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About Kevin Nguyen

Kevin Nguyen is a sucker for short story collections, magical realism, novels that have nothing to do with New York City, comics that reinvent superhero mythology, books with colophons, and a number of other literary things that he likes to talk about for hours on end at parties. Which might explain why he hasn't been invited to a party since 2006.

Posts by Kevin

Lay of the Land: Photos from Arlo Crawford's "A Farm Dies Once a Year"

After finishing Arlo Crawford's memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year, I found myself wanting to quit my desk job and do something that involves working with my hands. The book details Crawford's decision to leave his city life to help out on his parents' farm in rural Pennsylvania. To my surprise, the narrative is as much a curious look at the intricacies of organic farming as it is a rich, poignant portrait of Crawford's family and their relationship to the land and their neighbors. (On top of moving to the country, A Farm also gave me the urge to call my mom and tell her how much I appreciate her.)

If that's not enticing enough, Crawford was kind enough to share a handful of photos of his parents' farm and a few words to go along with them.


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These pictures are different than what most people expect when they think "farm," but I love how still and solitary they are. For me, the most distinctive part of growing up on our farm was how isolated and quiet it could be, and how separate it felt from the outside world. The beauty in February is less conventional, but it’s also unadorned and bone-deep.

Continue reading "Lay of the Land: Photos from Arlo Crawford's "A Farm Dies Once a Year"" »

Up All Night: Karen Russell on Writing "Sleep Donation"

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If the power of books is to bring people together, then there's perhaps no example more literal than the Craigslist missed connection I stumbled across just minutes before interviewing Karen Russell. The posting, titled (sic) "karen russel cutie - w4m", was written by an Austin-based woman who met a man reading one of Russell's books at a coffee shop. They hit it off, sort of.

"I said, "hey. karen russell. Right?" And i flashed you the cover of my book. As if you didn't KNOW i was reading it. We talked for a few minutes. You didn't even know. You didn't even know that um. You didn't even know that she had written other books. But i felt a connection."

I forwarded the link to Russell, who, delighted by the idea that her work could play matchmaker, said, "I want these people to find each other, and then I want to officiate at their wedding." Speaking with Russell, I found her sense of humor arresting, her laugh totally charming — a little surprising considering the darkness and moodiness of her latest work, Sleep Donation (one of our Best Books of the Month picks for March and a Kindle Single). It's a clever, haunting novella about a dystopian world where insomnia has become a fatal epidemic. The story follows a young woman named Trish who works at Slumber Corps, a company that helps those who are able to catch some Z's the ability to donate their shut-eye to the sleepless. Those familiar with Russell's previous work — her two short story collections, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and her novel Swamplandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — will find the same sci-fi and fantasy-mashing sensibilities here. Russell attributes her category-bending to a childhood reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy and not recognizing the lines between the different genres.

"I actually had so little awareness of what distinguished Jane Eyre from A Handmaid's Tale. When I was a kid, they all just read like great stories to me," she said.

Her influences include many classic sci-fi authors, such as Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley. But since her world experience first came from novels, her reality is grounded in fictions that existed to critique the real world. She jokes that her upbringing was like visiting the fantastical version of Paris at Epcot Center, then actually visiting Europe decades later.

Continue reading "Up All Night: Karen Russell on Writing "Sleep Donation"" »

Spotlight Feature: Phil Klay, Author of "Redeployment"

I had the chance to sit down with Phil Klay, author of our March Best of the Month Spotlight Pick, Redeployment. Check out our feature-length profile of Klay, in which he discusses his short story collection, his deployment in Iraq during the surge, and the myths of war that he finds disingenuous.

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Drinks with Kevin Roose, Author of "Young Money"

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The financial crisis of 2008 not only changed the landscape for banks and investment firms, but also spoiled the reputations they once maintained. And still, places like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Credit Suisse were able to recruit some of the Ivy League's best and brightest. For three years, New York Magazine writer Kevin Roose followed a handful of young analyst's at Wall Street's top investment firms, detailing the lives of first- and second-year bankers in Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street's Post-Crash Recruits (one of our Best of the Month picks for February).

I met Roose at the bar of the Bull and Bear Steakhouse. As the hotel bar of the historic Waldorf Astoria, it is exactly the sort of place one could imagine Wall Street high-rollers. The bar is elegant but dimly lit; we settled into the deep leather lounge chairs and talked about Young Money, how Roose befriended the subjects of his book, and where those bankers might take us drinking.

