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About Neal Thompson

Neal is a journalist/author, an amateur photographer/videographer, and a compulsive reader-writer whose rampant tastes veer from narrative non-fiction to literary fiction to long-form journalism to memoir/biography to sports, history, food, music, and so on. He's also a dad/driver/banker/chef to two skateboarding teen sons and an avid skier and runner. Favorite way to kill an hour: a book, a bourbon, and some Miles Davis.

Posts by Neal

Books-to-Film: Jonathan Tropper's "This Is Where I Leave You" -- Watch the Movie Trailer

When Jonathan TropTropperper's novel This Is Where I Leave You was published in 2009--and soon after named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Year--our reviewer, Daphne Durham, described the book as "wickedly funny ... as much about a family's reckoning as it is about one man's attempt to get it together."

Tropper's protagonist is now being portrayed by Jason Bateman, in the film of the same name, which is releasing this weekend. It also stars Tina Fey and Jane Fonda.

Listen to Durham speak with Tropper in this audio podcast.

At the time, Tropper described his protagonist as a man "dealing with the complete unraveling of his life ... he just wonders how much further he has to sink before he starts climbing back up."

In her review, Durham called Tropper "a master of the cutting one-liner that makes you both cringe and crack up.

"But what elevates his novels and makes him a truly splendid writer is his ability to create fantastically flawed, real characters who stay with you long after the book is over."

How I Wrote It: Lin Enger, on "The High Divide"

LinSet in the 1880s, mostly in the wilderness of the Montana Territory, Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, tells the sweeping story of a man on the run, from both his family and his past. It's also the story of the bloody history of the northern plains, the slaughter of bison herds and of the native Plains Indians. The High Divide (on sale 9/23) is one of our Best Books of the Month editors' picks in literature and fiction.

~

Origins

This novel comes from three places:

First, from my lifelong fascination with the American bison, the buffalo, an interest I attribute to a family legend dating back to 1884, when my great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, supposedly shot and killed one of the last wild buffalo in Dakota Territory. The animal was drinking from the stock tank behind his sod barn.

The second source (related to the first) was my discovery some fifteen years ago of a bit of history I found remarkable, and remarkably ironic. I came across it in a book called The Time of the Buffalo, by Tom McHugh. In 1886, William Temple Hornaday, curator and chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., realized the museum possessed not one good specimen of the American bison.  Aware that the animal was near extinction, he organized in the fall of that year an expedition into Montana Territory to collect specimens--a hunt that resulted in the “harvest” of 25 bison, which Hornaday then fashioned into a lifelike panorama that stood on display in the Smithsonian until 1957.

Third, and entirely unrelated to the first two--and for reasons I cannot fathom--I’ve long wanted to write a novel about children forced to go in search of a missing father. And it was this father I invented, and his wife and their children, who became the focus of the novel.

I should add: my best stories come from the collision of two or more very divergent ideas.

HighReader

I didn’t know it when I started, but by the time I finished the novel, I was writing to remind readers in this forward-leaning country to pause, take an honest look back, and remember how we came into possession of the continent we occupy. It is not a noble story, and those who lived it--those on every side of the struggle--suffered all kinds of losses. And in fact the story has never ended. As a third-generation immigrant, I couldn’t tell it from a Native perspective, but I was able to tell it from the point of view of a soldier caught up in the Indian Wars, and from the perspectives of his wife and his sons, who (like the families of all war veterans) fall into the category, you might say, of collateral damage.

Space

Not exactly by choice, I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself?  Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886. I also wrote in other places: coffee shops, libraries, hotel rooms, anywhere. Writing a novel is such an immersion experience--you have to take it with you; it refuses to be left at home.

Since finishing the book, my wife and I have downsized into a smaller house, and I recently acquired a standing desk (salvaged from a library) that I’ve placed along the empty east wall of our bedroom. That’s where I’m writing the next book.

Tools

I write first drafts with a mechanical pencil on narrow-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Then I type that draft into a MacBook and start the work of rewriting and revising. For this book, I made an effort to complete the first draft quickly; I was teaching full-time and had only one or two hours a day, but I was still able to finish the draft in about six months. At every writing session I filled between two and four notebook pages with a very small cursive script. When I write letters or academic prose, I work on the laptop keyboard, but when I write fiction I need the personal connection of my fingers gripping the pencil, the lead script scratching its way onto the lined paper. Often, I am able to move more deeply into the world I’m making if I take off my glasses (I’m very near-sighted) and bend my head right down into the words as they appear. Anything to erase the distance between myself and the story, which seems to exist as a thing apart from me.

Words

As a professor, I read all the time--books I’m teaching, student papers and stories, masters’ theses.  I’m always having to push my own work aside. And so when I can finally turn my attention to it, when I’m finally looking at a space of time ahead of me, writing time--especially summers--it doesn’t take much to prime the pump; the flow is there, and the writing comes pretty fast and joyfully. Which is not to say it isn’t hard work. It is. But hard work can be fun, draft after draft of it before scenes and characters have taken on the lives I envision for them. I wrote five drafts of this novel, and not one person read it until I was satisfied that it was finished.

But what am I reading now? The Grapes of Wrath. An old college friend recently told me he’d just read it for the first time, and that shamed me into giving it another try. Wow. Steinbeck’s vision, his compassion, his encyclopedic rendering of a place and time, it’s blowing me away. When I’m working on a first draft, though, I don’t have the mental space to read other people’s fiction--or to read much of anything besides what is required of my teacher-self. Once in revision mode, I’ll read again, preferably fiction writers whose sentences I admire: James Welch, Cormac McCarthy, James Salter.

Inspiration

My inspiration was the research I did in order to get things right--or try to. I read books about the bison, about Native American history and culture, about the Indian Wars of the late-nineteenth century, about the settlement of the West. The temptation, of course, was to keep on reading and put off the writing, because there was never a time when I thought, “Yes, now I’m ready: I know everything I have to know.” Never happened. I just had to plunge in and trust I wouldn’t drown.

Temptation

I have this terrible inclination, as soon as the writing starts going well, to push away from the desk, notebook, or laptop, and go do something absolutely unnecessary--make something to eat or mow the lawn. It’s like some part of my self doesn’t want the writer part to see the project through. So I have to be constantly on guard against this urge. On the other hand, when I find myself struggling with a scene or a sentence or a plot turn, beating my head against a wall and unwilling to give up until I find the answer, that’s when I have to force myself to leave the writing for a few minutes and go for a walk. And if I do that--just step away--many times the problem will dissolve, almost by itself, and I can return to my desk with a clear path ahead.

~

Lin Enger is an Iowa Workshop graduate, the author of the novel Undiscovered Country, and the recipient of a James Michener Award and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ascent, Great River Review, Wolf Head Quarterly, and other journals. He teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Visit his website: www.lin-enger.com.

