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About Jon Foro

A remorseless reader since age six when he ordered his first book (Hardy Boys 53: The Clue of the Hissing Serpent, with a coupon clipped from the back of a Cheerios box), Jon has spent over 20 years in the book business, and over 14 years at Amazon.com. He enjoys ancient history, literary fiction, and adventure and nature writing, especially books about bears.

Posts by Jon

Punk Rock Girl

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A MemoirViv Albertine's new memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. is a book is divided almost straight down the middle. Side One is the story of her upbringing in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill: It's the mid-seventies, and the Sex Pistols are at the head of a massive, angry (or at least frustrated) cultural insurgence. Her rebellious tendencies have led her into the center of punk culture, and inspired by its outsized personalities and  confrontatonal style, she picks up a guitar, forsaking traditional training for the DIY ethos of the day. After her band with the pre-Pistols Sid Vicious (The Flowers of Romance--a possibly sardonic suggestion from Johnny Rotten) fails to launch, Albertine joins forces with The Slits, a ska-infused, all-girl outfit that, through the force of its collective will and audacity, elbows its way to the front of a stage filled with sharp, mostly male elbows. Everyone is wearing Vivenne Westwood's provocative clothing purchased from Malcolm McLaren's infamous boutique, SEX--at least as much as they could afford. Mick Jones of The Clash wanders in and out of the story, first as a gangly proto-punk spending all of his time and loose change trying to put together a band, and later as Albertine's on-again, off-again boyfriend (the classic London Calling track "Train in Vain" was inspired by her). It's a story in the best rock & roll tradition: Initiative leads. Ability chases. Success looms. Then someone bumps the turntable.

Side Two. The band has blown apart. Grownup problems ensue: education and career; marriage and kids; serious illness, divorce, and identity. The actor Vincent Gallo. Albertine moves through all of it, drawing from the same well of determination that compelled her to pick up the guitar for the first time. The two sides of the book may tell very different stories, but they share perspective and style that are both straightforward and ultimately uncompromising. If you love this music (and your library contains titles like Please Kill Me and Richard Hell's I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp), then this book is fascinating and essential. If not, it's fascinating and inspiring. It's occasionally coarse, and often terribly funny and fun.

In the spirit of the title, we asked Albertine three memorable examples of the three main themes: clothes, music, and boys.

 

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes
Your three memorable articles of clothing or outfits, where & when you wore them, where you got them, and what made them special.

My first cool outfit was by mail order, all the rage in the 1960s. It was a purple corduroy three piece suit, a fitted jacket, mini-skirt and hipster bell-bottom trousers with big belt loops. It came in pieces, so my mother had to sew it all together. Best of all there was a "Donovan" peaked cap included, like a Dylan cap, which I wore to death.

When I first went to Vivienne Westwood's shop "Sex" in 1975, I couldn’t believe that what I was thinking about and drawing at art college, someone else had thought to put onto clothes. I’d never thought of combining erotica, feminism and insurgency with items of clothing. I wore this look with my own embellishments from that day onwards and I didn’t have one peaceful journey through London for the next six years because of it.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaAs my 18-year marriage started to fall apart, because I’d started to play my Telecaster again (still a powerful weapon in the wrong hands), I began to think about how I was dressing. I had become very conventional, not wanting to be noticed, hiding away in a nice house by the coast away from London, and I had to think again about who I was, who I wanted to project with my clothes. You hear all these phrases like "mutton dressed as lamb," but I think good taste is good taste whatever age you are, and clashing prints with cuban heels now or matted hair and loads of black eye-liner back then are good taste - my version of good taste.

Music, Music, Music
Three inspiring/influential/rewarding musical experiences of your life. Bands that you’ve seen, shows that you’ve played, people you’ve met, or any other musical moment.

The first time a live show transported me was when I saw Fleetwood Mac play at a free night-time outdoor concert on a wild piece of land called Hampstead Heath near my home in North London. Everything about the evening was dark and mysterious and forbidden. Fleetwood Mac came on and played "Albatross," the guitars wailed over the tops of the black silhouetted trees, I felt like I was flying and swooping with them.

The second time has to be when I saw the Sex Pistols live at Chelsea School of Art. I was transfixed by Johnny Rotten, not because he was extraordinary, but because he was as near someone like me that I had ever seen on stage and I found that shocking, inspiring and fascinating. He couldn’t sing or play an instrument (like me), he came from North London, a poor family, below-average schooling, bad housing (all like me) and yet unlike me, he wasn’t ashamed, apologetic or embarrassed about any of this. The next day I went out and bought a Les Paul Junior and started to learn to play guitar.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaI stopped playing music for twenty five years. I felt it wasn’t an interesting medium anymore. By 2008 a couple of things had happened, the internet (making it possible to reach people without the conduit of record company men), I became healthy again and I went back to art school one day a week to explore my thoughts and feelings creatively. All this made me want to pick up the guitar and play and write songs again. Big changes in your life aren’t always about eureka moments, sometimes it’s just painfully slow, hard work and dogged determination.

Boys, Boys, Boys
Three who had a profound effect on her life, good or not so good.

The thing is, in the 1970s, ordinary girls and women were very repressed and oppressed, we had no role models, I never once met an interesting woman, in the arts or music who I could imagine being. They weren’t even in the media. The first woman who resonated with me was Yoko Ono. So I was influenced by boys. I wanted to do things boys did and I dated boys that interested me on that level. That realisation has made boys less interesting to me. What do I want or need from them now? Especially now I have my own home and a child. If it’s just about companionship, for years on end…well, that person is hard to find, male or female.

The three boys I nominate are: my first proper boyfriend, Magnus (who I still know and love, we are neighbours), he was interesting, well-read, an amazing artist, from a poor background, and I followed in his footsteps for a while to gigs and art school. I was thirteen, he was fifteen and we went out together for three years.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaNumber two has to be Mick Jones (guitarist with the Clash) who I met at art school when I was nineteen. I watched as he tried over and over again to form bands, full of passion, love of music and determination, which was very rare in a young person back then. He was also extremely intelligent, self-taught, interested in politics and all aspects of life. From him I learnt how to run a band. We are still friends and love each other too.

Number three is myself. I am the boy now. I am whole. I don’t look to a man to complete me, to inspire me, to lead me somewhere I haven’t quite got the courage to go to by myself. It’s taken fifty or so years to get here. Love and romance sure do look different from this perspective. Most relationships look a bit pathetic to me to be honest. I am questioning what two people are doing, clinging together for years and years on end, way past the relationship’s sell-by date. I would like a new paradigm to be the norm, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

Photos 1 and 2 by Carolina Ambida; photo 3 courtesy the author

2014 National Book Award Winners

At an event in Manhattan yesterday evening, the National Book Foundation announced the winners of the 2014 National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Young People's Literature, and Poetry. Phil Klay was awarded the highly anticipated prize in fiction for his collection of short stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Redeployment, while Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition was deemed the top nonfiction book of the year.

All finalists receive $1,000, and five panelists in each of the four categories decide who takes home the top prizes of $10,000 and a bronze sculpture. Since 1950, winners have included William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Anne Porter, Philip Roth, Alice Walker, John Updike, and Lillian Hellman, to name but a few. Congratulations to all of the 2014 finalists and winners.

See more National Book Award finalists and previous winners.

 

2014 National Book Award Winners:

TITLE

FICTION: Redeployment by Phil Klay

"Phil Klay's Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned."

 
TITLE

NONFICTION: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

"Writing with great narrative verve and a keen sense of irony, Osnos follows the moving stories of everyday people and reveals life in the new China to be a battleground between aspiration and authoritarianism, in which only one can prevail."

 
TITLE

Young People's Literature: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

"Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement."

 
TITLE

POETRY: Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck

"You enter the world of this spellbinding book through one of its many dreamlike portals, and each time you enter it’s the same place but it has been arranged differently."

 

"Like a Mix of Don Draper and Rasputin": Moving & Shaking in 21st-Century Russia

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New RussiaWhen the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, the West rejoiced with the relief that came with the end of the Cold War and the possibility of an era of peace and cooperation. At the same time, its corporations and conglomerates trained a beady eye toward its newly opened markets, and a seemingly virgin economic landscape soon became home to icons such as Coke and McDonalds and Levi’s. But the door was open wide, and tagging along with big business were some seedier characters: organized crime, a youth-and-glamour-obsessed oligarchy, and an entertainment complex hungry for the new concepts of its Western counterparts. That’s where Peter Pomerantsev comes in. Born in Kiev but raised in Great Britain, Pomerantsev returned to Russia as a consultant to its burgeoning film and television—especially “reality” television—industries. What he found was a capitalist’s wet dream: an unfettered cash and service economy with no apparent limits on cash or available services--one where Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, if you can pay for it. At the top of it all sits Vlad Putin, infusing the old TASS tactics with Hollywood flair to create a vision of a bare-chested (bear-chested?) virility and power, of both self and state. Pomerantsev finds himself gazing deeper into this looking-glass world—willingly and otherwise—and he finds it impossible to look away, as will his readers. This is not your father’s Russia, and yet it kind of is.

All that sounds hyberbolic, right? But it's all there. And to demonstrate, Pomerantsev has provided short biographies of some of the book's most interesting players. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


Peter Pomerantsev (photo by Natasha Belauskine) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: A Cast of Characters

By Peter Pomerantsev

 

Vladislav Surkov: The Kremlin "Vizier"
"Egor could see to the heights of creation...."