Why did you pick this bar?

I picked it because it's Wall Street themed, and it's in the hotel I'm staying in. It's got this nice '80s Wall Street vibe. I feel like Gordon Gecko is going to come sit down right next to us. It's thematically appropriate.

So tell me about the book.

I followed eight first and second-year Wall Street bankers at firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan for three years. I was curious and fascinated by these people who entered the financial sector after the crash of 2008. I had so many questions: who are these people, what do they do, and why are they still in this industry after such a cataclysm?

I went out drinking with them, I went to their homes, I spent the better part of three years following them around and learning about their lives. Ultimately, I think I got a pretty good idea of what goes on in the trenches of Wall Street.

Where did you find these people? And actually, what I really want to know, is why were they willing to divulge so much of their life to you?

It's a fascinating question. These people never talk to the media because they're not allowed to. Their firms all train them very carefully to not give quotes to the press. So I had to convince them to take their careers and put them on the line. It was a process. It took many months. I went to networking events, I went to terrible bars in Murray Hill, I went to my network and got friends of friends and eventually found good people that represented a good cross-section of Wall Street.

Continue reading "Drinks with Kevin Roose, Author of "Young Money"" »

Paul Pope on "Battling Boy"

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Paul Pope does not write kids' stuff. The comic artist/writer is best known for his Eisner Award-winning Batman series, Batman: Year 100, a gritty dystopian take on the Dark Knight. But Pope's first foray into comics for younger audience isn't strictly kids' stuff either. Battling Boy introduces us to the city of Acropolis, where a young boy must step up and become the hero for a people under siege from a band of monsters, demons, and all sorts of unsavory types. Battling Boy has so much here for both kids and adults alike, and it's why we picked it as one of the Best Books of 2013 in Comics & Graphic Novels.

Pope talked to us about writing for a younger audience, imagining Acropolis, and what's next for the series.


Why did you want to write a comic for teens?

I saw a dearth of really good science-fiction/adventure comics written for a young audience, featuring superheroes the age of the young readers themselves. Battling Boy is good for anybody around nine or older. Also, writing something literally "all ages" was an appealing challenge for me. Most of my twenty years in comics has been in making comics which would be considered R-rated, or at least aimed for adults. As we've been touring the States and Canada for Battling Boy--and soon, UK and France--I am meeting readers as young as ten years old, who are new to graphic novels, and take Battling Boy at face value, and also readers as old as early '60s, people who grew up on Golden and Silver Age comics, who can see all the classic themes and tropes and even cliches I am trying to infuse into Battling Boy.

What differences did you find in the creative process writing for a younger audience?

Actually, the process is pretty much the same as with my other books, although because of the scale of this one, the script had to be much tighter than any others before, even my Batman Year 100 book. I'm not able to really work in my preferred process lately, which is to work straight thru for two or three days, taking a break only to eat and sleep, then take a day off to rest and do other stuff. Since there is so much more management and outside activities I need to engage in for Battling Boy, I find I am trying to work in shorter bursts of daily focused work. No days off lately. I work up thumbnails from my main script, then move to pencils and finally, inks using a brush. My new studio has no internet, which was a move I made to preserve creative concentration. I have an assistant who scans the art for me and does some production work like that.

I loved Acropolis--which is both gritty and hostile but also brightly colored and full of imagination. What inspired the city?

Around the time I was starting work on this book, I had a chance to visit Napoli and Capri, in southern Italy, and I realized I wanted this city to feel Mediterranean, with the volcanic rocks and the blue-green/terra cotta colors. I also wanted the city to feel like a war-torn city, like what we see out of Baghdad or Beirut, a city under siege, half standing and half in tatters. I wanted it also to feel a bit like the old Flash Gordon serials, with the pre-WW2 science and Deco architecture. I definitely didn't want this to be New York or Tokyo or something and see a huge monster scale the Empire Building again, which has been done to death.

Generally speaking, comics feature too few strong, interesting female protagonists, but this is something that young adult novels do very well. Did YA literature influence Aurora at all?

