Blogs at Amazon

Nonfiction

2014 National Book Award: The Longlists

The titles long listed for the National Book Awards have been trickling in this week and today the final category, Fiction, was announced.  Some of the titles that have appeared on our Best Books of the Month lists are included but we'll have to wait until October 15th to see which books make the list of finalists.  We usually do a pool in the office with our predictions for the winners in each category--last year our Director, Sara Nelson, was the most prescient.  Do you have any thoughts about who should take home the National Book Awards this year?

NBAlonglistFBCollage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction:

 

Nonfiction:

 

Young People's Literature:

 

Poetry:

 

 

The Gray Areas of Gray Matter: Author Matt Richtel on Information Overload

A Deadly WanderingIn 2006, a pair of rocket scientists died on a Utah highway, killed in a collision with a student named Reggie Shaw, who had been texting at the time of the accident. A Deadly Wandering uses this moment to launch itself into an investigation/rumination on the increasing presence of technology in our lives, probing for answers to the question How much is too much? This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it. The result is anything but: Richtel has combined his savvy as a New York Times science reporter with his skill as a writer of technology-infused thrillers to weave two separate, if related, stories together: the tragedy—and ultimate redemption—of Reggie Shaw, and the deleterious effects of technology on our brains, bodies, and culture. A Deadly Wandering is a riveting blend of humanity and science.

We asked Richtel some questions about Shaw and the growing influence of information in our brains and our culture, and his response was much more detailed and enthusiastic than we could have hoped for--it's the same energy that drives this masterful work of narrative nonfiction.

A Deadly Wandering, available in hardcover and Kindle on September 23, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month for September 2014.

 


Matt Richtel on A Deadly Wandering

How did you come to the story of Reggie Shaw?

I first met Reggie for a story about distracted driving that I wrote for The New York Times. In more than two decades in journalism, I’ve met hundreds of fascinating people. Few like Reggie. He has a depth of character, a candor, quiet wit, the All-American kid laid bare through tragedy, dark truth and, ultimately, redemption. He became the first person, or one of the first, charged with negligent homicide in a texting and driving death. And he was, in many ways, the last person you’d ever expect that to happen to. Ordinary guy, good guy, turned hunted and haunted criminal, turned hero.

At what point did you realize that this story had potential beyond the tragedy of the accident? What compelled you to write the larger story about technology and society?

Although the Reggie story stuck with me, and he and I stayed in contact, I wasn’t particularly compelled to write a book about it, not at first. Instead, I kept studying and thinking about the science: what was so alluring about technology; what was it doing to our brains? Why would Reggie, a thoughtful, smart 19-year-old kid send a meaningless text while driving at dawn in the rain, while going 55 miles an hour? I realized that I had formulated some ideas about just how magnetic our devices had become, how irresistible, and they were steeped in science that is both decades old and emerging. I’d talk to scientists about my thesis and they’d say: Yes, yes, you have to write about this. Something is happening to our brains and you’ve got to write about it.

But those were just ideas. And, from my standpoint, ideas don’t make good books. Certainly not great books. Great books are stories. They are about people, characters, and passions. That’s my bias, anyway. I want to be swept away by a narrative. Reading, to me, should be fun. Think: Unbroken or Into Thin Air.

In the years I spent learning about the science, I got to know the scientists. You want to talk about characters. These are brilliant, funny, quirky, opinionated people. They laid the groundwork for how we, as a society, understand the brain. They also have their quirks. One of the foremost experts has a license plate that reads “attend.” When I asked him why, he said: “Because turn off your #*^& cell phone is too long.” Another neuroscientist holds crazy Friday Night parties in San Francisco with the most famous technology people, and with musicians and the digerati. One of the great early scholars, whose work after World War II helped shape how we think about the brain and its relationship with technology, told me incredible stories about the early days of neuroscience.

Now I was starting to see story lines; the story of how we understand the brain, the people who help us understand it. There was a context around Reggie’s story, and, at that point, I didn’t realize just how incredible his story was.

So I spent many months talking to Reggie and the people around him in the little town in Northern Utah that he calls home. I heard extraordinary stories from Reggie’s family, those who defended him, hunted him and prosecuted him, sentenced him. It’s not so much that their stories were so unusual, but they were so candid, so open – stories about terrible childhood abuse, personal tragedy, minor life infractions, small town reflection, great love and loyalty, lust. As one character described Reggie’s town: it is like Friday Night Lights. These personal tales, far from being incidental or irrelevant to a story of distracted driving, were quite integral. The way these characters see themselves, and the world, informed how they saw Reggie, and the idea of attention, and the idea of distraction. They are us, so is Reggie, but willing to share in vivid candor their role in a great drama.

