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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

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

"We Should Have Brought More Pemmican." (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)

August 2014 marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out in the Endurance on the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition," a mission to trek 1,800 miles from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea on the far side of the continent, crossing the South Pole on the way. The events are well known. The ship was trapped, eventually sinking under the hull-wrecking pressure of the ice. Shackleton's men were forced to make camp on the floe, drifting on the sea before reaching the barren rock of Elephant Island--more than a year since the boat had first become ice-bound. Only a desperate and heroic effort by Shackleton and a few of his men saved the crew from certain death: a 15-day, rough-water sea journey in a small, ramshackle craft, followed by a 36-hour mountain crossing to reach the whaling stations on the Island of South Georgia.

While Shackleton's tale has earned the most fame over the last century, his is not the only story of a Voyage Gone Very Wrong. Here we present six books chronicling the pitfalls of the age of polar exploration.

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfed Lansing

Widely considered the definitive account of Shackleton's ordeal. Lansing's exhaustive research--including information drawn from interviews with 10 surviving members of the expedition, and the diaries and personal accounts of eight more--resulted in this immediate and engrossing account of disaster, courage, and redemption.

See also:
--South: The Endurance Expedition
--The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander 
 
 

 


In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Amazon's Spotlight selection for the Best Books of August, 2014. Award-winning author Hampton Sides recounts the tale of George Washington De Long and the U.S.S. Jeanette: Sailing out of San Francisco Bay and into the waters of the Arctic, the ship was was abandoned by its crew after becoming locked in the pack ice--setting the stage for a gripping story of perseverance and survival. Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep says Sides has done "a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction."


 
 
 

 Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin ExpeditionFrozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out for the Artic to “penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America.” It didn't work out. Despite the best scientific equipment the day had to offer, the crew and the expedition’s two ships disappeared without a trace. The mystery persevered for more than a century, until the makeshift graves of a few missing sailors were discovered on a remote island, and modern forensics unlocked the grisly secret of their demise: Franklin's expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive the unforgiving landscape. (The link above is for the Kindle edition. A new paperback edition is due in October.)

 

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time ForgotFatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan


Poor John Rae. Perhaps the most successful Arctic explorer of his day, the largely self-taught Hudson Bay man charted thousands of miles of previously unknown territory along the northern Canadian coast in ships, on snowshoes, and canoes. He also uncovered the fate of Franklin's crew. Unfortunately for Rae, Franklin's cabal of dogged supporters suppressed the truth through a campaign of character assassination, effectively obfuscating Rae's achievements for more than a century.

 

 

 

 The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea PartyThe Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Almost everything about the Shackleton expedition went sideways. Sent on a mission to cache supplies for Shackleton's Antarctic traverse, the men of the Aurora were stranded when their ship broke from its moorings during a storm, vanishing into the sea. The Lost Men vividly recounts the two years before they were rescued, drawing on journals to recreate not only the objective hazards they faced, but their mental, emotional, and  interpersonal challenges, as well.

 

 

  

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KarlukThe Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

The Gilligan's Island of all the ill-conceived polar expeditions, with sadly predictable results. A year before Shackleton launched his own wildly-successful-by-comparison voyage, the Karluk--a ship deemed inadequate by it's apparently incompetent captain--set forth to prove the existence of a continent beneath the Arctic ice. They didn't find it. Not just because it doesn't exist, but because their ship was locked in the ice and pushed north before succumbing to Siberian waters. And that's when things got really dark.

Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Jacket Design

Peter Mendelsund, over a long and influential career as a book jacket designer, has added his deft touch to many volumes--many of which would be recognizable to any book lover. Martin Amis, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jo Nesbø, and James Gleick are just a few of the authors to benefit from his work, and his striking jacket for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly contributed to its success. Forget the cliché; a well designed jacket can boost attention for a book of modest expectations, and transform a good book into a phenomenon.

Mendelsund is now the author of two books of his own, both of which consider the visual--and vital--power of literature, but in different ways. What We See When We Read is an examination of the gestalt of reading: How words on the page enter our brains and are internalized, becoming pictures, sensations, and emotions. There are many titles about books and reading, but What We See goes far beyond simple enthusiasm in its search for meaning.