Aurora is sort of based on my sister, who was a headstrong and determined tomboy as a kid. I really like tomboys, and wanted a tough girl to be Battling Boy's foil. It was only later I realized she fits into a mold that is well established for YA fantasy/science-fiction heroines. I wanted to have a girl who is the inheritor of all the power and secrets of an Iron Man or Indian Jones-type hero, whereas Battling Boy is the son of a Warrior God and Goddess. So together, Aurora and BB are like the inheritors of, on the one hand, science, and on the other, magic, or at least an ancient mythic tradition.

When will we see the next installment of Battling Boy?

The next book in the expanded series is The Rise Of Aurora West, a second series focusing on Aurora, which ties back into the larger Battling Boy series. This is next fall, co-written by myself and JT Petty, and drawn by David Rubin. I couldn't be happier than to have David on the book. He was my top pick, and I knew I wanted a European artist on the book (David is from Spain). We are coding the two series with lots of story elements and visuals and characters which appear in both series. I am currently working on the second Battling Boy book, which I am writing and drawing on my own, and it will be appearing sometime within the year following Aurora. After that, there is the second Aurora book. So :01 and I are working to expand Battling Boy into a universe of stories which interconnect. It's all very exciting and challenging.

Future Imperfect: The Warning Signs from Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?"

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Months before the words "NSA," "PRISM," and "Edward Snowden" dominated newspaper headlines, Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future? warned us about the amount of personal information we have floating around the web. The truth is that while companies and the government are interested in our data at a macro level, the real danger is not being more vigilant about our personal information. The opening words of the book outline the problem well: "We're used to treating information as 'free,' but the price we pay for the illusion of 'free' is only workable so long as most of the overall economy isn't about information."

Lanier is no curmudgeon though. In fact, he is a total technologist (often referred to "the father of virtual reality") who has seen the internet develop from its earliest days, knowledgeable enough to approach everything with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In a lot of ways, Lanier is a bit of an oracle. For example, there's a chapter toward the end about the "creepiness" of how the government and internet companies can easily violate our personal privacy—more or less predicting the potential of a surveillance program like PRISM. On one hand, I'm fascinated to see what a Jaron Lanier book tackling the NSA controversy would look like, but on the other hand, the fact that Who Owns the Future? retains its relevancy after the fact speaks to its strengths.

And yet for all of Lanier's criticisms, he is an optimist at heart. After all, he is a technologist, just a surprisingly rare one who believes in the good technology can bring but remains cautious enough to know that it can do just as much harm if we are not thoughtful and patient. He rails against the mindset that all technology is inherently good (he calls this "technological determinism")—a narrative that dominates most tech writing. "My view," Lanier says," is that people are still the actors."

Toward the end, Who Owns the Future? delves into philosophical territory. Lanier proposes solutions to digital economies, attribution models, and net neutrality—all parts of what he deems a "humanistic alternative" to the current picture of technology. This section of the book feels less vital than the first half, but it's fascinating to see the ideal future from a man who spends so much time thinking about tomorrow. Even Lanier admits it's pie-in-the-sky thinking ("I don't pretend for a moment that all the problems implicit in it are already known, much less solved," he concedes), but almost as impressive as his ideas is his ability to communicate these abstract concepts in layman's terms. In this way, it illustrates Lanier's best quality: he never forgets that the future must make sense for everyone, not just the technocrats.


Boty_rg_cover_thumb This piece comes from 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.

Best Books of 2013: Comics & Graphic Novels

Marble Season Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez

In June, Gilbert Hernandez's Marble Season topped our Best of the Year So Far list for Comics & Graphic Novels. Since then, it's been a strong season for comics, but after revisiting Hernandez's touching, nostalgic tale of kids in Southern California when assembling our Best Books of 2013 picks, I was reminded that nothing else has delighted me as much this year. Beneath the innocence of Hernandez's cast of eccentric troublemakers is the conflicting desire to grow up without understanding what that means; as a reader we approach Marble Season with the opposite perspective: we long for our childhood but appreciate it with the wisdom of adulthood.

Very Casual Very Casual by Michael DeForge

Collecting the bizarre works of Michael DeForge's mini-comics, Very Casual marks the arrival of a fresh, bizarre talent. Even in his early twenties, DeForge has already won numerous awards (including the 2013 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Anthology of Collection for Very Casual). DeForge's aesthetic sensibility is hinged on the compellingly weird. Kids get high on squid ink; absurdist deer mate; and a rock band is made out of weird blobs. Revealed within Very Casual's psychedelic stories and grotesque geographies is something sublime.

