Blogs at Amazon


Bombs Over Sad Dad: IMing with Nathan Deuel


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

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

Photos and captions throughout are by Deuel as well.

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

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

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

The problem is that the job was in Baghdad.

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

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

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

I think that's the book.

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

Pain and Gain: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

Author Shot 1

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

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

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

Amazon: How would you describe the book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dee Williams's Essential "Big Tiny" Library

Big-TinyTen years ago, Dee Williams had a charming older house in Portland with "the beautiful gardens and the accommodating floor plan, along with the mortgage, utility bills, the hours spent laboring to keep things from falling under the weight of time and the elements." To pay for it all, she had an hours-long interstate commute and a job that brought her face-to-face with industry's nasty impact on the natural world. Then she had a heart attack in the grocery store.

With a pacemaker that made her feel her mortality as strongly as her vitality, Dee fixated on an article in a doctor's office magazine about Jay Shafer, a man who'd built his own tiny house. "I just stared at it, mulled it over, daydreamed, and then I thought: What would happen if I just... sort of... did that?" She rang Shafer up through Directory Assistance, and then she bought a plane ticket to visit him in Iowa City.

So opens The Big Tiny, Dee's wholehearted memoir of trading in the time and money suck of the house she thought she'd wanted and building her own tiny home on wheels, eventually parked semi-permanently in the backyard of dear friends.

Dee and her story are immensely likeable—she can laugh at and cheer for herself, and we're right there with her. The shift she made is also immensely inspiring, even to this inveterate collector of things. She makes me remember that I too am a "girl who loved sleeping in her tree house and who preferred staying outside, who still thinks reading by headlamp is romantic." Maybe trading most of my beloved stuff for more time and freedom would feel genuinely awesome.

Shelf space is scarce in Dee's tiny house, so I was curious about which books (if any) had earned the privilege of staying. Her essentials cover the how and why of tiny house building and living. — Mari


My friend Logan and I got into a discussion about what we’d want to wash up on shore if we were trapped on a desert island. Logan wanted an axe—a bad choice because it wouldn’t ever happen, because an axe would sink. I wanted a book. A good book. My point is... I love books!

Over the years, many books have rotated in and out of my little house—novels, memoirs, how-to manuals and more—and these seven have taken up permanent residence.

TinyBuilding1. I first purchased Francis D.K. Ching’s Building Construction Illustrated when I was in college. I then proceeded to drag that book over mountain passes and halfway across the country, packing and unpacking it at least a dozen times before building my little house. It saved me a thousand times during the construction process; it has it all, from the basics of platform framing to the nuances of passive solar design. It even provides the common dimension of kitchen counters, tables and couches… super helpful information while designing a little house.


Tiny-HomeWork2. My brother gave me a copy of Lloyd Kahn’s Home Work a year or so before I decided to build my little house. It became one of my greatest sources of inspiration and information with thousands of photos... snapshots of beach houses, rolling homes, adobe huts, stick-built houses and stone-built barns. This book inspired me to rethink form, function and materials, and also made me want to be more like the quirky, cool people that Lloyd interviewed for his book.


TinyMaterial3. Almost a decade before I built my little house, I sat on the floor at the local bookstore, pouring over Peter Menzel’s Material World. I was thunderstruck by the photos taken in thirty different countries, showing a typical family staged in front of their house with all their worldly possessions – goats, chickens, rugs, a soup pot or (less often) a car and a small sea of furniture. It was humbling to see the comparisons, but also incredibly beautiful in the way it showed that kids in Mongolia prank in front of a camera just like the kids in Texas. Thumbing through that book became a regular habit, and I still find myself jaw-dropped as I meander through the pages while sipping coffee on my front porch.


TinyHumble4. Over the past couple years, I’ve come close to peeing my pants laughing as I’ve read and then reread Deek Diedricksen’s Humble Homes, Simple Shacks, Cozy Cottages, Ramshackle Retreats, Funky Forts: And Whatever the Heck Else We Could Squeeze in Here. It’s not just funny, but educational—I’ve learned something new every time I’ve thumbed through this hilarious, well-informed encyclopedia of funky smallness.


Tiny-Morning5. I received Tammy Strobels’s new photography book, My Morning View, in the mail the other day, and man-o-man it blew me away. It chronicles Tammy’s journey of living in a tiny house on a ranch outside Mt. Shasta (effing beautiful!!!), and also of working through her grief after losing her dad to a stroke. Her iPhone photography project is absolutely beautiful, and full of helpful advice for would-be photographers like me.


