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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

Horses of the Apocalypse: Scott Cheshire's American Epic

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A blurb from Philipp Meyer hails Scott Cheshire's debut novel, High as the Horses' Bridles, as "a great new American epic." At first glance, the page count of Bridles seems too slim to be an epic. But within its swift 300 pages, Cheshire's thematic scope is cast wide, capturing a number of deeply intertwined American ideas.

In many ways, the book is a lens into the expanse of American faith and how unshakable it is, even when that relationship is conflicted. From its opening pages, Bridles is heavily doused in apocalyptic language. Twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk delivers a doomsday prophecy to a crowd of four thousand parishioners, all of whom belong to a sect that closely resembles the Jehova's Witnesses. The scene is electric, rapturous.

At Housing Works Bookstore Café in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, where Cheshire wrote most of the novel, he explained his interest exploring America's roots—founded on both religious and apocalyptic ideas.

"If you look at [the country's] very basic mission, which is 'to become a more perfect union', even that phrasing is about benevolence, which is ideally what religion is about: to become better and better and better," Cheshire said. "And there's something even kind of apocalyptic about it. You're striving to get better and better to get to a place of perfection."

High as the Horses' Bridles does a magnificent job unpacking great swaths of the American psyche through a much smaller, more specific family drama. There are strong traces of Cheshire's personal history throughout the book. After the first act, the novel jumps ahead twenty years. Josiah—now Josie—has returned to Queens to take care of his dying father after a decade away from the church.

Continue reading "Horses of the Apocalypse: Scott Cheshire's American Epic" »

Memories of Magadan: Kseniya Melnik's Inspiration for "Snow in May"

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In her new short story collection Snow in May (a Best Books of May pick in Literature & Fiction), Kseniya Melnik explores a breadth of characters--from the past to the near present--and how their lives lead back to the small Russian town of Magadan. It's a diverse but cohesive set of stories, and Melnik, who hails from Magadan, was nice enough to share some photos from her childhood there.


Several of the stories in my debut collection, Snow in May, are set in Magadan, my hometown in the northeast of Russia. Although the older generation associates Magadan with its dark Stalinist history, it is also a place of incredible northern beauty and of tenacious human spirit. I have very happy childhood memories of Magadan; so does my father, who also grew up in Magadan, and my grandfather who has spent many years there. Here are several photos from the family archive of Magadan throughout the years.

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Here is my grandfather and my father watching a volleyball match at the Park of Culture and Leisure circa 1958. This park was not planned as an artificial addition to the city; rather, a chunk of the original forest was left intact. While not strictly a part of tundra or taiga, the trees in the forests surrounding Magadan are quite low due to the cold winds blowing between the two bays. While the city itself was still a collection of small tenements, the park was the gem of Magadan. Throughout the years it featured walking trails, tennis and volleyball courts, children's playgrounds, amusement parks, and even a small zoo. My father remembers seeing a Santa Claus sitting in a sleigh with live reindeer in the park as part of the New Year's celebration. After Stalin's death and the end of the Gulag era, people really strove to create a beautiful life, a brighter future for their children.

Continue reading "Memories of Magadan: Kseniya Melnik's Inspiration for "Snow in May"" »

Fake Proposals, Intriguing Propositions and the Unusual Poetry of Hedgehogs

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I grew up battling my brother in just about every two-player videogame released in the '90s. But little did I know that while my sibling and I were duking it out on our TV, Japanese console manufacturers Sega and Nintendo were similarly engaged in a competition for videogame dominance. This business history is thoroughly detailed in Blake Harris's terrific Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (one of our Best Books of May in both Business & Leadership and History. The book chronicles the ascension of videogames as a minor toy category to one of the biggest media industries in the world. Console Wars is also in production as two movies: a drama starring Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and a documentary.

Harris has been kind enough to share with us this essay all about proposals: book proposals, film proposals, and the biggest surprise proposal of all.


What Would Sonic the Hedgehog Do?

I can’t count the number of times that I asked myself this question while writing Console Wars. Whether I needed a burst of energy, a zap of inspiration, or the courage to pilfer golden rings out of the air, aspiring to be like Sega’s Blue Dude With Attitude often armed me with the craftiness I needed to track down 200+ former employees of Sega and Nintendo. But despite the many ways that thinking about Sonic helped make this book possible, there was an incident a couple years ago where asking myself this seemingly innocent question very nearly ruined my life.