Solo Solo: The Deluxe Edition

The collected works of DC's Solo lets many of the most well-known comics writers/illustrators, including Darwyn Cooke, Paul Pope, and Michael Allred, go hog-wild with the DC universe. It's a showcase of familiar heroes getting strange makeovers — an eclectic mix of talent and imagination not to be missed.

The Property The Property by Rutu Modan

Israeli-born artist Rutu Modan's first work, Exit Wounds, was an Eisner Award-winning trek through Tel Aviv. The Property, her second full-length comic, takes us to Warsaw, where a young woman named Regina accompanies her grandmother on a trip to secure property owned by her parents during the Holocaust. Modan's work is extremely subtle. But despite her penchant for earth tones and nuanced expressions, The Property feels so alive with compassion and humor and humanity.

Memories of the Years of Chaos: An Essay by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Author of "The Sound of Things Falling"

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For my generation, I’ve noticed, the 1980s don’t have a lot of respect for chronology: our decade began in 1984, when Pablo Escobar assassinated the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, and ended in December 1993, with the symmetrical death of Pablo Escobar. Certain images of that decade have become part of our mythology. One of them shows Lara’s car with its windows destroyed, its back seat smeared with blood and the cover, caught by the cameras almost by chance, of the book the minister was reading at the moment of the crime like a symbol in a bad novel: Dictionary of Colombian History. In another one, Pablo Escobar’s dead body lies on a rooftop surrounded by his triumphant pursuers, his features obliterated by the blood, his pale belly exposed in the morning air. Between those two events are other images. I’ve seen them and I keep seeing them and I saw them every day of 2010, while I was writing The Sound of Things Falling: I saw a presidential candidate greeting voters and then climbing onto a stage and then falling under a hail of bullets; I saw the remains of a passenger plane scattered among trees after exploding in mid-air. In my fallible memory, these images take up several years of that terrible decade; only later, when I started writing the novel, did I realize that they’d all happened in just six short months, and that gave me an idea of the morbid intensity we lived with back then.

There is a police recording of Escobar’s voice that is almost a manifesto. “We have to create chaos so they call us to make peace,” he says. “If we devote ourselves to going after the politicians, to burning their houses down and having a real fucking civil war, then they’ll have to call us to the table for peace talks and our problems will be solved.” The landscape of our memories is made from that chaos. I have compared it to other landscapes, to other memories, and I’ve found several common elements. The ability, for instance, to recognize the sound of a bomb and distinguish it from any other explosion; the crosses of masking tape on windows (and the resignation with which they tried to avoid, in the case of a nearby bomb, the shattering of the glass); the ease with which we spent the night in a stranger’s house if we were caught out by a curfew; the unmistakable atmosphere of the city the day after an attack, that sort of rare slowing down that took over normal routines, the silence that resembled no other silence: the whole city turned into a room where a sick man lay dying.

The Sound of Things Falling was, at least partially, about that silence.

Even if the title seems to suggest otherwise. --Juan Gabriel Vásquez


Boty_rg_cover_thumb This piece comes from 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.

On Tour With Khaled Hosseini

ATME Our friend Jynne Dilling Martin, the Director of Publicity of Riverhead Books, toured with Khaled Hosseini earlier this year while promoting And the Mountains Echoed. She was kind enough to share a few stories about traveling around the country with one of our favorite authors.

The phone call came on a Saturday night. The nurse was calling from a hospital in Ohio; I’m not even sure how she got my cell number. A young Afghan girl under her care was awaiting serious surgery, and the girl was a huge fan of Khaled Hosseini. If she drove this sick child all the way to Detroit the next day, to Khaled’s lunchtime signing at a BJ’s Club warehouse, would he be willing to say a special hello?

As the Director of Publicity at Riverhead, I had the privilege of accompanying Khaled Hosseini for part of his And the Mountains Echoed book tour and witnessed firsthand what an extraordinary impact he’s made on the lives of tens of thousands of people. He took two months away from his own life and family to travel to 40 cities across America to meet and sign books for well over 30,000 readers. Whether in Connecticut or Seattle or Portland or even New York City, I was struck by the incredible range of people who attended his events: the hipster who got a kite tattooed on her shoulder, inspired by The Kite Runner; an elderly Afghan-American woman wearing a hijab, thanking Khaled for so compassionately articulating her plight in A Thousand Splendid Suns; businessmen, teachers, retirees, teenagers, entire classes of high school students—wearing everything from American Apparel to Phat Farm to head scarves—all waiting many hours in line to thank Khaled and get his signature.

