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About Robin A. Rothman

Robin "Don't forget the A." Rothman spent more than a decade as a rock critic before dabbling in TV & Radio journalism and eventually dropping the byline altogether to be an entertainment & features editor. Now turning her full attention to books, she's drawn to quirky fiction, funny Sci-Fi, big fantasy, cult classics, pop culture nonfiction, and anything that will help her survive the zombie apocalypse.

Posts by Robin

Constructive Criticism: Announcing the NBCC Award Nominees

The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced this week. There are thirty finalists, falling into six categories: autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, general nonfiction, and poetry.

The National Book Critics Circle has one of the more interesting origin stories of the major book awards. It was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of influential critics. If everyone's a critic, the NBCC only consists of 700 of them. Finalists for the NBCC awards are selected by a subset of those critics—a 24-member board of directors, which consists of critics and editors from some of the country’s leading print and online publications, as well as critics whose works appear in these publications. Winners will be announced March 12th.

Here's a rundown of this year's nominees:

King FICTION:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press)

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Riverhead Books)

Euphoria by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books)

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

 

ChastAUTOBIOGRAPHY:

The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait by Blake Bailey (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson (Tin House)

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart (Random House)

There Was and There Was Not by Meline Toumani(Metropolitan Books)

 

GwynneBIOGRAPHY:

William Wells Brown: An African American Life by Ezra Greenspan (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (Scribner)

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (W.W. Norton & Co.)

“Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions by Ian S. MacNiven (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography by Miriam Pawel (Bloomsbury)

 

BissCRITICISM:

On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)

Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty by Vikram Chandra (Graywolf Press)

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)

What Would Lynne Tillman Do? by Lynne Tillman (Red Lemonade)

The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press)

 

TobarGENERAL NONFICTION:

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee (Pantheon)

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt & Co.)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press)

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free by Hector Tobar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

 

AbidePOETRY:

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (