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Five Tips for Dinner Party Success

BigBeautifulMessHandmadeHomeI have a crafty spirit but if I'm REALLY going to make something it better have simple instructions and require a minimum of easy-to-find supplies.  This is why I love Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman's book, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home (an August Best of the Month pick). 
 
In sections for each room of the house, as well as outdoor spaces, the authors emphasize making the design fit your lifestyle and offer enough ideas to cover about any decor direction.  From how to revamp a piece of garage sale furniture, arrange pictures or collectibles in an interesting way, or take a plain vase and turn it into something special, the ideas in this book are all things even I feel like I could do--and I'm actually inspired to do them!  
 
Besides all the great projects, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home also has a few ideas for hosting a simple gathering with ease.  Here are a handful of suggestions from the authors on how to set yourself up for a fun, low stress, dinner party that still has those special touches but won't leave you regretting the cost.

 

Five Tips for Hosting a Budget-Friendly Dinner Party
By Emma Chapman and Elsie Larson, authors of A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home


When faced with the task of hosting a dinner party it can be easy to have a freak-out moment. What if you don't have enough chairs and someone is left standing all night? What if you run out of food or booze? What if everyone is bored? What if someone is allergic to sugar, garlic AND gluten? Also, what is gluten? Why does all your furniture all of sudden look threadbare and cheap? Or worst of all, every host's biggest fear, what if no one comes?

First off, take a deep breath. Next, know that you already have what it takes to throw the most epic dinner party—you just need to think creatively. No matter your budget here are five tips to host the perfect dinner party. WineCheese

1. Make personalized menus. These could be handwritten, formatted like a ransom note or crafted from nothing more than construction paper and crayons. Get creative. Be funny or formal, whatever your style. For a few dollars you've just elevated your dining room into a restaurant-grade atmosphere. You've shown your guests there was thought and planning put into the night and it's gonna be delicious.

2. Get creative with seating. Oh, you don't already own a million fancy chairs? Not to worry. Why not rearrange your furniture to suit your night's needs? It will totally add a bit of whimsy to the evening. You could even enlist guests to help you if needed. Or what about hosting your dinner party on the floor or around a camp fire in your backyard? Whatever you decide, you can be sure it will make the night more memorable to guests.

RecycledCenterpieces3. Reimagine items to use for decor. Sometimes people call this upcycling. The basic idea is you reuse an old item that you would have discarded for another purpose. Save all your empty wine bottles, beer bottles, or soup cans, then clean them and reuse as flower vases for a pretty and inexpensive centerpiece.

4. Fancy up your table settings. Even if all you own are mismatched plates from various flea market trips, add unity, color and personality to your table with handmade cloth napkins. You could sew your own or purchase plain napkins and add designs with fabric paint. You could even make extra sets and send some home with guests!

5. Collaborate with food costs. As fun as it would be to create a seven course meal paired with a different wine for every course, it's likely your budget just isn't going to stretch that far. It doesn't need to. Allow guests to help provide a portion of the meal or make it BYOB. A true friend never expects others to pick up the full tab on everything.

Above all, have fun and focus on connecting with your guests. Dinner parties, despite the name, are not actually all about the dinner, they’re about creating memories with people you love. So get out of the kitchen and don't stress about all the little details: be fun, have fun and enjoy the ones you’re with!

Weird Science

What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning strikes in the world hit the same place at once? What if there was a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed?  With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. In the same style of his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome and inscrutable in your elementary school days--but were never sufficiently answered. 

Enjoy this exclusive thought-experiment from the author (and it's not even included in the book). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be available in hardcover and Kindle on September 2, 2014.

 

Q: If you built a very smooth ramp from the highest point on Earth (Mt. Everest) to the lowest (Dead Sea), then stood at the top on a rolling office chair, would you roll down? How fast would you go?

So you got bored in a meeting and decided to take your chair for a ride.

What If by Randall Munroe



Bring oxygen tanks. And food.

A ramp connecting Mount Everest to the shore of the Dead Sea would have a very gentle slope of only 1/10th of a degree. If you were standing on it, it would seem flat.

The slope would be so gentle that the chair would need precision bearings or a pneumatic air cushion to reduce friction enough to roll—and even then, air drag would limit you to a terminal velocity of about running speed.

