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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

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.  

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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

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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?

~

>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.

~

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? 

 

Continue reading "Guest Q&A: Colum McCann Interviews Vanessa Manko " »

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.

The Enduring Hunt for Nazi War Criminals

Nick1Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, yet the search for Nazi perpetrators continues--as does the publication of books about Nazi hunting, even as the last of them die out.

On Wednesday, an 89-year-old Philadelphia man died just hours before a judge ordered his extradition to Germany for his role in the gassing of 216,000 Jews at Auschwitz. Johann Breyer, who served as an armed guard at the notorious concentration camp, was accused of being an accessory to murder, in what will likely be one of the last Nazi cases on American soil.

Nicholas Kulish's recent book, The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Dr. Aribert Heim, co-written with fellow journalist Souad Mekhennet, tells the story of how one of the most hunted Nazi war criminals had been living a secret life in Egypt.

Below, Kulish discusses the enduring mystique of the Nazis, and the ongoing hunt for war criminals, with Neal Bascomb, author of the international bestseller Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi.

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Nick_kulish-3Nicholas Kulish: I once read a quote that all villains are Nazis now. When you watch Star Wars the bad guys are called storm troopers and Darth Vader wears the astronaut edition of an SS uniform. When Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music while perpetrating atrocities it’s Mengele whistling Wagner on the selection ramp at Auschwitz. What do you think accounts for the enduring interest in Nazis?

Neal Bascomb: There have been a lot of murky wars since WWII. Vietnam comes straight to mind, but Iraq, and others, as well. With the Nazis, it is very black and white, and at least in popular culture, they like black and white.

NK: In a way the Nazis mythologized themselves, through the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the emphasis on their polished black boots and lightning insignias. But I'm always struck going through the archives how the crimes of the Holocaust are more deeply evil than I remember them.

NB: Yes, when I first began digging deep into the oral and written history of the Holocaust, the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews, I could not sleep for weeks. It is in the details that the horror really comes out.

NK: I was struck reading your book by the way the Israelis hunting Eichmann had a personal stake in his capture, family and friends who were killed, using skills honed as they tried to survive the Holocaust. Was that part of what drew you to the subject?

Nick_bascombNB: What drew me to the story of Eichmann is the legacy of his trial. By the late 50's, the world wanted to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Historians weren't studying to any great degree. Students weren't learning about it at school. And survivors, many survivors, did not feel like they could openly talk about what happened to them. It was not until Eichmann's trial, the recounting of the horrors that we've both referenced here, that this changed. So here was this great manhunt, spy operation, and it had tremendous positive effects on understanding of the Holocaust ever since.

NK: I found the evolution of German public opinion at the same time to be fascinating. The first great Nazi trials of the post-Nuremberg era were in the city of Ulm. This vacuum cleaner salesman named Bernd Fischer could not accept that his murderous service in the Einsatzgruppen made him unsuited to run a refugee camp. He was given every chance to go away quietly and finally prosecutors said, "We just have to put this guy on trial." The result was a surge of new information about the slaughter in the east and the creation of a dedicated Nazi-hunting team in Ludwigsburg, Germany.

NB: What drew you to the story of SS Dr. Aribert Heim?

NK: Heim was the opposite of Eichmann in many ways. He was a concentration camp doctor and committed terrible crimes but he was not a big fish and no one was really looking for him at first. So through his story, the peaceful life in postwar Baden-Baden, the sudden flight shortly after Eichmann was hanged, the evolution of attitudes toward Nazis can be tracked right up to his naming as the most-wanted Nazi war criminal six decades after the war. The fact that he hid in Egypt and converted to Islam made it irresistible.

Nick2NB: You did such a marvelous job of tracking his years in Egypt. Just fascinating how he transformed into this whole other life. And you see this again and again, even in such an ordinary life of Breyer, the Auschwitz guard recently arrested in Philadelphia.

NK: It's something you find in other genocides, in Rwanda or in the Balkans, both places I've worked as a journalist. People who would otherwise never have received so much as a speeding ticket commit monumental criminal acts. Can people really understand, looking at an 89 year old at an arraignment hearing, why these trials still matter?

NB: It is an understandable instinct to say about these individuals who are now and again arrested... "Look he's an old, old man. There's no more harm he can do. What's the point? Just let him live out his days in a shabby house." But then you have to take a step back, realize that the point is less about punishment against this one man, and more about the fact that seeking justice should be timeless.  There should be no expiration date. When Ben Gurion gave the order to go after Eichmann, it had very little do with Eichmann and much more to do with two things: One, remind the youth of Israel why their state needed to exist; two, remind the world what the Nazis did to the Jews during the war. That's why these trials must continue.