Now I had the potential for a great book. At its core, it is the weaving of two narratives. One is a tragic car wreck, gumshoe investigation, historic prosecution, defiant defendant and zealous pursuers, all glued together an intense human drama. The other is a scientific journey, one that starts with the birth of neuroscience in 1850, and tells the very human stories of the neuroscientists and their discoveries. The two story lines intersect, remarkably enough, because one of the leading scholars in neuroscience and the science of attention wound up testifying in Reggie’s pre-trial hearing.

In sum, the book weaves together these narratives: an irresistible human drama with the story of how we understand the brain and its relationship to technology. Through the lens of these stories, we come to understand the value of attention, its fragility, and the assault it faces in the digital age. The book is a narrative, in the truest sense, not a lecture, told through story and character. At least that is what’s intended.

Author Matt Richtel (photo: Meredith Barad)

The book includes some of the latest science about humans and our ability to absorb and accommodate an ever increasing amount of information and input. What surprised you the most in the research?

Here’s what most surprised me: we often are not using our electronic devices for the reasons we think we’re using them or say we’re using them. We say we need to stay in touch. We say we’re afraid of missing out on something important. That’s certainly true some of the time. But much of the time it is not true. We are using our gadgets because we can’t help ourselves; we are so accustomed to the stimulation that, in its absence, we feel bored. We love to click the keys and make something happen on the screen. We love to feel the little adrenaline rush when we make new information appear, whether or not it is relevant or valuable. The devices are like slot machines, with levers to pull to give us a squirt of dopamine. There is a debate whether or not to call this “addiction” or merely extremely habit forming. In any case, I now look out our devices much differently than I did several years ago. These are brain stimulation devices. That doesn’t mean they’re all bad, not at all. One of the reasons they are so stimulating is that they can and do lead to the exchange of valuable information, crucial communications, entertainment. But not as much as we imagine or advertise.

That thing in your pocket? It’s got you by the brain and it is not letting go.

How much is too much? At what point do tools designed to improve efficiency have the opposite effect?

There is this wonderful study I learned about for the book. It’s the “chocolate cake” study, and it helps answer this question. In the study (I’m oversimplifying a bit), subjects entered a room and were asked to choose whether they wanted to eat a piece of chocolate cake or have a bowl of fruit. Here’s the twist: some of the study subjects, prior to entering the room, were asked to remember a handful of numbers. The scientists discovered something remarkable: the study subjects who were asked to remember numbers tended to choose the chocolate cake, while the study subjects who didn’t have to remember numbers chose the fruit.

What’s the point?

The brain is very sensitive to information overload, even in small doses. The amount of information we are remembering and juggling can impact even small decisions, and in unconscious ways. Now translate that into how we use our devices; if we are overloaded, even a bit, it can impact how we relate to every aspect of our lives. It can, without being too hyperbolic, impact the idea of free will. Will you choose fruit or chocolate cake? Will you make a good decision about work, your children, etc, etc?

So, to answer your question directly, I believe you need to create enough down time from your devices to clear your head. You need to be free of information overload to even make decisions about how much to use your device. In concrete terms, take a walk without your device, take a Saturday or Sunday with the power button in the “off” position. Take a vacation where you disconnect altogether. This includes disconnecting from radio, TV and other media, which are sources of information, obviously. Disconnecting, I believe, and the science supports this, will give you a clearer head to figure out how much you need to stay disconnected to make good, clear-headed decisions. It will differ person-to-person, but, whoever you are, a clear head is needed to make the good call.

What do we find so alluring about information? Where in our relationship with technology do you think it began in earnest?

In a word, information is “survival.” Our need for information – from knowing that fire burns to knowing what time to show up at a meeting – determines so much in our daily lives. That is the first reason that information is alluring.

In that respect, language itself is a crucial technology, a critical human innovation that lets us communicate information in a short-hand way. If I can tell you that fire burns, then you don’t have to thrust your hand into the fire to find out for yourself.

With books, we could distribute ideas to masses. With phones, we added sound and intonation and urgency. And now with mobile devices, we can do so from anywhere, anytime.

Who could deny the extraordinary utility? These devices tap into the deepest primitive need to be informed and to respond to sources of information to find out if they represent opportunity or threat. One way to think about it is to think about the idea of being a caveperson, eons ago, in the jungle. If someone tapped on your shoulder, you’d have to turn around immediately to find out if that person was a threat, or maybe was offering food. Today, when the phone rings or a text comes in, it’s like being tapped on the shoulder by anyone, anywhere in the world. Quite literally, a billion people could be tapping you on the shoulder. How can you resist this primitive call for information – even when you’re behind the wheel?