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Rich Cohen, Author of "Monsters," on Books, Writing and Other Obsessions

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I love football. I spend every Sunday (and most Monday and Thursday nights) on my couch yelling at my television, drinking beer, and fist-pumping every time the Seahawks score a touchdown. But there are moments when I'm reminded of the brutality that I'm witnessing. In the week 4 game against the Texans, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was carted off the field in a stretcher. Thankfully, it turned out just to be a minor strain in his neck muscle, but for a few scary moments, it looked far worse. The camera cut to Bennett's father, wearing his son's jersey and helplessly screaming, "Michael!" from the sideline.

This summarizes our conflicted relationship with football. The violence of the sport is both what makes it exciting and also horrifying. One realizes the danger these players are putting themselves in for the amusement of millions of Americans.

We picked Rich Cohen's new book, Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, as our spotlight pick for the Best Books of November not just because it's a beautifully written narrative about one of the NFL's greatest football teams (though it is very much that). It's a football history from a modern perspective, one that acknowledges the sport as we know it and as it was.

Cohen was gracious enough to share a Q&A with us about his book, his favorite books, and his other obsessions.


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

This is a story of one of the greatest teams in the history of the American sports -- a team great precisely because they transcended their game. Ditka. McMahon. Fridge. They became household names and pop stars, and I've done my best to recapture the wild, violent, hyper-real vividness of their championship season. But to me, most interesting were those questions that kept popping into my head as I interviewed these guys nearly three decades after Super Bowl XX: What happens when your dream comes true? How do you go on from there? How do you cope with winning? How about failing, getting old, being forced from the game? To me, the best of these players teach not only how to compete but how to age and even how to die. Because a pro football player dies twice. Once, when he is old, like the rest of us, and once when he is still young and everything he was, everything he wanted, trained and hoped for comes to an end. It's like my father used to say about the Sinatra tune about the ball park that we all knew was Ebbet's Field. "It's not about a stadium, you schmuck. It's about life!"

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

The Illiad as translated by Stephen Mitchell, Absolutely American by David Lipsky, The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker, and a 32 pack of Sucrets.

Continue reading "Rich Cohen, Author of "Monsters," on Books, Writing and Other Obsessions" »

National Book Award 2013 Finalists Announced

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This morning, the National Book Foundation revealed the finalists in the Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature categories for this year's National Book Awards. Among the finalists are Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland (our September Best of the Month spotlight pick!), whom Sara Nelson interviewed just last week, and Gene Luen Yang, whom I spoke with about his comic Boxers & Saints the week before that.

Here's the full list of finalists:

Fiction

Nonfiction

Poetry

Young People's Literature

The National Book Foundation has also compiled excerpts from the finalists called The Contenders, all available as free Kindle books.

The winners in each category will be announced in just over a month at the National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York on November 20.

Go Big or Go Home: An Interview with Anita Elberse, Author of "Blockbusters"

Blockbusters

In Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, Anita Elberse explores all the elements behind making the biggest hits in movies, TV, music, books, and sports. The entertainment industry has seen a rapid shift around the way it consumes pop culture. And perhaps counterintuitive to the democratizing influence of the internet, entertainment businesses are successfully making bigger bets on even bigger titles. As Blockbusters reveals, pursuing projects with high risk and high reward is actually the best long-term business model.

I spoke to Elberse about the book, the effect of the internet, and how the entertainment industry may change in the future.


In the book, you introduce the "tent-pole strategy," which is basically the opposite of the age-old advice of diversifying one's portfolio. Why does the tent-pole strategy work?

A “tent-pole strategy” or, as I call it, “blockbuster strategy” is one in which a content producer makes huge investments to acquire, develop, and market concepts with strong hit potential, and then banks on the sales of those titles to make up for the middling performance of their other content. It’s a popular strategy: many of today’s leading film studios, television networks, book publishers, music labels, and video game publishers live by this approach.

Why does it work? For one, strong brands and high production values matter. Higher production budgets allow studios and other producers to afford the best creative talent, the most sought-after properties, and make the highest-quality products. Scale also brings marketing advantages: it is relatively cost-efficient to advertise those tent-pole bets. And trying to create blockbusters fits the way in which consumers make choices: we like to talk about the latest films we’ve seen, or the latest books we’ve read, which makes us converge on the same choices.

That doesn’t mean that producers should bet only on blockbusters, though. In my book, I also explain why smaller bets are important, even if they might have lower odds of success. It’s about having the right balance in one’s portfolio.

Blockbusters is focused on media from mostly the past decade. What has changed in the past ten years that makes the tent-pole strategy so effective? Is it a new strategy or is it a response to a changing environment/audience?

My book indeed is based on a decade’s worth of research on the entertainment industry, so it discusses many of the biggest successes in recent years. I would not say that the audience has fundamentally changed in recent years—in fact, the laws of consumer behavior I describe are surprisingly constant. But the changing environment certainly plays a key role in the popularity of the blockbuster strategy.

Continue reading "Go Big or Go Home: An Interview with Anita Elberse, Author of "Blockbusters"" »

Two Sides, Two Stories: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang

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Boxers & Saints is thrilling, funny, sad, but most of all, deeply ambivalent. The two-volume comic, written by Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese), confronts the Boxer Rebellion, a two-year uprising in 1899 in which violent nationalists sought to combat the presence of Christianity in China. Yang's work deals with the story from both sides, represented by the protagonist in each book. In Boxers, Little Bao unlocks the power of Chinese gods and uses those abilities to lead a rebellion against all Westerners in China; Saints finds a young girl named Vibiana having a conflict about her Christian faith. Both stories, which are cleverly linked, work in tandem to draw a powerful portrait of one of China's most controversial historical events. The National Book Foundation agrees, recently including Boxers & Saints on the National Book Award's longlist for Young People's Literature.


First, congrats on making the National Book Award's longlist. What inspired you to write a comic about the Boxer Rebellion?

Thank you! I first became interested in the Boxer Rebellion in the year 2000, when Pope John Paul canonized 120 saints of China. 87 were ethnically Chinese, 33 were foreign missionaries to China. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community, and naturally my home church was really excited about the Vatican's announcement. This was the first time the Roman Catholic Church — this deeply Western church — had recognized Chinese citizens in this way. There were all sorts of celebrations and special masses. I looked into the lives of the newly canonized and discovered that many of them were martyred during the Boxer Rebellion, a war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900. The more I read about the war, the more fascinated I became. The Boxer Rebellion embodies this struggle between Eastern and Western culture that I've struggled with at different points in my life.

How much research went into the book? Since the Boxer Rebellion is one of China's most controversial historical events, did you find conflicting accounts of what happened?

For about a year, a year and a half, I went to my local university library once a week. I spent several hours there each visit, reading as much as I could about the Boxer Rebellion and turn-of-the-century China. I also got the opportunity to visit a Jesuit archive in the French city of Vanves. There, they had letters and photos that once belonged to French missionaries and soldiers serving in China. It was pretty amazing.

I think history's view of the Boxers has shifted over the decades. During the Boxer Rebellion, the most conservative members of the Chinese government saw them as defenders of traditional Chinese culture. Immediately after they were defeated, the Boxers were seen as these superstitious, backwards rubes. Then after the Chinese Communists came to power, Mao recast them as patriotic freedom fighters. Nowadays, most scholars seem ambivalent about the Boxer Rebellion.

Continue reading "Two Sides, Two Stories: An Interview with Gene Luen Yang" »

Drinks with Ben Dolnick, Author of "At the Bottom of Everything"

An interview series in which Amazon Editors meet authors at their favorite bars.

Dolnick

During a surprise thunderstorm, No. 7's cozy, Edison bulb-lit aesthetic was the perfect hideaway from the rain and lightning. The restaurant's classic look — dark wood, tiled floors, vaulted ceilings — is starting to feel scarcer and scarcer in Fort Greene, an old Brooklyn neighborhood that is seeing a lot of change and development since the installation of the massive Barclay's Center just a few blocks away.

This was the place picked by Ben Dolnick, author of the new book At the Bottom of Everything, a swift but haunting meditation on guilt and friendship. Though Everything is a fairly dark novel, Dolnick was cheery and energetic. I spoke with him about his neighborhood, his book, and how he wrote in the dark.


Why this bar?