 

Amazon Asks: “War of the Whales” Author, Joshua Horwitz

Joshua Horwitz spent six years researching the story of the marine biologist and the environmental lawyer whose battle against the US Navy and its secret underwater sonar programs went all the way to the Supreme Court. The result, War of the Whales, is one of those rare nonfiction books that reads like fiction – in this case, a delightful mashup of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Stephen Ambrose and David Halberstam.

War of the Whales was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Month “Spotlight” pick for July. In my review I described it as “a gripping and wholly original tale of the ecological side effects of national security” and “a rare trifecta of a book: important, highly readable, and stunningly true.”

I reached out to Horwitz to ask about his favorite books (duh, Moby Dick), and, as a bonus he shared a couple of cool whale photos.

Describe your book in one sentence?

Whales and submarines collide inside world's deepest underwater canyon. 

Or: Two men take on world's largest navy to save whales.

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

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Favorite books about whales?

Moby Dick -- what else?

Favorite book as a child?

Tarzan, King of the Apes series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

What are you obsessed with now?

How few books teenagers--including my daughters--seem to be reading for pleasure.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My appetite(s).

What do you collect?

Daughters, apparently. (I've got three.)

Favorite line?

Where lies the final harbor whence we unmoor no more? (from Moby Dick)

What's next for you?

More reading, less writing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever got?  From whom?

From Martin Scorcese, as returning NYU fillm alum speaking to us wannabees, on editing. (He was speaking about film editing, but applies equally to text.) -- "Begin with a scalpel, end with an axe."

BBQ King Steven Raichlen on "Ensemble" Cooking

MealsFireworks won’t be the only things flaring in America’s backyards on this Fourth of July.

You’d think after centuries of cooking with fire, man would have it down. But so many backyard chefs still scorch that precious steak or salmon. We overcook, we undercook, we set good food on fire.

For many years and across many books--notably his bestselling Barbecue Bible--BBQ guru Steven Raichlen has been trying to school us. During a recent swing through Seattle, over lunch at Tom Douglas’s Bravehorse Tavern, I asked for a little help: What do men do wrong at the grill?

“They don’t control the fire, they let the fire control them,” Raichlen said, while dunking a fresh-made pretzel into a bacon peanut butter dip.

Too many guys throw a hunk of meat on the grill or cram it full of chicken pieces and hope for the best, instead of practicing Raichlen’s “30-percent rule”--keeping 30 percent of grill food-free, to provide room to maneuver in case of a flare-ups.

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With a World Cup match roaring in in the background, we discussed Raichlen’s new book, Man Made Meals, which moves indoors and aims to teach guys to cook more like women. Raichlen believes women think in terms of meals while guys think in terms of dishes; women cook with a spirit of nurturing while men cook with a spirit of showing off. With his new book he’s hoping to help guys think “ensemble,” from the main dish to side dishes, from deserts to “rockin’ the bar shaker.”

In addition to the crash course in culinary literacy for guys--“What dishes should every self-respecting red blooded American male know how to do?”--there’s an activist message in Man Made Meals. If we’re careful about how and where we buy food, and how we cook, “we can have a positive impact on ourselves and our health, on the health and well-being of our families, and on the well-being of the planet,” Raichlen said.

Speaking of health and well-being... here's one of Raichlen's go-to dishes:


Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs, with Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

Shop: Baby backs are the easiest ribs to cook, thanks to their generous marbling and intrinsic tenderness. To up your game, try an heirloom breed, like Berkshire pork or Tamworth.

Gear: Your basic kitchen and grilling gear including an aluminum foil drip pan, a charcoal grill (sorry guys; you can cook the ribs on a gas grill, but you need charcoal to smoke them), a rib rack (optional), and a spray bottle.

What else: I like to smoke baby backs at a somewhat higher temperature than the low and slow guys on the barbecue circuit. Which is to say, I grill the ribs using the indirect method at 325°F rather than the 225°F of traditional barbecue. I like the way the heat melts the fat and crisps the meat fibers, giving you chewier, meatier ribs than with the lower-heat method. If you prefer your ribs to have a softer texture, cook them at 225°F for 4 to 5 hours.