The hidden author of the Putin system, Surkov trained as a theater director, made his name as a PR guru before going on to become one of Putin's right hand men, running Russian politics like a mix of Don Draper and Rasputin. In his spare time he pens satirical, self-referential novels about cynical political operators who have sold their souls, writes rock lyrics and essays on modern art. When asked for his reaction to being sanctioned by US and EU for playing a key role in the annexation of Crimea Surkov answered: "I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia. It’s a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Oliona: A Moscow Holly Golightly
"It's all true, you can really have the life; it's not just in the movies!"

Oliona has come to Moscow from a bankrupt mafia-run mining town to make it as a gold-digger in the city's decadent clubs. She's quite open, even proud of her bag of tricks, and attends a gold-digger school where she's taught how to seduce and keep an oligarch: never wear jewelry on a first date, she learns, dress down- so that he wants to buy you presents. But she's hitting her mid-twenties and that might spell the end of her career. She worries her sugar daddy is going off her, while her generation dream of Putin as the ultimate sugar daddy of them all.

Vitaly: Gangster Turned Film Director
"Usually you’d be one of my victims. But in this case we'll be partners."

Vitaly used to be a gangster in Siberia. Then he took all his all-gotten gains and ploughed them into the movie business. But they're no ordinary movies. He makes films about his own life, with himself in the main role, and his gangster buddies playing themselves. He spent years behind bars watching gangster movies and thought they were all fake: only a real gangster can make a real gangster movie.

Jambik Hatohov: The Fattest Boy in the World

Jambik Hatohov is 7 years old and weighs over a hundred kilograms (220 pounds), making him the biggest boy in the world. He lives in the North Caucascus, in a part of the country where the choice growing up is between being a wrestler or a Jihadi. His single mum thinks she can use Jambik's weight as a way out of the squalor, and hopes he can become a TV star. Meanwhile more and more "black widows," the name given to suicide bombers form the North Caucascus, make their way to Moscow to blow themselves up in the name of Allah.

Yana Yakovelva: Imprisoned Business Woman
"You think prison is something bad that happens to other people. And then you wake up and my God you’re a convict."

Yana was a poster girl for the new, capitalist Russia, running her own petro-chemicals business and living what seemed like a perfectly successful, Western-style life. But in Putin's Russia, normality is only ever an illusion. When some high-level bureaucrats want a piece of her company they throw her in prison on trumped up charges--and Yana is plunged into another Russia of convicts and corrupt courts. As she fights to get out, she finds her own case leads right to the top of the Kremlin.

Alexander Mozhaev: The Guardian Spirit of Old Moscow
"The drama of human lives is written in the buildings. We will be gone; only places remain."

The city is destroyed to make way for neo-Stalinist skyscrapers, and Mozhaev tries to save the last vestiges of the old town. This is more than about just buildings, in a system which is misusing history in the name of tyranny the fight for the city becomes a fight for a different sort of Russia. Mozhaev is the last romantic in a city of corruption.

Ruslana Korshunova: Supermodel
"I'm so lost, will I ever find myself?"

A Russian supermodel, star of a Nina Ricci ad, who killed herself by jumping from a NY skyscraper. She seemed perfectly happy, wasn't into drugs, was preparing to go to university. What lead to her death? Was it a tragic love story? Could it have been murder? And is her death connected to that of another top model who also died by jumping from a high-rise, this time in Kiev?

The Night Wolves
"We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia."

As Moscow plunges into a messianic fervor sects bubble to the surface. None is more striking than the Night Wolves, a Russian Hells Angels biker gang who have found God and see themselves on a mission to save the Russian soul from the decadent, Satanic West. Their faith combines Orthodox Christianity with a worship of Stalin and heavy metal. Surkov, as ever, is in the background, making the Night Wolves national stars as the Kremlin toys with a dangerous, and surreal, religious nationalist ideology.

Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich
"This is a very Russian story, with lots of killers, where the president himself is almost a killer."

Two Russian oligarchs--now based in London--who are fighting the largest private litigation in history. Berezovsky, the older mentor known as the "Godfather of the Kremlin," accuses his protégé, Abramovich, known as the "Stealth Oligarch," of "acting like a gangster" and extorting a five-billion-dollar company from him. The trial opens up the insides of the Putin system, showing how it is increasingly growing to influence the West as the Russian super-rich descend onto London, Monaco and New York.

Vladik Mamyshev Monroe
"I want to try on every persona the world has ever known."

A performance artist, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. In a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin and Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints and where "performance" is the buzz-word Vladik is a mascot and prankster philosopher. But as the new Russia tumbles from decadence to madness, from glamour to dictatorship, he finds himself appalled at the very cult of performance he celebrates: "Putin will eat up our country," he writes. "One day we will reach into the cupboard and reach for our clothes and they will turn to dust in our hands because they have been eaten by maggots."

 

Author photo by Natasha Belauskine

Martin Short: Humble Comedy Legend

I Must Say by Martin ShortYou might know him best as Ed Grimley, the grimacing, high-trousered pop-culture nerd of the rhinoceros-worthy quiff. Or maybe Jiminy Glick, the Hollywood "insider" who packs both obsequiousness and obliviousness into a single awkward, inapproptiate package. Over his long career, Martin Short has created countless iconic characters, filling many roles across a career spanning SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and dozens of films.

His new autobiography, I Must Say, is the story of his remarkable life--hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring. From his showbiz-obsessed childhood to Toronto's Second City improv troupe to Hollywood success as a "humble comedy legend," we meet his friends, loves, and co-conspirators: Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Shaffer, David Letterman all make appearances, as do Steve Martin and Tom Hanks (in fact, their pre-colonoscopy ritual is not to be missed). We also learn how his upbeat sensibilities helped him cope with the losses of his older brother and both parents within months of each other, and more recently, his wife of thirty years. 

Short stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the book, inspiration for writing it, and a few of his most memorable characters.

 

Spooktacular Spooktacular! 13 Picks from the Master of Cult Cinema

Cult Horror MoviesWho's up for some scary movies? I am. So is Danny Peary.

Peary established his bona fides as an expert in weird cinema with his Cult Movies series from the early 80s: three volumes packed with wisdom on off-beat movies of all stripes. The requirements for "cult" status were specific; all of Peary's subjects "elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases,” a rubric which made The Maltese Falcon, Emmanuelle, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show all fair game for his always enlightening and entertaining essays. The books were cult hits on their own--I skimmed them between customers during my Tower Books counter shifts in the early 90s, along with other books of ill-repute, such as The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Tower, remember, was open late.

Though they have been lately out of print, Workman Publishing is now releasing Peary's essays from Cult Movies as a series of genre-specific ebooks. Horror and Sci-Fi are first, with Midnight Movies (November 11) and Crime (December 2) following later this year.

So who better than to ask for recommendations on spooky Halloween films? Here are Peary's picks for chill-seekers of all tolerances.

 


My Lucky Thirteen for Halloween, by Danny Peary

I was eight in 1957, when Shock Theater presented Universal Monster Movies on television, and only Psycho, three years later, ever scared me more than seeing Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and all the sequels about brides, sons, daughters, and nephews, for the first time. Indeed, if I could have programmed a Halloween movie marathon back then to scare youngsters and adults in 2014, I would have picked those classics. But today, when such ferocious fare as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are popular television shows, coming up with thirteen horror films that will please the I've-seen-everything-and-more crowd is a tricky proposition. Today's viewers get bored even before the blood on the screen dries, so my simple objective to keep everyone's eyes riveted on the screen even while frustrated trick-or-treaters bang on their doors. My tack is to mix past and present films, the violent and the humorous, the familiar and the unexpected. I have included five* films I write about in my new eBook Cult Horror Movies, and eight others. All good movies, none too barbaric. My Lucky Thirteen for Halloween:

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948): Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) wants to implant Costello's puny brain into the head of the Frankenstein Monster. Before the kids are sent to bed with their candy-induced tummy aches, allow them one movie treat, showing them one of the best comedy-horror films ever made. You'll like it, too. It's a great introduction to Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). Universal's iconic monsters are scary, there's some nifty special effects and makeup, and the fab comedy team that saved the studio from bankruptcy is in top form.

The Night of the Demon* (1957): An American doctor (Dana Andrews) arrives in London to help a professor discredit a devil cult--only to discover that the professor is dead and that real witchcraft may have been responsible. This smart, tense, and sadly neglected British horror gem was scripted by frequent Hitchcock writer Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps) and directed by Val Lewton alum Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People). It has a fabulously sinister and erudite Hitchcockian villain (Niall MacGinnis) and scares us as Lewton did, with darkness and shadows, sudden sounds, and wild animals. As in Lewton films, science/reason and the supernatural have equal validity. The filmmakers were upset that the studio insisted on showing "the Demon." but it's such a spectacular creature that I'm glad it did.

The Scream of Fear (1961): A young woman in a wheelchair returns home to meet her stepmother for the first time and suspects that her missing father isn't away on a trip but has been murdered--in fact, she keeps seeing his corpse when no one else is around. This spooky sleeper from Hammer Studios features the lovely, ill-fated Susan Strasberg and the British studio's star Christopher Lee not playing a vampire or even a bad guy for a change. Numerous later movies have had similar plot twists, but the direction by Seth Holt (The Nanny) is imaginative and there are a few times when you'll be on the edge of your seat.

Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead* (1968): A disparate group of scared people barricade themselves in a farmhouse as cannibalistic zombies terrorize the countryside. Although heavily influenced by Hitchcock's The Birds and Psycho, George A. Romero's cult classic was innovative and influential, anticipating and paving the way for today's zombie craze. Many films have since passed it on the gross-out meter, but it holds up very well. And it deserves credit for being, along with Romero's equally satirical The Crazies, the first horror film in which we Americans do battle not with aliens but each other.

