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The Wildest Books in America

Untamed Will Harlan’s new biography, Untamed, explores the remarkable and controversial life of Carol Ruckdeschel, a woman who eats road kill, stalks alligators, and lives in a ramshackle cabin on the wild Cumberland Island--the country's largest and most biologically diverse barrier island, off the Georgia coast--all in defense of sea turtles and the future of the park.

We asked Will for his perspective on environmental writing, as well as the books that inspired him to track down the story of the "wildest woman in America."

Untamed is an Amazon selection for 2014's Best Books of the Year So Far.


BEST VOICES OF ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING by Will Harlan

Nature writing can be pretty, and environmental books can be convincing, but I ultimately crave the raw emotion of fellow human beings struggling to find and protect their place in the world. The best environmental writing, I believe, is about people.

People are the problem and the solution. Good environmental writing reconnects people to nature—not through lectures, but through living, flesh-and-blood examples of courage and commitment. We feel the landscape through them.   

For years, I’ve tried to write about the tangled environmental politics of Cumberland Island. Finally, I realized that the best way to tell the island’s story was through the heartbreaking adventures of its most powerful personality. Carol’s experiences are more persuasive than any political argument.

Here are a few of my favorite environmental voices and books. Instead of preachy diatribes or flowery descriptions, they inspire me with gritty, gutsy characters—some legendary, some overlooked—who stand their ground and speak for the wild.

 

The Last American ManThe Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert


A modern-day pioneer living nearly self-sufficiently on a wild reserve in Appalachia, Eustace Conway embodies the ideals of American masculinity—ruggedness, courage, and independence. However, those hard-fought ideals have a price. Liz Gilbert shows us the tired, lonely man behind the bravado. A tough, buckskin-clad maverick hunts for the one thing missing from his mountain refuge: love.

 

 



Into the Wild Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


Chris McCandless is either a stupid kid or self-reliant hero. As soon as he graduates college, he gives away all of his savings and wanders the wild, seeking adventure and an authentic relationship with the land—until he finds himself starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Barely able to lift a pen, he scribbles this final message, which continues to haunt and shape my own life: “Happiness only real when shared.”

 

 



Encounters with the Archdruid Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee


McPhee masterfully captures the nuances and complexities of the most influential modern environmentalist, David Brower, by shadowing him on close-combat crusades to protect America’s last wild places. But don’t expect classic confrontations with battle lines clearly drawn; Brower is far more kaleidoscopic. Like Brower himself, the book’s strength is in its subtlety, with finely drawn characters exquisitely presented in shades of gray.

 

 



Refuge Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams


Williams’ mother is dying from exposure to nearby nuclear testing, and wildlife is being wiped out by dams and development. In her unflinching memoir, Williams wrestles with life and death out in the wide-open Utah desert and seeks shelter where there is none.

 

 

 

 

Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodEcology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray


Ray’s hardscrabble upbringing in a south Georgia junkyard is an unlikely start for an environmental luminary, but the rusted scrap heaps of her childhood are chock full of raw, resourceful characters—including an authoritarian father who locks his family in a closet and a snuff-dipping coon hunter who introduces her to the wild woods. Ray weaves her own story into the razed red-clay landscape and leads a rebellion to save the South’s last longleaf pine forests.

 

 



Desert Solitaire Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey


It’s definitely the most sermonizing selection of the bunch, but Abbey’s coarse, thunderous voice crying out for the wilderness still echoes across the desert he called home. Amid his nerve-tingling adventures as a park ranger, the monkey-wrenching anarchist unleashes forceful, full-blooded pleas for the last scraps of wildlands.

 

 

 



The Lost Grizzlies The Lost Grizzlies by Rick Bass


Grizzly bears had not been seen for 15 years in southern Colorado until a small group sets out to find them. Bass seeks more than bears, though; he is tracking his own wildness and the longings of the human heart, which only are revealed in the presence of something larger.


Sara’s Sleeper: "We Are Called to Rise" by Laura McBride

SaranelsonWe Are Called to RiseSometimes I crave a simple, straightforward novel--not necessarily light, but straightforward;  one that makes a point about our world-views, our morality, the way we live now. 