What If by Randall Munroe



You'd also need the ramp to be enclosed. The top of Mount Everest pokes up into the jet stream, a river of hurricane-force wind wrapped around the planet. Unfortunately for you, that wind is going in the wrong direction. Without something to shield you from it, it would blow you back up the ramp.

Ok, let's go!

What If by Randall Munroe



You depart the peak of Everest, trundling slowly west, and the ground falls away beneath you. You glide out over the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas without coming close to touching another mountain.

After two days, you leave the mountains behind and slide across the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

What If by Randall Munroe



You then cross southern Afghanistan and pass into Iran, where you finally sink low enough to breathe without oxygen tanks.

In central Iran, you hit the ground for the first time since you started rolling. Your track intersects a mountainside near the peak of Shahan Kuh. You pass through a convenient tunnel and emerge on the other side.

What If by Randall Munroe



You cross from Iran into Iraq, sinking lower and lower. Because the air is several times denser here than at your starting point, your terminal velocity has dropped from running speed to jogging speed.

A little over two weeks after you started rolling, your ramp sinks low enough to touch the desert. In western Iraq, you fall beneath ground level and enter another tunnel. You cross from Iraq into Jordan over 600 meters below the border.

What If by Randall Munroe



You roll through the darkness for four days, passing completely under Jordan, and finally emerge into the light on the shores of the Dead Sea.

After twenty days, you and your faithful chair have reached the end of your journey from Earth's highest land to its lowest. You take a swim; in the dense saline water, you float much higher than normal. Be careful not to get any in your eyes.

What If by Randall Munroe



And now you should probably get back to that meeting. They'll get mad if you don't return the chair.

What If by Randall Munroe




What If by Randall Munroe

"We Should Have Brought More Pemmican." (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)

August 2014 marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out in the Endurance on the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition," a mission to trek 1,800 miles from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea on the far side of the continent, crossing the South Pole on the way. The events are well known. The ship was trapped, eventually sinking under the hull-wrecking pressure of the ice. Shackleton's men were forced to make camp on the floe, drifting on the sea before reaching the barren rock of Elephant Island--more than a year since the boat had first become ice-bound. Only a desperate and heroic effort by Shackleton and a few of his men saved the crew from certain death: a 15-day, rough-water sea journey in a small, ramshackle craft, followed by a 36-hour mountain crossing to reach the whaling stations on the Island of South Georgia.

While Shackleton's tale has earned the most fame over the last century, his is not the only story of a Voyage Gone Very Wrong. Here we present six books chronicling the pitfalls of the age of polar exploration.

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfed Lansing

Widely considered the definitive account of Shackleton's ordeal. Lansing's exhaustive research--including information drawn from interviews with 10 surviving members of the expedition, and the diaries and personal accounts of eight more--resulted in this immediate and engrossing account of disaster, courage, and redemption.

See also:
--South: The Endurance Expedition
--The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander 
 
 

 


In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Amazon's Spotlight selection for the Best Books of August, 2014. Award-winning author Hampton Sides recounts the tale of George Washington De Long and the U.S.S. Jeanette: Sailing out of San Francisco Bay and into the waters of the Arctic, the ship was was abandoned by its crew after becoming locked in the pack ice--setting the stage for a gripping story of perseverance and survival. Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep says Sides has done "a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction."


 
 
 

 Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin ExpeditionFrozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out for the Artic to “penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America.” It didn't work out. Despite the best scientific equipment the day had to offer, the crew and the expedition’s two ships disappeared without a trace. The mystery persevered for more than a century, until the makeshift graves of a few missing sailors were discovered on a remote island, and modern forensics unlocked the grisly secret of their demise: Franklin's expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive the unforgiving landscape. (The link above is for the Kindle edition. A new paperback edition is due in October.)

 

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time ForgotFatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan


Poor John Rae. Perhaps the most successful Arctic explorer of his day, the largely self-taught Hudson Bay man charted thousands of miles of previously unknown territory along the northern Canadian coast in ships, on snowshoes, and canoes. He also uncovered the fate of Franklin's crew. Unfortunately for Rae, Franklin's cabal of dogged supporters suppressed the truth through a campaign of character assassination, effectively obfuscating Rae's achievements for more than a century.