Cover presents some of Mendelsund's most iconic work, illustrating his creative process through early sketches, interior art, and many, many rejected drafts. He has shared some of that insight here, offering examples of his unrealized inspirations, commentary on why they didn't work, and the final results (the drafts are presented first, followed by the finished jacket).

 


The Fallen

by Peter Mendelsund

 

My cover ideas get killed. (Pretty frequently, actually.) Whether killed by dint of a client's caprice (or good sense) or culled by my own hand, a lot of my ideas never make it to the printing press. Here are a few of those which never saw the light of day....

 Plato’s Republic

The obvious thing here was to attempt some version of the allegory of the cave. This, the image below, seemed like a more modern version of same (The "shadows on the wall" that Plato’s cave-dwellers watch is a television—natch). Perhaps, in retrospect, this one was a tad too cool and knowing. It resembles nothing so much as a Vampire Weekend LP. (Though: Is that really so wrong?)

Plato's Republic comp   Plato's Republic final

 

The Castle, by Franz Kafka


My initial idea for a cover for Kafka's The Castle was this impossible chess game below. Kafka's books always seem to me like games in which the protagonists are not privy to the rules.

The Castle comp  

The Castle final

 

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser

I love the drama inherent in a book jacket covering up a book. Lift the jacket—something is revealed. This, the comp below, would have had a three-quarter-sized jacket, which, when slid up, revealed the case beneath. The idea here was to play off Millhauser's title, and somehow represent the same tension between the pleasurable and the hazardous. I also wanted to accomplish this in a cartoon vernacular (one of the great stories of this collections is "Cat 'n Mouse," a kind of existentialist Tom and Jerry). I illustrated this one myself.

Dangerous Laughter comp 1   Dangerous Laughter comp 2
"Dangerous

 

Peace, by Richard Bausch

A gripping, penetrating, little single act drama. The moral quandaries faced by a squadron of US soldiers trudging through Italy in the winter of 1944. The idea here was to make a landscape which, itself, comprises camouflage; as if the war and the world itself had merged. The style here is very mid-century—almost as if Hemingway had written a WWII novel.

Peace comp   Peace final

 

By Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read   Cover

Matthew Thomas Is Going to Carry That Weight

Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the burdens of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.

Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:

What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart.

Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)

 

 

Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)

Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?

It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens—initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who’s born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can’t overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.

I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years—the last eight years—while I wrote.


Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family’s history?


It’s rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn’t entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.


Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?


A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out—unconsciously—of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.


Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.


So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There’s a lot of hype building around it.


It’s been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It’s also amazing to be here because it’s such an unbelievably huge event... it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can’t take it all in at once. But it’s a big thrill to be here.

We Are Not Ourselves

"Crusty Pandy" and the Art of Modern Taxidermy

There is something going on.

Four years ago, we selected Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy as a Best Book of the Month for March 2010. I quote myself: "[Still Life] will tell most readers as much as they need to know about erosion-molded rats and replacement lips, ears, and eyelids, but it's the culture of iron-stomached men (and occasionally, women) that practice the art of skinned carcasses and stretched hides--those who wield 'the calipers and the brain spoons'--that Milgrom's after." She had found that something, and (at least) three new books document it, whatever it is.

First, the historical perspective. Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy depicts what a diorama project might have looked like in Dr. Moreau's classroom: the collected Victorian scenes of an inexpert-yet-dedicated squirrel stuffer, whose children and parlor sitters have been replaced by kittens, rodents, and lambs, many sporting additional heads and appendages. It's a quaint horrorshow.

For aspiring post-mortem engineers, the forthcoming Taxidermy Art: A Rogue's Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself inspires with profiles of visionaries at the cutting edge of biological mash-ups, and instructs with a tutorial on the basics of skinning, degreasing, and mounting. According to professional deviant John Waters, Taxidermy Art is “so appalling, funny, grotesque, weirdly charming, and highly informative that even I was creeped out.” This is getting dark.

