Blogs at Amazon

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

Reading About Climbing with Steve House and Scott Johnson

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Images from the book (click for larger photographs):

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

Justin Merle chucks a lap near Ouray, Colorado

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

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

Gabriel Marquez Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian-born author known for his stories that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality--as well as the lines between tragedy and comedy--has died following a bout with pneumonia. As the author of novels including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, "Gabo" was instrumental in introducing Latin American literature to a worldwide audience, and was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts." García Márquez was 87.

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbit, Write: Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

Updike by Adam Begley It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.

* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters

Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.

 


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley

 

1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.

2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.

4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.

5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!

Pürr for Me: Hardcore Cats and Their Softhearted Keepers

Forget wolves, witches, and Ouija boards. Forget demons and devils. Forget bats, beasts, and black sabbaths. Within the dark hearts of metalheads everywhere live... kitties.

For Metal Cats, Alexandra Crockett entered the homes of these morbid angels--musicians, fans, and promoters--to expose the fluffy underbelly of the metal scene, and the result is a kind of heartwarming. And they're not all black cats, either. Not all of them.

A portion of the proceeds from Metal Cats and a series of benefit shows held along the West Coast will go towards one no-kill shelter in each of the four main cities visited.

 

Metal Cats
Metal Cats

Continue reading "Pürr for Me: Hardcore Cats and Their Softhearted Keepers" »

Case Closed? Art, Cannibals, and the Fate of Michael Rockefeller

Savage-Harvest-jacket-omni“I think I can make it.” In 1961, while on an expedition to collect pieces for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art, Michael Rockefeller and his traveling companion were plunged into the warm waters off New Guinea. The billionaire scion tied two empty gas cans to his body for floatation and swam for shore, and by most accounts, he made it. But what happened there, when he encountered members of the Asmat tribe--a culture marked by ritual violence and cannibalism--has been long debated. Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics. So, did he make it? Read our Q&A with Hoffman and decide for yourself.

Learn more about Savage Harvest, an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for March 2014.

 



What drew you to the mystery of Michael Rockefeller?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael.  In my 20s I saw Dead Birds, the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me.  Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place.  His death took on the quality of myth - Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners - an idea echoed by the press accounts of the time.  Wrote a LIFE photographer, after a day of searching for Michael: "they say if a man falls in the mud he cannot get up without help..."  Which I knew not to be true - the Asmat had been rolling in that mud and spreading it on themselves and walking in it and living in it for 40,000 years.  

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren't alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.  And there was enough about Michael's disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn't a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.


Savage-Harvest-MRBeardedYour book opens with a horrifying, detailed depiction of what might have happened to Michael Rockefeller in 1961, if he had been killed by cannibals. How did you conduct the research for this?

That description is based on the Dutch priest Gerard Zegwaard’s seminal examination of Asmat head hunting practices, published in the American Anthropologist in 1959.  Zegwaard was the first Westerner to spend any time among the Asmat and he spoke the language and delved deep.  Cannibalism was an offshoot of head hunting, an all-important sacred ritual necessary to keep the world in balance and for restoring life in the community, and it was conducted according to formal charters and prescriptions.  It was not random.  If Michael was killed by the men in Otsjanep, as I argue, what happened would have closely followed standard Asmat ritual practice.   

You write, “If I asked anyone about cannibalism, they would acknowledge it. Sure, we used to eat people, now we don’t. They didn’t want to talk about it.” Given the central roles that vengeance and violence played in Asmat culture, is it possible that cannibalism existed in the 1960s, or even later?

Head hunting and ritual cannibalism were still the rule in Asmat in the early 1960s, when Michael disappeared, and there were scattered reports of it well into the 1970s.  

The Rockefeller family resisted the idea that Michael was murdered, and even traveled to New Guinea, in part to dispel the worst rumors. What were the factors that influenced this resistance?

I can’t speak for Michael’s family, but I think they clung to the idea that he disappeared at sea because the Dutch government never told them otherwise and actively denied what it was in fact investigating, and because, of course, the idea of anything else is pretty horrifying.  And they wished to keep everything private, as well.  

Savage-Harvest-SauerDid you seek assistance from the Rockefeller family for the book? Did they participate at all?

I made various efforts to contact Michael’s twin sister, Mary, which all drew a blank.  We have since made contact, but no one from the family helped in any way.

Rockefeller’s disappearance occurred at the moment Asmat society (and similar cultures) was being exposed to the modern world. What were the factors in play, and was Michael’s fate a consequence of that upheaval, at least in part?

Yes, in every way.  Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he personally was not the target, but he was traveling in a culture under siege, one in which all of their most sacred and meaningful activities, the very things that defined them as human beings, were being suppressed, sometimes violently, by a growing tide of Westerners backed up by modern firearms.  Had the Dutch patrol officer Max Lepre not killed the four most important men in the village of Otsjanep in 1958, Michael would be alive today.  And his murder might have become public knowledge at the time if the governments of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United States hadn’t been engaged in a geopolitical struggle over the future of western Papua.  

What was the most dangerous or uncertain moment of your own research?

I only felt in danger once when we were in rough, difficult seas crossing the mouth of the Betsj River.  I never feared for my personal safety from the people, but they intimidated me at first and it was not easy physically or emotionally to be among them at first.  They were hostile to questions about Michael Rockefeller and that was difficult.  I had to learn their language and live with them for a month before I came to understand them.  

Are your heroes journalists, anthropologists, or adventurers? Or journalist-anthropologist-adventurers?  Who are they?

Interesting question.  I’d say I admire most those people who can combine adventure with beautiful writing, whether they call themselves anthropologists or journalists or whatever.  People who can capture not just the physical essence of a place, but the complex emotional lives of human beings, themselves included.  People like Wifred Thesiger or Tobias Schneebaum or even George Orwell.

What were the five (or more) books most influential to your own work?

So hard to narrow it to five!  Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons (beautiful story and narrative with simple, precise writing); John Hersey’s Hiroshima (perfect prose with deep reporting); Capote’s In Cold Blood (the edge of the envelope of the line between fact and fiction); for this book in particular I thought often of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and the way he was able to get inside the heads of the Somalians who attacked the Americans, which I try to do a bit with the Asmat; and last, again for this book, I often thought of lots of great thriller writers in terms of pacing.  It is a complex story, but it’s also a murder mystery and I wanted it to read like one.  

Savage-Harvest-Family

The Quadruple Threat: B.J. Novak

One More Thing"Imagine if George Saunders weren't a genius."

Writer-Producer-Actor-Comedian B.J. Novak stops by the Amazon.com offices to talk about writing, the influence of The Office on his work, and the authors that made the largest impact on his life. Also, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, his debut collection of funny, absurd, and sometimes gloriously strange short stories and vignettes.

Watch to the end of the video to see Novak read Discussion Questions from the book.

 

 

The Best Books About Getting Eaten

Claire CameronClaire Cameron's new novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness. The novel, written in the honest and unfiltered voice of the young girl, is a compact, tense survival story (and as wilderness instructor for Outward Bound and Algonquin Park in Ontario, Cameron knows her stuff); but it's also a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves that propels us through. But the bear. The bear looms large.

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


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

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

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

--Claire Cameron

 

The Grizzly Maze The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Print | Kindle

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

 

 

 

 The Edible WomanThe Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Print

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

 

 

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

Print | Kindle

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

 

 

 

 

 Jaws Jaws by Peter Benchley

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

 

 

 

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

Print | Kindle

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

 

Moby Dick Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Print | Kindle

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

 

 

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

Print | Kindle

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

 

  A Modest ProposalA Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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

 

 

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

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

 

White FangWhite Fang by Jack London

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

 

 

Alive Alive by Piers Paul Read

Print

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

 

 

Life of Pi Life of Pi by Yan Martel

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

Read the Book

The Bear

The Bear by Claire Cameron

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Five More Real-Life Man-Eaters

The Grizzly Maze

The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans

Print | Kindle


The Tiger

The Tiger by John Vaillant

Print | Kindle


The Bear

The Devil's Teeth by Susan Casey

Print | Kindle


The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by John Henry Patterson

Print | Kindle


Savage Harvest

Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

Print | Kindle

Badluck Way: Wolves and Wide Open Spaces

BadluckJacket“Mine might have been a simple, pretty story, if not for the wolves. In late July, they emerged from the foothills....”

Born in Seattle, Bryce Andrews went to Montana's Sun Ranch, at the edge of Yellowstone, looking for wild country, hard work, and the space to figure out what's next. He found the first two, quickly mastering the difficult and occasionally monotonous work of a ranch hand. Things got interesting, however, when a pack of wolves harrows the herd, picking off heads of cattle, and Andrews is compelled to explore the intersection of his conservation-minded ideals and the economic realities of those who make their living from--and inhabit--the land.

Andrews's memoir, Badluck Way, is a timely, artistic accomplishment. His considered-yet-unforced prose evinces the vastness of this piece of the American West, as well as the pace of a rancher's daily existence, where time seems to settle across the open landscape. He aims high for the traditon of writers such as Stegner and Kittredge, and if he doesn't quite achieve those heights with this book, he may very well with another down the line. And it comes at a time when the debate over delisting wolves as an endangered species (and the ensuing "population management") has stirred the interests and emotons of conservationists and land use advocates alike. Andrews understands the tension and its complexity.

Andrews answers our questions about his experience on the ranch and the new book, an Amazon Editors' pick for January in Biographies & Memoirs.

What was the moment when you decided that you wanted to write this book? Was it a larger (or more difficult) project than you imagined?

I started Badluck Way while wintering alone in a small log house on the Sun Ranch. Back then I didn’t think of it as a book. Pushed indoors by the deep, unyielding cold and long nights, I wrote to make sense of my first year as a ranch hand—particularly the difficult bit with the wolves.

Getting the book done and published took six additional years. Yes, it was absolutely a larger and more difficult project than I expected.

One of the central conflicts in the book revolves around the reintroduction of wolves and the toll they take on the ranch and livestock. How would you justify the intentional presence of predators to a cattleman, whose animals and income are at stake? Or would you at all?

I wouldn’t try to talk a traditional rancher into loving wolves. Life’s too short to spend time barking up that tree. No matter how you slice it, ranchers have been forced to shoulder an inequitable share of the burden of reintroduction, while reaping very few benefits. For that reason, I’d also balk at trying to sell him or her on the essential role that wolves play in a wild ecosystem.

Instead, I’d try to show him how much wolves and other wild creatures mean to millions of people living within and beyond the high and rugged valleys of Southwest Montana. These people—some of them, at least—are the ones who buy his or her beef in supermarkets. Just as importantly, they are the ones who fund and direct the work of conservation groups across the West.

I’d hope that even the most stubborn rancher could dredge up some respect for people who oppose irresponsible development and the wholesale depletion of the West’s resources. Such people—I’d say to our dubious rancher—care as deeply for wolves, bears, and other wild creatures as you do for your herds. And here’s the most important part: these recreationists, hunters, and environmentalists are a rancher’s most stalwart allies in preserving the open landscapes essential to wild animals and livestock.

HayMeadow

Even during your one year at Sun Ranch, you could see development encroaching at the borders and even inside the land. How should preservation and development be balanced, if at all? What is the future of wild lands, and why should we care?

I’m certain of very few things these days, but ranching on the ragged edge of man’s range has taught me this: though a farmer or rancher may make poor choices in his or her stewardship of the land, the consequences of such decisions pale in comparison to the threat of development.

For far too long, our recipe for occupying the West has read as follows: Find a wide-skied paradise and fall in love with it. Chop that beautiful, intact, arid landscape into twenty-acre parcels. Fence these, then pimple the hills and benches with modular homes, trailers, and cookie-cutter starter mansions. Pull wire, lay pipe and cut roads as necessary, until the wild expanses we love are trussed up in a net of utilities. When all is said and done, stand on the front porch after twilight, grouse about the yard lights of the neighbors, and remember better days.

