hands-on or hands-off in terms of page layouts and character designs?

Continue reading "Graphic Novel Weekend: Interview with Max Brooks" »

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