 

How I Wrote It: Ian Buruma, on Art and Drama, Violence and Cruelty

BurumaAs an author and a contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, Ian Buruma has repeatedly returned to topics that ceaselessly fascinate him: war, violence, art, religion, often all at once. In Theater of Cruelty (on sale tomorrow, Sept. 16, from NYRB), Buruma explores the intersection of culture and violence, in particular how one emerged from the other before and after World War II. As he explains in the book's introduction, he is "fascinated by what makes the human species behave so atrociously" and, at the same time, by those who "looked into the abyss and made art of what they saw."  

~

All the essays in Theater of Cruelty were originally written for The New York Review of Books. All follow my personal interests, often linked to my own life history. What holds them together between the hard covers of a book are the themes that have fascinated me over the years: movies, modern Japan, Berlin in the Weimar Period, English culture, and the way we cannot shake off the dark shadows of World War Two.

BurumaReader

I have an ideal reader, and sometimes I project the familiar faces of various friends on him/her. Such a reader is not necessarily academic, or even an intellectual. Intelligent, yes, and curious, with a sense of humor, and a sense of style, and, above all, a low tolerance for boredom.

Space

My desk is a mess of papers, books, unopened letters, bills, but also of photographs, a wooden Egyptian head, a Chinese porcelain vase from the Cultural Revolution, and a picture of my uncle and me in Cecil B. DeMille's garden in Hollywood. I guess these are inspiring.

Tools

I use an Apple Mac now. But many of the pieces in the book were written on an assortment of PCs. None were written on a typewriter. The last book I wrote on a typewriter was Behind the Mask: on sexual demons, sacred mothers, transvestites, gangsters, drifters and other Japanese cultural heroes, which came out in 1984.

Inspiration

To blow the cobwebs from my mind, I take walks. That is when the best ideas often come to me. It is the perfect thing to do when I get stuck.

Fuel

I snack on salty Dutch licorice, which I buy at Amsterdam airport. These rubbery candies that come in the shape of coins, or little cats, or Dutch houses are thought to be disgusting by most people, but are a delicacy to the native born. It is one of my last links to the Netherlands, where I grew up, that and an irrational and undying support of the Dutch national soccer team.

Temptation

The temptation is to troll the Internet. You tube is especially lethal as a distraction. I'll watch anything, from cheesy British comedians of the 1950s, to World War Two newsreels from Nazi Germany, to Carl Perkins performing Blue Suede Shoes. (see below) Anything really, to keep me from staring at the blank page on the computer screen.

~

> See all of Ian Buruma's books

(Photo Copyright Michael Childers)

 

From the Archives: Bigfoot vs. Nessie? No Contest, Says Sasquatch Expert

As I was searching through the Omniovoracious archives yesterday for stories about David Foster Wallace (who died on Sept. 12, 2008--see yesterday's DFW remembrance), I came across this oldie-goodie from 2009...

Don't get me wrong: I don't think there's any connection between Sasquatch and David Foster Wallace.

~

Omni Daily Crush: "Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend"

BfIf I had to choose between the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, I'd take Bigfoot. The obvious choice, hands down. For every reason that Bigfoot is awesome:

  • An air of mystery and danger
  • A worldwide family, such as the Himalayan Yeti
  • Silent sentinel of the forest

there's one why the Loch Ness Monster is not:

  • Not scary
  • There is only one, and we're apparently to believe it lives forever
  • Clearly a duck

Now signs indicate there's the largest resurgence of interest in the hirsute hominid since the Six Million Dollar Man made him an international sensation. (Note: this will happen after the werewolf craze that sweeps the nation, once this vampire thing has run its course. I have a sense for these things.)

The first flare was last year's fantastic corpse hoax, and now comes Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs (The University of Chicago Press). Buhs isn't on the cryptozoologist's quest; there's no squatting and hooting in the woods, nor gripping of infrared cameras and parabolic mics. He takes the cultural fork, respectfully--though skeptically--examining the origins of Sasquatch folklore, the obsessives who chase him, the fakers who fake him, and what the fuss says about our society and shifting attitudes toward everything from the environment to the economy. Meticulously researched, Bigfoot features plenty of photographs (though not so many of the monster), and comes bound in cool, woodsy end-papers.

Recommended for fans of The Legend of Boggy Creek and David Skal's The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, as well as all the '70s kids who searched for Sasquatch tracks in the woods behind their houses.

--Jon

From the Archives: Remembering David Foster Wallace

JestDavid Foster Wallace died on this date in 2008 at the age of 46.

The novelist, short story writer, and essayist left behind some of the most widely admired American fiction of the past fifty years, particularly his 1996 novel, the brilliant and bewildering Infinite Jest. In memory of his influence and innovation, here are two stories from the Omnivoracious archives, both contributed by Wallace's biographer, D.T. Max. 

~

From 2012...

DFWFour years after Wallace's death by suicide, the brilliant and troubled writer still inspires curiosity and awe. As D.T. Max found while researching his critically acclaimed Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (an Amazon Best Biography of the Month pick in September, which the New York Times called "gripping" and "a page turner") there's still much we don't know about "DFW." Even a casual student or reader of Wallace's knows about his depression, his addictions, and his fragile genius. We asked Max to tells us a few things we didn't know about the man the Los Angeles Times has called "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years."

  1. David-foster-wallace-by-marion-ettlingerHe loved U2 and disliked the B-52s. Also loved Enya, at least for a while. He claimed he'd never heard of Nirvana until Kurt Cobain's suicide.
  2. His favorite foods were hot dogs and blondies. He loved Dr. Pepper, Diet and otherwise.
  3. His favorite writers were Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Don Delillo, Manuel Puig, Julio Cortazar, and Jean Rhys. He called them his "personal Mt. Olympus." He also loved Tom Clancy novels and at least once claimed Fear of Flying was among his ten favorites. Not likely.
  4. He was afraid of sharks and kept clippings of particularly grisly shark attacks. Probably it was a mistake to go to Jaws when he was thirteen.
  5. Nothing DFW wrote sounds like anyone else, not even his letters. The longest sentence he ever wrote may be in The Pale King. It begins: "Part of what kept him standing in the restive group of men waiting authorization to enter the airport was a kind of paralysis that resulted from Sylvanshine’s reflecting on the logistics of getting to the Peoria 047 REC...." It goes on for 1185 words, per Mr. Smartypants at the web site frothygirlz.com, who counted them. But as he/she also pointed out: DFW could write short when he wanted to too. He writes in "Incarnations of Burned Children": “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.” DFW never did but he knew heartbreak anyway.

(Photo by Marion Ettlinger)

~

From 2013...

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:

>See all of David Foster Wallace's books.

How I Wrote It: Debut Author Michael Pitre, on "Fives and Twenty-Fives"

5sIn early 2011, Michael Pitre found himself transfixed by the Arab Spring protests flaring throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

At the time, he’d been separated from the U.S. Marine Corps for a year and, nearing the fourth anniversary of his second tour in Iraq, was settling into civilian life while writing fiction in his spare time.