This much seems clear to me: Wolves and cattle can, and do, coexist in many our last remote and wild landscapes. It’s not a bloodless peace, and it likely never will be, but it works. The ranchers press on, the wolves keep breeding, and every new spring offers us a chance to avoid the pitfalls of the past. The fragmentation of a landscape, by development or any other means, brings this process of experimentation to a screeching, final halt.

Places like Montana’s Upper Madison are few and far between. Agriculture, when practiced responsibly, can exist in such valleys without destroying the surrounding wilderness. The same cannot be said of dense human inhabitation. So long as the land stays open and sparsely peopled, we reserve the right to pursue a brighter future.

Levi’s or Wranglers? Explain.

Wranglers are good for work, especially work on horseback, because of the placement of the seams and the tough weave of the denim. Wranglers last twice as long as other jeans. Unfortunately, a solid half of that lifespan is required to break them in and dull their weird, ultramarine hue.

In short: Wranglers for work, Levi’s for everything else.


MovingAHerd

What other gear is essential?

FencingPliersFor the most part, a ranch hand requires a small and relatively simple toolkit. Pliers and a wire stretcher are essential, as are a good shovel and a rock bar. My chainsaw sees considerable use, too. A horse is necessary—a good, calm horse with sound conformation and hooves that offer little trouble. The horse’s color doesn’t matter, but I’ve had good luck with bays. Saddle and rope are essential, too, though the rope comes into play less often than one might imagine. At least once or twice a year, a simple, durable rifle proves indispensible.  

There are other, larger things, too—backhoes, tractors, trucks, ATV’s, trailers and the like—but they generally belong to the ranch, rather than to the ranch hand.

What are the books (or writers) that made you want to become a writer yourself?

From its outset, my desire to write has been nurtured by great teachers, particularly Don Snow of Whitman College and Phil Condon of the University of Montana.

That said, I admire many writers. Here are some, but not all of them, in no particular order. Aldo Leopold, Mark Twain, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Paul Theroux, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Paul Shepard, Richard Hugo, Bruce Chatwin, Loren Eiseley, and Maurice Sendak.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope that they take from the book something similar to what I took from the Sun Ranch—a deep appreciation for the work of ranching and an equivalent sympathy for wild animals like the wolf.

What was your scariest wilderness experience?

While crossing alone through a deep and claustrophobic bog, my horse plunged headlong into a sinkhole full of mud, deadfall and standing water. One moment I was riding without a care in the world, and then we were in the mire. The horse thrashed madly to get free, threatening to crush me or lay himself open in the process.

The worst of it was getting out. I had to go ahead of the horse, leaping from one little patch of solid ground to the next, and then tugging at the reins to bring him along. The horse was terrified, and therefore dangerous. As he jumped wide-eyed from hummock to hummock, hurdling downed trees and landing close behind me, we played a high-stakes game of follow the leader.

At best, I stayed half a step in front of him. Once, when I hesitated for a beat too long before bounding out of the way, his hooves clipped down along my heel, missing flesh by fractions of an inch and slicing a wide half-circle of rubber from the back of my boot.

What advice would you give to an aspiring ranch hand?

Work hard. Preserve a gentleness of spirit. Cultivate the quality of gumption. Notice when the light falls beautifully across the land.

SunRanchNorthEnd

 photos courtesy Bryce Andrews

Little Failure: Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book

LittleFailureLife is hard enough. Life may be even harder when when you're born in the Soviet Union, you're skinny and asthmatic, and you move to the United States at age seven, and change your name from Igor to Gary. You struggle to find your place as you shuffle between your old Russian life and your new American expectations, so much so that your mom coins--and liberally applies--a kind of Russian/English portmanteau: Failurchka, or "Little failure." I love you, too, mom.

And it stuck. Little Failure, Shteyngart's new memoir of youth and young manhood, packs the same mix of poignancy, humor, and pathos that infused Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan, the novels that made him one of the most celebrated working portrayers of awkwardness and alienism.

Shteyngart has given us exclusive access to a priceless memento of his life so far: Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book. It's a revealing look at the events that made him into the man--and the writer--we love today.

(Click the pictures to see larger images.)

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Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book: Page 1 Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book: Page 1 Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book: Page 1
Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book: Page 1 Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book: Page 1 Gary Shteyngart's Baby Book: Page 1

The Top Five Humans of New York

HONY-OMNIBrandon Stanton's thousands of not-quite-candid street portraits of New Yorkers (and accompanying captions, usually from the subjects themselves) have made his Humans of New York blog both poignant and extremely popular--as well as garnering him recognition as one of Time magazine's 30 People Under 30 Changing the World. His book of the same title collects 400 of his best portraits, telling small stories that are outsized in their humor, candor, and humanity. It was also our number one pick for the best books of the year in Photography.

Here are Stanton's own top five favorite images, accompanied by his own words. Click on the images to see larger versions, and learn more about Humans of New York. It also makes a wonderful gift for any of the humans in your life.

 

 

 


1) Ironically, some of the best quotes come from the people who have the least amount of time to talk to me.  She told me: "I can't talk, because these shadows are changing every second."  Normally I'm a bit downtrodden if I'm unable to interview a subject, but I thought her 'brush-off' was the perfect complement to the photo.  Centralpark-4847

 


2) I always cite this photo as representing the most emotional interaction that I've ever had on the street.  I came across this 100 year old woman just south of Central Park.  She was walking in a rainstorm with a very bright umbrella.  After I took her photo, I got under the umbrella with her, and asked her for one piece of advice.  She said: "I'll tell you what my husband told me when he was dying.  I asked him: 'Mo, how am I supposed to live without you?'  And he told me: 'Take the love you have for me and spread it around.'"