TinySmall6. Jay Shafer’s Small House Book has been called “the book that started a movement,” and I believe it. I wish this book had existed before I built my house; it’s full of inspiring photos, as well as information about community development, small house design and the need for better urban infill.


Tiny-Shed7. Along with Ching’s book, Joseph Truini’s Building a Shed was practically my building bible during construction of my little house. It provides alternative ways of framing out the overhangs, windows, doors and roof. It also provided a lot of great advice for pouring footings and building a foundation if you’re building a “ground-bound” house instead of a tiny house on a trailer.


TinyDeePortraitOf course, there are many other books that I’ve totally enjoyed—books that have inspired, informed and encouraged me to build smarter, live better and take a bite out of life. — DW

Dee Williams is a teacher and sustainability advocate. She is the co-owner of Portland Alternative Dwellings, where she leads workshops focused on tiny houses, green building, and community design. Williams lives in Olympia, Washington, with an overly ambitious Australian shepherd, in the shadow of the house of dear friends.

Don't Look Down: Training for the New Alpinism

Training for the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston

As a writer for a blog that is somewhat preoccupied with literary fiction and popular nonfiction, it's not often that I have the opportunity (or reason) to go off-topic and talk about a fitness book.

Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, by Steve House and Scott Johnston, is no ordinary fitness book. House is a world-renowned climber and an advocate of the "alpine-style": A fast-and-light, carry-all-your-gear approach that eschews the siege-style encampments and support typical in commercial mountaineering, especially in places such as Mt. Everest. In order to do that ("that" meaning scaling vertical ice walls thousands of feet high with a 20-pound pack on your back), one must be extraordinarily fit. Along with his climbing partner, Vince Anderson, House won the 2005 Piolet d'Or for their ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in the western Himalayas, and his previous book, Beyond the Mountain, won the 2009 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Johnston, also a climber, has skied at the international level and coaches several top cross-country skiers.

If you're serious, or semi-serious, about climbing, this is your book. House and Johnston have put together regimens of varying difficulties that are both comprehensive and intense, while also addressing nutrition, mental fitness, and goal-setting. Though the exercises are nominally climbing-specific, they're appropriate for anyone who spends time in the mountains, or anyone looking to shake up their routine.

But even if you don't know a Prusik from a piton, there's a lot here to love. The book contains dozens of full-color high-altitude climbing photographs, as well as 27 essays by accomplished climbers, including Ueli Steck, Mark Twight, and Peter Habeler. To illustrate the unique nature of this book, House and Johnston (along with Patagonia Books) have provided several images, along with two excerpts:

  • "The Alpinist as Athlete": A summary of House and Johnson's philosophy of training's central role in the success of any climber
  • "The North Face of the North Twin": A short essay by House about a time something went sideways at altitude (the full story is included in Beyond the Mountain)

 Training for the New Alpinism is a book Fred Beckey would love.

 Images from the book (click for larger photographs):

Marko Prezelj climbing the short traversing pitch to the ice in the exit cracks of the headwall. North face of the North Twin, Alberta

Justin Merle chucks a lap near Ouray, Colorado

Continue reading "Don't Look Down: Training for the New Alpinism" »

Lay of the Land: Photos from Arlo Crawford's "A Farm Dies Once a Year"

After finishing Arlo Crawford's memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year, I found myself wanting to quit my desk job and do something that involves working with my hands. The book details Crawford's decision to leave his city life to help out on his parents' farm in rural Pennsylvania. To my surprise, the narrative is as much a curious look at the intricacies of organic farming as it is a rich, poignant portrait of Crawford's family and their relationship to the land and their neighbors. (On top of moving to the country, A Farm also gave me the urge to call my mom and tell her how much I appreciate her.)

If that's not enticing enough, Crawford was kind enough to share a handful of photos of his parents' farm and a few words to go along with them.


These pictures are different than what most people expect when they think "farm," but I love how still and solitary they are. For me, the most distinctive part of growing up on our farm was how isolated and quiet it could be, and how separate it felt from the outside world. The beauty in February is less conventional, but it’s also unadorned and bone-deep.

Continue reading "Lay of the Land: Photos from Arlo Crawford's "A Farm Dies Once a Year"" »

Rabbit, Write: Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

Updike by Adam Begley It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.

* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters

Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley


1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.

2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.

4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.

5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!