Time: About 20 minutes preparation time, plus about 1-1/2 hours cooking time 

These ribs sound an apple theme--you smoke them with apple wood chips and serve them with a made-from-scratch cider rum barbecue sauce. Once you master the process, you can infinitely vary the character of the ribs by changing the seasonings. Texas style? Use a rub based on cumin and chile powder and spray the ribs with beer. Jamaican style? Use jerk seasoning and spray the ribs with pineapple juice. You get the idea. 

Makes 2 racks of ribs; serves 4 normal guys as part of a full meal or 2 big guys with corresponding appetites

  • 2 racks baby back pork ribs (4 to 5 pounds total)
  • 6 tablespoons Raichlen’s Rub #1 (recipe follows) or your favorite barbecue rub 
  • 1 cup apple cider in a spray bottle
  • Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce (page 286) or your favorite barbecue sauce
  • You’ll also need: 1 1/2 cups hardwood chips or chunks, preferably apple or hickory, soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drained

1 Set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a large aluminum foil drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate, and preheat the grill to medium (325°F).

2 Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as the tip of an instant-read thermometer, under it; the best place to start is on one of the middle bones. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane. Repeat with the remaining rack (or ask your butcher to do it).

3 Season the ribs with barbecue rub (about 1-1/2 tablespoons per side), rubbing the spices onto the meat with your fingertips. 

4 When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. (If your grill has limited space, stand the racks of ribs upright in a rib rack.) Toss the wood chips on the coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs for about 45 minutes.

5 Spray the ribs with some of the apple cider. This keeps them moist and adds an extra layer of flavor. Cover the grill again and continue cooking the ribs until they are darkly browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours in all, spraying the ribs with cider once or twice more. When the ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by 1/4 to 1/2 inch. If you are using a charcoal grill, replenish the coals after 1 hour or as needed.

6 Just before serving, brush the ribs on both sides with about 1/2 cup of the Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce or the barbecue sauce of your choice. Move the ribs directly over the fire. Grill the ribs until the barbecue sauce is browned and bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

7 Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board. Let the ribs rest for a few minutes, then cut the racks in half or into individual ribs. Serve the ribs at once with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.

Raichlen’s Rub #1

Here’s a barbecue rub--sweet with brown sugar, spicy with pepper and paprika--that would feel right at home in Kansas City, Memphis, or North Carolina. Makes 1/2 cup

  • 2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard, preferably Colman’s
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, pepper, dry mustard, onion powder, and celery seeds in a small bowl and mix with your fingers, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar or onion powder. Stored in an airtight jar away from heat and light, the rub will keep for several months.

Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

A sweet, mellow barbecue sauce invigorated with dark rum and apple cider. Good choices for rum include Myer’s Rum from Jamaica, Gosling’s Black Seal from Bermuda, or the new Ipswich rum from Massachusetts. The recipe makes more than you’ll need. Refrigerate any excess in a sealed jar--it will keep for several weeks. Makes about 2-1/2 cups

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • about 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 2 cups ketchup (I like Heinz) 
  • 1/2 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark rum, or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste 
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 Place the cider, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a large heavy saucepan and let come to a boil over high heat. Let the cider mixture boil until reduced by about half, 4 to 6 minutes. 

2 Add the ketchup, brown sugar, rum, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, liquid smoke, onion powder, pepper, and cinnamon and whisk to mix. Reduce the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer until thick and flavorful, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, adding more rum and/or mustard as necessary. Transfer the sauce to a bowl or clean jars and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the sauce until serving. It will keep covered in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. Reheat it over low heat before using.

Photo Essay: How Did the Statue of Liberty Get Built?

LibertyElizabeth Mitchell's myth-busting Liberty’s Torch--a Best Book of the Month for July--is a hoot of a story packed with entertaining cameos by Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison and more. At center stage is the maddeningly egotistical artiste, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a snobbish boor who disliked America and her "subpar" people, yet, through persistence and will, found a home for his statue in New York Harbor.

In advance of Independence Day, we asked Mitchell to share a few photos and anecdotes from her rigorously researched tale of how a sculptor’s obsession became a nation's icon.

~

We take it for granted that the Statue of Liberty belongs in the New York harbor. But if it were not for one driven man, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, this globally recognizable symbol would never have seen sunrise over the city.

Bartholdi dreamed up the idea of the colossus, he pitched, pleaded, sweated, and schemed to get her built. My new book, Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, tells this tale of one man battling obstacles and accidents to make his unusual vision a reality.