Midtown-3881 


3) I was walking through Chelsea one morning when I noticed someone rolling around in the middle of the street.  Of course I started running toward the scene, and when I arrived, I found this drag queen.  Apparently she had been performing a song at a nearby bar, and at the climax of her performance, ran into the street and threw her tips into the air.  I joke that this photo captures more elements of New York than any other I've taken.Edit-8986 

 


4) I love this photo because of the variety of expressions that I managed to capture.  I found these kids in the Lower East Side, making the most of a hot summer day.  Right before I took the photo, one of the kids leaned a little too far forwards and started spilling water from the pool.  This created a variety of different responses from his fellow swimmers.Les-4598 

 


5) The young boy seemed so unwilling to participate in the portrait, that at first it seemed like a photo would be impossible.  But his shyness ended up coming through beautifully, creating a portrait of the relationship between mother and son.IMG_1560

 

 Learn more about Humans of New York.

 

 

Best of the Year in Nonfiction

Top three questions that customers asked me during the incalculable hours I spent standing behind the registers in bookstores:

Q. I was in here about a month ago and you had a book on the corner of this table. Do you still have it? I think the jacket was blue.

A. [No answer. Suggest the latest John Grisham/Sue Grafton/James Patterson book, whichever was closest to blue.]

Q. Do you have that book that was on TV?

A. Yes.

Q. Where do you keep the nonfiction?

A. Everywhere, man.

Nonfiction, man. It is defined by what it is not. It's both meaningless and whatever you want it to be (except fiction). Somehow, it is also my favorite category. Here is a closer look at three of our picks for the best books of the year in Nonfiction.

Thank You for Your Service Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel

How do you make war personal? It’s not easy, especially when writing about a war that the public has basically given up on (or was never that interested in to begin with). Descriptions of violence that most of us will never see can lose their potency and trail off toward the abstract; it happens in even the best novels and nonfiction. But what David Finkel has done is to follow the troops home from Iraq to cover their “after-war.” Their struggles and suffering back in the States are easier for us to relate to, and Thank You For Your Service is an absolutely mesmerizing account of the pain and hope that they carry from day-to-day. Learn More
Pilgrim's Wilderness

Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia

When Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children moved into the old mining outpost of McCarthy, Alaska, they were welcomed as kindred--if eccentric--souls by the ghost town's few residents. But after purchasing an old mining claim in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Hale chafed against the regulations that came with being a inholder, and the humble hermit became a lightning rod for property-rights activists in Alaska and beyond. Expanding on his original reporting for the Anchorage Daily News, Kizzia has written a nearly unbelievable tale of narcissism and religious mania, building toward a denouement reminiscent of Night of the Hunter and Robert Mitchum’s own creepy and deranged preacher. This book somehow flew under the radar this year, but everyone who's taken my recommendation on it has had their mind blown. Learn More

Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm

Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm by Monte Reel

In 1856, the gorilla was still the quasi-mythical njena of the Western imagination: a savage, bloodthirsty beast dwelling deep in the forests of equatorial Africa. Paul Du Chaillu set out to bag one in the name of science--and as a shortcut to academic credibility--but he could not have foreseen that he and his stuffed specimens would become unlikely pawns at the center of the burgeoning debate over Darwin's theory of evolution. In the meantime, Du Chaillu's reputation as a death-defying killer of monsters granted him celebrity status and lifted the often bewildered hero to rarified levels of London society. With the unlikeliest of heroes at its center, Between Man and Beast is a fast-paced and fun blend of adventure and history. Learn More

NB: Though Between Man and Beast is now available in paperback (and I've linked to it here), I've used the hardcover image for its awesome depiction of an angry gorilla bending a rifle barrel in half.

Read more in our free Best Books of 2013: Reader's Guide, which you can download now for your Kindle. It features interviews, essays, excerpts, and other fun extras about the year’s top 20 titles: Donna Tartt talks about her eating habits while writing The Goldfinch; David Finkel discusses the emotional impact following the 2-16 infantry battalion in Thank You for Your Service; and much more.

The Best of the Year in Arts & Photography

What to do with Arts & Photography?

In previous years, we Amazon editors crafted a single, 10-book list, cramming in everything that fits our liberal definition of "Arts & Photography": Art, Photography, Fashion, and Architecture. Of course, that was insufficient, ridiculous. In 2013 I've gone rogue, breaking every rule by breaking everything out into its own list (and in the case of Photography, three lists, because I like Photography books the most). Still, narrowing each category to 10 books remains an impossible task--these lists are skewed to my tastes while deserving books are necessarily omitted. But so it goes, and here they are. Our Best Books of the Year in:

 Here's a closer look at three of our selections. See all of them here.

Humans of New York Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

Stanton's thousands of not-quite-candid street portraits of New Yorkers (and accompanying captions, usually from the subjects themselves) have made his Humans of New York blog both poignant and extremely popular. And now, his book of the same title collects 400 of his best portraits, telling small stories that are outsized in their humor, candor, and humanity. Learn More
Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe by Tim Leong

I'm not a comic book guy, and it's not even close. However, what Leong (a Wired art director) has done here transcends that universe by superhuman leaps and bounds. It's a high-flying exercise in graphic communication, a sort of Visual Display of Quantitative Information for the capes-and-SPANX demographic. Learn More
The Digital Print: Preparing Images in Lightroom and Photoshop for Printing The Digital Print: Preparing Images in Lightroom and Photoshop for Printing by Jeff Schewe

Looking at pictures on your computer is all well and good, but sometimes your pictures are so nice that you want to put them on a wall. But looks can deceive, and the path from monitor to matte is fraught with often unexpected, disappointing results. Although it's Adobe software-specific, Schewe's follow-up to The Digital Negative (also excellent) is enlightening, engaging reading for the discerning photog, hobbyist or otherwise.  Learn More
See all of our picks for best of the year in Arts & Photography.

The Best of the Year in Biographies and Memoirs

The best part about picking the year's best biographies and memoirs is the variation--the list spans almost every genre and category, literally offering something for anyone who reads. 2013's best are no less diverse, including: harrowing survival stories both physical1 and psychological2; a gigantic book befitting a literary giant3; a visit from a long-gone childhood friend4; the strange tale of an eccentric recluse and her Gilded Age riches5; and the life and times of one of America's most obsessive weirdoes, penned by Amazon's own Neal Thompson6. And much more.