Case Closed? Art, Cannibals, and the Fate of Michael Rockefeller

Savage-Harvest-jacket-omni“I think I can make it.” In 1961, while on an expedition to collect pieces for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art, Michael Rockefeller and his traveling companion were plunged into the warm waters off New Guinea. The billionaire scion tied two empty gas cans to his body for floatation and swam for shore, and by most accounts, he made it. But what happened there, when he encountered members of the Asmat tribe--a culture marked by ritual violence and cannibalism--has been long debated. Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics. So, did he make it? Read our Q&A with Hoffman and decide for yourself.

Learn more about Savage Harvest, an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for March 2014.


What drew you to the mystery of Michael Rockefeller?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael.  In my 20s I saw Dead Birds, the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me.  Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place.  His death took on the quality of myth - Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners - an idea echoed by the press accounts of the time.  Wrote a LIFE photographer, after a day of searching for Michael: "they say if a man falls in the mud he cannot get up without help..."  Which I knew not to be true - the Asmat had been rolling in that mud and spreading it on themselves and walking in it and living in it for 40,000 years.  

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren't alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.  And there was enough about Michael's disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn't a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.

Savage-Harvest-MRBeardedYour book opens with a horrifying, detailed depiction of what might have happened to Michael Rockefeller in 1961, if he had been killed by cannibals. How did you conduct the research for this?

That description is based on the Dutch priest Gerard Zegwaard’s seminal examination of Asmat head hunting practices, published in the American Anthropologist in 1959.  Zegwaard was the first Westerner to spend any time among the Asmat and he spoke the language and delved deep.  Cannibalism was an offshoot of head hunting, an all-important sacred ritual necessary to keep the world in balance and for restoring life in the community, and it was conducted according to formal charters and prescriptions.  It was not random.  If Michael was killed by the men in Otsjanep, as I argue, what happened would have closely followed standard Asmat ritual practice.   

You write, “If I asked anyone about cannibalism, they would acknowledge it. Sure, we used to eat people, now we don’t. They didn’t want to talk about it.” Given the central roles that vengeance and violence played in Asmat culture, is it possible that cannibalism existed in the 1960s, or even later?

Head hunting and ritual cannibalism were still the rule in Asmat in the early 1960s, when Michael disappeared, and there were scattered reports of it well into the 1970s.  

The Rockefeller family resisted the idea that Michael was murdered, and even traveled to New Guinea, in part to dispel the worst rumors. What were the factors that influenced this resistance?

I can’t speak for Michael’s family, but I think they clung to the idea that he disappeared at sea because the Dutch government never told them otherwise and actively denied what it was in fact investigating, and because, of course, the idea of anything else is pretty horrifying.  And they wished to keep everything private, as well.  

Savage-Harvest-SauerDid you seek assistance from the Rockefeller family for the book? Did they participate at all?

I made various efforts to contact Michael’s twin sister, Mary, which all drew a blank.  We have since made contact, but no one from the family helped in any way.

Rockefeller’s disappearance occurred at the moment Asmat society (and similar cultures) was being exposed to the modern world. What were the factors in play, and was Michael’s fate a consequence of that upheaval, at least in part?

Yes, in every way.  Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he personally was not the target, but he was traveling in a culture under siege, one in which all of their most sacred and meaningful activities, the very things that defined them as human beings, were being suppressed, sometimes violently, by a growing tide of Westerners backed up by modern firearms.  Had the Dutch patrol officer Max Lepre not killed the four most important men in the village of Otsjanep in 1958, Michael would be alive today.  And his murder might have become public knowledge at the time if the governments of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United States hadn’t been engaged in a geopolitical struggle over the future of western Papua.  

What was the most dangerous or uncertain moment of your own research?

I only felt in danger once when we were in rough, difficult seas crossing the mouth of the Betsj River.  I never feared for my personal safety from the people, but they intimidated me at first and it was not easy physically or emotionally to be among them at first.  They were hostile to questions about Michael Rockefeller and that was difficult.  I had to learn their language and live with them for a month before I came to understand them.  

Are your heroes journalists, anthropologists, or adventurers? Or journalist-anthropologist-adventurers?  Who are they?

Interesting question.  I’d say I admire most those people who can combine adventure with beautiful writing, whether they call themselves anthropologists or journalists or whatever.  People who can capture not just the physical essence of a place, but the complex emotional lives of human beings, themselves included.  People like Wifred Thesiger or Tobias Schneebaum or even George Orwell.