 

 

 

 The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea PartyThe Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Almost everything about the Shackleton expedition went sideways. Sent on a mission to cache supplies for Shackleton's Antarctic traverse, the men of the Aurora were stranded when their ship broke from its moorings during a storm, vanishing into the sea. The Lost Men vividly recounts the two years before they were rescued, drawing on journals to recreate not only the objective hazards they faced, but their mental, emotional, and  interpersonal challenges, as well.

 

 

  

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KarlukThe Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

The Gilligan's Island of all the ill-conceived polar expeditions, with sadly predictable results. A year before Shackleton launched his own wildly-successful-by-comparison voyage, the Karluk--a ship deemed inadequate by it's apparently incompetent captain--set forth to prove the existence of a continent beneath the Arctic ice. They didn't find it. Not just because it doesn't exist, but because their ship was locked in the ice and pushed north before succumbing to Siberian waters. And that's when things got really dark.

Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Jacket Design

Peter Mendelsund, over a long and influential career as a book jacket designer, has added his deft touch to many volumes--many of which would be recognizable to any book lover. Martin Amis, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jo Nesbø, and James Gleick are just a few of the authors to benefit from his work, and his striking jacket for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly contributed to its success. Forget the cliché; a well designed jacket can boost attention for a book of modest expectations, and transform a good book into a phenomenon.

Mendelsund is now the author of two books of his own, both of which consider the visual--and vital--power of literature, but in different ways. What We See When We Read is an examination of the gestalt of reading: How words on the page enter our brains and are internalized, becoming pictures, sensations, and emotions. There are many titles about books and reading, but What We See goes far beyond simple enthusiasm in its search for meaning.

Cover presents some of Mendelsund's most iconic work, illustrating his creative process through early sketches, interior art, and many, many rejected drafts. He has shared some of that insight here, offering examples of his unrealized inspirations, commentary on why they didn't work, and the final results (the drafts are presented first, followed by the finished jacket).

 


The Fallen

by Peter Mendelsund

 

My cover ideas get killed. (Pretty frequently, actually.) Whether killed by dint of a client's caprice (or good sense) or culled by my own hand, a lot of my ideas never make it to the printing press. Here are a few of those which never saw the light of day....

 Plato’s Republic

The obvious thing here was to attempt some version of the allegory of the cave. This, the image below, seemed like a more modern version of same (The "shadows on the wall" that Plato’s cave-dwellers watch is a television—natch). Perhaps, in retrospect, this one was a tad too cool and knowing. It resembles nothing so much as a Vampire Weekend LP. (Though: Is that really so wrong?)

Plato's Republic comp   Plato's Republic final

 

The Castle, by Franz Kafka


My initial idea for a cover for Kafka's The Castle was this impossible chess game below. Kafka's books always seem to me like games in which the protagonists are not privy to the rules.

The Castle comp  

The Castle final

 

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser

I love the drama inherent in a book jacket covering up a book. Lift the jacket—something is revealed. This, the comp below, would have had a three-quarter-sized jacket, which, when slid up, revealed the case beneath. The idea here was to play off Millhauser's title, and somehow represent the same tension between the pleasurable and the hazardous. I also wanted to accomplish this in a cartoon vernacular (one of the great stories of this collections is "Cat 'n Mouse," a kind of existentialist Tom and Jerry). I illustrated this one myself.

Dangerous Laughter comp 1   Dangerous Laughter comp 2
"Dangerous

 

Peace, by Richard Bausch

A gripping, penetrating, little single act drama. The moral quandaries faced by a squadron of US soldiers trudging through Italy in the winter of 1944. The idea here was to make a landscape which, itself, comprises camouflage; as if the war and the world itself had merged. The style here is very mid-century—almost as if Hemingway had written a WWII novel.

Peace comp   Peace final

 

By Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read   Cover

MacGyver Your Food

FoodHacksMy family jokes that I can make always make somethin' out of nothin' in the kitchen, but what I usually  come up with is pretty pedestrian. Peggy Wang's Amazing Food Hacks is going to make me look like a kitchen magician instead of just a fridge scavenger. 

Her book has 75 tricks between the chunky covers: "Banilla Wafer Sandwiches" (peanut butter, banana, and sprinkles)--um, yes please.  "Better Than Crack" Crackers that are little more than oyster crackers, a packet of ranch dressing mix and a trip to the oven?  Bye-bye Chex mix.  Wang makes it easy and she's got a great sense of humor as you can see for yourself in the guest post below, along with a couple of examples from the book.


