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Ken Jennings: The Water Boys of the White House

JenningsUSpresidentsYou probably know Ken Jennings as the game show record breaker who won $2.52 million on Jeopardy! and then became a best-selling author.  Most recently, Jennings has turned his attention to writing books for kids--really great informative and FUN books in a series called the Junior Genius Guides.  The first two titles were Maps and Geography (a pick for Best Nonfiction Children's Books of February ) and Greek Mythology.  Embarrassing fact about myself: I stink at geography. But when I read Jennings' book, I not only learned new facts but they were interesting enough that I found myself parroting tidbits to family members, including my seven-year-old.

The latest book in the series, Ken Jennings' Junior Genius Guide to U.S. Presidents, just released and once again I find myself a fan. Did you know that President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday? I did not.  But it's a fun fact that I've now committed to memory.  In the guest post below, Jennings talks a little about why he chose Presidents and five of them that didn't quite make the cut for his book.

The third installment in my series of Junior Genius Guides for kids is out this week, and this one is about U.S. presidents. When I’m writing these books, the audience I always have in mind is me at nine years old: curious, fact-obsessed, and always on the lookout for books that didn’t talk down to me. (Kids aren’t dummies.  They can tell the difference between smart, funny books and “smart,” “funny” books.)

When I was nine years old, I was particularly obsessed with U.S. presidents. Something about the mystique of the office (the private airplane, the Easter Egg rolls, the giant statues carved into mountains) combined with the wealth of available trivia (Millard Fillmore? We had a president named “Millard”?) spoke to me. It wasn’t political.  It was just . . . American.

Let me introduce you to a few people who are not in my book . . . though they almost were. On the all-star team of Chief Executives, these are the alternates, the water boys.  They’re more obscure than Millard Fillmore, but they got even closer to the presidency than Al Gore. 

  • John Hanson. America’s first president as a newly formed nation was not George Washington. Before the Constitution was ratified, when the U.S. government was still organized under the Articles of Confederation, eight men were presidents of the Continental Congress. The first was an otherwise obscure Maryland merchant named John Hanson. Nice enough guy, but you won’t be seeing him on the dollar bill any time soon.
  • David Rice Atchison. In 1849, Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, so Sabbath-observing Zachary Taylor was sworn in a day late.  (As was the style at the time.)  If James Polk’s presidency ended at midnight on Saturday, but Taylor wasn’t sworn in until Monday, then who was president all day Sunday? Next in the line of succession was theoretically Missouri senator David Rice Atchison, who had been serving as President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Atchison spent the rest of his life boasting that he’d run the nation’s most honest administration, since he’d been asleep pretty much his entire (24-hour) term! Technically, though, his Senate term had ended at the same time Polk’s presidency did, so legal scholars agree that he was never really president.
  • Benjamin Wade. In 1868, during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate was a Radical Republican from Ohio named Benjamin Wade. Wade was so sure he’d accede to the presidency that he even started assembling his cabinet. But the thought of the abrasive Wade in the presidency scared senators so badly that, though largely convinced Johnson was guilty, they failed to impeach him by one vote. Wade had to stop measuring curtains for the White House.
  • Samuel Tilden. In the 1876 election, Governor Tilden of New York won the popular vote easily, but four states had disputed electoral votes. Tilden needed just one of those states to take the White House, but a commission of eight Republicans and seven Democrats voted 8-7 to give all four disputed states to their man, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was sworn in secretly in the Red Room of the White House, for fear that a public inauguration would turn into a riot.
  • Sir Anthony Hopkins. The former Hannibal Lecter has been Oscar-nominated not once but twice for playing U.S. presidents: Richard Nixon in Nixon and John Quincy Adams in Amistad. Sadly, Hopkins was born in Wales, and is therefore constitutionally ineligible for the presidency.

Those Under 2,000 Years Old Need Not Apply

The Oldest Living Things in the WorldFor the last ten years, Rachel Sussman has traveled the globe in a search for oldest, continuously living organisms on the planet. "Old" in Sussman's estimation is 2,000 years, and there are more living things that fit the bill than you might expect. Some hide in plain sight: a stand of birches--actually a genetically homogeneous individual sharing a single root system--over 80,000 years old. Some are weird: the Llareta, which looks like an alien, mossy blob, but is actually an evergreen with thousands of tiny, densely packed branches. And some stretch the definition of "living": stromatolites, rock-like accretions formed of sediments bound together by bacterial excretions, whose history dates to the earliest days of life on Earth.

The result of her determination, obsession, and occasionally perilous travels is The Oldest Living Things in the World, a spectacular and stupefying record of organisms with indivudal life spans that often predate civilization, but whose near-term survival is threatened by the twin threats of climate change and wanton human destruction. This book serves a paradoxical tribute to the natural world: a testament to both its adaptivity and resilience, as well as its fragility.