Until Arab Spring, he’d had little interest in writing about his experiences in Iraq. "I was very reticent to write anything from the perspective of the Marines or US servicemen in Iraq," he said. "I just liked to write. This is something I did at night to amuse myself."

But then, watching young men and women displaying such courage against well-armed authorities, willing to take a bullet for their beliefs... "It just flipped a switch for me," the New Orleans-based author said during a happy-hour visit to Amazon headquarters in Seattle last week.

Pitre began thinking about Iraqis he'd worked with during his two tours (2006 and 2007)--men and women who had taken "insane risks" to help U.S. troops. "I started thinking about what had happened to them," he said. He tried writing a story about an Iraqi translator, which slowly, with nudges from his wife, evolved into the three entwined narratives that comprise his stunning first novel, Fives and Twenty Fives (Amazon's Best of the Month “Debut Spotlight” for September).

Pitre-2The novel follows two Marines and their Iraqi interpretor working in a high-risk road repair platoon, shifting between their time in Iraq and their troubled postwar lives. Though Pitre’s experience was much different from his fictional characters, he did send early drafts to friends from his old battalion, and was encouraged by their feedback, which was: Not everyone's a hero. Not every day was good. Not every meal tasted great. This is a true story. “That was the response I was hoping for," he said.

He also received encouragement from his wife, whom he'd met during his first deployment, and corresponded with by letter and email during both deployments--emails and letters that came in handy while writing the novel. "I wrote it because my wife told me to, more than anything," he said, only half joking. She basically told him: If you can't sleep, and you're going to keep me awake, go to the living room and do something productive. He started writing in the evenings, and would update his wife on the fate of his characters. "They became like members of our family," he said.

"I didn't know I needed catharsis until those moments with my wife,” he said. “I think she knew I needed catharsis more than I did."

~

Five things about the author:

  • Born in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, into a close-knit Cajun family.
  • His father worked in the oil industry, and Pitre spent part of his youth living in West Texas, for a while attending school in the football-crazed town featured in Friday Night Lights.
  • Studied history and creative writing at LSU, with plans to become a teacher, but after Sept. 11, 2001 was inspired to join the Marine Corps.
  • Deployed to Iraq in 2006 (as a communications platoon commander) and 2007 (as combat operations center watch officer), both times at a base called Al Taqaddum. Left the Marines in 2010 as a captain.
  • Lives in New Orleans with his wife, working for an insurance company and writing his next novel.

How I Wrote It: James Ellroy, on WWII and His Second LA Quartet

PerfidiaThe “enormity” of December 7, 1941 still resonates for James Ellroy. It's an event that rippled through his home city of Los Angeles and is now at the core of his new novel, which uses the Pearl Harbor bombing as the trigger point for a cascading series of interconnected lives and storylines, exploring politics, race, sex, corruption and more.

Perfidia is the first book in a planned quartet--Ellroy calls it his Second L.A. Quartet--a prelude to the first quartet, which included The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.

Ellroy's goal was to write a big novel about “big internal conflict, big murder cases, juxtaposed against history,” in particular the resulting internment of Japanese immigrants. In his well-known bombastic fashion, he called Perfidia “the secret human infrastructure of enormous public events. It’s Ellroy’s Ragtime.”

The Japanese internment “was racial animus writ very large,” he said, citing the lack of internment for Italian or German immigrants.

Perfidia brings back fictional and real life characters from the first Quartet, Ellroy said, and puts them “in the cauldron of World War II ... Perfidia marks the chronological beginning of my life’s work.”

As with his previous books, the low-tech author wrote Perfidia longhand in ballpoint pen.

We spoke with Ellroy earlier this summer in New York. Perfidia goes on sale today.

XKCD Webcomic Creator Randall Munroe Asks: "What If?"

WhatifWhat if I swam in a pool of spent nuclear fuel?

What would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?

How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?

Could you get drunk from drinking a drunk person's blood?

If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

These are the kinds of questions Randall Munroe receives daily from his millions of loyal, curious, and sometimes worrisome fans, at his crazily popular webcomic site, xkcd.

A former NASA roboticist--who now has an asteroid (4942 Munroe) named after him--Munroe responds to fans’ bizarre questions using computer simulations, military research, complex math equations, and consulting with experts. His responses, complemented by his stick-figure drawings, are mini masterpieces that often predict the annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.

Monroe's new book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, is a Best Books of the Month selection that’s currently ranked #1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Which helps explain the overflow crowd that came to hear him speak today on Amazon’s Seattle campus, where he was greeted like a rock star. (He's also recently been on NPR and the Colbert Report.)

MunroeBefore a very appreciative audience--more than a few of them engineers--Munroe explored a few sample questions from the book, including: What if you tried to build a periodic table made of brick-sized chunks of each corresponding element? Ultimately, he explained in his very deadpan delivery, by the time you got to the seventh row of the elements, you would've ignited a series of explosions that kept igniting more explosions. "Within the first few seconds you’ve had several Hiroshimas worth of energy released,” he said, revealing a drawing of a giant mushroom cloud over the United States.

Munroe also explored a scenario involving the fastest possible means of delivering an Amazon package across the country, by drone. After a complex series of calculations, the result was also a massive explosion and a mushroom cloud. “There is no conceivable reason to deliver a package this fast,” he said.

The What If? blog grew from a physics lecture Munroe once gave to high schoolers at MIT. As he watched the students tune out, in the same way he'd tuned out in boring classes, he decided to find ways to make science more interesting. But he admitted that his ultimate goal isn't really to teach, but to learn.

“The real reason I’m doing this is: I really want to know the answer to these questions,” said Munroe (who asked not to be photographed during his visit. That's his self portrait to the right.)

~

AnimorphAsked about his five favorite books, Munroe semi-seriously cited the Animorphs series--particularly books #5 and #26. "So I guess that's two..."

He also mentioned these three:

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

    "I felt like it was one of the books that nailed the vibe I was going for with writing What If ... It's a what-if scenario: what if people disappeared overnight."

Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter

    "I've read it many times, each time understanding a little more of what I was reading as I was growing up."

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.

    “As someone who grew up in the country, it was just mind blowing, in terms of explaining how cities actually work ... It corrected all these misconceptions I had about cities, some of which I learned from playing Sim City.”


 

 

Ink in the Veins: Books by Newspaper Reporters

SimonFrom 1997 to 2002, I worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, capping a fifteen-year stretch in newspapers. One thing I loved about the job was getting paid to tell a story every single day, and to read great stories by writers I admired: crime stories, courtroom dramas, political intrigue, heartwarming features, longform investigations, profiles, and even the obits--I’m still a sucker for the well-crafted summary of a well-played life.