One of the challenges that comes up constantly for me as an editor at BuzzFeed is figuring out what even qualifies as a life hack. As I started pulling together recipes that would eventually constitute basically the longest, most glorified BuzzFeed list of my life which is this book, I began to doubt my ability to discern an actual food hack from just a weird and interesting recipe. I began to have existential debates over the addition of avocado to egg salad, which is a completely legit way to transform a pedestrian sandwich filling to something I would gladly shove into my mouth with a spatula. I vacillated between whether simply adding avocado to a dish makes a life hack (in the end, it did, as per my editor, and it is quite transcendent if I may say so myself).

AvocadoTips

Ultimately, I felt like the test was taking something you didn’t think would work — and having it turn out even better than you could have ever expected.

My favorite stories from testers went something like, “This recipe sounded sorta weird and gross and then I made it and was pleasantly surprised and ended up eating the whole thing to the point of making myself completely sick, which is half this recipe’s fault but also half my own fault for having no self-control whatsoever.”

These stories served as a nice counterpoint to my incredibly utilitarian way of thinking about food hacks: I just wanted something incredibly easy that my exhausted self could make after a really long day out of the sad remnants of my refrigerator.

So basically, this book weaves between those unexpectedly yummy but weird recipes, as well as just the ones that have personally made my life easier as a terminally lazy person. I like to think of these hacks as spanning from the practical to the practically insane, which will hopefully cover just about all of your culinary needs.-- Peggy Wang

DippableGrilledCheeseRolls

YA Wednesday: Talking to Chris Weitz and Jennifer E. Smith

YoungWorld GeoMeYouEarlier this year I had the great pleasure to sit down with two delightful YA authors to talk books. 

Chris Weitz, best known for his work in film including the movie adaptations of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass,  just released The Young World, a dystopian novel (the first in a series) set in New York that is also one of our August Best YA Books of the Month.  

Jennifer E. Smith is the beloved author of several contemporary YA novels that deftly navigate the waters of teen relationships with humor and creativity, including this year's The Geography of You and Me.  

On a random note, when we were talking both authors shared major league baseball hopes for this year and it's interesting to see how things have shaken out. Chris Weitz hoped the Yankees new pitcher Masahiro Tanaka didn't turn out to be a dud (so far so good, though he's coming off an injury...) and Jennifer E. Smith was pretty adamant that the Cubs were going to take the 2014 World Series.  Well, there's always next year...

Below is a transcript from our chat.


So, what would be the elevator pitch for your book?

Chris Weitz:  It’s basically about a group of kids making their way in a post-apocalyptic New York in which every convenience and comfort they're familiar with is gone.  So it’s a New York that has fallen into a chaos of warring tribes, and how they will function in that world.

Jennifer E. Smith:  I keep joking that my book has the best elevator pitch ever because it starts in an elevator. It’s about two teens who get stuck in elevator during a major blackout in New York city and end up spending an evening together on a really magical night in the city where you can actually can see the stars because all the lights are out. It’s loosely based on the blackout that happened in 2003.  Then, as the title might suggest, with Geography, it sort of spins off into other locations from there, but it all begins in an elevator in New York on a very dark night.

Chris Weitz: That was a great blackout...

Jennifer E. Smith: Yeah, it was really fun. I won’t tell you all about my experiences since we’re on the record here, but it definitely included more alcohol than cute boys and elevators.  It was one of those nights that felt sort of out of time, once people realized that nothing was seriously wrong everybody was out on the streets, people were giving away beer before it got too warm, and giving away ice cream before it could melt, and New York took on this almost celebratory atmosphere. It was a really memorable night.

Weitz: It’s funny because I think I found the one single thing that unites our books, because my book was partly inspired by the blackout amongst other things, this is sort of New York without electricity and the way that people behave when everything they’re used to goes out the window.

Chris – you’ve directed films adapted from YA novels and written screen plays, was writing a novel a logical next step for you?

I’m not sure it was a logical step, especially looking back.  Given how much harder it is to write a novel than a screen play, it’s a highly illogical thing to do...  but, in a sense, adapting as many books as I have, and I was a literature major in university, that’s where I thought my life was going to be concentrated. Making films was kind of a way to deal with my love of books in a positive way, so it isn’t totally unreasonable that I would turn my attention to trying to write something.