Most importantly, it's around the block from my house. So it's where I stumble by default when I need a bar. It's weirdly non-crowded and the French fries — as we are discovering — are delicious. I feel like Fort Greene is one of those neighborhoods that seems like it should have excellent bars and excellent restaurants and it weirdly doesn't. There are very few places that lives up to the mental ideal of the neighborhood.

How long have been you living in Fort Greene?

We moved here right when I graduated from college, which was 2004, so I've been here nine years.

And you wrote all three of your novels in Fort Greene?

I started my first one in college, but yeah, basically.

So what are you drinking?

This is a Solid Gold, which is some combination of things I don't remember: amaretto, honey...

I think there's rye?

Yeah, they change their menu a lot, which is one of the things I like. I think what won me over was that I was here once, sitting at the bar, saying to my friend, "No I'm not going to drink tonight. I'm a little bit sick." The bartender, without saying anything, appeared with a warm cup of tea and honey and just gave it to me for free. So I was like, Wow, this place is mine.

That's very neighborhood-y.

Exactly.

So tell me about the book.

At the Bottom of Everything is my third novel. It's about two guys, one of whom kind of goes off the rails and disappears in India. The one who doesn't go off the rails has to go bring him home. They share in common a terrible secret that I can't get into without ruining the book.

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10 Books David Foster Wallace Loved

Dfw

D.T. Max's biography of the late author David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, was released in paperback in August. To celebrate, D.T. sent along a diverse list of books Wallace enjoyed.


D.T. Max:

David Foster Wallace once made a surprising list of his ten favorite books.

Was Wallace joking? Partly. Alligator was a childhood favorite, as his sister remembers but Fear of Flying? And as a mature adult and author the novels he loved tended more to high art. In published essays and even more in letters to friends and editors, he declared his real passions. For instance, in 1990 he wrote the novelist David Markson: "...I’ve read and reread every word of Pynchon, Barth, Delllo, Puig, Cortazar, and Jean Rhys — my own little Olympus."

Here are ten of DFW's particular favorites:

Modern Lone: Fiona Maazel on Her Novel "Woke Up Lonely"

Last May, I had the pleasure of talking with Fiona Maazel, author of Woke Up Lonely, about the culture of loneliness, the differences between Cincinnati and North Korea (there are a few, it turns out), and the novel she is working on next.


So tell me about the book.

I'll give you the book in brief. It is about a cult leader and his ex-wife and the four people he takes hostage. It takes place over a four-day Waco siege-type scenario. If I'm being pretentious, it's kind of a book about loneliness in America. But I think probably at the bottom, it's a big 'ol love story.

What made you want to write a book about loneliness, specifically American loneliness?

I think I've been pathologically obsessed with loneliness since I was a kid—

—This seems healthy.

No one ever said I was a healthy girl!

Continue reading "Modern Lone: Fiona Maazel on Her Novel "Woke Up Lonely"" »

Jonathan Lethem on "Dissident Gardens" and Exile

Last May, I spoke with Jonathan Lethem at BookExpo America about his new novel, Dissident Gardens, his long-distance affection for New York City, and his obsession with New York Review Books Classics.


So tell me about the book.

Well, this book is kind of a family saga set in Queens. The central figure is a matriarch, a woman named Rose who has some DNA in common with my grandmother, who also lived in Sunnyside. But Rose is a passionately disappointed American communist. She was a believer that the revolution was going to come to the United States in her lifetime. And like a lot of people in her generation, she lived long enough to see the Khrushchev revelations about the Stalin purges and so forth, so it didn't go exactly as she'd planned. The nature of her disappointment and where those energies go give shape to what happens in her orbit, especially her daughter Miriam.

When you write a novel about your family, do you have to get permission? How does that work?

Oh gee, I've never asked anyone for permission. But I lucked out. It turns out for me to write about real people—which I do a lot—I also need, creatively, a strong necessity to mash them up like a DJ with some other stuff. I often take more than one real person and turn them into a character. It's confusing for anyone who knows any of those real people. But for me as a writer, I become enabled to do whatever I want.

Continue reading "Jonathan Lethem on "Dissident Gardens" and Exile" »

A Guest Essay by Fiona McFarlane, Author of "The Night Guest"
— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection

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My editors' pick for our Big Fall Books Preview was Fiona McFarlane's debut The Night Guest. It's a tender novel about old age and a psychological meditation on isolation, all told with the page-turning pace of a mystery. I can't stop thinking about this book, and every time I look at the cover sitting on my desk, I think about calling my grandparents.

