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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

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.

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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" »

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