We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride, is that kind of book. It’s a  series of interlocking vignettes of four characters:  two middle aged women with in-flux family lives, a little Albanian-immigrant boy and a wounded soldier too scared and angry to remember his patriotic platitudes. It’s set in Las Vegas, but if you’re thinking glamorous, you’ll be surprised.  And while there are moments you can’t help but see that this debut author is more fascinated by her ideas than the characters she gives them to, I dare you to come away from this arresting novel unmoved. 

Plus:  how can you resist a book that is both readable in one sitting AND takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson? 

Amazon Asks: Ben Mezrich Brings Down the Mouse

BringingDownMouseFor his latest book, Ben Mezrich put a slight twist on the title of his best-seller, Bringing Down the Housebut this time he's writing for a very different audience--young readers.  Bringing Down the Mouse parallels Mezrich's nonfiction book in a middle grade novel full of non-stop action and excitement, risk, math, and gaming.  See what Mezrich has to say about his new book, Encyclopedia Brown, and his magical radio below.

Amazon:  What's the elevator pitch for your book?

Ben Mezrich:  Bringing Down The Mouse is the story of Charlie "Numbers" Lewis, a twelve year old whiz kid recruited into a secret club of sixth graders who use math and science to beat carnival games; their goal is to bring down Incredo Land, the best amusement park in the world.

Amazon: Why write a middle grade novel (vs. one for young adults)?

Ben Mezrich:  I've always loved adventure stories that involve brilliant kids using their brains to beat systems that seem unbeatable; when I set out to tell Charlie's story, and create this world, I wanted it to feel like a thrill ride, but with a very optimistic, upbeat edge. Charlie's Whiz Kids- his group of nerdy friends- aren't the sort of dark, brooding characters you see in young adult, maybe because I'm not very dark and brooding either. I certainly was a geeky kid myself, but to me, math and science were always these magical things- powerful tools you could use in incredible ways.

Amazon: Did you have a favorite books when you were [your main character] Charlie's age?

Ben Mezrich: I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. Also the Electric Book, about a kid trapped in a book being written while he tries to escape. But I read just about everything; my dad had a rule when I was 12 that we had to read two books a week before we were allowed to watch TV, and I loved TV--so if became a speed reader from a very early age.

Amazon: What's your most memorable author moment?

Ben Mezrich: There have been so many. Seeing my first book on the stands was cool. Going to the Oscars, and watching Aaron Sorkin win for his adaptation of my book into the movie The Social Network was pretty amazing. Seeing someone reading something I wrote on an airplane--things like that are pretty awesome.

Amazon: What's your most prized/treasured possession and why?

Ben Mezrich: I have an antique console stand-up radio that I bought in a yard sale twenty years ago, that I've always half-believed has magical properties. It's in my office, and it has watched over each of the fifteen books I've written. It also helped me find my wife, which led to my two incredible children, and my sweet, neurotic, epileptic pug, Bugsy. But that's a much longer story, so I'll just leave is simple: my antique radio.

Amazon: What's your lucky number?

Ben Mezrich: 6 and sometimes 3.

Amazon: What's next for you?  Do you see yourself writing more children's books or entering the young adult right?

Ben Mezrich: Both. I have a thriller coming out in September called Seven Wonders. And a nonfiction book early next year. But Bringing Down The Mouse is the first in what I hope to be a many book series, so I'd love to continue writing these stories for many years to come.

 

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Karin Slaughter, Author of "Cop Town"

CoptownKarin Slaughter is one of the best crime writers around. Her novels are distinguished in part by a rare depth of character, a rare depth that is smart enough to step out of the way of the plot so that readers will keep turning the pages. Her latest is Cop Town—her first stand-alone novel—about a female cop trying to get by in 70s Atlanta. As a rookie cop, Kate Murphy has an uphill climb. But that's just the beginning of her difficulties, with news of a brutal murder and the shooting of a beloved fellow cop.

I caught up with Karin Slaughter at Book Expo America, where we sat down to talk about her book, her research, why she likes to write about Atlanta, and more.

She was an absolute pleasure.

 

An Interview with Lily King, Author of "Euphoria"

LilykingLily King's Euphoria is our Spotlight pick for the Best Books of June. This enchanting novel is based loosely on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and of it, Sara Nelson wrote: "This is the best kind of historical novel--the kind that sent me running to read more about its real-life inspiration."