In this respect, the technology is playing so powerfully to our primitive wiring that it can “hijack the brain.” That’s how the scientists put it to me. The lure of the device overpowers us to the point where it diverts focus away from other demands, like driving, or dinner with your spouse and kids or even walking down the street (for those who’ve walked into a tree while checking a sports score on the phone, you know you are).

Do you hope that this book makes readers reconsider their own digital habits? Have you changed your own?

Yes, I hope they will reconsider their habits, on the road and off of it. I hope they will take a complete break when driving and then, when not driving, take regular breaks from digital stimulation. I’ve done both. The reason is because I’ve learned, through lots of research, that I have limited brain power. We all do. And the more we are constantly stimulated, the more we deplete our neurological tanks, text by text, angry-bird game by angry-bird game. Until we are depleted to the point of being unable to process information, whether about work, our relationships, homework, and so on. This is doubly true of young people, whose brains remain under development. The more they are constantly stimulated, the less able they are to make good decisions and the more they crave the stimulation, creating a wicked cycle. But why do I care whether people are connected all the time? Where do I get off sounding so preachy? Perhaps I should retreat to the position of husband, father, friend, co-worker; I’d like to be around people who are engaged with the world, paying attention to it, listening, processing. I’d like to be a person like that. I think it makes me a better dad and husband, a better voter and writer, and thinker.

Is legislation an effective tool against “distracted driving”? What would you say to those who would decry “nanny state” prohibitions? Is there anything that can change our behavior?

I want to be careful not to be too prescriptive given the fact I’m a journalist and a New York Times reporter, and to try to maintain some objective distance. That said, two things are very clear: (1) texting while driving is extremely dangerous (in the moment like being blind drunk); (2) people know it’s dangerous and they do it anyway. In other words, the problem isn’t about attitudes. The attitudes are already consistent with the risks. But the behaviors are not. People continue to take extreme risk.

What we know historically is that behaviors change through public education and tough laws. The fact that behaviors haven’t changed – even though attitudes have changed – suggests to some people in public health that the laws must be toughened. Without fear of real penalty, like big fines or loss of driving privileges, people might not change behavior, so goes the theory. If you feel that’s the nanny state, then you might feel that drunk driving laws are the nanny state too.

Finally, some public health people feel the current no-texting laws are confusing: you’re allowed to use your phone to dial or call up a music program but not to text. When can you touch your phone and when can you not? It’s a gray area for drivers and a gray area for law enforcement. Without more clarity, these folks say, it’s going to be hard to get behaviors consistent with what everyone seems to know: it is potentially deadly to look down at your device, manipulate it, even get so lost talking on it on it that your attention gets diverted from the road.

Will the Reggie Shaw case become a touchstone moment or a missed opportunity?

I certainly don’t think it’s a missed opportunity. Put another way: Reggie pours his heart out to audiences around the country, telling them not to get distracted while driving. In that way, he has redeemed himself like no other person I’ve ever met. Many people I talked to about him – people who once demonized him – now say he is an American hero. So no, not a missed opportunity.

But is it a touchstone? Good question. I think that it can be if we are ready for his message. This, I would say, is true of lots of people in history, leaders, whose messages have been unpopular, right up until the point they’ve become popular, the public receptive. Reggie and others like him will become leaders when we are ready to listen. And I don’t know yet whether we’re ready. We may not know until it happens.

Which other writers of “narrative nonfiction” do you admire?

I’ll mention three books and writers.

For me, Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a work of magic and art of the highest order. It’s about the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, the things they carried. Honestly, I’m not sure that it qualifies completely as non-fiction in that it plays with truth and our emotions as it essentially asks the question: what is truth and what is perception of truth? In that way, it is a kind of new new journalism, an acknowledgement and embodiment of the idea truth and reality depend on the camera angle and the camera man’s perspective. And all told within the confines of a great story.

Similarly The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, about the execution of Gary Gilmore, is a story that is an incredible personal saga and story while also, almost incidentally, raising great moral questions. The reporting is so detailed, so excruciatingly vivid. In fairness, Mailer calls this “a true-life novel,” suggesting he took some liberties. But I can’t imagine there are many, knowing how much reporting went in and how well documented that reporting is.