  1. A House in the Sky: A Memoir
  2. Coming Clean: A Memoir
  3. Norman Mailer: A Double Life
  4. Jim Henson: The Biography
  5. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune
  6. A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley

Here are closer looks at three highlights from the twenty books on our Best of the Year list in Biographies and Memoirs. See all of our selections here.

A House in the Sky

A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett

To freelance journalist Amand Lindhout, who made her living reporting from the most volatile places on earth, danger had become a hazy abstraction. After she and photojournalist Nigel Brennan (her former lover) are abducted in Somalia by armed extremists, their lives become a nightmare of torture (and worse), and survival means drawing on every reserve. Written with uncommon sensitivity, A House in the Sky is a moving testament to resilience and a kind of spiritual transcendence, even in profound darkness.

Learn More

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

Brothers David and Joe Henry have written the definitive tribute to Pryor's momentous cultural legacy. This is no straightforward biography: structured as a long series of roughly chronological vignettes, the resulting impressionistic portrait mirrors the flights of fancy that marked Pryor's most memorable stand-up comedy performances. Furious Cool resists the fan's impetus toward hagiography in favor of an artistic performance of the written word that does lovely justice to a brilliant, tortured man.

Learn More

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer

No one would ever accuse Jenna Miscavige Hill of being an "objective reporter" about Scientology, the religion in which she was raised and from which she escaped in 2005. But unlike other books about the controversial sect, this one offers up personal daily details--sometimes maybe a few more than we want to know--about what it was like to be a seven-, eight-, nine-year-old separated from family (even though her uncle, David Miscavige, is the church's leader, and her parents were, for a time, high up in the organization) and forced to spend days scrubbing bathrooms and pondering "misunderstood words."

Learn More

 

See all 20 books on the Biographies & Memoirs Best of the Year list

Twelve Literary Hoaxes and Put-ons from "A Reader's Book of Days"

RBD-OmniLongtime readers of Omnivoracious may remember Tom Nissley as the founder of this blog and often its primary contributor, having authored hundreds of pieces over his 10-year run as an editor on the Amazon books team. From his interviews with celebrated and best-selling authors such as China Mieville, Rebecca Skloot, and David Rakoff, to curated round-ups of the week's best reviews in the weekly "Old Media Monday" feature, Tom's smart and engaging words single-handedly kept this occasionally leaky boat afloat (before, that is, it became the literary Larry Ellison carbon catamaran that it is now). Then something wonderful happened: Tom ran off eight consecutive victories on Jeopardy!, becoming the second-winningest Seattle-area resident ever (and the show's third best ever, in regular games), returning later that year to tread the glowing blue boards of the Tournament of Champions, where he finished second only to an unbeatable trivia shark in a Tom Wolfe suit.

Though it's been well over two years since he left Amazon, he hasn't been content to rest upon his piles of cash, or even upon his laurels*. This week marks the publication of A Reader's Book of Days, a collection of almost 2,000 bits of literary minutiae and anecdotes spread across each of the 366 days of the year (accounting for February 29, natch), including author births and deaths, tales from the lives of writers and their works, reading recommendations for every month, and much more--punctuated with 100 cosmopolitan illustrations by Joanna Neborsky. To give readers a taste of the new book (and as a favor to his old pals here at Omni, maybe) Tom has selected a dozen stories of literary scams and authorial deception, all lifted from the pages of ABD. The Prodigal Son has returned, and he brought a lot of fun. Book nerd fun.

 * I'm giving him a hard time. Congratulations, Jet. We miss you.

Twelve Literary Hoaxes and Put-ons from A Reader's Book of Days

February 6, 1853 According to his first biographer, February 1853 was a momentous time for Horatio Alger Jr. Living in Paris, the timid Harvard grad was introduced to the sinful pleasures of the body by a plump café chanteuse named Elise. "I was a fool to have waited so long," he told his diary on the 4th, and on this day he added, "She says she knows I wanted to." But in truth there was no diary, no Elise, and no trip to Paris: his French initiation, like nearly everything else in Alger: A Biography Without a Hero, was concocted by its author, Herbert R. Mayes, in 1927. Mayes planned the book as a spoof, but he kept quiet as it was taken seriously by reviewers and became the authoritative source on the life of the once-popular master of juvenile uplift stories. Only fifty years later did he confess, as Gary Scharnhorst and Jack Bales detailed in their own Alger biography, that he had invented almost everything in what he called a "miserable, maudlin piece of claptrap."

February 14, 1971 In Oaxaca, Mexico, Clifford Irving got the call he had flown there to receive, from a “friend of Octavio’s,” the code name for Howard Hughes, the pathologically reclusive billionaire who soon agreed, without shaking hands of course, to collaborate with Irving on an authorized biography. Or at least that’s the story Irving told his editors at McGraw-Hill a few days later, leading them to eagerly advance $500,000 for “the most fantastic project of the decade.” In reality, as would be scandalously revealed a year later, his Oaxaca trip was just one element in an elaborate hoax: rather than meeting with Hughes, he spent Valentine’s Day there trysting with his mistress, the Danish pop star Nina van Pallandt.

March 15, 1958 Best known in later years as an uncompromising historian of the horrors of Soviet Communism, Robert Conquest in the ’50s was a poet and, with his friends Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, a tireless prankster. Conquest took the fun furthest of all, most memorably with Larkin, to whom, knowing the shy poet’s extracurricular reading interests, he sent a warning, claiming to be from the Scotland Yard Vice Squad, that Larkin might be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. After a nervous day at his solicitor’s, Larkin angrily sent the £10 legal bill to Conquest on this day, with the suggestion “Why can’t you play your japes on David Wright or Christopher Logue or some bastard who wd benefit from a cold sweat or two? Instead of plaguing your old pals.” Even the louche Amis recalled the episode with a slight horror.