And why young adult?

Weitz: Well, at the time that I decided to do this, I was receiving a lot of submissions of YA and some were great and some were less so, so I thought, well, I may as well give it a go myself.  And I had certain things that I’d been thinking about that I wanted to explore further that kind of come out in this--not necessarily YA related stuff but actually stuff about economics, sociology, and politics.

Jen, you’ve written YA and one middle grade, do you think you’ll write adult in the future?

Smith: I think always it’s fun to explore different creative outlets. The middle grade was really fun for me because all of my YA books are for a similar audience, so the middle grade was very different.  I was once telling somebody that the three things I would never do were: write middle grade, write fantasy, and write for boys, and I literally came out of the lunch and was like, ok, now I kind of want to try… So I think it’s a similar thing with the adult side, I think if the right idea came along it’d be something new to try and something exciting, so we’ll see.  But I really love YA, I think that’s kind of my sweet spot, I feel like I’m 16 at heart and it’s a genre I really love and the audience is amazing for YA books.  It’s just so much fun meeting teens, they’re so enthusiastic.

The YA writing community is really great too, isn’t it?

Smith: It really is, everyone is so supportive and generous, it’s a great little corner of the industry to be part of.

Chris, as someone just coming into this community, have you found that to be true?

Weitz:  I have and it’s also I think that this time in life, maybe from middle school through this period, is a period of really fervent reading.  I remember that from when I was younger, and that’s really wonderful. There’s also a tremendous desire to see  people succeed, to want to see the best in things, as opposed to, if you look at literary fiction, the extraordinarily snarky, kind of difficult, social landscape that that represents.  I think there’s a weird barrier to entry in literary fiction as far as ideas go, I think that young adult is where a lot of the most interesting fiction is actually being written because it’s not as caught up in questions of style.

I think the interesting ideas and openness is part of why so many adults are reading YA fiction...

Smith: Yeah--I get as many emails about my books from people in their 30s and 40s as I do from people in their teens.  Everyone is sort of 16 at heart, somewhere down deep.  Like what Chris was saying about the way you read at that age, there’s such a joy to it, whereas now you start reading a book and you have to go to work so you put it down, but as kids, I remember just tearing through books (I guess I still do now, but…) you can’t get enough and you find an author you love, you read everything they’ve written and then you look for  everything that’s similar to what they’ve written, and you’re obsessed.  And it’s such a joyful way to read.

Smoking Gun: 5 Crime Novels Elmore Leonard Might Have Loved

LeonardA year ago, we lost a legend of American crime and suspense writing.

Elmore Leonard died on this day at the age of 87, after a six-decade career that produced dozens of crime novels, westerns, and short stories, many of which found their way to big and small screens (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Justified).

Today is also the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, whose posthumously-celebrated pulp and horror stories inspired such writers as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, who once credited Lovecraft with having "an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction."

In honor of Leonard and Lovecraft, here’s a look at some recent and upcoming books that both men might’ve appreciated--menacing, suspenseful, and smart, with tough-talking characters both flawed and hardened, set in not-so-friendly locales, from dive bars to mob hangouts, rural cabins to reservations, from the Deep South to Duluth.

Kent

Windigo Island, William Kent Krueger

Two teenage girls disappear from an Ojibwe reservation called Bad Bluff. When one of them washes up dead on the shore of Lake Superior, former sheriff turned private investigator Cork O’Connor vows to find the other girl. His search takes him to dark places and in the path of some very bad men.

Quake

Brainquake, Samuel Fuller

B-movie director Fuller, who died in 1997, left behind this pulpy, violent, throwback of a novel about a "bagman," Paul Page, who's paid to transport cash for the mob. He also has a rare brain disorder that causes seizures. When he witnesses the murder of a gorgeous mob wife, well... think Tarantino.

Cain

One Kick, Chelsea Cain

As a child, Kick Lannigan had been kidnapped and held captive for five years. Now, at age twenty-one, she's a kick-ass investigator trained in guns, explosives, and martial arts (think Lisbeth Sander)--and the obvious choice for a wealthy arms dealer who needs help finding children who have been abducted.