But if I had to pick a model of narrative nonfiction, at least for purposes of my book, A Deadly Wandering, it would be Into Think Air. Simply, it’s an irresistible story, magnetic, impossible to put down and then, by the end, you realize you were so swept up in a story that you didn’t realize you learned a whole bunch about a subject that may or may not have been interesting to you. Same with Unbroken. And, to a large extent, The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. This is high art; teaching under the auspices of entertaining, or is it the other way around?

Portrait of "The City": San Francisco, 1940-1960

San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960As a fourth-generation San Franciscan, few are as familiar with the City by the Bay as photographer Fred Lyon. His new book, San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940-1960, not only captures it iconic sights and sites--the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, cable cars, the hills and the fog--but also the iconoclastic, if sometimes off-beat geniuses that made it great--a group to which Lyon firmly belongs. We're thrilled to present dozen incredible images from the book, accompanied by Lyon's own captions.

Learn more about Fred Lyon in the "Living Through the Lens" trailer at the bottom of this page.


San Francisco in the 1940s was irresistible. It still is, but for a brash young photographer recovering from New York’s fashion world, it was feast. Two bridges, steep hills with tiny cable cars, fog, Chinatown, plus a booming postwar optimism, all fed my hungry camera. It seldom had a chance to cool off.

In those headlong days it was impossible to imagine living past thirty.  Anyhow, who would want to hang around when life’s over?  Now however, as I turn 90, Princeton Architectural Press has given these San Francisco images a new life in our book San Francisco: Portrait of a City 1940 – 1960. What a birthday present!  

Seen again, from this distance and in the context of change, the content displays a relevance  beyond nostalgia. The City isn’t static, it’s a work in progress.  Still, as we plunge forward, our recent history can guide us, perhaps soothing and even providing an occasional chuckle.

Notes on a handful of images:

Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, seen from atop Russian Hill, framed by the windshield of my Riley drophead coupe (separate fenders and headlights!).
 
Cityscape looking south from a plane over the bay.  In the foreground, Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, while downtown fills the distance with newer buildings and the south waterfront.
 
Above the Golden Gate Bridge:  The pilots of the small seaplanes I used for aerial photography never wanted to go as low as I did during our flyovers of the Golden Gate Bridge, but this viewpoint has an immediacy that excites me.  Old Fort Point nestles under the South Anchorage (at top).  And just look at that traffic.  It hasn’t been that sparse in decades.
 
The crew that paints the Golden Gate Bridge works from one end to the other and then starts all over again.  During the weeks of shooting this story my role  changed from a curiosity and the painters became protective, averting several reckless moves of the demented “camera guy”.
 
This display of laundry was a familiar sight in North Beach, traditionally an enclave of Italian immigrants and Chinese, in the days before automatic appliances.
 
Seen through a telephoto lens from Telegraph hill, the Lombard Street grapevine zig-zags down Russian Hill.  Headlights trace autos’ wiggly brick path.
 
Small boys at play on a steep hill above Broadway in North Beach.  This vertical city encourages imaginative vehicles for a swoop down the slope.
 
A pair of old skates and a couple of young buddies often equaled two “coasters” for the steep sidewalks of North Beach.  Daring races often ended abruptly, with a scrape or two.
 
A cable car at the foot of California Street prepares for its crawl up from the waterfront and the financial district to the top of Nob Hill.
 
On Grant Avenue in Chinatown, a street lamp is readied for the annual festivities of Chinese New Year.
 
Castle Street, on the south slope of Telegraph Hill, frames Coit Tower and epitomizes San Francisco’s reputation as the capital of film noir.
 
A foggy night at Land’s End, above Sutro Baths.
 

Exclusive: Senator John McCain Reviews Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Patton"

Senator John McCainThrough their series of best-selling books--including Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot and Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever--Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard have revisited the sudden, unexpected deaths of several of history's most significant figures, and how those terrible events echoed across time and the world. We are honored to present this guest review by Senator John McCain of the latest volume, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General.

Senator McCain is the author of several books, including Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir and Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War, due in November 2014.


In Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have written a lively, provocative account of the death of General George S. Patton and the important events in the final year of the Allied victory in Europe, which Patton’s brilliant generalship of the American Third Army did so much to secure.

The fourth book in the bestselling Killing series is rich in fascinating details, and riveting battle scenes. The authors have written vivid descriptions of a compelling cast of characters, major historical figures such as Eisenhower, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, and others, as well as more obscure players in the great drama of the Second World War and the life and death of Patton.

O’Reilly and Dugard express doubts about the official explanation for Patton’s demise from injuries he suffered in an automobile accident. They surmise that the General’s outspokenness about his controversial views on postwar security, particularly his animosity toward the Soviets, our erstwhile allies, might have made him a target for assassination. They cast a suspicious eye toward various potential culprits from Josef Stalin to wartime espionage czar “Wild Bill” Donovan and a colorful OSS operative, Douglas Bazata, who claimed later in life to have murdered Patton.