But if you're looking for something on the lighter side, Crap Taxidermy celebrates the weirdest of this weird pursuit with the best specimens from "the Internet's largest image depository of crappy and awesome taxidermy": a menagerie of googly-eyed roadkill, cherished pets, and other animals of unknown provenance that's funny in the way that Eraserhead was funny.

Enjoy these selections from Crap Taxidermy (including the titular "Crusty Pandy"), and if you make it all the way through the gallery, be sure to watch the instructional video at the end. It made me eat my words above about the gender dynamics of carcass stuffing.

Happy Friday!

 

Secret Life of Opossums

"Secret Life of Opossums" (pg. 27); Photo by Paul Lim (Flickr: Fudj)

Fox with Eye Transplant

"Fox with Eye Transplant" (pg. 10); Photo by Andrew Murray (Flickr: MrAndrewMurray)

Curtain-Twitching Opossum

"Curtain-Twitching Opossum" (pg. 80); Photo by Kate Perris (Flickr: Dansette)

Continue reading ""Crusty Pandy" and the Art of Modern Taxidermy" »

The Richard M. Nixon Ex-Presidential Library

On the evening of August 8, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon, drowning in scandal and facing almost certain impeachment, announced his resignation as President of the United States. Though he vacated office the following day, Nixon still casts a long, victory-sign-waggling shadow--not just politically, but in the publishing world, as well. Though we'll have to wait another decade for the 50th anniversary and the flood of books sure to come, the Ruby Anniversary offers some interesting new perspectives on the affair, including some from principals of the administration. Here's a look at a few of the most prominent titles.

[Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon Customer Reviews are provided for each title. He said all of these things, but obviously in different contexts.]

 

The Nixon Defense

The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean

As White House Counsel for Nixon from 1970 to 1973, Dean was instrumental in both the Watergate burglaries and their cover-up. He was also the first to turn, plea-bargaining for a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony. In his latest effort, Dean has drawn on his own extensive archive of conversations and documents to answer the titular question.

 

One StarI am not a crook.

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal.

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Richard Perlstein

Though technically a Reagan biography, the follow-up to Nixonland recounts the tumultuous events of the 70s, starting with the resignation. Perlstein contends that rather than leading to a humbler style of politics--which many predicted--they set the stage for Reagan's ascension to the pinnacle of power, as well as his doctrine of American exceptionalism that influences policy to this day. [Note: This book is currently the subject of its own scandal.]

 

 Three StarsBureaucrats.

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist.

The Greatest Comeback

The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by The Patrick J. Buchanan

Nixon's trusted advisor (and eternal loyalist) Buchanan documents Nixon's remarkable revival following his twin disasters of the 1960 presidential and 1962 Californial gubenatorial elections.

 

Five StarsSock it to me?

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
Defeat doesn't finish a man. Quit does. A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.

The Nixon Tapes

The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter

Acutely aware of his position as an important historical figure, Nixon (in)famously outfitted his White House with voice-activated tape recorders. What could go wrong? Luke Nichter's Herculean effort to digitize and transcribe much of the material finally offers a glimpse not only into the events of Nixon's presidency (SALT I, the opening of China, and the landslide re-election), but also the mind of the man in the eye of the storm.

 

Three Stars[REDACTED]

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
[REDACTED]

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes

Bob Woodward calls Ken Hughes "one of America's foremost experts on secret presidential recordings, especially those of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon." In Chasing Shadows, Hughes, drawing on his own extensive research of thousands of hours of declassified recordings, illustrates how events and behavior starting with the 1968 election led to the paranoid strategies that ultimately brought Nixon down.

 

One StarWell...

By Hypothetical Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 2014
I screwed it up real good, didn't I?

All the President's Men

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August Debut Spotlight: "Painted Horses" by Malcolm Brooks

It’s tempting to dismiss Malcolm Brooks’s debut as the latest in a series of American epics treading on Cormac McCarthy territory: The Son, Fourth of July Creek, and The Kept come to mind as recent novels dealing with the darker realities of frontiers, both geographical and personal. Like The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity: in mid-century Montana, a dam project threatens to flood a canyon historically inhabited by Native Americans, submerging thousands of years of Crow history under hundreds of feet of slack water. When the inexperienced Catherine Lemay is appointed to survey the canyon for cultural evidence that could thwart the dam-builders, she assumes one corner of a Faustian triangle with a scheming hydroelectric shill and the mysterious John H, a rugged, reticent horse whisperer who opens the secrets of the country to the young archaeologist. Tangled relationships, difficult decisions, and hard compromises ensue. Decades and continents are spanned, and history unfolds. Maybe we’ve read this before?

But dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks's prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.

Painted Horses is the Debut Spotlight selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for August 2014. Watch our interview with Malcom Brooks at Book Expo America below.

 

Painted Horses

New in Paperback: "Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia

PilgrimsWildernessThough this article was originally published July 16, 2013, we're taking the paperback publication of Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness as an opportunity to revisit one of our favorite books of last year.

 

When the "Pilgrim" family rolled into the old mining outpost of McCarthy, Alaska, they were a sight to behold: Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children--an old-fashioned, piously Christian family from another time, packed into two ramshackle campers. Looking for the space and freedom to live out their lives as they pleased, they were welcomed as kindred souls by the ghost town's few residents. A tad eccentric, they quickly ingratiated themselves into the tiny frontier community through Papa's charisma, their apparent dedication to self-reliance, and occasional family performances of their unique blend of gospel and bluegrass, music that seemed to soar on the conviction of their beliefs. And when they purchased an old mining claim in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with plans to permanently settle there (dubbing it “Hillbilly Heaven”), it seemed the Pilgrim family had come home to the last existing place in America that suited them.

But Hale chafed against the regulations that came with being a National Park inholder, and he quickly adopted an adversarial stance with the NPS, refusing to communicate with or even acknowledge its rangers. Everything went sideways when he bulldozed a road to town across national park lands, stopping just short of McCarthy in an attempt to avoid scrutiny. It didn't work. When the road was discovered by backpackers, NPS agents were fast on the scene and all over the Pilgrims' activities, and suddenly the humble hermit became a lightning rod for property-rights activists in McCarthy, Alaska, and far beyond.

That's where Tom Kizzia entered the story. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, he wrote a series of lengthy articles on the family's struggle with the federal government, and he soon discovered that Papa's past belied the tales he told about himself and his clan. This simple man of faith carried a long, strange, and troubled history: the violent death of his first wife, whom he married when she was 16, and who also happened to be the daughter of Texas governor John Connally; his hippie phase (when he went by the name "Sunstar"), filled with drug-fueled epiphanies and raging outbursts; a contentious relationship with his neighbors in the New Mexico wilderness, who accused Hale of casual disregard for laws that didn't suit his interests (especially the ones related to "Thou shalt not steal"); and worst of all, a dominion over his children that hinted at the most vile forms of abuse. As the situation with the NPS degraded and grew more tense, Hale's behavior became more erratic, driving himself and the entire town toward a denouement worthy of the creepiest Robert Mitchum movies.

With Pilgrim's Wilderness, Kizzia has expanded on his original reporting and written a spellbinding tale of narcissism and religious mania's concussive effects on Hale's family and adopted town, a book that's likely to end up on many year-end Best Of lists. Kizzia answered our questions about Hale, McCarthy, and the town's relationship with the National Park Service.

 

Hale-TwinsHow did you first come to the story of Robert Hale and his family?

This started with a renegade bulldozer in a national park. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, it seemed like a good news story. I’d heard from friends out in McCarthy that this guy, Papa Pilgrim, was stirring up the ghost town. I wanted to go out to his wilderness homestead to meet him and his family of 15 kids. When he heard I had a cabin nearby, he said yes, and suddenly I was tumbling down the rabbit hole.
 
“Papa Pilgrim” was a mess of contradictions: he idolized his FBI father and took advantage of benefits such as food stamps and Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, and yet he vigorously agitated and undermined the federal government, particularly the National Park Service. Were his anti-government convictions honest (if confused), or self-serving and opportunistic?

Mostly the latter. He needed enemies to hold his family together. But he was reflexively anti-establishment. Which makes the FBI dad a rich twist. As for being anti-government while accepting government handouts, Alaskans by and large don’t spend too much time worrying about that contradiction.

Continue reading "New in Paperback: "Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia" »

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