Halloween* (1978): After fifteen years in an asylum for stabbing his sister to death, Michael Meyers escapes and returns home to Haddonfield, Illinois, dons a mask, and stalks three teenage girls on Halloween night. John Carpenter's seminal work would be the obvious choice for a Halloween marathon strictly because of its title, but these many years later it remains the scariest and most shrewdly directed of the teenager-in-peril slasher movies. In her debut, Jamie Lee Curtis deservedly became the cinema's "Scream Queen" as the attentive virginal babysitter Michael pursues, with her distracted-by-sex friends becoming collateral damage. A masked lunatic is needed in a Halloween movie festival, and I pick Michael over Jason of the Friday the 13th series because he's not just out to kill but, having missed his childhood, seems to be playing a very mischievous kids' game. Am I right in thinking that babysitters have charged outlandish fees since this movie came out?

An American Werewolf in London* (1981): After two likable young Americans are attacked and bitten by a werewolf while backpacking at night on the British moors, one (David Naughton) turns into a werewolf when there is a full moon and the other (Griffin Dunne) becomes a deteriorating corpse-ghost who tries to persuade his alive friend to commit suicide before he kills. From the opening moment when John Fogarty belts out "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, this is a wild ride, the best werewolf movie after 1941's The Wolf Man. There are great transformation scenes and Oscar-winning makeup by Rick Baker, and director John Landis deftly mixes terrifying moments (including the attack on the moors) with laugh-out-loud humor. Cult favorite Jenny Agutter is Naughton's love interest, and it's notable that Landis includes sex and violence but keeps them separate.

ScreamScream (1996): A year after her mother's murder, Sydney Prescott (Neve Cambell) realizes she could become the latest teen victim of whoever is driving up the body count in the small town of Woodsboro. Directed by Wes Craven and knowingly scripted by Kevin Williamson, this blockbuster revitalized the horror genre in the late 1990s by both paying tribute to the slasher film and revamping it. It's a sure-fire crowd pleaser because of its fun characters, super cast--Campbell, Courtney Cox and Dave Arquette would return for the sequels--hip dialogue, and horrific murders that do justice to their strong buildups. Remember: if you get a Halloween night call from someone asking What's your favorite scary movie, hang up.

Ringu (1998)/The Ring (2002): Teenagers die a week after watching a mysterious VHS video, spurring a female journalist to--big mistake--take a look. On Halloween, if you can't get hold of the Japanese original on dvd--don't accept a VHS copy!--watch the American version directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts, because it's just as unnerving. We grew up being scared of what lurked in our closets or underneath our beds, but that didn't prepare us to see what crawls out of the TV in this story. Be ready for chills to run along your spine.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006): In Spain in 1944, young Ofelia and her pregnant mother move into her vicious fascist stepfather's large house, and, while he hunts rebels in the area, she ventures into an ancient labyrinth, where she interacts with various mythical creatures and puts her life at risk. Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro's enchanting and frightening parable draws a connection between real-life and fantasy horror. In this unique film, Sergi Lopez is one of the cinema's vilest villains, and Ivan Baquera is as captivating a heroine as Alice. If she were in a Lewis Carroll story, Ofelia might get in trouble, but in a Del Toro film she might not even survive.

The HostThe Host (2006): An enormous, amphibious monster kills many civilians along the Han River and abducts a man's daughter, prompting him to search for her. The biggest box-office film in South Korean history barely was noticed in America because super-talented Bong Joon-ho (2014's Snowpiercer) was still an unknown director here. There's too much silly humor, but the scenes with the monster are thrilling and the monster is stupendous. The rescue scenes in the sewer recall the terrific fifties giant-ant movie, Them!

Paranormal Activity (2007): A couple feels a demonic presence in their new home, so they turn on cameras to record any unusual activity while they sleep. I think the creepy first film of a highly successful franchise ranks second to The Blair Witch Project among "found-footage" horror films, but it is perhaps the most efficient good horror movie ever made, providing a tremendous number chills for the few dollars spent. And Katie Featherston's totally credible performance is Oscar-worthy. It's such a nerve-wracking movie that maybe you'd better wake up those kids you sent to bed earlier because you won't want to watch it alone, particularly the shocking ending!

Let The Right One In (2008): A nice, lonely, bullied twelve-year-old boy befriends the mysterious new girl in his apartment complex, and soon realizes she's a vampire and responsible for a series of deaths in town. Just when we thought every vampire movie had been made Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's novel horror film turned up. It may be the most violent film ever with kids in the lead roles. The killings are gruesome, the atmosphere is icy, but this is a touching, tender, and very romantic art film. If you can't make out subtitles after watching twelve other films, the 2010 American version, Let Me In, with Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz is almost as good.

Go Forward, Move Ahead: Mark Mothersbaugh's Guide to Modern Living

Myopia by Mark MothersbaughIf you're familiar with Mark Mothersbaugh, it's probably through his day job. In the early 70s, Mothersbaugh--along with fellow Kent State art students Gerald Casale and Bob Lewis--founded DEVO, and began their four-plus-decade broadcast of uncategorizable, avant-garde sound and vision, of hazmat-besuited robot Jaggers singing songs of dark futures and opt-in de-evolution. "Freedom of choice/Is what you got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want."

As it turns out, DEVO was only one facet of a complex project. Before music, Mothersbaugh occupied his time and indulged his obsessions as a visual artist, creating a huge collection of paintings, photographs, and prints--including over 30,000 postcards--that represent an often surreal, sometimes disturbing, and always fascinating take on modern existence. 

Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art has amassed many of these pieces--curated by Adam Lerner--for Mothersbaugh's first comprehensive exhibition. If you can't make it to Colorado or any of the five other cities currently scheduled to host the collection, Princeton Architectural Press has published Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia as a companion volume, with a set of postcards (Collected Facts and Lies) coming December 2. With the show's opening set for October 30, we asked Mothersbaugh a few questions about his influences as a visual artist, his work, and its relationship to DEVO's music. The publisher has also offered several images from the book, presented below.

 


Most people know you for your music than for your visual art, but which came first, and when? Is one the natural extension of the other? Has your art influenced your music or vice versa? Is it all part of the same project?

I first dreamt I would be an artist when I was seven years old. I took keyboard lessons when I was seven, but didn't want to write and perform music until I was twelve. Early on I was impressed with sound and vision artists and mixed media artists. Then in college cross-platform artists like Andy Warhol, Dadaists and the Futurists inspired me. All the different artists who believed that the idea came first, and then the technique followed. With DEVO, Jerry Casale, Bob #1 and Bob #2 and I thought we were sound and vision artists. We designed costumes, stage shows and choreography, films, all related artwork besides the music. We created interstitial music for our films and live shows.

Three artists or works—in any medium-- that influence your current work the most. Or a lot.

I could list a lot of people, but Chester Gould, Beto Gomez and Alan Vega are the first three I thought of. I also am especially interested in artists who channel other dimensions, gods, spirits, ghosts, energy, or whatever is out there to interact with. Maybe I'm mostly inspired by the "other 90%" of our brains... not just the 10% that has to babysit the rest of our meat computer, but the part we know very little about.

You’ve created over 30,000 postcards, which implies a kind of compulsion or commitment. What urges you to create art? What’s your routine?

The content and goal of my drawing has changed and goes in and out of specific thoughts, stream of consciousness and anger venting, positing questions and just illuminating a thought or feeling. The content has changed since I acquired two children and started showing the newer drawings to others. Thirty years ago, I was the only viewer, and I made them exclusively for me, occasionally picking select images for use with DEVO or to just print them larger for art shows. I draw every day between sun up and sun up. It is kind of compulsive at this point, there is a relief in just finishing at least one drawing, poem, whatever in every 24 hour cycle. I am an insomniac, and drawing gives me something to do during those hours.

Myopia by Mark MothersbaughYou’ve never exhibited your visual work before the Denver exhibit, at least in a large scale. Did you ever intend to? How does this feel?

I have had smaller shows in museums and colleges before, but the bulk of my public viewing over the last 15 years has been in smaller indie galleries. In that arena, I have done upwards of 125 gallery shows around the world in a 13 year period. The Denver show is by far and away the largest museum-size show I have ever put together. Jeffrey Deitch got me interested in bigger, more center-stage art exhibits, but Adam Lerner is my intellectual saint. Not one to shy away from controversy, he both suggested and has co-created this project. I feel pretty darn good about the whole thing.

Has the acceleration of technology and its pervasiveness—especially communications technology—influenced your work and themes? Is it insidious or liberating?

This is the best time in the history of man to be an artist of any stripe. Technology has made so many disciplines transparent and available to young artists these days. It has democratized previously out-priced art mediums including music and video, to name just a few. I think technology gives us so many more options and is very inclusive. I only wish I had the energy of an eighteen year old.

There are so many conflicts inherent in your work: man/ machine, thinker/consumer, high-brow/low-brow (maybe what Adam Lerner has called the “DEVO aesthetic”). Do you start with these ideas, or do they naturally emerge as a project develops? Are you delivering messages or observations?

I think in some ways I'm doing the same thing I did when Jerry and Bob and I started DEVO. Delivering observations regarding the condition of man in the world these days.

 

Images from Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia:

 
Untitled postcard
 
 
DEVO changed their look for each of their major albums. The plastic wigs they wear in this photograph were part of the image they created for their 1981 album New Traditionalists.
 
 
Mark Mothersbaugh, Untitled, February 7, 1984
 
 
Mark Mothersbaugh, Untitled (Bury Me…), February 21, 2013
 
 
Roli polis
 
 
Mark Mothersbaugh, Wipe!, 2004-7
 
 
Anita’s First Boyfriend, 2004
 
 
This Enigma Records promotional image features the best of DEVO’s many outrageous costumes and showcases the elements of their performance influenced by the 1913 “futurist opera” Victory Over the Sun.
 