At the Sun, I had the privilege of working alongside an exceptional group of writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to aspiring novelists. And in the years since, I’ve watched many of them transition from daily journalism into books. Leading the way at the Sun was David Simon, who, before going on to produce The Wire and Treme, was a helluva reporter who wrote two classics of immersive, journalistic nonfiction: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (both of which became television shows).

Simon is now married to one of my favorite writers, novelist and Baltimore Sun alum Laura Lippman, who told me by email that her success as an author “is rooted in the good habits I learned at The Sun and other newspapers.”

"Reporters in general are well-suited to publishing," Lippman said. "Deadlines, a commitment to clean copy--they're second nature to most of us. Or should be."

BobTwo of Amazon’s recent Best Books of the Month were penned by former Baltimore Sun colleagues: Bob Timberg’s amazing memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy, about his recovery from horrific injuries sustained in the Vietnam War--and his decision to become a journalist despite his disfiguring wounds; and Dan Fesperman’s timely thriller about drone warfare, Unmanned.

This two-fer from Baltimore comes on the heals of other books by Sun alumni: Cheryl Tan's recent Singapore Noir, David Folkenflik's Murdoch's World, and the latest from Sarah PekkanenThe Best of Us. Coming this fall is a memoir by David Greene (now at NPR), which will find a spot on my shelf beside other books by Sun reporters, former and current, including: Del Wilber, Sujata Massey, Stephen Hunter, Robert Ruby, Scott HighamScott Shane, Raffael AlvarezJim Haner, Fraser Smith, an Tom Waldron. (An honorable mention to Brigid Schulte, Washington Post reporter/author and wife of Sun alum Tom Bowman, now NPR's Pentagon correspondent. And Lippman pointed out that Russell Baker, William Manchester, and Anthony Lukas worked at the Sun or Evening Sun, too.)

DanI asked Fesperman for his thoughts on reporters becoming authors. “By the time I quit newspapers for good I was writing a lot of long-form narrative stories, which meant I had to set scenes, present characters and even develop a sense of pacing, dramatic tension, and so on. All of that was great practice," he told me. "But I think the most underrated skill you develop as a journalist is learning to be a careful observer and a good listener, even an eavesdropper at times.”

Of course, the Sun is hardly alone in employing reporters who also write great fiction or nonfiction. During my years as a journalist (in New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) I collected plenty of books by colleagues. I spent my first year after college sitting across from mob writer George Anastasia, at the Philadelphia Inquirer. More recent reporter-turned-author colleagues include Doug Most, Michael Hudson, and Beth Macy, who I recently interviewed about her bestselling book, Factory Man

We’re writers, after all. We tell stories. And most of the journalists I’ve known have yearned, at least now and then, to break free from the confines of the daily paper. Still, it's always seemed to me that the Sun in particular was a fertile breeding ground for authors.

LauraLippman agreed... "I've always thought there must be a reason that so many Sun reporters (my father included) wrote books 'on the side'," she said. "Part of it, I think, was that some people got to The Sun and didn't really have a burning desire to go further in newspapers. It was a good paper in a good news town. So if you removed the usual ambition of onward and upward through the newspaper hierarchy, I think it freed up one's ambitions to pursue other things. Novels, in my case."

In Lippman's case--and in mine--she got an unintended boost from the Sun toward writing novels. "I've always been grateful that I had a falling-out with the powers-that-be there because it forced me to choose books over newspapers, and that turned out to be a good choice for me,"  she said.

(Disclosure: When I started researching my first book, an angry editor told me it wasn’t possible to write a book and still be a good reporter. And I thought: but wait... David Simon? Bob Woodward? I soon left the Sun and started writing books full time, which may partly explain my devotion to books by writers with beats and bylines in their past.)

 

How I Wrote It: Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” and 5 Books for Labor Day

BethBeth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.

Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.

“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”

In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.  

~

FactoryWhat sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?

I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).

How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?

Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.

What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?

He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.

I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.

What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?

Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.

How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?

I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.

Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?

Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.

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Recommended books:

Hairstons1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes. 

2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance. 

3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend. 

4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos. 

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses. 

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> Visit Macy's website

> Follow her on Twitter


 

Smoking Gun: 5 Crime Novels Elmore Leonard Might Have Loved

LeonardA year ago, we lost a legend of American crime and suspense writing.

Elmore Leonard died on this day at the age of 87, after a six-decade career that produced dozens of crime novels, westerns, and short stories, many of which found their way to big and small screens (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Justified).

Today is also the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, whose posthumously-celebrated pulp and horror stories inspired such writers as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, who once credited Lovecraft with having "an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction."

In honor of Leonard and Lovecraft, here’s a look at some recent and upcoming books that both men might’ve appreciated--menacing, suspenseful, and smart, with tough-talking characters both flawed and hardened, set in not-so-friendly locales, from dive bars to mob hangouts, rural cabins to reservations, from the Deep South to Duluth.

Kent

Windigo Island, William Kent Krueger

Two teenage girls disappear from an Ojibwe reservation called Bad Bluff. When one of them washes up dead on the shore of Lake Superior, former sheriff turned private investigator Cork O’Connor vows to find the other girl. His search takes him to dark places and in the path of some very bad men.

Quake

Brainquake, Samuel Fuller

B-movie director Fuller, who died in 1997, left behind this pulpy, violent, throwback of a novel about a "bagman," Paul Page, who's paid to transport cash for the mob. He also has a rare brain disorder that causes seizures. When he witnesses the murder of a gorgeous mob wife, well... think Tarantino.

Cain

One Kick, Chelsea Cain

As a child, Kick Lannigan had been kidnapped and held captive for five years. Now, at age twenty-one, she's a kick-ass investigator trained in guns, explosives, and martial arts (think Lisbeth Sander)--and the obvious choice for a wealthy arms dealer who needs help finding children who have been abducted.

Ace

The Forsaken, Ace Atkins

In Jericho, Mississippi, flawed but earnest county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out to prove that the nameless black man who 36 years earlier had been accused of rape and murder, who was hunted down by a self-appointed posse and lynched, was innocent. But is Colson as innocent as he seems?

Girl

The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, a young inner-city art teacher, leaves a bar with a handsome, smooth talking stranger. Instead of a one-night stand, Mia finds herself in a rural Minnesota cabin, the victim of a kidnapping gone awry, regretting the biggest mistake of her life and hoping her wealthy family can find her.

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40And don't miss the latest from Dean Koontz (The City); C.J. Box (Shots Fired); Tim Weaver (Never Coming Back); and an excellent new thriller by Dwayne Alexander Smith (Forty Acres).

And here are six more Leonard-esque novels, coming soon:

 

How I Wrote It: Karen Abbott, on Maverick Women and the Civil War

Karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1719461246While sitting in Atlanta traffic years ago, Karen Abbott noticed the bumper sticker on the pickup truck in front of her: "Don't blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis." She realized that many southerners not only felt residual pride for their long-ago Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but that they were "still fighting the Civil War down here."