RBD-Shakespeare-300April 2, 1796 Of the “authentic” documents from the life of William Shakespeare—original manuscripts of Lear and Hamlet, a love letter and poem to Anne Hathaway, an awkwardly scrawled note from Queen Elizabeth—that poured forth from a mysterious old chest William Henry Ireland claimed to have found, the most audacious forgery was Vortigern, an unknown play said to be in the Bard’s hand whose sole performance at Drury Lane on this evening quickly turned into farce. Even the play’s performers smelled a fraud by then, and when the star, John Kemble, repeated the line “And when this solemn mockery is ended,” with a leer at the audience, a bedlam of derision ensured the humiliation of Ireland, the play’s discoverer and its true author.

Continue reading "Twelve Literary Hoaxes and Put-ons from "A Reader's Book of Days"" »

JFK: 50 Years Later

On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet as his motorcade rolled through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, violently ending the era of American self-assurance. It is the quintessential Where were you? moment, maybe the most written about event ever, but the moment and circumstance were pivotal, so let’s revisit: America’s post-WWII supremacy was being challenged on multiple fronts as communism crept into her backyard, and the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion indicated that while America might be the planet’s most powerful and influential nation, it couldn’t control events just 90 miles south of Key West. Not long after, the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba, and while that crisis was “won,” Americans became fully aware of the stakes of an escalating Cold War. Ich bin ein Berliner. At home, the country edged toward the cultural seachange of the ‘60s and Vietnam War backlash. Everything won seemed to be crumbling into chaos.

CamelotsCourtJFKConservativeAt the top of it all sat one of the most charismatic (or at least photogenic; ask Nixon) president the country had seen, at a time when media, especially television, was coming into its own as tool to spread (and homogenize) information on a mass scale. He was the first president who wasn’t dad (or at least an inscrutable uncle), the first president to bring an aura of glamour to the White House, with his attractive family and rumored dalliances with famous blondes. Oswald’s ringing shot heralded a new world, one in which all rules seemed destined to be broken and America’s future hung in the balance.

  So there’s no mystery why Kennedy, his brief administration, his personal life (both secret and otherwise), and—of course—the assassination have inspired tens of thousands of books, including several new novels and children's books. The 50th anniversary of his death has spawned dozens more, several taking fresh looks at the inner workings of Kennedy’s White House. Robert Dallek—author of what many consider the definitive JFK biography, An Unfinished Life—penned the best of that bunch: Camelot’s Court shifts focus to Kennedy’s trusted advisors and their influence on the administration’s successes and failures, revealing the often sharp fractures sustained in the arena of clashing ambitions and ideologies. It's an ambitious Team of Rivals approach, but Dallek provides a fascinating, one-of-a-kind look inside the messy mechanics of policy.

LettersOfJFK KennedyYearsNYTFor a lively, challenging reconsideration of that policy, Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative examines Kennedy’s legacy through a red lens, concluding that the liberal lion had more in common with Ronald Reagan than many liberals would prefer—or remember. While Democrats point to his progressive stances on health care and education, Stoll notes that his positions on tax cuts (for) and communism (staunchly against) would have rung like church bells in conservative ears.  It’s a clever and audacious spin.

Beyond governmental nuts and bolts, The Letters of John F. Kennedy collects correspondence from the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, spanning notes to and from cultural and world leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Truman, and Nikita Krushchev) as well as children and private citizens that demonstrate a warmth not often associated with Commanders in Chief. Those looking for salacious details of his private life best look elsewhere, but editor Martin W. Sandler’s selections track Kennedy’s development as a leader in an insightful, personal, and unprecedented way.

LIFEJFKFKennedyYearsMemoiror some, it’s the image of Camelot that endures. Like so many rock stars, JFK died before he got old, before his legacy was tarnished or torn down, and well before the shriek-cycle of modern “journalism,” which builds and destroys political careers sometimes within weeks. Several new volumes revisit the Camelot years in pictures. The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of The New York Times reprints many of the newspaper’s articles and photographs from its coverage of the administration and the events that surrounded it—fascinating for real-time assessments of historically significant events. For a glimpse behind Camelot’s curtain, The Kennedy Years: A Memoir captures unguarded “off-camera” moments through the snapshots of JFK’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe, accompanied by his personal account to provide a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective, independent of political spin. JFK: A Photographic Memoir by influential photographer (and selfie pioneer) Lee Friedlander poignantly captures public reactions to JFK, from impromptu celebrations of his election to despairing memorials following November 22. For a dramatic record of November 22, 1963, LIFE: The Day Kennedy Died presents its coverage of that fateful day in Dallas, including the recollections of many celebrities, as well as reproductions of every frame of the infamous Zapruder film that launched countless conspiracy theories about the assassination.

Dallas EndOfDaysSpeaking of which: the grassy knoll. Magic bullets. Castro. LBJ. Jack Ruby. CIA. JFK assassination theories are a roiling alphabet soup of plots and motives, and rather than diminish the hysteria, the fifty years since the assassination have given them room to multiply, becoming ever more convoluted.  Those books are well represented in 2013’s new crop, including wrestler/governor/actor/special-ops bad-ass Jesse Ventura’s  They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK and the Little Book of JFK Conspiracies, available in a deluxe edition for the discerning conspiracy theorist. Then again, maybe it was LBJ, after all.

But the most interesting new angle isn’t a conspiracy theory at all. Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis casts the city as a character in the plot, a place made inherently dangerous to JFK by so many enemies of the administration—political, religious, criminal, and in the media—that the environment itself was hospitable to tragedy, and perhaps invited it. It’s a dramatic cautionary tale about how extreme ideologies can combine to create a toxic brew. While Dallas 1963 takes in the view from on high, James Swanson hits the streets for a blow-by-blow account of events. End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy begins three days before Dealey Plaza through Oswald's shocking, audacious murder at the hands of Jack Ruby on November 24. Like his previous book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, End of Days reads like a thriller while providing meticulous detail--the true-crime counterpart to Don DeLillo's masterful, speculative novelization, Libra.