 
Mechanical Aviary, 2014
 

The Only Way Out of the Apocalypse Is Through

Station ElevenPublished earlier this year, Claire Cameron's novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness, ending their world as they know it. It's a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves to propel us through.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven--recently announced as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction--deals with the end of the world on a much larger scale: A doomsday virus that wipes out 99% of humanity. We thought it would be interesting if the two authors spoke about the new book and the inspiration behind it.


Claire Cameron Interviews Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven

Station Eleven, the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has been called, "an ambitious and addictive novel" by The Guardian and "equal parts page-turner and poem" by Entertainment Weekly. Author Ann Patchett said, "I wouldn’t have put it down for anything." 

The novel jumps back and forth between a post-apocalyptic world and the start of a flu epidemic that had wiped out 99% of the world's population twenty years earlier. This sounds like a dark story, and it is. But, as with the best tragedies, St. John Mandel manages to show beauty and hope in the gloom. It is also expertly crafted. She weaves time and develops characters in a non-linear and convincing way. It's a riveting read.

As a writer, the moment I finished the novel I wanted to know more about how it was written. I interviewed St. John Mandel by email. --Claire Cameron

Claire Cameron: What was the first spark of inspiration for Station Eleven?

Emily St. John Mandel: I wanted to write something quite different from my previous three novels, all of which were generally categorized as literary noir. I'm happy with the way they turned out, but I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for crime writers and crime fiction. It's just that I don't want to be pigeon-holed as anything, and I love film and theatre, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the life of an actor.

At the same time, I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, this place where rooms fill with electric light at the flick of a switch, water comes out of faucets, and it's possible to cross the Atlantic in an afternoon. One way to write about the modern world is to contemplate its absence, which is why I decided to set parts of the new novel in a post-apocalyptic era. I think of the book as a love letter in the form of a requiem.

CC: How did you imagine the disaster specifically, the flu epidemic, in your novel?

ESJM: I imagined an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu—with some variant in the viral RNA resulting in a freakishly quick incubation period—making the jump from pigs to humans on a farm in the Republic of Georgia. In early drafts, the initial outbreak was quite specific and detailed: a teenaged girl who lives on the farm kisses her boyfriend, who's traveling to Moscow that afternoon. The following day, passengers on a plane from Moscow to Toronto begin to feel ill a few hours into the flight. This is also true of passengers in other airplanes bound for other continents, and in trains and buses bound for other countries. I imagined a mortality rate of 99%.

The Bear

The Bear

by Claire Cameron

CC: I was struck by a character who watched an airplane take off, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?” Do we live in an era of beauty?

ESJM: We do, although it's also of course an era of ugliness and horror. We live in a world filled with spectacular things that we too often take for granted, and flight is an easy example of that. I don't always enjoy flying. It's often a horribly uncomfortable experience. But the fact that it's possible is incredible, isn't it? I've been fielding accusations of being easily impressed since childhood, but in my defense, a lot of things are impressive.

CC: Your novel shows that even in the face of disaster humans can be good to each other, which is a different world than is depicted in many post-apocalyptic stories. Are you hopeful about human kind?

ESJM: Generally, yes. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of people on the world really just want to go about their business, raise their families, and live peacefully. But with regard to this book, the key here is the timing. Post-apocalyptic stories are often set in a period of chaos and mayhem immediately following a societal collapse. I assume that such a period would occur, but I was more interested in writing about what might come after that, fifteen or twenty years after the collapse. I assume that the entire world wouldn't be consumed by mayhem forever, because mayhem isn't a sustainable way of life over the long term.

CC: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Canada. Did this influence your novel?

ESJM: Yes. Delano Island in the book is an ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and the book is partly set in Toronto, where I went to school.

CC: Station Eleven is a literary novel, but it also uses some of conventions of genre – suspense, science fiction and elements of horror. How does genre influence your writing? Do you think about genre or conventions when you write?

ESJM: I've always just set out to write literary fiction, with the strongest possible narrative drive. My ideal of the perfect book is Donna Tartt's The Secret History; it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.

I try not to think about genre while I'm writing, because the whole question of genre seems completely arbitrary and amorphous to me. If a literary novel is set partly in the future, does that somehow make it less "literary" than a novel set in present-day suburbia? If a literary novel has a crime in it, is it automatically crime fiction? Ultimately, these labels have more to do with marketing than with the content of the work itself. Case in point: my first three novels were generally marketed as literary fiction in North America, but I'm a thriller writer in France. Same books, different marketing strategies.

CC: The traveling symphony has a line from Star Trek on the side of their caravan: "Because survival is insufficient." How important is art to our lives? Does it change how or why we live?

ESJM: I think it's very important, and it does change the way we live. Survival is never enough for us, and we find examples of this in the most desperate places on earth: people play musical instruments in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.

 

See more books by Claire Cameron and read more--including the proper way to split firewood--at www.claire-cameron.com.

10 Songs: Greil Marcus and the Culture of Surprise

The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten SongsIf rock & roll has achieved institution status, Greil Marcus certainly qualifies as one of its pillars. As one of the most influential critics of rock music--a small and vital, club, to be sure--he has made a long, distinctive career by elevating an often disparaged form and placing it firmly (rightly) within the hierarchy of great art. In addition to his writing for the likes of Rolling Stone (he was its first reviews editor), Creem, and The Village Voice, Marcus has authored many books, often dealing with the idea that rock & roll is both a accelerant and amplifier of cultural memes, Narcissus and his reflection in one. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, originally published in 1975, traced rock music's roots, evolution, and impacts--intuitive and otherwise--through the lives and careers of six epochal artists; TIME appointed it one of the 20th century's most influential nonfiction books. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century launches itself from the Sex Pistols and the punk scene of the 70s into an examination of heretics, rioters, and iconoclasts spanning Western civilization, across both time and geography. There are many more, occasionally academic, always incisive, and definitely fun.

In his latest--The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs--Marcus rambles the back roads of rock history to present  short biographies of 10 songs spanning the entire breadth of rock & roll, from doo-wop to post-punk, demonstrating how rock's impulse to combine (and recombine) its influences made each possible and entirely original. Two pieces of advice for readers: 1.) Unless your record collection is as expansive as Marcus's, have YouTube cued up so you can listen while you learn. 2.) Set "Shake Some Action" to repeat.

We asked Marcus for 10 songs that shaped his own rock & roll experience. Here's what he said.

 


 

Greil Marcus: 10 Songs

Rock & roll for me has always been a culture of surprise. When it’s at its best you never know what’s coming and you can’t wait to find out what it is—when all the music seems to be one great answer record, with everyone, performers, listenters, the radio, a club, even the background music in a supermarket or the foreground music in a restaurant part of the same conversation. That happens best on Quentin Tarantino soundtrack albums, which aren’t references to his movies but almost counter-works—from the neo-surf music in Reservoir Dogs to the creamy, sleazy pop on the two Kill Bill albums to Django Unchained, which is probably the best. But it can happen anywhere.

In the order they occurred to me:

Outkast, “Hey Ya!” (2003). As Lou Reed once said, when you first heard this song you felt as if you could listen to it forever—“And then you kind of had to.” But endless airplay didn’t wear the song out, it only revealed equally endless layers of play, emotion, and a life being lived: the cool comedy of the verses always falling into what seemed like the unalloyed joy of the chorus. And it was in the chorus that, after weeks, months, never, provided its own drama: the way the first “Hey ya” was nothing but a smile, the way the second pulled away from the first, with a dying fall of regret, loss, uncertainty, doubt. There is a whole history of American music in this song—minstrelsy, wild and fast L.A. doo-wop (the Jewels’ “Hearts of Stone,” the Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz Buzz Buzz”), Bob Dylan’s carnival sound (“I Want You”), Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—and also prophecy: a sound and a feeling the Roots will probably always be looking for.

Bo Diddley, “Say Man” (1959). Even by 1959, after Little Richard, after “The Book of Love,” I didn’t understand how anything this ridiculous—so ridiculous it was, somehow, pure anarchy, an epistemological proof that neither government nor society did, in fact, exist—was allowed on the public air. Now, long after learning that this was just a Top 40 version of the dozens, of The Signifying Monkey, of a harmless African-American insult ritual going back to forever, I still don’t.

Greil Marcus

Rolling Stones, “Gimmie Shelter” (1969). It’s been on the radio for 45 years and hasn’t lost anything. It’s kept up the with times, or the times are still chasing it. And I knew that would be the story from the first time I heard it.

Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (1958). For me, proof that music—the language everyone was speaking, that everyone though was sufficient to say whatever needed to be said—could change overnight. The day before, whatever was on the radio sounded just right. The day after, it sounded old, tired, and fake. The same thing happened with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Hockey “Song Away” (2009). I heard it sitting outside a shoe store in Minneapolis. I caught a few words, maybe the title phrase, but mostly a smile that I couldn’t get out of my head. Thanks to the internet, I could track it down and play it a dozen times in a row. I still couldn’t get it out of my head. Whenever I think about it, I still can’t. That’s what rock & roll is for.

 

Portrait by Rich Black based on the original photo by Thierry Arditti

Weekend Reading: Spies, Diggers, Some Murderers, and a Prig

As Chris mentioned last week, spring has been beautiful in Seattle, but the weather is starting to get dark out here. Apparently, so are we. Here's what each of us will be taking a look at over the weekend. 

Happy Friday!