It happened back in December 2011, when my girlfriend Katie and I were at my cousin midtown Manhattan apartment for a holiday party. My mom and dad were there, Grandma too, and even Uncle Bradley and Aunt Erica made the trek all the way from Long Island. In short, all my favorite people on earth were gathered together in one room, and that’s when I made the terrible mistake of asking myself WWSTHD?

Actually, I should amend that statement. My mistake was not so much in asking the question, but rather in not yet knowing Sonic well enough to answer it correctly. In the grand scheme of things, I would end up spending over three years researching and writing Console Wars, but this faux pas took place only one year after my brother had given me a Sega Genesis and inadvertently sent me on the adventure of a lifetime.

This was the console that we had played together as kids—the source of so many late nights, high-fives, and childhood skirmishes resulting from vague allegations of cheating—so naturally I expected that booting it for the first time in two decades would unearth all kinds of memories. And it did, unleashing a hurricane of pixels in my mind. But after the barrage of nostalgia came a bombardment of questions: What ever happened to Sega? Or, better yet, how were they even able to compete against mighty Nintendo in the first place? And ultimately: what the hell was going on behind the scenes all that time?

Continue reading "Fake Proposals, Intriguing Propositions and the Unusual Poetry of Hedgehogs" »

Bombs Over Sad Dad: IMing with Nathan Deuel

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If parenting is the hardest job in the world, imagine doing it in a place of civil unrest. Nathan Deuel's book, Friday Was the Bomb, spans the five years he and his daughter Loretta spent in Turkey and Lebanon as Deuel's wife, an NPR foreign correspondent, reported from Baghdad and Syria. As much as Friday is about living in the Middle East, it's also a moving autobiographical tale of isolation and fatherhood. Here, Deuel has penned a book about fragility with the robustness of an empathetic essayist and the careful eye of a seasoned journalist.

I spoke with Deuel over Gchat about his time abroad, raising his daughter Loretta, the wonders of the internet, and the show Homeland.

Photos and captions throughout are by Deuel as well.


Kevin Nguyen: Nathan, what's your book about? Can you describe it in IMs?

Nathan Deuel: It's about moving to the Middle East in 2008 with my wife, who was a stringer for NPR. We scored visas to Saudi Arabia, one of the least understood and most mysterious countries in the world. We struggled to make a life there and to understand it and to make friends, and then we had a baby there, too.

It was hard and crazy and it all seemed to pay off when Kelly got her dream job.

The problem is that the job was in Baghdad.

The book then follows me to Turkey, where I attempted to raise Loretta mostly by myself, while Kelly dodged mortars and saw the end of our war there.

Then we moved to Lebanon, allegedly this really amazing posting. It was great, until the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war.

After half a decade, we were tired and bleary and strained and it was time to come home, whatever that means.

I think that's the book.

Continue reading "Bombs Over Sad Dad: IMing with Nathan Deuel" »

Pain and Gain: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

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"Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel," Leslie Jamison writes. "It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?"

In her excellent essay collection The Empathy Exams, Jamison takes readers to interior places both familiar and foreign. It feels a bit like traveling. She mines the depths of her personal experiences and numerous literary and cultural touchstones to uncover the limits of human understanding and compassion. In the title essay, Jamison finds herself playing the role of a medical actor, pretending to show different symptoms so medical students can recognize her physical and psychological pains. This becomes the jumping off point for the rest of book, as Jamison finds every way to poke and prod at the concept of "empathy"—how we feel it, how we show it, how we arrive at it.

I spoke with Jamison about the book, her obsession with pain, her tattoo, and what she's working on next.


Amazon: How would you describe the book?

Leslie Jamison: It's a collection of essays that are about really different things. The topics vary so widely in scope, from crazy ultra-marathons to silver mines to weird diseases to my own trauma, but there are these questions that are central to all of it: How do we understand each other's pain? How do we imagine our ways into each other's live? How do we make our own pain legible to others? That's one of the things that I love about how it came together. On the one hand it takes a reader from to all these different places—geographically, mentally, and emotionally—but hopefully there's something chiming in your heart on page 102 that will set in motion something on page 6 and you'll feel these little resonances or subterranean passageways between the pieces.

One thing I love, as the title says, the entire thing is about empathy and pain. But you're really all over the map geographically and thematically. You're in the States and then you're in Nicaragua, then you're referencing some philosopher I've never heard of and then Axl Rose and Bjork. What does that give your book, to have such a wide breadth of experience?

One of the things that's nice about the essay as opposed to book-length narrative nonfiction is that you have the prerogative to move around on axes of ideas rather than having to tell one continuous story. And part of my hope is that different readers can get hooked in to different moments and different ways. So somebody might be really drawn in by thinking about empathy in a medical context and the context of disease and injury. Somebody else might get really hooked in by the absurdity and oddness of what it would be like to be a medical actor. Somebody else might get hooked in by the section on ultra-marathoning because they're into masochism or sports or testosterone. I hope there's a way that people can get hooked at different moments, but if you get hooked in one moment, you might be compelled to go somewhere you wouldn't ordinarily go in terms of your natural interest.

I think of that in terms of ultra-marathoners. When I wrote the piece about the Brooklyn Marathon ("The Immortal Horizon"), when the piece came out a ton of ultra-marathoners, it kind of went viral because there's a strong online community of runners. It meant that all those people were going down the rabbit hole of my writing. A lot of them read my first novel (The Gin Closet) which is all about women in pain basically. Or they'll read other essays in the collection. But once they felt engaged by my voice or what my mind was doing, it's like bait and switching, it's like now I can ask you to think about female pain for another 40 pages.

So your hook is to set up every type of pain possible and see which one people are most likely to respond to.

That's another way it could be a type of exam. I've been playing around with all the different things an "empathy exam" could mean. Because the most literal is the medical students getting examined on their capacity to understand patients. But in another way, I'm testing myself in some way, how well I can communicate or identify with something. And in another way, the essays are testing empathy itself— what is useful about it, what's perilous about it. I like that other idea: that something is getting tested in readers. What do readers find themselves drawn to? What pain sparks something for them? Which figures can they connect to?

Continue reading "Pain and Gain: An Interview with Leslie Jamison" »

A Mystery of Violence: An Interview with Evie Wyld

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All the Birds, Singing is a haunting novel that opens with question: what is killing the sheep? Each morning, Jake Whyte's discovers the mangled remains of one of her flock, and it's unclear whether the culprit is a group of teenagers, a fox, or something far more sinister. But in Evie Wyld's second novel, the questions beget more important questions, expanding into Jake's mysterious past and the reasons she fled a life in the Australian bush. All the Birds, Singing is a crafty piece of literary fiction with a delightful horror bend. I spoke with Wyld about the novel, her use of landscape, physical and psychological violence, and what she's writing next.


Amazon: What's the book about?

Evie Wyld: It is about a woman living on her own, looking after some sheep in the UK. Something is killing her sheep in the night and then it looks at her childhood and adolescence in Australia and growing up her life as a shearer and working backward toward something very dark in her past. It alternates chapters trying work out what's killing the sheep and if she's going to be alright.

You basically have modern-day sent on a British island and all the flashbacks in Australia. Was it difficult to maintain these parallel narratives?

I think that's just how I write. I always start out with one character and then to get to know them I find it essential to find out about their childhood, their parents, and sometimes their parents' parents. I feel like a person is so much their past that I find it almost impossible to write about someone just in the now.

It's so tied to the environment. You lived in Australia and also in the U.K.

Yeah, I'm mostly lived in England, in London. When I was small, we'd go every other year to Australia and spend two or three months there because that's where my mum's family is from. I think that sort of does something—that it was my favorite place in the world. When you're not there, you're thinking about it. And also your imagination is making it into something slightly different, slightly more magical. It was a magical place for me as a kid because you had so much freedom to just go off on your own. And as long as you didn't poke a snake with a stick, you were alright.

Since so much of the novel is about isolation, the environments become characters themselves. I've never visited either of these places, but with Australia representing the past and the isle representing the present, could you have switched them?

I think part of the thing that draws me to Australia is the landscape, its hugeness. Much like America, you can have somebody on the run in one country. In England, it still happens, but it's much harder to escape. You can drive the UK in one day, so it just feels like there's so much more potential to hide yourself in somewhere like Australia. And a lot of Jake's childhood and adolescence involved running away.

Continue reading "A Mystery of Violence: An Interview with Evie Wyld" »

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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National Book Award 2013 Finalists Announced

Flamethrowers

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.

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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.

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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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