Ace

The Forsaken, Ace Atkins

In Jericho, Mississippi, flawed but earnest county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out to prove that the nameless black man who 36 years earlier had been accused of rape and murder, who was hunted down by a self-appointed posse and lynched, was innocent. But is Colson as innocent as he seems?

Girl

The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, a young inner-city art teacher, leaves a bar with a handsome, smooth talking stranger. Instead of a one-night stand, Mia finds herself in a rural Minnesota cabin, the victim of a kidnapping gone awry, regretting the biggest mistake of her life and hoping her wealthy family can find her.

~

40And don't miss the latest from Dean Koontz (The City); C.J. Box (Shots Fired); Tim Weaver (Never Coming Back); and an excellent new thriller by Dwayne Alexander Smith (Forty Acres).

And here are six more Leonard-esque novels, coming soon:

 

Matthew Thomas Is Going to Carry That Weight

Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the burdens of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.

Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:

What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart.

Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)

 

 

Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)

Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?

It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens—initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who’s born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can’t overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.

I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years—the last eight years—while I wrote.


Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family’s history?


It’s rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn’t entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.


Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?


A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out—unconsciously—of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.


Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.


So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There’s a lot of hype building around it.


It’s been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It’s also amazing to be here because it’s such an unbelievably huge event... it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can’t take it all in at once. But it’s a big thrill to be here.

We Are Not Ourselves

How I Wrote It: Karen Abbott, on Maverick Women and the Civil War

Karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1719461246While sitting in Atlanta traffic years ago, Karen Abbott noticed the bumper sticker on the pickup truck in front of her: "Don't blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis." She realized that many southerners not only felt residual pride for their long-ago Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but that they were "still fighting the Civil War down here."

From those origins comes Abbott's new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, the story of four female spies, two from each side, including one who disguised herself as a male soldier in the Union army. The book is a thrilling look at the forgotten role subversive women played in the Civil War. "They didn't have political discourse. They didn't have access to the vote. What could they do?" Abbott said.

With playfulness, enthusiasm, and a bit of naughty, Abbott gives us an energetic and witty new take on the Civil War. It's a story as much about women's rights and breaking marital shackles as it is about espionage and subterfuge. Her curiosity is contagious, as is her admiration for the maverick women who "longed to be useful" in a man's war.

Abbott is the bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. We spoke with her at the annual Book Expo America in New York, in late May of 2014.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy goes on sale Sept. 2.

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>See all of Abbott's books

>Visit her website

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Even More End-of-the-World Books: Customer Picks

StandLast week I wrote about a few doomsday books out this summer, including Emily St. John Mandel’s forthcoming Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble.

I also asked for some suggestions from our Omnivoracious readers and Facebook followers. We received a handful of shout-outs for Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which was also on our original list) and lots of love for Stephen King's The Stand. On Facebook, Terry said King "brings it in that book" and Malina called The Stand "a must!" 

Here are more suggestions from our friends of dystopian fiction:

  • Michele: HELLO??? How about The Passage by Justin Cronin!
  • BlindTodd: I think "Blindness" always stands out to me as a book that shows us just how fragile society is.
  • Laura: Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh is very good.This follows a group of friends as resources become scarce and society starts to crumble. An interesting different view of what might be our end.
  • Patsy: Alas Babylon
  • Dave: #1: Walter Miller, "A Canticle for Leibowitz." #2: George Stewart, "Earth Abides."
  • June: The HAB Theory by Allen Eckhert. I read it in the 70's , long before global warming became an issue. It utterly moved me. I was running around for weeks telling people "we are doomed!" Warning, do not read the book's last sentence ahead of reading the entire book. actually, really should not have said that, 'cos now you will not be able to resist......
  • Elizabeth: On The Beach
  • Sarah: 1984 by George Orwell, The Stand by Stephen King ... can't pick just one!
  • Stacy: The Chemical Gardens series, Z for Zachariah, The White Mountain trilogy
  • Aaron: Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren" or maybe Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun"
  • Ralph: How could you leave out "The Stand" by Stephen King, and "Swan Song" by Robert R McCammon?
  • David: "Rescue Party" - Sir Arthur C. Clarke. (Actually a short story, but still...)
  • Ryan: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
  • Andi: My absolute favourite? Z for Zachariah. Doesn't even matter that it's theoretically a kid's book.

 

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