It helped that Bartholdi birthed this creation during an era when artist, inventors and engineers constantly tried to one-up each other. He had seen the colossal statuary in Egypt, the sphinxes and pyramids, and he wanted to also create something that would last for eternity. All he had to do was solve the mechanical feats, clear the fundraising hurdles, and keep everyone alive in the process.

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1) Here is Bartholdi, looking like Dave Grohl. He was spunky, funny, emotional, and a huge egotist. He alone came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty and set out to convince France and America to build it. He wasn’t so much in love with America as he was entranced by the idea of crafting a massive statue. He did appreciate that America had successfully created a democracy while his France struggled violently for the ideal.

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2) He originally designed the piece for Egypt, for the mouth of the Suez Canal, but the deal fell through so he went looking for other locations. At the time, America was showing new growth after the Civil War, taking on constructions like Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The cross continental railroad had just been completed. The nation seemed a likely candidate to absorb the plan that had failed elsewhere.

Torch displ#8
3) Short on funds and public enthusiasm, Bartholdi built Liberty in pieces, exhibiting a bit at a time to raise money to create more. Here is the torch being shown at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. At the bottom, Bartholdi set up a kiosk to sell souvenirs and tickets to the top.

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4) Bartholdi showed the head at the Paris Exposition of 1878. It arrived on a wagon from the workshop where she was created, having wended her way through the streets of Paris. People waved and sang the Marseillaise as the massive head passed.

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5) To test the design, the statue was first put together in a neighborhood in Paris near the Parc Monceau. People could pay a ticket to climb up and look over the rooftops.

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6) Liberty was inaugurated on October 28, 1886 in a heavy fog. Bartholdi himself tugged an enormous French flag from her face to reveal her to the world. A few weeks later, he ventured out in a nighttime rain to say goodbye to his creation. He told a reporter that he could no longer sense the immensity of her as he had when he was working on her in Paris. He said, “She is going away from me. She is going away from me.” She now belonged to America.

--Elizabeth Mitchell

How I Wrote It: Alan Furst, on the "special vitamins" of wartime Europe

FurstAlan Furst's thrilling and endearing new historical spy novel is once again set in Europe as the shadows of war darken the continent and its people. As with his previous novels, Midnight in Europe portrays the tense unease of a region--in this case France and, in particular, Spain--on the verge of fracture, with allegiances and loyalties in constant and dangerous flux. Heroes and villains are sometimes indistinguishable, mainly, says Furst, because most of Europe was "scared to death."

"I don't quite understand why, but that era had special vitamins. It just did," he told me. "What was it about ther '30s? I don't know, but there was this bursting of creativity that came along."

Speaking at the annual Book Expo America conference in New York, we also discussed the 1984 trip he took through Europe, on assignment for Esquire. "I came back a changed person," he told me. Interestingly, he rarely visits Europe these days, which is far different from the version of Europe he writes about. "I'm used to another Paris," he said.

Proudly "blue collar" in his approach to writing, Furst is already pounding out the next novel, two pages per day, every day. "I can't fool around and wait for inspiration," he said. Like one of his own characters, he still writes on a typewriter, a Lexmark. "Descendant of the mighty IBM selectric," he gushed proudly. "I think I write better on a typewriter." 

Brad Meltzer is Obsessed with "Ordinary People Changing the World"

RosaBrad Meltzer is a shape-shifter and, apparently, the guy doesn't sleep. Known mainly for the bestselling thrillers he's been writing since his twenties--starting with his 1997 debut, The Tenth Justice--he also writes comic books, screenplays, and hosts his own History Channel show, Brad Meltzer's Decoded.

More recently, he's shouldered the laudable task of inspiring kids--his, and ours. Meltzer's first such efforts--Heroes for my Daughter and Heroes for my Son--led to this year's Ordinary People Changing the World series, the latest of which is I Am Rosa Parks, on sale this week.

The "I Am..." books depict heroic Americans during their childhoods, as regular boys and girls. The first two, Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln, will be followed by Albert Einstein (September) and Jackie Robinson (January).

At BookExpo America in New York last month, we spoke with Meltzer about his own childhood heroes, his love of story, his paranoia, and his radical belief that "a reality TV show bimbo is not a hero." (And if you don't like my interview, check out one of the best book trailers I've seen, featuring Meltzer's family and friends trash-talking him.)

Michael Koryta, on his "Warped and Twisted Mind"

KorytaHe might seem like a nice enough guy. A clean-cut young college professor type or the guy who coaches your kid’s t-ball team. But Michael Koryta possesses a self-proclaimed "warped and twisted mind" that's capable of creating some very creepy characters and some very brutal scenes, which help make his new novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, his best yet.