JesseVentura LittleBookJFKKennedy warned that “those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” As it turns out, this is not true for Kennedy himself. There are still lessons to be learned within JFK’s story, lessons about tragedy and resilience, dogma and pragmatism, and what can be achieved when politics of inclusion are chosen over exclusionism. The books will keep coming as long as interest in Kennedy’s ideals and achievements—real or perceived—persists, and as long as we ask What might have been?

 

See more new JFK titles in:

Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Some More Sacred Cows

DavidAndGoliathMalcolm Gladwell has made a career out of seeing the world in unexpected, often unprecedented ways. Starting with 2000's The Tipping Point, which explored the often unseen ways cultural tides ebb and flow at the influence of seemingly minor events, he has published a series of best-sellers forming a distinctive Gladwellian world view of counterintuitive and insightful analysis--the kind that often leads to forehead slapping and exclamations of "Of course!"

His latest--David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants--turns the idea of the "underdog" on its head, exposing the ways we often misinterpret perceived advantages (and disadvantages) that produce surprising results which, upon Gladwellian inspection, aren't surprising at all. Gladwell spared a few minutes from a busy media schedule at Book Expo America to talk about his new book.

 

 

See more titles by Malcolm Gladwell.

Some People Will Get Mad: An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Dawkins_WonderThroughout his storied scientific career, Richard Dawkins has never backed down from big or controversial ideas. Whether he's revolutionizing the discussion over genetics and natural selection (as he did with The Selfish Gene, his landmark 1976 book that also expanded the conversation well beyond the scientific community) or making provocative statements in the debate between atheism and religion, Dawkins has never backed down from a good fight, either. (Check The God Delusion and its more than 2,000 customer reviews for a taste of that fracas.)

With his latest release, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Dawkins pulls back the curtain on his upbringing, eductaion, and the events that led him to a career as a groundbreaking geneticist, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at his early research techniques and ideas. He stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the memoir (available September 24), as well as other topics--some big, some controversial, but all definitely Dawkins. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Jon Foro: Why did you choose to write a memoir at this point of your career?

Richard Dawkins: I’m getting on a bit, and my mother’s getting on, too—she’s 96—so it was a good opportunity to tap her memories about my childhood. Quite a bit of it is about my childhood. I hope it’s funny, I hope it’s entertaining. And I’ve long wanted to do something like this.

A: You adopted computers early on in your research. Are there affinities between thinking about natural selection and programming computers? It struck me, when you were speaking about hierarchical organization of behavior [a sort of modular set of prioritized actions that governs animal behavior], that it’s like object-oriented programming.

RD: Yes, very much so. And I think that programming computers—quite apart from being useful—does actually help you to think. But when you’re thinking about how animals work, how the brain works ... brains must in some sense be programmed, and probably using the same kind of software tricks. But of course there’s no programmer, it’s done by natural selection and genes--the genes that program development of brains. But in some sense, it’s helpful to think about brains as being computers. But of a very different kind, and having software of a very different kind.

JF: Except that computers can be said to be completely deterministic, whereas humans have the opportunity to override….

RD: [laughs] Do you think?

JF: [laughs nervously] Well, I don’t know. I’m asking you.

RD: Yes, I think philosophically speaking, we’re probably all deterministic. But humans and animals have such complexity that we have the illusion of having a kind of free will that we can override it.

Continue reading "Some People Will Get Mad: An Interview with Richard Dawkins" »

Personal Photos from Langdon Cook, Author of "The Mushroom Hunters"
— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

TMH_jacketTo write The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, Langdon Cook spent several years in close company with commercial foragers—laboring alongside them, sharing camps in the bush, and documenting their secretive work from patch to plate. The result is a detailed, hard-won account of the men and women who bring wild fungi to market. With a cast of iconoclastic characters and echoes of the Wild West, the book tells the story of itinerant pickers and buyers who seem like throwbacks to an earlier era, scratching out a living in the country's most remote forests. Some are refugees from war-torn countries; others are exiles from the Old Economy. The author's personal photos, paired here with brief excerpts, depict a rough-hewn subculture in a truly American vein, one that is inevitably contrasted by the final creation on a restaurant plate.

The Mushroom Hunters will be available September 10, 2013.

 


 

Meet Doug Carnell, a year-round commercial mushroom harvester, with a handful of hedgehog mushrooms

TMH_1

To say Doug is a woodsman is to make an easy understatement. Doug has worked as a logger, sure, but he's also served in the military, pounded nails, cut steel, and captained a crab boat. When you drive around the Pacific Northwest's moldering timber communities with Doug in his five-hundred-dollar midnight-blue Buick Century sedan, you spend a lot of time waving to the people you pass, all friends or former colleagues: shake rats, long-liners, Cat drivers, metal scrappers, and those three old coots jawing outside the general store. He might spin a yarn about the ghost of a little girl who haunts Willapa Bay's oyster flats or point out the eroded tops of cedar posts used long ago as an Indian salmon weir. He's skied with Olympic medalists and sold peaches for profit. He's been thrice married and thrice divorced. But, above all, Doug is a mushroom picker.

Continue reading "Personal Photos from Langdon Cook, Author of "The Mushroom Hunters"

— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection
" »

The Time of the Preacher: A Q&A with "Pilgrim's Wilderness" Author Tom Kizzia

PilgrimsWildernessWhen 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 "The Time of the Preacher: A Q&A with "Pilgrim's Wilderness" Author Tom Kizzia" »

Deep in the Heart of Texas: Philipp Meyer on the "The Son"

Son_Omni

Philipp Meyer's 2009 debut novel, American Rust, earned numerous accolades (including a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship) and marked him as a writer of exceptional potential. With The Son--a 150-year saga of family, oil, and power set against the birth of Texas and the modern West--Meyer has seemingly fulfilled that promise. He took time to answer a few questions about the new book, including some of his unusual things he did during the course of his research, and violence as an inseparable reality of North America's past.