 

Lives in Ruins Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

Sara Nelson: No, not an analysis of my carton-filled, not-unpacked-but-newly-renovated apartment – author Marilyn Johnson is talking REAL ruins, like the kinds archaeologists study. Johnson wrote the absolutely delightful The Dead Beat, about obituary writers, and then she showed the world how interesting and forward thinking (it’s true!) librarians can be, in This Book is Overdue! Johnson, a longtime magazine writer and editor, has a buoyant voice and slightly loopy sensibility, and I can just see her schmoozing up some archeological prospectors and getting to the bottom of what drives them to dig. (November 14)

 
Astoria

Astoria by Peter Stark

Jon Foro: I'm taking the opportunity to catch up with something that came out ALL THE WAY BACK IN MARCH. I'm not sure why I passed over this then, but Peter Stark's account of the mad rush to open the international fur trade--just a few years after Lewis & Clark--is spellbinding for the audacity of John Jacob Astor's ambition and his mission's predictable disasters. It even has a villainous prig named Captain Thorn. Count me in.

Also reading:

 
Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Seira Wilson: This weekend I’m going to do something that’s as rare as hens teeth--I’m reading a book that came out years ago. I’m in the “I loved it” camp for Gone Girl and have heard that Sharp Objects is also fantastic. So I’m taking Sharp Objects, out in paperback in 2007, to a Florida beach for some welcome vacation. A reporter of questionable mental stability who returns to her hometown and estranged family to cover two murders. Psychological twists ensue. I can’t wait.

Other books I’m taking with me to finish or start::

 
A Map of Betrayal

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

Erin Kodicek: A Map of Betrayal by National Book Award-winning Ha Jin is an unconventional spy novel (our international man of mystery’s name is…Gary). In it, a daughter discovers her deceased father’s double life and does a bit of investigating of her own. What comes to light is heartbreaking, and dangerous. (Available November 4)

 

 
My Heart Is a Drunken Compass

My Heart Is a Drunken Compass by Domingo Martinez

Neal Thompson: What I like about Domingo Martinez’s voice is how it cuts right through that line between telling a story that's both awful and awfully funny. His previous book, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a National Book Award finalist in 2012. His new one continues the story of Martinez’s messy Texas family and his own messy attempts to distance himself and create a new life for himself in Seattle. Of course, trouble is always just a late-night phone call away. (Available November 18)

Also reading:

 
The Forgers

The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

Chris Schluep: I’ve got a long flight this weekend, so I’m looking forward to getting lost in a dark murder mystery set against the backdrop of rare books. (Available November 4)

Also reading:

Still reading:

Chasing Paper: The Debt Collection Underground

Bad Paper“Creditors have better memories than debtors.” --Benjamin Franklin

Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think. Falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets, Jake Halpern's Bad Paper introduces us to an economy spanning many shades of gray. Halpern's book tracks the descent of "paper" (spreadsheets containing the information of millions of debtors and their debts) as it's sold for pennies on the dollar by banks and credit companies and passed through a network of collectors. Files are often bought and sold multiple times, each transaction stripping away the best remaining prospects as collectors wring paper dry through all manners of persuasion and coercion. Along the way, Halpern encounters first-hand the game's players, from the financiers at the top of the pyramid to mid-level "brokers" and the ground-level phone-jockeys; these are all hard men within their contexts, as one tale of a Tarantino-grade stand-off over stolen information attests. This book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun.

Read these short biographies of some of the Bad Paper's most interesting players, and check out our Q&A with Halpern below. Bad Paper is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


 Bad Paper's Cast of Characters by Author Jake Halpern

Aaron Siegel: Private Equity Fund Founder

“All of a sudden, you’re swimming in waters you didn’t really want to swim in – never would have conceived you’d be swimming in.” -- Aaron Siegel

Aaron is a banker who made a big gamble. In 2008, he purchased well over a billion dollars worth of unpaid credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar. What he bought, essentially, were just spreadsheets with names, addresses, phone numbers, and balances of debtors. All went well until some of those accounts were stolen and vanished into the debt underworld. Luckily Aaron had someone to call – a fixer named Branson Wilson who knew just what to do. (See below.)

Brandon Wilson: Debt Broker & Fixer

“I will come back down here, I will take your server, I will burn your agency to the ground, I will come to your house and burn it down, and then I will come back here and burn this store down. Understand?” – Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson is a former armed robber who now runs his own collection agency and debt brokerage firm. He also serves as Aaron’s emissary to the collections industry’s many unsavory precincts.

Shafeeq: Debt Collector & Security Specialist

“I can go and shoot a person—an intruder, at your house—and it would be a lot easier to do something like that with the security contract in place. Whereas if I’m just showing up at your house, and I shoot somebody, now there’s a lot more, you know, paperwork.” – Shafeeq

Shafeeq runs one of the collection agencies that Aaron hires to “work” his paper. He is a devout Muslim, who tries to avoid charging interest whenever possible. Shafeeq also runs his own security firm and is licensed to carry a firearm.

Jimmy: Debt Collector from the East Side of Buffalo

“Back when he ran up into my office with that gun, I’ll tell you what, it felt good. My adrenaline was pumping. I wanted to shoot him.” -- Jimmy

After going to jail, Jimmy turned his back on crime and reinvented himself as a debt collector. Even so, sometimes his past catches up with him.

Larry: A Debt Broker Based in Buffalo

“Certain things you don’t want to know, because once you know something, then you become an accessory to it or responsible—so it’s just better not to know, because most of the dealings on the level that we’re on, they’re not legitimate.” – Larry

Larry worked as a debt broker for years and is now trying to make a living as an artist.

Theresa: Debtor

“There are a thousand ways to rip off desperate people. The more desperate you are, and the less you have, the easier it is.” - Theresa

Theresa is a former Marine who fell hopelessly into debt when her marriage ended badly. She paid $2,700 to collectors who claimed to own her debt and then never heard from them again.

 


 

Bad Paper author Jake HalpernQuestions and Answers with Jake Halpern

 

On the surface, debt collection doesn’t seem like the most scintillating topic. How did you get involved with this story?

I know this sounds odd, but this book owes it existence to two people: my mother and Brad Pitt. It began with my mom. She started getting calls from a debt collector over a debt that she didn’t even owe. So I started investigating the debt collections industry and discovered that my hometown – Buffalo, N.Y. – was one of the epicenters. I ended up writing a profile about a collector, from Buffalo, for The New Yorker. After the article comes out, I get a call from Brad Pitt’s producer, telling me that he wants to turn the story into a TV series with HBO. I was shocked. But he was serious. So I end up traveling back to Buffalo, with the screenwriter, and we stay at my parents' house. It was surreal. The screenwriter is staying up on the third floor and my dad and his wife are making meals for him in the kitchen. Anyway, my job on this trip is to line up some interesting people for the screenwriter to meet, so his script feels authentic. Back when I was doing my story for The New Yorker, no one wanted to talk with me. Now, all of a sudden, I am doing a project with “Brad,” and people are tripping over themselves to talk. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y. Needless to say, I was hooked on their story.

What was the most unexpected turn the story took?

There were a bunch of unexpected turns. My favorite involved a character named Shafeeq, who was a smart, charming, gun-toting, black, Muslim polygamist. He is a rather minor character in my story, actually, but he played a pivotal role in one dramatic scene – the showdown with guns – and so I really wanted his perspective. I tried to get him to talk for well over two years, but he refused. Then one day he tells me that he will talk, if I travel to Buffalo and meet him at his mosque on the East Side of Buffalo. So I go. I show up at the mosque at sundown and, almost immediately, this very aggressive panhandler accosts me. Then out of the shadows of the mosque steps Shafeeq. He is ENORMOUS, roughly six and a half feet tall, and weighing more than 300 pounds. The panhandler skedaddles and Shafeeq leads me into his mosque, which is situated in a beautiful old church. We talk for the next three hours. During this time, he give me one of my favorite quotes from the book, which is an impassioned defense of polygamy. He claims that, by being a good father figure to many children in the African American community in Buffalo, he is a powerful force for good, because is modeling good behavior on an exponential level. “You’re Xeroxing righteousness,” he tells me. It’s one of those little, kind of random moments that is just so bizarre, fascinating, and memorable.

The book is filled with rough-around-the-edge characters doing some shady things. Was there any moment you felt uncomfortable, or even at risk?

Just once. I was in the car with a former cocaine dealer, named Jimmy, who had reinvented himself as debt collector. We were on the East Side of Buffalo, which is poor and crime-ridden. Suddenly, Jimmy slams on the brakes, bolts out of the car, and leaves me sitting there for the better part of ten minutes. When he finally returns to the car, Jimmy tells me that he had just spotted a guy he knew, who had recently pulled a gun on him. Jimmy had apparently chased after him but not found him. At that moment, Jimmy was shaking with rage. I just sat there in the car with him, saying nothing while he regained his composure. It was a tense few minutes.

You describe some of the collectors engaging in some dubious practices in order to collect on debt, especially where it comes to taking advantage of debtors’ ignorance (with regard to collection law and their rights) and collector tactics such as bullying. Do you expect reform in this business, and do you hope your book plays a part?

I do hope things change. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be issuing new rules that will – hopefully – change the way the consumer debt is bought, sold, and collected upon. And yes, I am hopeful that my book may help shed some small amount of light on the seedier corners of the industry. But ultimately, the ability of the CFPB to clean up this industry will also hinge on policing. Currently it is policing about 175 of the biggest agencies in the business. Yet according to recent industry estimates, there are well over 9,000 collection businesses in America. That’s a lot of ground to cover. So I am hopeful, but I am also doubtful that the industry will be fixed overnight.

Name three of your most influential writers or books.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann. Grann is a superb nonfiction writer. The number of amazing stories he finds, on a regular basis, is mind-blowing.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover. Conover is simply the best reporter I have ever encountered.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. This is a swashbuckling adventure tale involving Vikings. I love Vikings.

Next project, or current obsession?