To learn more, browse a selection of images from the book, and watch Sussman's TED Talk.

"Stromatolites #1211 - 0512 (2,000 - 3,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia)"

"Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707 - 22411 (2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia)"

"Posidonia Oceanica Sea Grass #0910 - 0753 (100,000 years old; Balearic Islands, Spain)"

"Llareta #0308 - 2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile)"

"Dead Huon Pine adjacent to living population segment #1211 - 3609 (10,500 years old; Mount Read, Tasmania)"

"Bristlecone Pine, detail #0906 - 3030 (White Mountains, California)"

"The Poker Chips Is Filth": Colson Whitehead's Guide to Vegas

Colson Whitehead

Every year, thousands of card  players converge in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, all hauling varying levels of hope and skill with them into the southern Nevada desert. As a regular in a neighborhood game, Colson Whitehead didn’t harbor that kind of ambition—until staked him $10,000 for a seat at the WSOP. Whitehead goes all-in with a Rocky IV-worthy regimen, hiring a personal trainer to prepare himself for the long, grueling table hours and a tournament-hardened coach to navigate the mysteries of Texas Hold’em. When he arrives at the tournament, he navigates using a set of laws essential to any aspiring card sharp: which casino restaurants provide poker-appropriate nutrition; how to hit the bathrooms ahead of the mad rushes of the game breaks; and, of course, the necromancy of a successful Hold’em hand. With its cast of poker-universe luminaries and aspiring misfits, the tournament stuff is fun, especially to this gambling rube. But Vegas is Vegas, and between the notes of the Wheel of Fortune slot machines, one can hear the suck of entropy. Whitehead--whose previous books landed him on the short-list for the Pulitzer, as well as a MacArthur "Genius" grant--has the wry sense of humor to observe the twisted reality of the "Leisure Industrial Complex"  without mocking it; he’s the kind of writer who can see the human condition reflected in the windows of a failed Vegas market that sells only beef jerky (and other jerky-like products). The Noble Hustle: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

 The Noble Hustle is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for May 2014.



by Colson Whitehead

Coming to Las Vegas for the first time can be intimidating. Sitting down at a poker table in a casino is even more intimidating. What if there were someone who could help you out, show you the ropes, prevent you from making a series of terrible, terrible mistakes?

That person is not me.

I can, however, share a little of what I learned while writing The Noble Hustle, conveniently grouped under four crucial subject headings.


As my poker coach Helen Ellis informed me, "the poker chips is filth." I'd rather lick every subway pole on a New York City rush hour train than touch a poker chip without proper precautions. Most casinos have latex gloves in wall dispensers by the entrance - use them. Sanitize thoroughly before you touch anything, and keep rubbing it in until you are ready. When the poker dealer demands, "Check or bet?", don't get flustered. Just say, "I am doing my ablutions, sir!" and let them wait.


The brain is the second biggest organ in the human body (this is not factually incorrect). Can you imagine how many calories the brain consumes while bluffing, laying traps, and calculating implied odds for hours on end? Quite a few. Especially during the twelve hour marathon sessions of the World Series of Poker. That's where beef jerky comes in. Dried muscle meat, spiced, cured, and distributed in easy-seal bags. Once a cowboy secret, beef jerky is now the number one meat snack of professional card players. It's low calorie, low nutrition, and nothing breaks the ice at a high stakes No Limit Game like, "What kind of jerky you got there, hoss?" Ask your local grocery store to stock some of the new flavors hitting the market, such as Thai Barbecue, Hint of Gluten, and Spicy Kale.


There are hundreds of brilliant poker How-To's out there, covering everything from low limit  money games, to Sit 'n Go's, to next-level tournament wizardry. Don't read any of them. Instead, get some of those Google Glasses. Sunglasses have been standard poker armament for years - how is this any different? Why bother to learn pot odds or flop strategy when you can just go, "Google Glass, should I stay in or what?" and have the artificial intelligence program work that algorithm magic.


You can't spend all day losing money, however. The nightlife beckons. All kinds of people flock to Vegas in search of excitement. Millennials bust loose with their sock hops and "rock and roll" music, Gen Xers make the scene at NirvanaLand, the hot new grunge-themed megaclub. But there is one demographic that outnumbers and outparties all others - the aptly-named Greatest Generation. Whether you're a Sexy Septuagenarian or a Naughty Nonagenarian, there are plenty of members of your peer group to throw dice with, flirt with, and engage in a nice conversation. Especially at 2 in the afternoon before the Early Bird Special. Push away from the craps table every once in a while and don't be afraid to take a chance on love, no matter what age you are.

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.  


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August 2014

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