From those origins comes Abbott's new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, the story of four female spies, two from each side, including one who disguised herself as a male soldier in the Union army. The book is a thrilling look at the forgotten role subversive women played in the Civil War. "They didn't have political discourse. They didn't have access to the vote. What could they do?" Abbott said.

With playfulness, enthusiasm, and a bit of naughty, Abbott gives us an energetic and witty new take on the Civil War. It's a story as much about women's rights and breaking marital shackles as it is about espionage and subterfuge. Her curiosity is contagious, as is her admiration for the maverick women who "longed to be useful" in a man's war.

Abbott is the bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. We spoke with her at the annual Book Expo America in New York, in late May of 2014.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy goes on sale Sept. 2.

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>See all of Abbott's books

>Visit her website

>Follow her on Twitter

Even More End-of-the-World Books: Customer Picks

StandLast week I wrote about a few doomsday books out this summer, including Emily St. John Mandel’s forthcoming Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble.

I also asked for some suggestions from our Omnivoracious readers and Facebook followers. We received a handful of shout-outs for Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which was also on our original list) and lots of love for Stephen King's The Stand. On Facebook, Terry said King "brings it in that book" and Malina called The Stand "a must!" 

Here are more suggestions from our friends of dystopian fiction:

  • Michele: HELLO??? How about The Passage by Justin Cronin!
  • BlindTodd: I think "Blindness" always stands out to me as a book that shows us just how fragile society is.
  • Laura: Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh is very good.This follows a group of friends as resources become scarce and society starts to crumble. An interesting different view of what might be our end.
  • Patsy: Alas Babylon
  • Dave: #1: Walter Miller, "A Canticle for Leibowitz." #2: George Stewart, "Earth Abides."
  • June: The HAB Theory by Allen Eckhert. I read it in the 70's , long before global warming became an issue. It utterly moved me. I was running around for weeks telling people "we are doomed!" Warning, do not read the book's last sentence ahead of reading the entire book. actually, really should not have said that, 'cos now you will not be able to resist......
  • Elizabeth: On The Beach
  • Sarah: 1984 by George Orwell, The Stand by Stephen King ... can't pick just one!
  • Stacy: The Chemical Gardens series, Z for Zachariah, The White Mountain trilogy
  • Aaron: Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren" or maybe Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun"
  • Ralph: How could you leave out "The Stand" by Stephen King, and "Swan Song" by Robert R McCammon?
  • David: "Rescue Party" - Sir Arthur C. Clarke. (Actually a short story, but still...)
  • Ryan: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
  • Andi: My absolute favourite? Z for Zachariah. Doesn't even matter that it's theoretically a kid's book.

 

Chip Kidd, on Designing Haruki Murakami's 5-Fingered Book Cover

Murakami2 Murakami-kidd

“You know, in a sense we were the perfect combination, the five of us. Like five fingers.”

So declares Ao Oumi--better known as Blue--to Tsukuru Tazaki, otherwise known as Colorless. They and their other three friends--Aka (Red), Shiro (White), and Kuro (Black)--were inseparable in high school. But that changes abruptly when, during the summer break of Tsukuru’s sophomore year of college, the other four suddenly cast Tsukuru out. They forbid him to ever contact any of them again, for no apparent reason, and thus begins his agonizing journey to find out why.

When considering the design of Haruki Murakami’s masterful Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I wanted to make something that not only demanded to be held, but decoded too. I guess you could say the same thing about 1Q84, but this was going to be completely different, because it’s such a different book. Just logistically, the title is so much longer, while the text itself is so much shorter. That demanded a smaller trim size, which also bulked the book out to feel like a box that needs to be opened.

The five fingers analogy is only mentioned that one time, but it really stuck with me. I decided to make Tazaki the ‘thumb,’ the anchor that unifies the other four yet is separated from them. When you first look at the book, you may or may not see the hand, but  it doesn’t really matter. What you definitely see is that there is something going on behind the facade. The ‘fingers’ are actually windows, holes that give onto an entirely different scene that relies on the visual iconography of Tokyo’s subway/rail system--a universe unto itself where Tsukuru finds solace and eventually a livelihood as an engineer. The friends become train lines, and Tsukuru intersects each them, one by one.

As with every book by Mr. Murakami, this was a thrill to work on. I was able to design the interior too, and I should add here that along with Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, there is definitely something weird going on with the page numbers. I can’t really say what it is, but if you search carefully enough--definitely a theme of the story--you’ll come to understand.

--Chip Kidd 

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1Q84

How I Wrote It: Ben Mezrich, on His New Novel, "Seven Wonders"

BenaboutBen Mezrich is best known for his bestselling geeks-to-riches nonfiction stories, particularly Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, both of which became major motion pictures. In Seven Wonders, on sale Sept. 2, Mezrich returns to his roots: fiction. Don't worry ... there are still geeks.

Seven Wonders features an Indiana Jones-type character, Jack Grady, an adventurous anthropologist who sets out to learn who murdered his estranged mathematician brother, Jeremy, who had uncovered some ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies during his research into the Seven Wonders of the World.

The first in a planned trilogy, writing Seven Wonders was a liberating experience for Mezrich, freeing him to write a thriller and at the same time indulge his lifelong obsession with mythology and ancient cultures. "I loved every minute of it," he said. "I felt untethered--although a lot of people have felt that I've been untethered all along."

Mezrich spoke with us during a visit to Seattle.

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>See all of Mezrich's books

  Seven

Amazon Music Book Club: Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy on Self-Help Books & Graphic Novels

Thanks to our friends at the Amazon Music Notes blog for this "Book Club" Q&A with Travie McCoy, frontman for Gym Class Heroes, discussing self-help books and graphic novels. Amazon Music Book Club explores the literary influences on today's musicians.

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image

Reading has a formative effect on a person, inspiring how they see the world and understand their place within it. This seems even more pronounced for artists, who take pieces of everything they experience with them into their own creations. With that in mind, we want to know how reading and literature influence your favorite musicians and the songs they’ve written.

Travie McCoy, frontman New York City’s rap/pop/rock outfit Gym Class Heroes, has always loved books and has been interested in stories and how they can be told from an early age. Although literary references only occasionally pop up in his songs, McCoy--who’s currently working on his second solo album--is deeply influenced by what he reads. We spoke with Travie about his history with reading, how much self-help books can actually help and his love for graphic novels.

What sorts of books were your entry point into reading as a kid?

I loved Roald Dahl books and anything by Shel Silverstein. Where The Sidewalk Ends and stuff like that. I also loved Where The Wild Things Are. But I think Shel Silverstein was my favorite. He actually came to my school and spoke when I was younger and it blew my mind. It was really awesome. Those types of books were my sh*t. And then we’d have book fairs and the Choose Your Own Adventure books came out, which I loved. I loved graphic novels, too. Hellboy, which I am still a fan of.

What’s your most memorable reading experience from your childhood?

There is a book called The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. That was the first book I read without anyone telling me to or having to write a paper on it. I just picked it up and read it. It was a really cool book. It was about this kid who got out of the ghetto and became a boxer. It was really intense. I finished it and I was like, “Whoa, I read a book!” I didn’t have to and there was no consequence if I didn’t, so it was awesome.

Do you still feel that sense of wonder when you finish a book now?

Kind of! It feels good to have the last few pages left and knowing you’re about to finish it. The last five or six pages is always completely good stuff so I get the trembles when I get there. It makes me happy. That’s the best feeling.

Is there a certain type of book you’re drawn to now?

I love self-help books. When you’re younger you think you know everything and then there are these people who are older and have been through everything you’ve been through and have written books about it. I started buying them. I’ve always drawn to the self-help section of any bookstore.

Do you find that they really do help you?

Yeah. There was a book a friend of mine gave me that started my self-help journey. It’s a book called Meditation In Action. It’s a book about how to deal with stress while you’re actually in the situations. You think about meditation as being in a peaceful place, but this is more dealing with the workplace or other people on a daily basis. It was a cool book. I read it three or four times.

What are you currently reading?

A friend of mine gave me The War of Art. Going into writing the record I’m writing now I hit a wall and he was like “Yo, if this book doesn’t help you I don’t know what will.” It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s been super helpful as far as when I do get writers block. I have tricks now to get out of those times or getting my mind off knowing that I do have writers block.

As a fan of graphic novels, could you suggest a good place for readers new to the genre?

Frank Miller. He did the Sin City series. They’re really easy to read and the illustrations are amazing. I thought the books would be ruined in the movie and the movie just made me more excited to read more Frank Miller. The story is really bold. There’s not a lot of words but the ones that are there are really powerful. If anybody wanted to jump off into graphic novels those would be the starting point.

Does the books you read directly influence your songwriting?

Yeah, of course. Anything I find valuable and knowledgeable sticks with me, and I think that knowledge is passed on, whether it’s in conversation or song. I think the last time I put something I read directly in a song was on Gym Class Heroes’ album The Quilt. There was a song called “Drnk Txt Rmeo.” I took some lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and twisted them. I don’t know if anyone has actually caught on to that yet. It was pretty fun.

Is there a certain book you would recommend to fans of your music?

There isn’s a certain book, but anything by Shel Silverstein, if fans of my music want to understand where my writing is coming from. They were funny, a lot of them had rhymes to them, the stories were great. My music is telling stories a lot of times and adding some humor and rhymes. Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl helped a lot with that.

Dystopian Fiction: 8 Doomsday Books and "No More Avatars"

A flight from Moscow to middle America. Passengers carry a flu virus that explodes “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth.” In a blink, the world looks like this: “No more ballgames played under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities ... No more cities ... No more Internet ... No more avatars.”

That’s Emily St. John Mandel’s take on doomsday, in her forthcoming novel, Station Eleven. As in other pre-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic novels, survivors have become scavengers, roaming the ravaged landscape or clustering in pocket settlements, some of them welcoming, some dangerous. What’s especially touching about the world of Station Eleven is the author's homage to the small pleasures that were erased by the apocalypse. (St. John Mandel's editor at Knopf, Jenny Jackson, called the book “a love song for right now.”)

Station Eleven will be published September 9 amid a cluster of other summer dystopian novels, including Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble, the third book in his “Last Policeman” trilogy. Coinciding with recent troubling global events--plane crashes, ferry sinkings, ancient sectarian conflicts flaring anew--those books have made me realize how writers continue to push the sub-genre of the end-of-the-world book into new literary heights. Here's how those books stack up against each other, and against a couple classics. This is hardly a definitive list, of course. It doesn't include Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam Trilogy (a new boxed set goes on sale August 12). And I steered clear of zombies. If you’re a doomsday fan, send us your suggestions, and we’ll follow up with a customer list. If we’re all still here, that is.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (Sept. 9)

What the heck happened? The Georgia Flu--named for its country of origin--wiped out more than 99% of the population.

Now what? Twenty years later, a roving theater troupe, the Traveling Symphony, performs Shakespeare for wasteland communities. And there’s this culty prophet dude who calls the flu “the great cleansing” and says things like “we are the light. We are pure.” Watch out for him.

California, Edan Lepucki

What the heck happened? Seems like a slow-building combination of environmental cataclysm, loss of fossil fuels, illness, and social collapse.

Now what? A married couple, Cal and Frida, learn that Frida is pregnant and decide to leave the relative safety of their wilderness home and try to make it in one of the settlements. Which means they have to deal with other humans, both nasty and nice.

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

What the heck happened? A ginormous asteroid is barreling toward Earth. We don’t stand a chance, and everyone knows it.

Now what? As most humans prepare for the end with parties, prayer, or suicide, a quixotic police detective decides to leave his well-stocked safehouse and look for his missing sister in bleak small-town Ohio. He brings along his dog, Houdini.

A History of the Future, James Howard Kunstler

What the heck happened? You name it: pandemics, environmental disaster, no more oil, plenty of social and political chaos.

Now what? The people of Union Grove, in upstate New York, continue to strive for a simpler "world made by hand" pioneer lifestyle. (This is book 3 in the "World Made By Hand" series.) But then, on Christmas Eve: a gory double murder. 

Lock In, John Scalzi (on sale Aug 26)

What the heck happened? A contagious virus causes "lock in"--known as Haden’s syndrome--in 1% of the population. They’re alive and aware, but can’t move.

Now what? A murder at the Watergate Hotel lures two detectives into an investigation of some complicated truths about Haden’s syndrome, and crimes possibly nastier than murder.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller

What the heck happened? Similar to Station Eleven, a super-flu killed off 99.7% of humanity--including the wife of our man Hig.

Now what? Hig and his dog and their plane reluctantly venture outside their safety zone, hoping to find someone who doesn’t want to kill them. Maybe even start a new life. Maybe even find love.

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

What the heck happened? The earth’s rotation is slowing, the days and nights growing longer. Pretty soon, it's going to get really cold and dark.

Now what? As the world begins to panic, 10-year-old Julia tries to keep living her life, even as her comfortable suburban family unravels. Coming of age is rough when the Earth is dying.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

What the heck happened? Something nuclear. Doesn't matter. The Earth is dying, a cracked, parched, ash-dusted and dangerous place.

Now what? Total bummer. A father and his son walk through a wasteland, dodging psychos and cannibals. All they have is their love for each other, and the thinnest strand of hope.

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Good luck out there, readers. Carry water.

Amazon Asks: Timothy Hallinan, Author of "Herbie's Game"

HerbieWhat's the elevator pitch for your Herbie's Game (selected as an Amazon Best Book of the Month in mystery, thriller & suspense)?

In Herbie's Game, a Southern California burglar whose mentor/second father has been murdered embarks on an investigation that leads us on a tour through the nine circles of hell, but with better weather.