I am weirdly interest in jailbird lawyers. I like the idea that there are a few prisoners who have studied the law, become erudite, and are helping work on cases. I am currently scouting out a story involving one of them.

In addition to your nonfiction, you co-authored a couple of well-received young adult novels. How’s that different? Do you plan more?

This is true. The biggest difference here – other than the fact that I write about haunted woods and iceberg fortresses – is that I co-write the books with my friend Peter Kujawinski. We wrote the first book in our Dormia series in 2009. Around that time, I was living on Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, which remains one of the most remote and sparsely settled regions in the continental United States. From my desk, in our tiny ranch house, I watched prairie dogs frolic and tumbleweed blow across the street. Meanwhile, my co-author – Peter – was serving as an American diplomat in Paris. His environs could not have been more radically different. Peter, known simply as “Kujo” by friends and family alike, inhabited a sprawling three-bedroom penthouse with stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. What united us, however, is that we were both twelve-year-olds at heart and wanted to make up imaginary worlds involving magical cities nestled in the mountains. So we started writing the Dormia series. And we just signed a two-book deal with Putnam / Penguin to start a new series. The first book, Nightfall, should be out in about a year.

Hollywood, Behind the Camera

Hollywood Frame by FrameThe following is excerpted from Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen in Contact Sheets, 1951-1997.

Introduction, by Author Karina Longworth

In the pre-digital era, contact sheets offered a quick, visual summary of a photo shoot, and photographers, editors, and even subjects would make marks directly on the printed contact sheet pages to signify which images should be printed (and which absolutely shouldn't), how they should be cropped, and whether or not more shooting was needed. Once a frame of film was exposed, it couldn't be deleted, so contact sheets always include "mistakes" -- moments which the photographer, or the subject, may not want anyone to see. The contact sheets in Hollywood Frame by Frame are interesting for all of these reasons, and more. Most movie stars are given approval over which images of themselves are used for publicity purposes, and from the 1950s through the 1970s, the key way stars approved images was by making marks on contact sheets. Publicity departments, too, would use contact sheets to select the right, and wrong, ways to present the images representing a specific film or star. In allowing a glimpse into which images of stars like Grace Kelly, Cary Grant and James Dean commercially useful and which weren't, these contact sheets tell stories about how star personas are invented, while also exposing aspects of the individual celebrities' personalities which the entire industry of celebrity myth-making usually tries to squeeze out. 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany's (Paramount/The Kobal Collection/Howell Conant)
 
Bus Stop
Bus Stop (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
 
Giant
Giant (© Sid Avery/mptvimages.com)
 
Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar (Photo by Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West (Photo by Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
 
Raging Bull
Raging Bull (Christine Loss)
 
Rear Window
Rear Window (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
 

Weekend Reading: Dames, Games, and Ghosts

As we put the finishing touches on our October reading and our Best of the Books of the Month lists, our attention turns to November as we try to get a jump on reading for the next round. (This good feeling of "being ahead" lasts about a week.) Here are a few things that we'll be taking a look at over the weekend. Happy Friday!

 

A Sudden Light

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

Neal Thompson: Set almost entirely inside a crumbling mansion outside Seattle, this is a sprawling, big-hearted story about a boy, his woe-is-me father, his creepy-hot aunt, his demented grandfather, and the ghosts of his timber family’s past. For fans of Stein’s mega-bestseller, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and it’s four-legged hero/narrator, Enzo, this might not be the follow up you were expecting. It's got ghosts, not dogs. But in my view, that’s a good thing, and a bold move by Stein not to write Enzo II. (Available September 30)

Also reading:

 
Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong

Chris Schluep: I first read her book, Islam, about a decade ago. I followed that up with A History of God, which as much as any other source has informed my understanding of religion. In her new book, Armstrong traces the relationship between religion and violence through history—but her thesis is not what you might expect. She does not see a deep correlation between the two. That’s counter to what it seems most modern people think, which makes this book very interesting reading. She’s a fine, patient writer and super-smart. (Available October 28)

Also reading:

 
Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

Seira Wilson: A suspenseful true crime story about 1920s Hollywood and the birth of the motion picture industry as we know it. In the high stakes world of production, distribution, and stardom, friends become enemies and rivalries run deep. Mann charts the trajectory of the times through the previously unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, and a man with his own deeply buried secrets. Would-be starlets, intoxicating fame, drugs, scandal, and power plays make for a fascinating nonfiction page-turner. (Available October 14)

Also reading:

 
The Game of Our Lives

The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt

Jon Foro: Although it gets a bit tiresome to hear soccer described as "the world's game," that distinction offers the unique opportunity to compare playing styles and leagues across the globe in an almost anthropological way ; i.e. by placing each in context of their economy and culture, they become lenses through which we can examine the larger character and history of a country itself. Goldblatt's book takes a look at England's wildly successful Premier League and its Thatcher-era resurrection from the ashes of hooliganism and tragedy. Also, I just love soccer a lot. (Available November 11)

Also reading:

 

The Observer: David Cronenberg's Consuming New Novel

CONSUMED by David CronenbergAt some point in the late 70s or early 80s, David Cronenberg entered my house (read: my brain) through a late-night, and probably surreptitious, cable screening of Scanners. Like the set-top black box with its two-inch dial that switched the input between SHOWTIME and TV, that movie flipped a switch in my head, with its story of psychics and conspiracies and literally exploding heads. I was, after all, a young man of a certain age (who might have read a lot of horror), and I was hooked into his visions of Mugwumps, Brundleflies, and doppelgänger lady-doctors.

So, though it's been a while since I've checked in with his universe, I was intrigued when I saw an advance copy of his first novel, Consumed. On the top, it's about Naomi and Nathan, a pair of journalists and off-and-on-again lovers, in pursuit of parallel stories: for Naomi, the brutal murder of an iconic French philosopher and her fugitive husband; and for Nathan, the latest research project of Dr. Roiphe, who claimed fame through his discovery of an eponymous STD. At the bottom, they stumble into a strange and unnerving world of body modification, conspiracy, and... 3-D printing. Like many of his characters (again: literally), the story morphs and grows in unexpected directions. It's hard to explain, and it would probably only confuse the issue if I tried. I probably don't have to explain that it's not for everybody. But it's Cronenberg stuff: challenging, ambitious, and incisive in his inimitable way.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with him on the telephone, and I learned some things: Don't call what he does "body horror"; if you think you know what he's thinking, you're wrong; relax, because he's thoughtful and fascinating. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Consumed is available in hardcover and Kindle on September 30.

 

I read the book over the last two days—I really enjoyed it—and I spent yesterday trying to find a succinct way to describe it. It has a lot of the themes of your earlier work: disease and doppelgangers; bugs; self-mutilation and manipulated reality; mysterious powers. It’s called Consumed, and there areseveral kinds of consumption happening in the book. There’s a lot of stuff. How would you describe this book that you’ve written?

I absolutely wouldn’t describe it [laughs]. You’ve done a very good job. Honestly, working on it from the inside out, you don’t start—or at least I don’t start—with a concept, at all. It just grew organically from the characters; it has thriller elements and so on, but I don’t think it really qualifies as a thriller. It has even some slight sci-fi elements, but I wouldn’t at all call it sci-fi. Though, obviously, you can see connections with my movies, but it didn’t feel like to me. It felt completely different. So I’m really at a loss to describe it myself, other than to present the book itself. I think I’m really too much inside it to have that persepective.

It includes, in a big way, a lot of that “body horror” of your earlier work. Sex and disease, and now cannibalism. Did you intend you return to that, or is it something that just happened?

“Body horror” is an expression that somebody came up with, and I’ve never used it, myself. And I actually don’t even think it’s accurate, because it’s not really a question of horror; it’s a question of almost wonder. It’s always been my feeling--first subliminally, and then explicitly--that the first fact of human existence is the human body, and that that is what we are. So much of art, and particularly religion, tries to steer away from that reality, or that understanding, and suggests that we must transcend the body--that we can live outside the body after the body dies, even. The afterlife and so on. I’ve never believed any of that.

If you’re going to be examining the human condition--what it is to be a human being, which is maybe the most broad definition of art that you can have--you immediately have to deal with the reality of the human body, in some way or another. And of course, if you’re a painter or a filmmaker, someone in the visual arts, the thing that you are dealing with the most is the human body. As a filmmaker, that’s what we photograph the most: the human body. That’s the essence of what we do. So, to say “body horror,” to me, is completely diminishing and a simplistic version of what my concerns are.

Some people--[for] my interest in insects, because they find insects kind of creepy or scary or whatever--call it “insect horror.” [laughs]. But to anybody who loves insects, who is fascinated by them and thinks they’re wonderful, horror is completely the wrong word. So that’s how I feel about this “body horror thing.” I think it’s a misnomer. ... Everybody’s obsessed with their bodies in one way or another, whether it’s in the context of sexuality, or it’s in the context of growing up, or it’s in the context of aging, as I have been doing myself. That’s why I think that it’s a shorthand that is too short. It’s misleading, actually.

You intertwine the physical elements of the story with a lot of commentary on consumerism, that very obviously ties into the title. You write at one point, “Consumerism and the internet had fused.” What are you trying to say about the effect of that sort of ubiquitous availability of everything, of instant gratification?

I’m saying many things, and it’s hard to summarize. And in a way, I’m really being an observer, rather than a critic or commentator, through my characters. I have a couple, a French philosophy couple who are modeled somewhat on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and their philosophy is an attempt to redeem consumerism. It’s very easy to demonize consumerism, they feel, and to say it’s a bad thing. But they are saying, No, it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a very human thing, and a good thing. And that it inspires passion and obsession and focus on creativity, and human creativity, and the creativity involved in creating consumer items, and so on. Now, in some way I’m satirizing them. But in another way I’m saying, But you know, they could have a point. In other words, this isn’t a book with messages for the world. It’s really a question of observing and meditating on things and trying to find the reality and the truth that are actually quite complex, and cannot be boiled down.

