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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

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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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?

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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