If that doesn't convince you to pre-order this book immediately, Fiona McFarlane has penned us a lovely essay about writing from the perspective of a woman in her seventies, which she based on experiences with both of her grandmothers. Read on!

The Night Guest will be available October 1, 2013.

 


Ruth, the main character in The Night Guest, is a widow in her mid-seventies; I’m less than half her age. For this reason, I’m often asked how I went about writing her, this woman who was born in the 1930s, has grown children, has retired from life, and is in many respects utterly unlike me. I’m young, and childless, and working. Both my grandmothers lived into old age with various forms of dementia, and I knew and adored and observed them, which I imagine helped me approach Ruth with respect and love. Writing The Night Guest did feel, in some ways, like being in their company. But this autobiographical information reveals almost nothing about how a writer goes about creating a character, which is always an act of creative empathy, whether we’re inventing an elderly woman or a teenage boy or a medieval saint or some great galactic queen — in other words, anyone who isn’t ourselves. Making that leap into another life is one of the loveliest and most difficult things about writing; about living, actually, when you think about it. So writing Ruth was no more or less challenging than the novel’s other main characters — moody, majestic Frida, or courtly, pompous Richard.

Continue reading "A Guest Essay by Fiona McFarlane, Author of "The Night Guest"

— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection
" »

Fuminori Nakamura's Dark, Existential Thrillers

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Fuminori Nakamura tells me exactly how he would steal my wallet. In Japanese, he explains that the trick is to lift it out of my back pocket with his three middle fingers. By foregoing the thumb (the clumsiest finger), it makes the rest of his hand more difficult for the victim to detect. Nakamura also says that if he were a better pickpocket, he would be able to lift my watch. (I check my wrist, even though I don't wear a watch.)

Nakamura doesn't steal wallets for a living, but he learned a lot about it while doing hands-on research for his novel The Thief, which concerns itself very much with the life of a Tokyo pickpocket. After a botched robbery, the nameless protagonist finds himself at the mercy of the thugs who set up the job. There's a sense of dread that pervades each page, and a surprising Camus-like ennui that provokes existential and deterministic motifs. The Thief is a swift but gloomy literary thriller, light on its feet but sinister in its intentions (much like a good pickpocket).

But for how grim his books are, Nakamura is a surprisingly affable, almost giggly presence. I have a hard time imagining that such a pleasant person could spend so much of his time exploring the darkest recesses of humanity. We meet at Café Grumpy in New York. Nakamura is visiting the States for the first time, both to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where The Thief is a Book Prize nominee, and to support his newly translated thriller, Evil and the Mask, out June 10.

Tonally, the books are similar. But where The Thief maintains an anonymous, distant narrator, Evil and the Mask is very much concerned with its anti-hero's name, or more specifically, escaping one's name. Fumihiro Kuki is born into a wealthy family set on being "a cancer on the world." The one bright spot in Fumihiro's life is an adopted sister of whom he feels protective (and with whom he has a disturbing relationship). To keep her safe, he is often forced to do terrible things. Evil and the Mask is concerned with a twisty sense of morality: is Fumihiro born evil, and can he escape the cruelty associated with his surname?

Whereas The Thief succeeds because of its simplicity, Evil and the Mask is a muddier affair. It's a longer, much more ambitious novel than The Thief, and perhaps a better one. And without giving away the ending, there's actually a bit of optimism in the closing pages of Evil and the Mask--not a lot, but when something is so bleak, even the slightest hints of hope are a welcome surprise.

When we arrived at Café Grumpy, it was sunny outside; by the time we leave, it's overcast and starting to rain. Even though I don't have a jacket or an umbrella, I don't mind. I'll look for cracks where the sun shines through.

Announcing Around the World in 80 Books

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We believe that books can take you places. And in that spirit, we've picked our favorite transportive classic and contemporary novels, memoirs, biographies, and travel books to prove it. Our selections for Around the World in 80 Books represent all seven continents (even Antarctica!), so whether you're jet-setting this summer or traveling from the comfort of your armchair, these books will be the perfect company for your journey.

Some of our picks include:

North America South America

Continue reading "Announcing Around the World in 80 Books" »

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