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

On the Kindle, Bare-Faced Messiah: the True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, an eye-opener of cosmic proportions for anyone who didn't already suspect that the carefully trimmed hedges surrounding Hubbard's life concealed a chaotic snarl of weeds, some of them toxic. On paper, Maximum City, by Suketo Mehta, about Bombay/Mumbai, the best book about a city I've ever read, and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I haven't opened since I was twelve, and which is even better than I remember.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

This is going to sound so pretentious. Anthony Trollope's six-volume Pallisers series is unique, as far as I know, in following a relationship over something like four decades, during which it changes from a convenient arrangement to deep love and then terrible loss. Anthony Powell's 12-book series A Dance to the Music of Time has changed into a new book every time I read it, which is four times so far. Also, it's hilarious and the home of the greatest comic monster of 20th-century fiction, Kenneth Widmerpool. And I'd have to add Haruki Murakami's 1Q84--which I just reread and which dazzled me all over again as only the best magic can--and Pride and Prejudice, which is just perfect. I think some of the people who point out what a tiny canvas Jane Austen works should also remark on how deep it is, and how funny. William Gaddis' The Recognitions, which I read in college, became the template for my self-education, my real education, for ten years. I read widely on many of the elements in Gaddis' novel: art, artists, forgery (both artistic and personal), the history of religion, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and on and on.

Important book you never read?

Books, really. Moby-Dick (but not for want of trying) and Finnegans Wake, definitely for want of trying. Life is shorter than I used to think it was.

Book that changed your life?

The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. My family moved all the time – 22 houses in my 18 years with them, and when you're a kid, a move across town might as well be to the next galaxy. All your friends disappear, you're in a new school, and so forth. You learn not to make friends.  When I was seven, I read The Wizard of Oz and realized that wherever I went, I could take books with me.  From then on, I read all the time. It's impossible for me to imagine who I would be if that part of my life hadn't opened up so wondrously.

SleepBook that made you want to become a writer?

The Big Sleep, pure and simple. It opened to me a form of storytelling in which the objective was to answer a question, and the answer was buried deep inside a character. And, like most really great writers, Chandler made it look easy.  Eighteen books later, I'm still finding out how difficult it is.

What's your most memorable author moment?

In my Poke Rafferty series of books, set in Bangkok, the central character marries a Thai woman and the two of them adopt a daughter, a street child, essentially right off the sidewalk.  I've gotten lots of mail from families who have adopted across cultural and racial lines, and basically they accuse me (very nicely) of hiding somewhere in their house and writing things down. I heard several times from a family in Ohio who had adopted a Thai girl named Tippawan, and when I was in Cleveland at a mystery event, a teenage girl came up to me with a big smile and said, “I'm Tippawan.” Behind her were her parents, who said they'd finally let her read one of my books, and Tippawan said, “It was like reading about myself.” For the next few days I was so high people had to shout up to me.

What talent or superpower would you like to have?

The power to edit myself with some neutrality. On every manuscript I go through several clearly marked stages: 1) I love everything, 2) I hate everything, and 3) What's the use? None of those is the ideal platform for the editing process.

What are you obsessed with now?

Okay, you asked. The dynamics of Broadway musicals, an art form in which a large number of hugely talented people with enormous egos, practicing artistic disciplines that have virtually nothing in common, come together (or don't) and spend whopping amounts of money, either to create something seamless or else to launch the Titanic. I've been devouring backstage histories of musicals, and none is much better (for a successful show) than Ted Chapin's Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical “Follies.”

What's your most prized possession?

I'm not very thing-oriented. I don't think I own any object I'd miss for more than 24 hours. What matters to me are my marriage and my work, very definitely in that order. I've led an unreasonably blessed life, but nowhere more so than in those two categories.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got?

From my mother: “Marry that girl.”

The worst?

From an editor (about Junior Bender): “Don't write any more of these books. The American reading public doesn't associate you with comic crime fiction.” Of course, 99.9775% of the American reading public has no idea who I am, and quite a lot of them like comic crime fiction.

Who's your current author crush?

I have two: Lisa Brackmann, whose thriller/mysteries set in China both grip and amuse me; and Jincy Willett, maybe the funniest novelist I know of who's working in English. I'd love to meet her, but I'm afraid of her.

What book do you wish you'd written?

Many days, any one except the one I'm writing. Any book that someone has actually finished.  On a broader scale, I wish I'd invented Bertie Wooster, the owner of the most sublime first-person voice I know of, so I'd give anything to have written Thank You, Jeeves, the first Jeeves-and-Bertie novel.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

It doesn't matter how I procrastinate. Anything will do. What I have to do every day is wait until my anxiety about not writing is stronger than my anxiety about writing. I have no vices whatsoever.

What do you collect?

Books and only books. And more books. I'd like that book over there, in fact. Have you finished it?

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>See all of Timothy Hallinan's books

>Visit his website

>Follow his at @TimHallinan

 

Guest Q&A: Colum McCann Interviews Vanessa Manko

ExileColum McCann's contributions to the world of literature go beyond his lyrical, award-winning novels (most recently TransAtlantic). The guy is a ceaseless champ for the written word, whether it's promoting global storytelling via the Narrative4 collective he cofounded or nurturing students at Hunter College's MFA Creative Writing Program.

One of those students, Vanessa Manko, has written a debut novel, The Invention of Exile, based partly on her family's history. Exile (on sale August 14) tells the story of a goodhearted Russian immigrant who's unfairly deported to Russian, then flees to Mexico where he's stranded and separated from his wife and kids. Our thanks to Colum for this intimate Q&A with his former student.

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ColumColum McCann: For me this novel is not only an auspicious debut but it’s a thrilling thing to have in my hands since I’ve known you for so many years as your teacher in the Hunter MFA program. I’m very proud of you. It’s wonderful when the teacher relationship becomes a “colleague” relationship.

Vanessa Manko: Thank you Colum. It was really amazing for me to hand it over to you--the final book as an object.

CM: When you came to Hunter College, you were mostly writing short stories and then you began to work on this novel. So, tell me, how did you make the shift from the short story to the novel, and where did the idea for this novel come from?

VM: The Hunter MFA program gave me the time and space to think about a larger work and to extend and challenge myself. I think working with faculty (like you and Peter Carey) whose life work and focus was on the novel was incredibly influential. The Hertog Fellowship at Hunter also helped me to understand how writers employ research in building the world of a novel. This story had been inside me for a while as it is partly inspired by family history, but I only began to see its potential as a novel when I had the two years at Hunter to work, write and imagine.

CM: The main character, Austin Voronkov, lives in exile in Mexico City. He is a lonely, broken man, yet he has hopes that he will reunite with his family through his inventions. Can you talk about how the theme of invention works in his life and in the novel?