What were the five (or more) books most influential to your own work?

So hard to narrow it to five!  Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons (beautiful story and narrative with simple, precise writing); John Hersey’s Hiroshima (perfect prose with deep reporting); Capote’s In Cold Blood (the edge of the envelope of the line between fact and fiction); for this book in particular I thought often of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and the way he was able to get inside the heads of the Somalians who attacked the Americans, which I try to do a bit with the Asmat; and last, again for this book, I often thought of lots of great thriller writers in terms of pacing.  It is a complex story, but it’s also a murder mystery and I wanted it to read like one.  


Drinks with Kevin Roose, Author of "Young Money"


The financial crisis of 2008 not only changed the landscape for banks and investment firms, but also spoiled the reputations they once maintained. And still, places like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Credit Suisse were able to recruit some of the Ivy League's best and brightest. For three years, New York Magazine writer Kevin Roose followed a handful of young analyst's at Wall Street's top investment firms, detailing the lives of first- and second-year bankers in Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street's Post-Crash Recruits (one of our Best of the Month picks for February).

I met Roose at the bar of the Bull and Bear Steakhouse. As the hotel bar of the historic Waldorf Astoria, it is exactly the sort of place one could imagine Wall Street high-rollers. The bar is elegant but dimly lit; we settled into the deep leather lounge chairs and talked about Young Money, how Roose befriended the subjects of his book, and where those bankers might take us drinking.

Why did you pick this bar?

I picked it because it's Wall Street themed, and it's in the hotel I'm staying in. It's got this nice '80s Wall Street vibe. I feel like Gordon Gecko is going to come sit down right next to us. It's thematically appropriate.

So tell me about the book.

I followed eight first and second-year Wall Street bankers at firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan for three years. I was curious and fascinated by these people who entered the financial sector after the crash of 2008. I had so many questions: who are these people, what do they do, and why are they still in this industry after such a cataclysm?

I went out drinking with them, I went to their homes, I spent the better part of three years following them around and learning about their lives. Ultimately, I think I got a pretty good idea of what goes on in the trenches of Wall Street.

Where did you find these people? And actually, what I really want to know, is why were they willing to divulge so much of their life to you?

It's a fascinating question. These people never talk to the media because they're not allowed to. Their firms all train them very carefully to not give quotes to the press. So I had to convince them to take their careers and put them on the line. It was a process. It took many months. I went to networking events, I went to terrible bars in Murray Hill, I went to my network and got friends of friends and eventually found good people that represented a good cross-section of Wall Street.

Continue reading "Drinks with Kevin Roose, Author of "Young Money"" »

What's the Score? Two Amazon Editors (and Parents) discuss the new controversial helicopter-parenting guide


From: Schluep, Chris
Sent: Thursday, February 13, 2014 2:01 PM
To: Wilson, Seira
Subject: Stier

Hi Seira,

I know you’ve been reading THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT, where Debbie Stier writes about how she took the SATs seven times as an adult in an attempt to understand what her son and daughter would be going through. I took the test once as an adolescent, and after that I never considered taking it again. Although I’m a parent with two very young sons, I can’t see how my taking the SATs will help William and Nicholas to do better on that test some day. Does this make me a bad parent?


From: Wilson, Seira
Sent: Thursday, February 13, 2014 2:33 PM
To: Schluep, Chris
Subject: Stier

Hey Chris,

No, it doesn’t make you a bad parent, I think Debbie set the bar pretty high when she took on her project.  Frankly, I’m feeling pretty grateful she did all that leg work—after reading about her experience I realized that the SAT is a test prep minefield of epic proportions.  You could seriously spend a fortune trying to set your kid up to do well.  I’ve been sort of taking it for granted that I’d just pick one of the big names we see at work all the time--Princeton Review, Kaplan Study Guides, etc.,—and that would be that.  How naïve I was….  Online courses, tutoring, study guides of all shapes and sizes, the hidden gems of information that take dedicated digging to uncover.  I can barely get my kid signed up for camp in time much less sort through all of that (oh god, I think I still need to do that).  And then Stier cites that study showing that high scorers reported practice tests as the most critical study aid. Go figure.  

Really, you could just flag all those sidebars of advice, findings, and references and make your boys think you are an SAT superstar.  What part of taking the SATs 7 times did you think would have been the worst?  A return to gymnasiums and those horrible kidney shaped desks?  Anticipating your results over and over?  I’ll admit that I never took the SATs but since I read THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT I kind of want to.  Is that sick or what?