It's a book that can be read on several levels, and our entire team got behind it. Some admired Euphoria for its potent sense of love and adventure, while others were drawn in by the drama and the revealing examination of how people study other cultures. Booklist summed it up as "a powerful story, at once gritty, sensuous, and captivating," and I couldn't agree more.

I was happy to get a chance to talk to Lily at the Book Expo America this year:

 

 

YA Wednesday: Best YA Books of 2014 So Far

Scary, but true--2014 is basically half over. There are still a LOT of great books to look forward to this fall (Skink--No Surrender, BelzharThe Infinite Sea, etc.,) but this is the time of year when we look back at the ones we've loved over the first six months of the year and do the painful work of picking our 20 favorite YA novels.  The first five are below, and you've heard me rave about them all before so I will spare you another round.  Just know that all the books on the list are ones that I highly recommend--I'm hoping you see some of your own favorites and find a few new ones here, too.

                     Best Teen & Young Adult Books of 2014 So Far

 BOTYSF_YA_Collage

 Here's a taste - the first five:

1. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: Not kidding. love love love this book.

2. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor:  A perfect example of how fantastic YA literature can be, whether you are 16 or 46A must-read trilogy in my book.

3. Hollow City by Ransom Riggs:  Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a tough act to follow but Hollow City is compulsive reading and well worth the time between books.  I hope Riggs hurries up on the next one, though...

4. The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkowski:  Star-crossed love and a new heroine to watch.  Throw in a richly imagined world of class warfare, politics, intrigue, and constant action and you've got the first book of an original new trilogy.

5. The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson: A powerful and ultimately hopeful contemporary novel about the effects of war on those left behind.  Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest.

See the whole list here

 

An Interview with Biz Stone, Twitter Founder and Author

BizA while back I had the pleasure of talking to Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and author of Things a Little Bird Told Me. Twitter's origin story begins with brainstorming sessions held at Odeo, a podcasting company in San Francisco, where Stone worked after working at a company called Blogger. In the interview below, Stone talks about why they held that brainstorming session, what it was like to get Twitter off the ground, and why you should probably buy your developer a phone if he doesn't have one.

Stone doesn't come from a technical background (at one point, he was a book jacket designer) and his childhood was far from privileged. What he did have was a sound work ethic and the ability to think outside norms—a quality that characterizes so many business successes. In Things a Little Bird Told Me, I found a compelling and inspiring character. The same goes for our conversation below.
Chris Schluep

 

BizStoneAudioFin


Amazon's Best Books of 2014 So Far

It's that time of year.

This morning, the Amazon Books Editors (that's us) are happy to announce our choices for the Best Books of the Year So Far. Not content to wait a full year between best of the year lists, we each take stock of all the books published from January through June, convening in windowless conference rooms to advocate (argue) and compromise (weep) over our personal favorites. At the end of the day, we pack up our hurt feelings, bruised egos, and quiet resentments and prepare to do it again the next day.

As usual, there was no shortage of great books to consider. Just our top 20 features a masterful biography of a literary giant, the triumphant swan song from a three-time National Book Award winner, and a true-life tale of billionaires, art, and cannibalism. In all, we chose our favorite books across 17 categories, including kids and teens. Browse our top 10 selections below, and see them all in our Best Books of the Year So Far store.

 

Updike

1. Updike by Adam Begley: This biography of the American master goes far beyond simple chronology of this complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where his real life bled into his novels. Detailed and compulsively readable, Updike is essential for admirers, and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature.

 

The Book of Unknown Americans


2. The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henríquez: Henríquez’s powerful novel captures readers with the quiet beauty of her characters and their profoundly rendered experiences as immigrants in America. Following nine families who arrived in the States from South and Central America, Henriquez has crafted a novel that is inspiring, tragic, brave, and unforgettable.

 

Redeployment

3. Redeployment by Phil Klay: The strength of Klay’s stories, all about the Iraq War or its aftermath, lies in his unflinching, un-PC point of view, even for the soldiers he so clearly identifies with and admires. These stories are at least partly autobiographical, and yet, for all their verisimilitude, they’re also shaped by an undefinable thing called art.