Certainly, there are a number of curious circumstances that invite doubt and speculation, Bazata’s admission for one. Or that the drunken sergeant who drove a likely stolen truck into Patton’s car inexplicably was never prosecuted or even reprimanded. But whether you share their suspicions or not this is popular history at its most engrossing.

Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly From accounts of the terribly costly battle for Fort Driant in the hills near Metz to the Third Army’s crowning achievement, its race to relieve the siege of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, the reader experiences all the drama of the “great crusade” in its final, thrilling months.

The authors’ profiles of world leaders and Patton’s contemporaries are economic but manage to offer fresh insights into the personalities of well-known men. Just as compelling are the finely wrought sketches of people of less renown but who played important parts in the events.

There is PFC Robert Holmund, who fought and died heroically at Fort Driant having done all he could and then some to take his impossible objective. PFC Horace Woodring, Patton’s driver, who revered the general, went to his grave mystified by the cause and result of the accident that killed his boss. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s young son, Manfred, exchanged a formal farewell handshake with him after learning his father would be dead in a quarter hour, having been made to commit suicide to prevent the death and dishonor of his family.

These and many other captivating accounts of the personal and profound make Killing Patton a pleasure to read. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in World War II history and the extraordinary man who claimed Napoleon’s motto, “audacity, audacity, always audacity,” as his own.

Work Worth Doing: "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"

The RooseveltsFor more than 30 years, through an impressive collection of highly acclaimed, long-form documentary films, Ken Burns has established himself as one of the premier chroniclers of American history. Geoffrey C. Ward has been his collaborator on many of these projects--including The Civil War, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945, and Baseball--and the co-author of the lavish books that accompany them.

This Sunday (September 14) marks the debut of their latest effort, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, on PBS. Ward is no stranger to the subject, having written several books on FDR, including Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament, and the new companion book lives up to the high standards of its predecessors.

We asked Ward about his partnership with Burns, the new book, the Roosevelts, and how they might fare in today's political environment.

(The photos below are excerpted from The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.)

 


 

You’ve collaborated with Ken Burns on so many touchstone documentaries, The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The War, etc. How did your partnership come about?
    
I had left the editorship of American Heritage and was beginning a new career as a writer some 32 years ago, when Ken invited me up to Walpole, NH to view a film he was making on the Shakers. We hit it off and he asked me if I’d consider writing a film script. I didn’t know enough to say no and so wrote “Huey Long.” I loved the work and the collaboration and we’ve been at it ever since.
 
What’s the extent of your involvement with the film side? Do you contribute to the documentaries (and vice versa), and to what extent? Or are you masters of your respective domains?

This really is a collaboration. Ken loves words as much as he loves images. I love images as much as I love words. I’m in the trenches with the rest of Ken’s extraordinary film-making team from beginning to end, writing, rewriting, rethinking, but in the end his word is final. The books we’ve done together are mostly left to me but they wouldn’t exist without the films they accompany.   

 

The Roosevelts


How are the topics of the documentaries chosen? What do you look for in selecting your subject matter?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer. A subject has to say something about who we are as Americans and it has to engage our enthusiasm. Ken loves baseball. I love jazz. Dayton Duncan always wanted to do Lewis and Clark and the National Parks. Lynn Novick became fascinated by Prohibition and then by the Vietnam War, the series on which we’re currently working. One of Ken’s greatest strengths is his fearlessness in taking on big intimidating subjects and then successfully wrestling them to the ground.
 
You’ve written several books about FDR; did any additional research on Teddy and Eleanor Roosevelt change—or add additional context—to your knowledge of FDR?

There have been good films and whole libraries of good books about the individual Roosevelts. In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History  we set out to do something different – to connect the dots, to make it clear that it was no accident that all three belonged to the same extraordinary clan; that party allegiances aside, far more united than divided them; that without the unforgettable example set by Theodore Roosevelt we would likely never have heard of Franklin or Eleanor.

The new book is different from those we’ve done before. Pictures and text are more evenly balanced; in telling our story each is meant to augment the other. The book is intended for readers of every age but because big, richly illustrated books like this one first drew me to history as a boy, it’s my hope that there are kids out there whose interest in our past will be kindled by this one.