Vanessa Manko (c) Beowulf SheehanVM: As an engineer-turned-inventor, Austin is convinced that his inventions will bring him across the border to his family in the U.S. He has a kind of monomania about it (the same kind of obsessive focus needed to write or invent a novel, in fact). But he also uses his aptitude for invention in another way, meaning he invents his particular reality, haunted by the past and forever focused on a future when he can be with his family. All of this takes place in his mind and memory and imagination so he is in a continual state of reliving or inventing the past and, likewise, his future. Meanwhile, in the present, in Mexico City, he deals with the paranoid fear that an FBI agent has him under surveillance. Is it real? Is it in his mind? His entire life seems to be an invention. And then of course the novel itself is a work of invention so while the main character believes his inventions will bring him across the border to the U.S., the novel is also an attempt to do just that.

CM: The book is set in Mexico City of 1948 and yet shifts back and forth in time and place--from the U.S. in 1919-1920, to Russia, Constantinople and Paris in the 1920s and to Mexico in the 1930s and 40s--allowing us the chance to see Austin facing a variety of difficult events and circumstances. How did you build the world of the novel from one country to the next and one time period to the next and what made you decide on this structure? It fascinates me by the way.  It’s great to see such agility in a writer.

VM: I first had an image in my mind of this lone figure walking around Mexico City, silent and absorbed in a world of his own. I wanted to follow him. We all know and see people like this, mostly in cities, sort of overwhelmed by their surroundings and incredibly fragile. What happened to him or her? What is his or her particular story? I think too about how we learn someone’s story. It doesn’t come all at once, we learn people’s stories in fragments and over time, adding layers and finding out new facets of a person’s character. I wanted the reader to have this experience when getting to know Austin and his story. I knew I had to go back to his past to understand him and then present how the events of his life affected him. So the novel isn’t linear and straightforward. I very consciously knew that it would jump around in time and place and that I would present him one way in Mexico City 1948, older, broken and a little lost, and another way as a young Russian immigrant in the U.S., filled with hope and pride and ambition and then that I would follow him throughout his travels and hardships, eventually allowing the reader to piece together his life and experience and come to understand why he ends up the way that he is. As the novel also deals with a family that has been torn apart, my aim was for this fragmented structure--juxtaposing time and place on the page--to underscore and mirror the disparate life of a refugee family. I wanted the reader to get a sense of dislocation and loss and to empathize with Austin’s experience and the family’s sense of travel and separation and what it is to be divided by borders.

CM: What are you own links with Mexico?  Can you tell me a little about your friendship with Aura? 

 

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You Said It: Customer Reviews of Amazon's Best Books of the Month

The thing about reviewing a book: it’s all subjective. Even when our Editorial team selects our monthly top-10 Best Books list, our opinions are just that: opinions. One of us adored the narrator's voice, another thought he/she was a crybaby. Someone thought the ending was heartbreaking, another was bored. Assessing what's good or bad about a book is an imperfect, messy, inconclusive process, usually more of a dialogue than a declaration. And so it is with customer opinions, where a book can garner just as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews. In the spirit of "no such thing as a bad opinion," we're launching a new monthly column, You Said It. Here's what you said about our Best Books of July. [Looking for our Best Books of August? You can find those here.]

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WhalesWar of the Whales, by Joshua Horwitz

Ann D. wrote: “The author has written a gripping book that reads as easily as a crime novel, full of rich characters and exciting situations that tell a remarkable story of fascinating, dedicated men and women fighting against one of the biggest and most powerful government agencies in the world."

Read the full 5-star review.

California, by Edan Lepucki

Rebecca Mccab wrote: “A relentless honest portrait of a couple's relationship with or without the looming end of days. Vivid characters. Compares favorably to The Road, Above, A Handmaid's Tale. However, Edan Lepucki deserves her own place on the shelf of survivalist, end of days fiction.”

Read the full 4-star review.

HorsesHigh as the Horses' Bridles, by Scott Cheshire

Jude NYC wrote: “In prose that often makes a fellow writer sit up and take notice, High as the Horses' Bridles elegantly and insightfully portrays the push-pull of love, familial and romantic. The narrator's voice is wonderfully realized and authentic ... If this is Scott Cheshire's debut, I can hardly wait to see what comes next.” 

Read the full 5-star review.

Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, by Elizabeth Mitchell

Seth Mnookin wrote: “I'm big into history, so I expected that I'd like this. I didn't expect it to read like an adventure -- nor did I expect Mark Twain and Victor Hugo would show up on the scene. It's rare that a book is both fun and enlightening. Mitchell somehow pulled it off.” 

Read the full 5-star review.

TorchFlight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales

Julia Harbeck wrote: “As one of the nurses that was called upon to assist in the emergency of flight 232 I worked in ER on the day of the crash. Reading this book brought back so many memories and helped fill out parts I didn't know about. I was very proud of how my hospital, and the entire community came together...”

Read the full 4-star review.

The Fracking King, by James Browning

C.R. Hurst wrote: “With its breakneck pacing and colorful cast of characters Browning creates a sly and entertaining novel that nevertheless has two important lessons: words do have meaning despite attempts to disguise that meaning, and even misfits can become heroes by fighting against greed and corruption.”

Read the full 4-star review

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

Brett Benner wrote: “Moriarty follows up her wildly successful, The Husbands Secret with another group of women harboring their own skeletons in the closet ... Although not quite the winner that her previous book was, (due to some plot conveniences which seemed to stretch a bit), it's still an immensely entertaining read, and one that should be scattered across many beaches the remainder of the summer.” 

Read the full 4-star review.

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

Lili’s Reflections wrote: “This is definitely a book for romance lovers. If you're married, you must read this. If you're not married, just know that some things will not be easy to connect to. Full of laughs, adorableness, and moments that will literally break your heart, this book is definitely not short on the feels.”

Read the full 4-star review

The Girls from Corona del Mar, by Rufi Thorpe

David T. Isaac wrote: “Those who are looking for a 'Beach Book' are likely to find themselves with more than they expected. The novel doesn't tell you how to feel about the characters and their actions, because they are real characters, and, like real people, some of the things they think, do, and say (and the way the author presents it) can make us feel unsure and uncomfortable.”

Read the full 5-star review.

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills

Barbara Bamberger Scott wrote: “Mills’s book is remarkable, even if it does not come quite near enough to answering questions that hover around the legendary Lee ... THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR gives a sense of how attached Harper Lee is to the town and the culture that she has long inhabited. So much at home there that, as Mills notes, the locals pay her the courtesy of pretending she is nobody special.” 

Read the full 4-star review.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Pamela A. Poddany wrote: “This book is not a mystery as toted, to me it is a view of how a family loves [badly], functions [hardly], reacts to many situations, and tries to heal. Celeste Ng writes beautifully, and gets into the grit, secrets, and facts of what makes this family tick ... The characters are believable, the story tragic and sorrowful.”

Read the full 4-star review.

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