The story of a boy on the run from two assassins--and a wildfire--this is Koryta's tenth novel, which seems impossible for a guy who probably still gets carded buying beer. In this interview, taped at last month’s Book Expo America in New York, Koryta and I discussed his mentors and idols (names like Connelly, Lehane, and Koontz), his next book (it starts with a corpse in a cave) and, of course, his deceptively twisted mind. Despite the boy scout looks, Koryta seems to keep getting darker, more curious about the nature of menace in the world, and, therefore, better.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is an Amazon Editors’ Summer Reading pick and a Best Book of the Month in mystery, thriller and suspense.

 

Author-Lawyer Alafair Burke's Favorite "Lawyers are People Too" Books

Our thanks to Alafair Burke for sharing her thoughts on the best and worst ("hearsay!") of legal thrillers and courtroom drama. Burke's latest novel is All Day and a Night, which again features her NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. Megan Abbott (The Fever) called it “A masterfully plotted, psychologically complex thriller."

As a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Burke knows a thing or two about the law; she now teaches at Hofstra Law School. (And as the daughter of James Lee Burke, she also knows a thing or two about the written word). Burke's next project is a first-ever collaboration with Mary Higgins Clark. Their co-authored novel, The Cinderella Murder, is coming in November.

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In 2004, a major editor at a major publisher told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature.Alafair

Fast-forward ten years, and books featuring lawyers are thriving. Perhaps not coincidentally, publishers have also found a way to market books about lawyers without pigeonholing them as “legal thrillers” or “courtroom dramas.”

I first started fantasizing about writing a novel because of my frustration at the portrayal of attorneys in fiction, especially crime fiction. I was a huge fan of the genre, but found myself wanting to throw books across the room when attorneys arrived on the page, yelling “hearsay!” and “calls for speculation!” Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.

In real life, few lawyers go to court. They delve into families, negotiating pre-nups, adoptions, and divorces. They merge and separate corporate entities. Even litigators spend a small percentage of their time in court. The vast majority of cases settle, which only happens after lawyers gather evidence, question witnesses, scour documents, and play chicken with their adversaries.

Michael Connelly understood this when he endorsed my debut novel by saying, “JUDGMENT CALLS expertly shows that the most gripping drama is not found in the courtroom but in the places where choices get made in the shadows cast by politics and corruption and human desires.”

FirmIn other words, when lawyers narrate a story, it’s still just a story, because lawyers are people too.  Here are a few of my favorite books that show the real lives of lawyers, outside the courtroom.

The Firm, John Grisham

Though Grisham’s A Time To Kill is one of the best courtroom novels I’ve read, The Firm captures an altogether different world, expertly portraying the pressures placed upon a junior associate at an elite law firm.

Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow

Turning the genre on its head, Turow tells the story of a career prosecutor charged with murder. He also masters the use of a (possibly?) unreliable narrator. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, read this back-to-back with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and draw the parallels.

TurowThe Alexandra Cooper series, by Linda Fairstein (The most recent installment: Terminal City)

It’s no surprise that Fairstein, who as supervisor for the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office broke new ground in the prosecution of crimes against women, also broke new ground in the depiction of prosecutors in fiction. Through Alex Cooper, she shows that the power of the prosecutor is not in the courtroom, but in the nearly unreviewable discretion they exercise outside of it.

The Mickey Haller series, by Michael Connelly (The most recent installment: The Gods of Guilt)

Much as Fairstein depicts the out-of-court life of Alex Cooper, Connelly delves into the life of defense attorney Mickey Haller. He’s neither true believer nor scoundrel. He’s just a really interesting guy who happens to be a lawyer.

KermitIn the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt

In the way that atmospheric novels treat geographic setting as character, Roosevelt treats the law as a character here, both villain and protagonist.

The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen Carter

I’ve got to include a book featuring a law professor at the center of a sprawling thriller. Yale Law Prof Carter provides a searing portrayal of both academic and judicial politicking.

Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat

This forthcoming novel lifts the veil on the prestigious but cryptic role of judicial clerks. The author, founder of the law-blog Above the Law (think: Entertainment Weekly for lawyers), is a rock-star among law-geeks (to wit, he coined the term “bench-slap,” which now appears in Black’s Law Dictionary).

It’s within this context that I situate my tenth novel, All Day and a Night, which tells the story of a wrongful conviction claim from the perspectives of both recurring character NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and a young defense attorney named Carrie Blank. It has been described as a combination of police procedural, courtroom drama, and psychological thriller. To defy easy categorization is the highest praise I can ask for.