The surprises for me were mostly pictorial – we’ve found photographs and footage never seen before, including my favorite discovery, a truly historic picture in which a young and worshipful FDR watches from the crowd as his celebrated fifth cousin takes the oath of office as president, the first of five presidential inaugurations to have a Roosevelt at the center of things.  
    

The Roosevelts


In some ways they seem like disparate personalities or politicians—Teddy was a Republican, FDR a Democrat. Were there common threads that you discovered, connections that may have seemed unintuitive?

They were undeniably different in style and temperament but in the end it was the similarities and not the differences between them that mattered most to history. They each championed the working man and earned the enmity of the well-to-do among whom they’d been raised to manhood. Both loved people and politics and took action to preserve America’s natural heritage. Theodore and Franklin – and Eleanor, as well – overcame handicaps that might easily have destroyed them. And they all believed that the United States had a vital role to play beyond its borders.

But above all, all three Roosevelts shared Theodore’s conviction that national problems demanded national solutions, that the federal government had enormous power to do good, that at its best, government was simply “Us, … you and me.” That may not be a widely shared view these days, but the Roosevelts proved in their time how valid it could be.

 
What characteristics separate them from today’s politicians?

It’s always dangerous to speculate about what leaders from one era would do when confronted by problems faced by leaders in another – though I’m sure Theodore Roosevelt would be astonished to learn that it took more than century to enact a form of the national health care he first proposed in 1912.

I’m afraid that neither Theodore nor Franklin Roosevelt could be elected president in our time – TR because his frenetic energy and shrill delivery would be too hot for television, and FDR because today’s intrusive camera crews would compete to see who could get the most dramatic footage revealing his physical handicap.
 
As T.R.’s niece, did Eleanor, through shared force of personality or convictions, influence FDR’s thinking or policy?

Eleanor’s owed much of her relentless energy and inbred sense of obligation to her beloved Uncle Theodore and was never entirely convinced that her own husband was the greater man. But she had a profound influence on FDR, beginning when she first showed him the harsh reality of tenement life on the Lower East Side and continuing through his presidency when she acted – sometimes to his annoyance – as his progressive conscience.
 
It’s interesting that your collaborations with Burns focus squarely on singularly American experiences (a good series name, if it weren’t already taken). What about the Roosevelts-- taken collectively or as individuals, or both—makes them quintessentially American?

I’m wary of generalizing about national characteristics. But all three Roosevelts did share at least two qualities that I’d like to think are distinctively American – an inbred impatience with ideology and an unwavering belief in a better future for their country.
 
 

The Roosevelts

Runway Roundup: New Releases for Fashion Week

I think I’ve probably used up all the words allotted for praising I’ll Drink to That, the new memoir from the octogenarian style maven, Betty Halbreich. But, love it as I do, there are other brand new books about fashion and their –istas, just out or about to come out. Why does it seem there’s a bounty of such books right now? Fall is big clothes-buying season, for one thing (I bet that fact has to do with our collective memories of back-to-school outfits and shoes) and, also because it’s the week designers show their upcoming stuff at Fashion Week. Here, then, some other books for the adornment-obsessed.

 

Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes

A quirky compendium of essays, photos, interviews and other pieces by and about women and the things they wear. Notable contributors include authors Heidi Julavits, artist Leanne Shapton and (of course) Girls creator and, ahem, creative dresser, Lena Dunham. Anthologies are usually tricky – uneven – and this one can be. But it’s so well done, and so chock full of charm, you can’t help learning (again!) that in books, as in fashion, style and confidence is all.

 
Champagne Supernovas

Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the 90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion by Maureen Callahan

Dish-y! According to New York Post writer, Maureen Callahan, model Kate Moss and designers Marc Jacobs and the late Alexander McQueen are responsible for turning alternative style into the mainstream – and making billions in the process. Callahan posits that these mad geniuses of fashion are major cultural icons, or at least were responsible for major cultural shifts. It’s a provocative argument. As the late Joan Rivers, who also had a few opinions about fashion, would say, “Can we talk?”

 
The Woman I Wanted to Be

The Woman I Wanted to Be by Diane von Furstenberg

Her second memoir, the designer Diane von Furstenberg here inspires women not necessarily to wear her signature wrap dresses, but to believe in themselves. After all, the now-wife of mogul Barry Diller did, through family crises, career setbacks and serious illness. Still, in the end, she says, “I owe everything to that little dress.”

 
TITLE

D.V. and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel by Diana Vreeland

And no book about fashionism [sic] would be complete without a mention of the very best, funniest, oddest books about loving and having style. Those, of course, are Diana Vreeland’s D.V. and The Eye Has to Travel. “Pink is the navy blue of India,” the legendary Vogue editor famously opined. Like the aphorisms attributed to Yogi Berra, hers are, even in the re-reading, irresistible.