 

Continue reading "Amazon's Best Books of 2014 So Far" »

What to Read in Litchfield Prison: Dana Reinhardt on "We Are the Goldens"

WeAreTheGoldensI'm a big fan of the show Orange is the New Black, and it's been interesting to see the commentary on binge-watching since the long-awaited second season released.  Many readers can relate to this experience, it's basically the same thing as when you "just-one-more-chapter" yourself into finishing a book that's sucked you in, even if it's 4 a.m. and you have to work the next day. 

I recently had the unique experience of binge-reading Dana Reinhardt's book, We Are the Goldens (one of our Best Young Adult Books of June), and also binge-watching Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, where I was very pleasantly surprised to see the same book I'd just burned through, being read on the show by no less than the maven of Litchfield prison herself (that would be Red). 

I wanted to find out if Reinhardt was already a fan of Orange is the New Black, and what it was like to see her book on the T.V. show everyone's talking about.  Here's what I found out about these questions and more:

Q: For a reader just learning about your book, tell me about We Are the Goldens

Dana Reinhardt: We Are The Goldens is about two sisters, Nell and Layla, who are extraordinarily close, and it’s about what happens when that sort of closeness is threatened, as it inevitably will be, by individual choices. It’s written in the form of a confessional from Nell directly to Layla as she struggles with whether to keep her sister’s secrets. It’s about kids of privilege growing up with overly trusting and distracted parents. It’s about inchoate morality. It’s about the blurry lines between love and friendship. And it’s one big (slightly twisted) love letter to the city of San Francisco.

Q: The book is shown on the new season of Orange is the New Black – were you already a fan of the show?  What did that feel like, to see your new book in that context?

Dana Reinhardt: I’m a huge fan of the show. I think it’s some of the smartest writing on television. The characters are so complex and I love the way as a viewer you get to know them before you really know them, that is, before you know who they are outside of the microcosm of the prison system and what set of circumstances led them there. Seeing Red, the grand dame of Litchfield, reading my book was an absolute thrill, particularly as that moment arrived on our screens just as the debate blew up about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature. Clearly Red is not embarrassed. Nor are the many other OITNB characters shown with YA novels in their hands.

Q: What do you think makes We Are the Goldens such a good crossover adult read?

Dana Reinhardt: I see most young adult fiction, especially realistic young adult fiction simply as coming of age literature, and who doesn’t love a good coming of age story? I know I do. But this book in particular works for the adult reader because it raises some questions about parents and teachers and the environments we trust our children to that maybe aren’t simple to answer. I didn’t want to write a black and white story, and though I know some young readers will see it that way, I don’t think adult readers will.

Q: You’ve said that To Kill a Mockingbird is your favorite book – were you a teenager when you read it, and was it assigned reading?

Dana Reinhardt: I don’t remember what grade I was in when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe 9th? I know I didn’t come to it on my own, because left to my own devices I’d have just re-read a Judy Blume book for the thousandth time. But whenever it was that I was assigned that book, my sense of the world forever shifted. It moved me on every level and I remember thinking: this is a perfect book. I go back to it every 10 years or so, often with a sense of trepidation. What if it isn’t as good as I remember? What if it isn’t perfect? It is. And it is.

Q: What are you reading now and how do you decide what to read next?

Dana Reinhardt: I often read several books at once. Usually I’m listening to something on audio while I take my daily walk in Golden Gate Park with the dog. Sometimes I choose silence, if I need to work out a plot point in whatever I’m currently writing, but most often I listen to YA. I find that most YA lends itself well to audio and it’s where I do the vast majority of my YA “reading”. Right now I’m listening to Siobhan Vivian’s The List, which is wonderfully complex. As far as books that I hold in my hands, I know I’m a little late to the party, but I just recently discovered Tana French. I’m not generally a reader of mysteries or detective novels so I resisted her for a long time, but finally enough people I know and trust pushed hard enough and all I can say is… Whoa. She is a gorgeous writer. I’m also currently re-reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, her companion books on grief and loss and aging. They are the sorts of books to which you will want to return as, inescapably, their themes will impact your life in some way. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

 

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