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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: 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.

~

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. 

~

> 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.

~

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

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