From: Schluep, Chris
Sent: Thursday, February 13, 2014 2:44 PM
To: Wilson, Seira
Subject: Stier

I don’t think it’s sick to think about it, although you might change your mind once you start studying for these tests. It takes a special kind of person to tackle something like this. It’s like mountain climbing—you don’t have to do it, and no one will judge you if you don’t. But they’ll certainly judge you if you do, and I’m sure a lot of people will think Stier’s kind of a nut for what she did. In the book, she calls herself “an enthusiast.”

If I were to take the SATs again, I would probably least enjoy realizing how much I’ve forgotten. Math. Vocabulary. Standardized essay writing (what?). Since my kids are both in preschool, I have the temporary advantage of being able to act like I'm Einstein to them. Not that I have to be anything like Einstein to get away with that. True story: The other day, my three-year-old said “Daddy, you know more things than me.” I think we were putting together a Thomas the Train puzzle. I told him, “That’s true, but someday you’ll be smarter than daddy.” But my master plan has nothing to do with standardized testing. It’s simple: I’m just going to raise brilliant kids…which is probably everybody’s master plan. Your daughter’s a little older. Does she already know things that you don’t know?


From: Wilson, Seira
Sent: Thursday, February 13, 2014 3:03 PM
To: Schluep, Chris
Subject: Stier

Riley’s seven so I’m still the household mastermind. For now. The math part kind of terrifies me, to be honest. I fear the day I have to try to help my daughter and I can’t do the homework. I thought it was really interesting that Debbie got the same score in math the first time she took the SATs as a teenager and then again 20 years later. I shudder to think what I would score these days, so I was definitely cheering her on when she raised her score in the second round. Trying to figure out SAT math seems like one of the biggest challenges for everyone--it’s like a subject unto itself. All those books, methods, tutors, and then having so many of them totally backfire. Ugh. Spending all that time and mental anguish whittling it down to what actually works--that’s dedication, my friend. One of her favorite tutors lives here and they did Skype tutoring. Kind of cool. Maybe I’ll have to write that tutor’s name down for future reference…

I was really surprised by the whole essay score thing. Stier had some funny anecdotes about that—I especially liked the one about the professor who scored below a 12 and said it wasn’t that she was having a bad day, it was the testers who were having the bad day. Come to think of it, Debbie wasn’t the only parent who took the SAT in her book (though of course, she was the only one taking it so many times). I’m a Seattleite, is that an overachiever east coast thing?


From: Schluep, Chris
Sent: Thursday, February 13, 2014 3:40 PM
To: Wilson, Seira
Subject: Stier

When I left Brooklyn to move to Seattle, I vowed that my kids would live a kinder gentler existence on the west coast. That hasn't turned out to be true, because I've learned that the east coast overachiever mentality is portable. Now I read three books to my son every night at bedtime. I've got the flash cards and the classical music playing. And I read books like THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT, too. I learned things in this book that I will carry with me into their teenage years. I think a lot of people are going to worry when they read this book--or they’re going to think that she went too far.  But while I don’t agree with her on everything, Debbie Stier did make me think about the difficulty of launching your child into the real world. Some people will vehemently disagree with Stier’s choices--but in the end I had to admit that I might have more in common with her than I originally thought.


From: Wilson, Seira
Sent: Thursday, February 13, 2014 4:06 PM
To: Schluep, Chris
Subject: Stier

I bet a lot of parents have more in common with Stier than they first realize (I know I do).  She’s just a mom trying to give her kid, who’s had some struggles, a better chance of making it in this insanely competitive academic environment.  At the end of the day we all probably do some crazy things for our kids, especially when the stakes are high. Like you, one of the things that’s really stuck with me from reading this isn’t about the SAT at all—it’s what she learned about teen motivation, how kids will become either peer-oriented or parent-oriented.  When I think about my own teenage years, I was definitely peer-oriented, and wish it had been the other way around.  I might need to embroider (well, maybe write in permanent marker) a reminder for myself of the “pixie dust” as Stier calls it for getting kids to be parent-oriented: capturing their attention, exuding tons of enthusiasm (she certainly wasn’t lacking in that area, right?!), staying involved even when they are resistant (I’m thinking, rude), and keeping it up so that your kid feels special because you have this shared project that you are also giving up your time to do. 