    --Alafair Burke

Cheryl Tan Explores Singapore's Dark Side in "Singapore Noir"

NoirWhat I love about the "Noir" series of pulpy short story collections created by Brooklyn-based Akashic publishers is that each volume makes me hunger to visit that locale's underbelly. I've heard of spy tourists who, for example, visit the sites of Le Carre novels. (David Ignatious explores the idea in this recent post.) I could see these books inspiring a niche new travel meme, with literary geeks venturing into the alleys and red light districts of the dozens of cities in the Noir series.

I also love the pairing of geographically appropriate authors who've curated each volume: Laura Lippman for Baltimore Noir; Dennis Lehane for Boston Noir; and Joyce Carol Oates for the my home state in New Jersey Noir.

One of the latest entries in the series is Singapore Noir, comprising stories by some of the best-known writers of that ethically, culturally, linguistically diverse country. A Best Book of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Singapore Noir was edited by Singapore-born Cheryl Tan (A Tiger in the Kitchen), who answered a few questions about her home country's dark side.

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NT: Noir? What's noir about Singapore? I thought it was sunny, safe, and squeaky clean?

CT: Oh there's definitely a sexy dark side to Singapore! In the 20 years that I've lived in the U.S. I've always been frustrated that people think of one of a few things whenever Singapore comes up: Caning, fines, strict laws. The country is much more colorful and complex than that. For starters, anyone who's ever visited Singapore will know that the best places to eat in the country are in the red-light districts. While you're sitting there having the most amazing plate of beef noodles, you'll find yourself surrounded by prostitutes and suddenly hungry men. And, although it's true that crime rates there are much lower than in much of the rest of the world, bad things do happen there, of course, even if rarely. There's a huge gambling culture--always has been, even before Sands built a multi-million-dollar glitzy casino a few years ago--and Singaporean loan sharks are terrifying! (You don't want them painting threatening notes on your front door in pig's blood, trust me.) There have been saucy sex scandals plastered across the papers there in recent years, horrific stories of maid abuse, clashes between the poor or the ordinary and the super rich (the country actually has a bar that serves up a $26,000 cocktail).

NT: Will you or the other “Singapore Noir” authors get caned for writing about Singapore’s inky pockets? 

CT: I hope not! Although, I suppose we may find out very soon. If you never hear from me again ...

In all seriousness, these stories are dark, yes--but they also show various facets of Singapore, Singaporean life, neighborhoods and quirky characters that haven't been much explored in literature outside of Asia so far. One of my favorite characters in the book is a feng shui master who doubles as a detective, for example--he pops up in Nury Vittachi's fast-paced "Murder on Orchard Road." When this master is called in to cleanse rooms where bad things such as deaths have happened, he looks around and, of course, figures out more than how to make the chi flow well again in the room. British novelist Lawrence Osborne's "Tattoo" pulls the curtain back on the very vivid world of Geylang, Singapore's main red-light district. 

And several of the stories touch on topics that have made headlines in Singapore in recent years--sex scandals, maid abuse, the growing expat population and how that's rapidly changing Singapore, the rise of the very wealthy. Colin Cheong's lovely "Smile, Singapore," follows a "taxi uncle"--what we call cab drivers--in the heartland of Singapore who's faced with a difficult decision. I also love a little detail he brings to the book--an old tradition of keeping the bone of a dead child with you so its ghost will protect you. It's details such as these that make this book uniquely Singaporean--and one that I think may be a little eye-opening.

NT: Why did you choose the “kelongs,” or old fisheries, as the site for your story, “Reel”?

CT: I've long been fascinated with kelongs, which are these fairly large fisheries on stilts that you see in the middle of the sliver of water that cuts a slice between Singapore and Malaysia. This is an old way of fishing that's rapidly disappearing--and I'd grown up Singapore fascinated with kelongs because my girlhood home on the East Coast of Singapore is not far from where most of the remaining kelongs are. It's a very romantic setting to me--this idyllic spot that's worlds away from the glitzy, modern Singapore that most people know. Looking out at them from the shores of Singapore, I always tried to imagine what life might be like when you're living in a kelong house, perched on slats of wood amid a labyrinth of tall, long stilts, out there in the middle of the water, with little else to do but wait for flotillas of fish to swim into your traps, what dangers might lurk--both in the water and out. Well in my story, something certainly does happen ... you'll just have to read the book to find out!

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

August 2014

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