That’s similar to your films in that you don’t just stop at one or two ideas. Often they just keep going; where you think you’re going to find some kind of resolution or meaning, they actually keep exploring deeper into the void.

Well, it’s because I feel that there are no absolutes. It’s very difficult to find to find something that’s an absolute. In fact, there probably is no such thing. Even the question of What is reality? And certainly that is dealt with in the novel, as well. Especially as it’s communicated by the Internet: The reality as mediated by the Internet is a very iffy thing. But I say, to the extent that reality is neurology, the Internet makes perfect sense. You know, you’re sitting in a room, you have your pet dog at your feet. You’re both occupying the same space in the room, basically. But there are two completely separate realities there: the dog’s reality and your reality. If you were suddenly in the dog’s head, and had the dog’s sense of smell, and hearing and particular kind of vision, suddenly reality would be a completely different thing for you. And of course, people use drugs and alcohol and so on in order to derange their neurology so that they occupy a different reality. Reality is actually not an absolute; it’s a variable for each sentient being. And the Internet makes that a really, really kind of obvious, forceful thing because, as we know, reality as presented by the Internet is incredibly variable and deceptive. The interesting thing for me about writing a novel is that there was—compared with movie making—a lot more freedom.

David Cronenberg by Myrna Suarez

Is there something about the novel form that facilitated the story, more than film?

I could not have made—I would not have done this—as a movie. The structure, for example. There’s a 40-page section where Aristide Arosteguy [the Sartre character mentioned above—ed.] gives you a first-person monologue. You can’t do that in a movie. You’d have to find some other cinematic structure for it. And I find screenwriting is a really strange hybrid kind of writing, because the only thing you write in a screenplay that actually—literally—gets up on the screen is the dialogue. It’s a very rigorous, compressed, demanding form, which does not encourage kind of intimacy and great expressiveness and discursiveness. It’s like a haiku as opposed to an epic poem. ... And I found that writing a novel was much closer to directing than it was to writing a screenplay, because you cast it, you do the costumes, you do lighting, you do the editing, you do the music. None of those things you actually do in a screenplay, because you have a whole crew that’s going to do that stuff for you. So, for example, nobody likes you to describe in really great detail what somebody’s wearing, or what their face looks like, because you’re going to cast somebody who doesn’t look like that. And you’re going to have a costume designer who doesn’t want to do what you suggested in the screenplay. So you leave that stuff out. It’s a very strange hybrid kind of writing, screenwriting, and I felt very freed to move around within the world of the novel. And when I finished it, I thought, Yeah, of course the next step is to make a movie out of this book. And then I thought, But you know it wouldn’t be easy. In fact, you’d kind of have to completely change your approach to it because it isn’t really all that amenable to the screen form. And then, I finally thought, I actually don’t want to make a movie out of this book, because I’ve done it already. I would be bored, you know? It’s like trying to put it into a tiny container that just can’t absorb the entire… all the fluids.

That would be an intense movie. Speaking of moving around inside the novel, another kind of consumption in the book is consumer electronics. And it occurred to me that they are electronics that consumed their users, and your characters are obsessed with them, at least Nathan and Naomi. You have a lot of detailed descriptions about lenses and ISOs and things like that, so your characters kind of see the world through their lenses and their devices.

They do.

Is that, in any way a surrogate for yourself as a filmmaker in creating this book?

I don’t think so, although… No, I really don’t think so. It probably has more to do with my own techno-obsession. I’ve always been a geek. I couldn’t wait to get rid of typewriters and get into word processing; I couldn’t wait to get rid of film and get into digital. ... I’m happy with the way all of those things have developed. But of course, my understanding of technology is that it is, however complex, an extension of our bodies and our brains. Even when it comes to massive war machines. And so it’s natural that the technology comes back and sort of burrows back into us, because it is us.

In the 50s in sci-fi, there was a lot of the perspective that technology is inhuman and dehumanizing. But I always thought that was wrong, because it is only human: We are the only ones who create technology that way. And so it is an expression of every aspect of ourselves, the good parts and the bad parts. Nathan and Naomi are just doing what comes naturally, to allow their nervous systems to fuse with digital technology. Because without thinking about it that way necessarily, they recognize it as themselves. It’s sort of the return of the technological extension: It kind of curves back and fuses with us again. And of course, kids who are younger even than you [full disclosure: I am 46, ahem--ed.], never mind me, it’s even more obvious. I mean, a three-month old playing with an iPad. They can do it.

I don’t have a critic’s perspective in that I’m illustrating this in order to show you how bad it is. I’m just illustrating it. I’m just commenting on it. I’m observing it. And I’m not tipping it one way or the other, but I’m letting my characters tip it one way or the other as it affects their lives. It has all the good and the bad of what it is to be human. And so some of it is really great and good and creative and positive, and some of it is really hideous. [laughs] As we see every day on the Internet.

There are often behind-the-scenes agencies in your work, and this time it’s North Korea, which is a fascinating place right now.

That’s a first for me, really, because it’s an actual entity. Usually I invent those.

What was it about North Korea?

It’s strange. It kind of popped up organically and spontaneously from the section [from the book] of the Cannes Film Festival; suddenly there was a North Korean film there, and it just sort of sprouted from there. But of course, I’m always exploring the ways that human beings create reality, shape reality for themselves. The characters in Crash created a strange subterranean underground reality for themselves. And of course, religions do that. Cults do that. You even see brand cults...

So obviously there’s an innate human desire to create sort of a communal reality. In my movies, I’ve been dealing with it on a small scale, small conspiracies, relatively speaking. But suddenly you have North Korea, which is a whole country where a kind of artificial reality has been created. Of course, all totalitarian countries do that, in one way or another. I knew the story about the kidnapping of the film director by the Korean president. It just all sort of clicked, and suddenly there was this strange North Korean element. But it does connect with all those other communal, reality-creating groups that I’ve dealt with.

While reading this, you sense or you want to sense, influences that you might have had. American Psycho came to mind for its brand obsessions. Poe, because I felt this really strong House of Usher thing with the Roiphes [a father-daughter pair with a strange relationship and one really strange compulsion]. And Gibson, for all of his bio-techno stuff. Are there books or authors that are top of mind for you when you think about your filmmaking and writing?

You know, I think I’m beyond the point where I could be influenced by current writers. I think my literary tastes were formed very early on. So, I go back to Nabokov and to Burroughs. But I read [past tense] a lot of sci fi. ... There are so many influences in one way or another. It’s the question of Is it really an influence, or are we both being influenced by the same things in the zeitgeist, you know what I mean? I can’t really sort out what is an influence or what is just We’re on the same wavelength.

Videodrome, for example. I think it, in fact, has influenced a lot of the people that later might be considered to have influenced me. It’s a tangle, and it’s very organic--it’s like the neurons tangled in your brain. [laughs] I don’t mean to say this in order to suggest that I’m beyond influence, but when it comes to writing a novel, I’m more influenced by prose style and so on. And I wondered what my voice would be; I had no idea. It just came out, and I have no idea what it might remind somebody of. But in terms of the content--as opposed to the way it’s expressed on the page--[it was] formed long ago, I would say.

With your work, I’ve often been compelled to laugh. Often it’s real uneasy laughter, of course. Is humor intentional?

Oh, I hope so. If it’s not, then I’ve really screwed up. [laughs] No, I mean, there’s a famous incident where someone at Cannes asked me Have you ever considered doing a comedy? And I’ve said I don’t think I’ve done anything but comedy. All of my movies are funny, certainly on one level or another. That’s another reason why the whole “body horror” thing has to be very minimalistic. And I would say Consumed is definitely a really funny book. It’s dry humor in some ways, I would say. I think it’s kind of tender and sensitive and quite passionate. ... In any case, there is humor everywhere in the book, on every page. Definitely.

Meet the Birds of Pandemonium

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

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

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

 

Meet Some of the Birds of Pandemonium

 

 Tico, Blue and gold macaw

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

Tico, Blue and gold macaw

Tico, Blue and gold macaw


Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

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

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

Gwen & Lancelot, Green-naped pheasant pigeons

 

Continue reading " Meet the Birds of Pandemonium" »

Weekend Reading: First Impressions of Upcoming Books

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

 

Bad Paper

Bad Paper by Jake Halpern

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

Bad Paper will be available October 14.

 
Prince Lestat

Prince Lestat by Anne Rice

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

 
The Remedy for Love

The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach

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

The Remedy for Love will be available October 14.

 
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

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

 
Without You, There Is No Us

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 


Matt Richtel on A Deadly Wandering

How did you come to the story of Reggie Shaw?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Matt Richtel (photo: Meredith Barad)

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll mention three books and writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Notes on a handful of images:

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

Exclusive: Senator John McCain Reviews Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Patton"

Senator John McCainThrough their series of best-selling books--including Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot and Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever--Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard have revisited the sudden, unexpected deaths of several of history's most significant figures, and how those terrible events echoed across time and the world. We are honored to present this guest review by Senator John McCain of the latest volume, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General.

Senator McCain is the author of several books, including Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir and Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War, due in November 2014.


In Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have written a lively, provocative account of the death of General George S. Patton and the important events in the final year of the Allied victory in Europe, which Patton’s brilliant generalship of the American Third Army did so much to secure.

The fourth book in the bestselling Killing series is rich in fascinating details, and riveting battle scenes. The authors have written vivid descriptions of a compelling cast of characters, major historical figures such as Eisenhower, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and others, as well as more obscure players in the great drama of the Second World War and the life and death of Patton.