 
Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography

Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest

And then there’s Elsa Schiaparelli, best known until recently by only the  most serious fashion lovers, but who was, in her day, even more famous than Coco Chanel. Meryle Secrest’s biography makes the case that Schiaparelli (grandmother of actress Marisa Berenson) was not merely a designer, but was, in fact, an artist (she was close to Man Ray, among others) and an eccentric social revolutionary whose medium was apparel.   

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.”


 

 

Forever in Fashion

I'll Drink to ThatI’ll Drink to That, the memoir from legendary Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich, is more than just a book about fashion. Sure, there are tons of stories of  little, lonely Betty playing in her mother’s closet among bottles of Joy perfume, of working for “Mr Beene” (no one would ever have called the mid-century designer anything else), of the golden sable coat that still, to this day, hasn’t turned color. (They do that, you know.) But equally interesting is the way Halbreich’s life unfolds, and how she managed to turn a  passion into a salvation. Halbreich’s voice – on the page and in person – doesn’t have a soupcon of little-old-lady; what I like best is that it’s peppered with barbs and idioms of her era. (Now that I’ve talked to Halbreich, I appreciate that co author Rebecca Paley is a genius channeler; Halbreich in person sounds just like Paley has made her read on the page.) Sure, she rambles a bit – but, as she reminds you often, she is 87. Besides, she says she’s not crazy about all this attention she’s getting. (Methinks the lady doth demur a bit.)  But all I can tell you is that the only thing better than a half hour conversation with Betty Halbreich might be Betty Halbreich looking around your closet for half an hour. But, alas: she doesn’t make house calls. (I asked.)


Q: You were featured in a beloved documentary (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) and have been the subject of an article in The New Yorker. Lena Dunham (of Girls fame) is developing a TV show around you. And now you have this book: can you say why you decided this was the time to write it?


A: I think this was a catharsis. It’s a strange thing about my life. I’ve never had to look for a job, I never wanted to write a book. Someone I knew always pushed me. I always have to be pushed.   Everything I do, someone has to take me with an invisible hand and leave me. I’m not a self motivated person, but once I start to do something, I always belong to the Clean Plate Club.


I'll Drink to ThatQ: Were you always obsessed with clothes?


A: I cared about clothes. I care visually about clothes. My mother loved clothes and was fashionable, and I guess I grew up in a world of looking around. It’s [the love of fashion and art] sort of inbred;  it’s truly something you’re born with. My daughter knows about painting and art. She’s the associate director of the Modern [Museum of Modern Art]. My son is a nonprofessional photographer. So we are sort of visual people. I don’t add, I don’t subtract, I don’t divide and I don’t use the computer. Visual people sometimes have a very difficult time. 

 
Q: You get the sense from the book that fashion advice is not the only kind of counsel that your clients are seeking...


A: Here in the dressing rooms, you wouldn’t believe what comes out. And they say things like: My husband says I should wear this or that, and what do you think? Half of the women cannot face themselves in the mirror... but they can face me. They can face the stranger, but not themselves. They don’t feel secure, but maybe I make them feel secure because of my age. They have nothing to fear from me.


Q:  Don’t you think we all grow up with “rules” in our heads about what we can and cannot wear, rules maybe our mothers or the fashion world told us.


A: Well, you can take those rules and scratch them right now! I said to young Emily (her assistant at Solutions, the personal shopping department at Bergdorf) who’s my right hand, my left hand and half of my brain: “Everybody is wearing white pants!” In my day you never wore white pants in the city. Maybe at the beach, but not tight ones. I see size 20s in white pants: where do they find them? They look like they’re going to be beached. I can’t wait until winter when everybody puts a coat on.

I'll Drink to That


Q: But size 20s have a right to be fashionable, don’t they?


A: Yes, of course, but it can be very difficult. I say my most difficult clients (to dress) are the 12s, 14s and 16s: they’re the lost ladies. Nobody wants to dress her, give her a sleeve, or some length. My department shouldn’t be called Solutions. It should be called Challenge.


I'll Drink to That Q: Do women dress for fashion, for men, or for each other?


A: Don’t you think people should be comfortable in their own skin? I always say it’s how you carry yourself. A lot of dressing is to make you feel good, but sometimes it has to do with your peer group.  You want to look like your group. And we’re all into a youth thing: I abhor what everyone’s doing to themselves: the injections and the redoing. There’s a lack of individuality. Do women dress for women or men? Both, I think, but when someone says to me that they took a dress home and Joe didn’t like it, I say, “You know. Don’t wear it around him. Don’t let him make you hate that dress!”