The Son is available May 28.


The Son is an immense novel, spanning generations, a wide swath of Texas (and American) history, and incredible cultural change. Did you always intend for it to be this ambitious, or did it grow out of a more particular idea?

I always knew it was going to be an ambitious book. The problem, when I began writing it, was that I didn’t know nearly as much I thought I did about the history of Texas and the history of the American West. And the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the slower the writing became. There were a lot of moments of slapping my head and realizing I needed to research a whole new period of history before I could write the things that belonged in the novel, and at some point I realized that the book was basically going to take place over two hundred years. That was exciting but also a bit depressing—I was thinking I’d finish this book in three years, like my last one. It ended up taking five years.

 

The Son is thoroughly entertaining (and revelatory) in its period detail and vernacular, especially Eli’s experience with the Comanches. How much—and what sort of—research was required to achieve such a level of realism?

There was so much research that it all became a blur. I know I read at least 350 books, though I likely read more; I took weeks of animal tracking classes, spent a month at Blackwater (the private military contractor) learning combat skills and soaking up the warrior culture for the sections on both the Comanches and the early Texas Rangers; I taught myself to bowhunt and killed several deer, ate them, tanned various deer hides. I shot two buffalo (whose meat was destined for restaurants and grocery stores) and because the Plains tribes sometimes did it for survival purposes, I drank a cup of warm blood from the neck of one of the animals. Not recommended. And I spent months in the woods, mountains, and deserts of Texas—I slept outside, hiked, or hunted almost everywhere the book takes place, took careful notes on and pictures of all the plants and animals I saw, then realized that the ecology of Texas had changed so enormously over the past 150 years that my notes weren’t necessarily valid. So had to go back to the historical and archeological record to research about exactly how and where and why it changed—the plants and animals I was seeing between 2008-2013 were not necessarily the plants and animals that were there in 1850 or 1870 or 1915.  Texas used to be a much wetter place—much of what is now desert or brushland was grassland in 1850. The landscape has changed radically in a very short period of time.

 

There’s a lot of violence in this book, and scenes that might make some readers uncomfortable. That’s part of the tale, of course, given both the era and setting. Did you have any reservations about not holding back? Is there intent to the way you want readers to face that violence?

Meyer_OmniI’m reluctant to talk about this too much, and to make too big a deal of it, but here goes:

I’m not sure the book is any more violent than any other book set in this time period, but I made an effort to not glorify it or gloss over it. A lot of books about the American West, about our creation myth, are full of blood and gore but there is no real sense of loss—they are like Quentin Tarantino movies. I wanted to address that tendency. I wanted the reader’s sympathies to shift from one side of the conflict to the other. I wanted the loss on both sides to be real.

That said, the politically correct part of me definitely considered toning it down—especially the scenes of combat between the Comanches and the various settler groups. But doing so would have come at such a cost to truth and accuracy that I couldn’t bring myself to do it—the historical record was too clear. The Native Americans were at war for their very survival and the European-American settlers were at war to make their fortunes and expand their country. Neither side committed any atrocity that has not been committed at some other period in history—whether earlier, during the Spanish Inquisition, or later, during the big wars of the 20th century. And I was careful that whatever violence there is in the book—whether committed by Texas Rangers, ranchers, or settlers, by Comanches or U.S. soldiers—was based on real events. It was not me imagining how things might have been.

It’s important to remember that people have been living in America for 15,000 years; thousands of cultures have risen and fallen here in that time, and, while no one was taking notes, it’s not that hard to guess that most were overthrown by force. In Texas alone, since the Spanish arrived and began writing things down, the Apaches came in and overthrew most of the other tribes and then the Comanches came in and overthrew the Apaches (and to some extent, the Spanish). The land we live on is quite literally soaked in blood; you can’t really understand American history, and what we come from, until you come to terms with that. And equally until you come to terms with the fact that, regardless of the winners or losers, the degree of brutality was basically equal on all sides. I think it’s easy to say that this brutality—the ubiquitousness of it—is the great point to be taken from human history. But that is not how I think of it. The point is that despite all that bloodshed, here we all are, still breathing, still falling in love and having children, still living our lives.

 

American_Rust_OmniBoth of your novels have a strong sense of geographical identity: American Rust in Pennsylvania and The Son in Texas. How does location shape your books? That is, does the story grow out of your experience of a place, or do you start with a story that you want to tell?

With the story. I didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania or in Texas. I just knew that this is where those books were going to be set. So I had to go and learn those settings. The location is crucial—you have to understand the economic history, the natural history, the philosophical history of a place before you can write about it. You have to know how the people look, speak, think, move, what they hope for, how they vote, how they eat, where they sleep, what they do for work.  You have to know everything. Not necessarily when you start the book, but definitely before the book is done.

 

Who are your greatest influences? Do you read for inspiration for your own work, or to take a break from your own work?

Overall my biggest influences, and the people who I see myself as learning the most from, are the modernists, basically Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Welty, etc. But I will read anything I find compelling. I’m going through a Vargas Llosa kick and right now and just finished a few books by Lobo Antunes. As a reader, there is nothing more satisfying than coming across an under-appreciated master, or a new book by an emerging master.  

As for the way I read, what happens when you cross the threshold after which you are a practitioner, or a working artist—whatever you want to call it—is that you don’t really read the same way. Probably not so different from the way a professional athlete watches a game. You are constantly observing, learning, zooming in and out on what people are doing. You’re not quite as lost in the magic of it, because you’re thinking: “holy ----, how did she/he do that!” Maybe that’s a loss. When I say it out loud, it seems like it. But in truth it doesn’t feel like it. I guess it feels like the natural evolution of my relationship to writing, or art, or the world. Somehow the pleasure of writing has supplemented or augmented the pure pleasure I used to get from reading. The amount of happiness is the same, but it comes from a slightly different place.

 

--Jon Foro

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

April 2014

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