I was pretty skeptical that Stier was going to get anywhere with her son by doing all this SAT work, but she says it did ultimately bring them closer.  And that somehow makes sense when I think about how much of a busy parent’s time with older kids is a cursory round of “did you do your homework?” and “do you want dinner?”.  If it means my daughter will still care what I think when she hits the teen years, I might be stepping up to some stinky gyms with a #2 pencil in hand, too.  See you there ;)


10 Immortal Gifts Between Writers and Their Beloveds

Writers-CoversTo celebrate this amorous season, Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, authors of Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads, present the 10 most memorable gestures of affection between writers and their lovers (including one that was mistakenly--and scandalously--delivered to the wrong woman).


1. Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert gave a whole new meaning to the idea of re-gifting in his novel Madame Bovary.

A heartfelt token he had received from his longtime mistress Louise Colet—a cigar holder engraved with the words “Amor nel cor” (Love in the heart)—inspired Emma Bovary to bestow a seal with the same motto on her rakish lover. The fictional rogue later breaks off their relationship in a letter he cruelly marks with the romantic insignia.


2. John Keats

The Romantic poet fell in love with the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, only to be parted from her by illness. Keats hoped a short stay in Italy would bolster his health, never imagining the parting gifts the couple exchanged would be their last.

He gave Fanny his cherished Shakespeare folio with personalized notes written in the margins, while she lined his traveling cap with silk and presented him with a lock of her hair.



3. William Shakespeare

When the Bard passed away, he ignited a four-hundred-year controversy by leaving his “second-best” bed to his wife, Anne. The perceived snub led many to speculate that his marriage had been unhappy.

But contrary to appearances, the bequest was probably a romantic gesture rather than a slight. Tudor custom dictated the best bed be reserved for guests, while the second-best bed would have been the one on which Anne conceived their children.


Author-Margaret-Mitchell Margaret-Mitchell-Typewrite4. Margaret Mitchell

The aspiring writer received more than tea and sympathy from her husband while she was housebound recovering from a car accident.

He presented her with a secondhand typewriter and a sheaf of paper, saying: “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a great new career.”

By then Mitchell had read most of the books at the library, and her husband insisted she try writing one of her own. Taking up his challenge, she set to work on her masterpiece, Gone with the Wind.


Invisible-woman5. Charles Dickens

The Victorian novelist should have chosen his jeweler more carefully. When he ordered a bracelet inscribed to his mistress, Nelly Ternan, it was accidentally delivered to his wife instead.

The misdirected gift was the last straw in a string of indignities. Catherine Dickens finally left her philandering husband, engulfing him in a sea of scandal.


Author-Henry6. O. Henry

When the struggling scribe saved up money for his wife to attend the Chicago World’s Fair, she took the cash but never boarded the train. Instead she used the gift to spruce up their sparse cottage with muslin curtains and wicker chairs.

Later, while her husband was on the lam avoiding embezzlement charges, she made a lace handkerchief and auctioned it for twenty-five dollars in order to send him a Christmas care package. Her generous acts inspired his tale “The Gift of the Magi.”


7. Jack Kerouac

Edie Parker’s wedding gift to Jack Kerouac was bail money. She tapped into her inheritance to spring him from the slammer, with the stipulation that they tie the knot. The pair swapped vows while he was handcuffed to a police detective, after being arrested as a material witness in a murder investigation. Not surprisingly, the hasty nuptials ended in divorce six months later.


Hemingway The-farm-19228. Ernest Hemingway

Struggling writer Hemingway hit up friends for cash to buy his wife, Hadley, an impressive gift: Joan Miró’s oil painting The Farm.

A roll of the dice between Hemingway and an acquaintance decided who had dibs on buying the coveted canvas, which the novelist victoriously toted home to Hadley in a taxi.

Today The Farm is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


9. George Sand

The stormy two-year liaison between French novelist George Sand and dissolute poet Alfred de Musset was rife with quarrels, breakups, and tearful reunions. When their relationship finally fell apart for good, Sand said farewell with a dramatic parting gesture. Like the heroine in her novel Indiana, she cut off her dark, waist-length hair and sent it to Musset in a skull.

10. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The honeymoon phase was still going strong three years after Elizabeth Barrett Browning defied her tyrannical father to marry Robert and elope to Italy. On their third anniversary, she presented her beloved with forty-four sonnets she had secretly penned during their clandestine courtship. Among the intimate love poems is number 43, which begins with the now-famous lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

-- Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon are the authors of Writers Between the Covers and Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West. Joni lives in London; Shannon is a full-time traveler. They can be found at


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