Q: If you had to pick your favorite item of clothing, what would it be?


A: Well, there’s that sable, still in my closet... The cabochon ring my mother gave me is the most important thing in my life. Every morning when I put it on I hear my mother saying, “You wear that every day of your life.”  My mother was one tough broad. I have a love hate relationship with the old world. I’m thrilled that I can be part of this [modern] world. I really don’t know how it happened.  Somebody is taking care of me. So many people my age, they’re in wheelchairs. I’m in heels!

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.)

 

Recipe Road Test: Honey Molasses Candied Almonds

SweetAlchemyI don't watch a lot of T.V. but Top Chef is one of my must-watch shows and when Top Chef: Desserts was on, I was equally obsessed because I have a serious sweet tooth.  Case in point, it's 9 in the morning as I'm writing this and I'm eating cake.  Don't judge.

Yigit Pura not only won the first season of Top Chef: Desserts (and was really fun to watch while he did it) but he also creates the most gorgeous--and delicious, let's not forget that--confections at his Tout Sweet Pâtisserie in San Francisco's Union Square.  You can add another star by Pura's name for his luscious new cookbook, Sweet Alchemy: Dessert Magic, our pick for one of the Best Cookbooks of August.

So many recipes I want to try...Baked Berry Meringue Kisses? The ones I've eaten from his shop are heavenly...Earl Grey Tea-Infused Chocolate Truffles? Lemongrass & Ginger Ice Cream? Every page has something wonderful on it and the way Pura presents the recipes is super straightforward and friendly-- he tells you exactly what to expect in each step and how to get it done. Voila!

When I was flipping through the pages of Sweet Alchemy for the third or fourth time, the Honey Molasses Candied Almonds recipe jumped out at me, even without one of the many brilliant photographs you'll see throughout the book.  Perfect recipe road test material before the holiday weekend. 

The instructions gave me the choice of microwave or stove top for melting the molasses and honey together (um, microwave, please), told me how to incorporate the nuts for even coverage, and how to roast them to golden perfection.   I didn't have the Maldon sea salt the recipe calls for, so I used Himalayan pink sea salt instead, but I'll get the Maldon next time (cook and learn...) for more salty contrast. Below is a picture of my new favorite cocktail snack, and since they can be stored for up to 2 weeks I'm flagging this page in my book for holiday hostess gifts. 

A word to the wise on making your own Honey Molasses Candied Almonds (bonus - you can use other nuts if you'd like): scarf some down right away because once other people get a taste of these nuts they'll be gone in a flash!  

   HoneyMolassesAlmonds

Honey molasses candied almonds

The sweet coating and a perfect pinch of sea salt combine with toasted almond flavor to create an addictive treat. I like to have a stash of these to set out for guests on a cheese board. Play around with your favorite nuts in this recipe. YIELD: 3 CUPS (500 G)

500 g/2 cups plus 2 tbsp water

500 g/2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

455 g/1 lb blanched whole almonds

20 g/1 tbsp honey

5 g/1/2 tsp unsulfured molasses

1 large pinch Maldon sea salt

Line a 9-by-13-in (23-by-33-cm)baking pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

In a medium stainless-steel or enamel-coated saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Place the saucepan over high heat, and when the mixture comes to a rolling boil, immediately turn the heat to medium. When the sugar is fully dissolved, about 30 seconds, turn the heat to medium-low.

Add the almonds to the saucepan and poach for 30 to 45 seconds to blanch them. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the almonds into a large mixing bowl and let cool. When they are still warm to the touch but not hot, about 5 minutes, the almonds are ready to work with again.

While the almonds are cooling, combine the honey and molasses in a separate, small bowl. Microwave the mixture for 15 to 30 seconds, until it is viscous and easy to mix. Stir gently to combine. Alternatively, place the honey and molasses in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, or until heated through and easy to stir.

Pour the honey mixture over the almonds and toss gently until the almonds are evenly coated. Sprinkle the sea salt over the nuts and toss to coat. Spread the almonds evenly in the prepared baking pan. Toast in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Every 4 to 6 minutes, gently shake the pan so that the almonds roll around and cook evenly. When the almonds are golden brown, remove the pan from the oven and place it on a cooling rack. Cool completely.

Once cool, the almonds are ready to serve, or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 weeks.

Sweet Note: This recipe can be used with most nuts, including hazelnuts or pistachios or even pumpkin seeds. The molasses lends a complex flavor to these sweet little nuggets.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

September 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30