O’Reilly and Dugard express doubts about the official explanation for Patton’s demise from injuries he suffered in an automobile accident. They surmise that the General’s outspokenness about his controversial views on postwar security, particularly his animosity toward the Soviets, our erstwhile allies, might have made him a target for assassination. They cast a suspicious eye toward various potential culprits from Josef Stalin to wartime espionage czar “Wild Bill” Donovan and a colorful OSS operative, Douglas Bazata, who claimed later in life to have murdered Patton.

Certainly, there are a number of curious circumstances that invite doubt and speculation, Bazata’s admission for one. Or that the drunken sergeant who drove a likely stolen truck into Patton’s car inexplicably was never prosecuted or even reprimanded. But whether you share their suspicions or not this is popular history at its most engrossing.

Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly From accounts of the terribly costly battle for Fort Driant in the hills near Metz to the Third Army’s crowning achievement, its race to relieve the siege of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, the reader experiences all the drama of the “great crusade” in its final, thrilling months.

The authors’ profiles of world leaders and Patton’s contemporaries are economic but manage to offer fresh insights into the personalities of well-known men. Just as compelling are the finely wrought sketches of people of less renown but who played important parts in the events.

There is PFC Robert Holmund, who fought and died heroically at Fort Driant having done all he could and then some to take his impossible objective. PFC Horace Woodring, Patton’s driver, who revered the general, went to his grave mystified by the cause and result of the accident that killed his boss. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s young son, Manfred, exchanged a formal farewell handshake with him after learning his father would be dead in a quarter hour, having been made to commit suicide to prevent the death and dishonor of his family.

These and many other captivating accounts of the personal and profound make Killing Patton a pleasure to read. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in World War II history and the extraordinary man who claimed Napoleon’s motto, “audacity, audacity, always audacity,” as his own.

Work Worth Doing: "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"

The RooseveltsFor more than 30 years, through an impressive collection of highly acclaimed, long-form documentary films, Ken Burns has established himself as one of the premier chroniclers of American history. Geoffrey C. Ward has been his collaborator on many of these projects--including The Civil War, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, and Baseball--and the co-author of the lavish books that accompany them.

This Sunday (September 14) marks the debut of their latest effort, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on PBS. Ward is no stranger to the subject, having written several books on FDR, including Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament, and the new companion book lives up to the high standards of its predecessors.

We asked Ward about his partnership with Burns, the new book, the Roosevelts, and how they might fare in today's political environment.

(The photos below are excerpted from The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.)

 


 

You’ve collaborated with Ken Burns on so many touchstone documentaries, The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc. How did your partnership come about?
    
I had left the editorship of American Heritage and was beginning a new career as a writer some 32 years ago, when Ken invited me up to Walpole, NH to view a film he was making on the Shakers. We hit it off and he asked me if I’d consider writing a film script. I didn’t know enough to say no and so wrote “Huey Long.” I loved the work and the collaboration and we’ve been at it ever since.
 
What’s the extent of your involvement with the film side? Do you contribute to the documentaries (and vice versa), and to what extent? Or are you masters of your respective domains?

This really is a collaboration. Ken loves words as much as he loves images. I love images as much as I love words. I’m in the trenches with the rest of Ken’s extraordinary film-making team from beginning to end, writing, rewriting, rethinking, but in the end his word is final. The books we’ve done together are mostly left to me but they wouldn’t exist without the films they accompany.   

 

The Roosevelts


How are the topics of the documentaries chosen? What do you look for in selecting your subject matter?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer. A subject has to say something about who we are as Americans and it has to engage our enthusiasm. Ken loves baseball. I love jazz. Dayton Duncan always wanted to do Lewis and Clark and the National Parks. Lynn Novick became fascinated by Prohibition and then by the Vietnam War, the series on which we’re currently working. One of Ken’s greatest strengths is his fearlessness in taking on big intimidating subjects and then successfully wrestling them to the ground.
 
You’ve written several books about FDR; did any additional research on Teddy and Eleanor Roosevelt change—or add additional context—to your knowledge of FDR?

There have been good films and whole libraries of good books about the individual Roosevelts. In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History  we set out to do something different – to connect the dots, to make it clear that it was no accident that all three belonged to the same extraordinary clan; that party allegiances aside, far more united than divided them; that without the unforgettable example set by Theodore Roosevelt we would likely never have heard of Franklin or Eleanor.

The new book is different from those we’ve done before. Pictures and text are more evenly balanced; in telling our story each is meant to augment the other. The book is intended for readers of every age but because big, richly illustrated books like this one first drew me to history as a boy, it’s my hope that there are kids out there whose interest in our past will be kindled by this one.

The surprises for me were mostly pictorial – we’ve found photographs and footage never seen before, including my favorite discovery, a truly historic picture in which a young and worshipful FDR watches from the crowd as his celebrated fifth cousin takes the oath of office as president, the first of five presidential inaugurations to have a Roosevelt at the center of things.  
    

The Roosevelts


In some ways they seem like disparate personalities or politicians—Teddy was a Republican, FDR a Democrat. Were there common threads that you discovered, connections that may have seemed unintuitive?

They were undeniably different in style and temperament but in the end it was the similarities and not the differences between them that mattered most to history. They each championed the working man and earned the enmity of the well-to-do among whom they’d been raised to manhood. Both loved people and politics and took action to preserve America’s natural heritage. Theodore and Franklin – and Eleanor, as well – overcame handicaps that might easily have destroyed them. And they all believed that the United States had a vital role to play beyond its borders.

But above all, all three Roosevelts shared Theodore’s conviction that national problems demanded national solutions, that the federal government had enormous power to do good, that at its best, government was simply “Us, … you and me.” That may not be a widely shared view these days, but the Roosevelts proved in their time how valid it could be.

 
What characteristics separate them from today’s politicians?

It’s always dangerous to speculate about what leaders from one era would do when confronted by problems faced by leaders in another – though I’m sure Theodore Roosevelt would be astonished to learn that it took more than century to enact a form of the national health care he first proposed in 1912.

I’m afraid that neither Theodore nor Franklin Roosevelt could be elected president in our time – TR because his frenetic energy and shrill delivery would be too hot for television, and FDR because today’s intrusive camera crews would compete to see who could get the most dramatic footage revealing his physical handicap.
 
As T.R.’s niece, did Eleanor, through shared force of personality or convictions, influence FDR’s thinking or policy?

Eleanor’s owed much of her relentless energy and inbred sense of obligation to her beloved Uncle Theodore and was never entirely convinced that her own husband was the greater man. But she had a profound influence on FDR, beginning when she first showed him the harsh reality of tenement life on the Lower East Side and continuing through his presidency when she acted – sometimes to his annoyance – as his progressive conscience.
 
It’s interesting that your collaborations with Burns focus squarely on singularly American experiences (a good series name, if it weren’t already taken). What about the Roosevelts-- taken collectively or as individuals, or both—makes them quintessentially American?

I’m wary of generalizing about national characteristics. But all three Roosevelts did share at least two qualities that I’d like to think are distinctively American – an inbred impatience with ideology and an unwavering belief in a better future for their country.
 
 

The Roosevelts

Weird Science

What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning strikes in the world hit the same place at once? What if there was a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed?  With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. In the same style of his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome and inscrutable in your elementary school days--but were never sufficiently answered. 

Enjoy this exclusive thought-experiment from the author (and it's not even included in the book). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be available in hardcover and Kindle on September 2, 2014.

 

Q: If you built a very smooth ramp from the highest point on Earth (Mt. Everest) to the lowest (Dead Sea), then stood at the top on a rolling office chair, would you roll down? How fast would you go?

So you got bored in a meeting and decided to take your chair for a ride.

What If by Randall Munroe



Bring oxygen tanks. And food.

A ramp connecting Mount Everest to the shore of the Dead Sea would have a very gentle slope of only 1/10th of a degree. If you were standing on it, it would seem flat.

The slope would be so gentle that the chair would need precision bearings or a pneumatic air cushion to reduce friction enough to roll—and even then, air drag would limit you to a terminal velocity of about running speed.

What If by Randall Munroe



You'd also need the ramp to be enclosed. The top of Mount Everest pokes up into the jet stream, a river of hurricane-force wind wrapped around the planet. Unfortunately for you, that wind is going in the wrong direction. Without something to shield you from it, it would blow you back up the ramp.

Ok, let's go!

What If by Randall Munroe



You depart the peak of Everest, trundling slowly west, and the ground falls away beneath you. You glide out over the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas without coming close to touching another mountain.

After two days, you leave the mountains behind and slide across the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

What If by Randall Munroe



You then cross southern Afghanistan and pass into Iran, where you finally sink low enough to breathe without oxygen tanks.

In central Iran, you hit the ground for the first time since you started rolling. Your track intersects a mountainside near the peak of Shahan Kuh. You pass through a convenient tunnel and emerge on the other side.

What If by Randall Munroe



You cross from Iran into Iraq, sinking lower and lower. Because the air is several times denser here than at your starting point, your terminal velocity has dropped from running speed to jogging speed.

A little over two weeks after you started rolling, your ramp sinks low enough to touch the desert. In western Iraq, you fall beneath ground level and enter another tunnel. You cross from Iraq into Jordan over 600 meters below the border.

What If by Randall Munroe



You roll through the darkness for four days, passing completely under Jordan, and finally emerge into the light on the shores of the Dead Sea.

After twenty days, you and your faithful chair have reached the end of your journey from Earth's highest land to its lowest. You take a swim; in the dense saline water, you float much higher than normal. Be careful not to get any in your eyes.

What If by Randall Munroe



And now you should probably get back to that meeting. They'll get mad if you don't return the chair.

What If by Randall Munroe




What If by Randall Munroe

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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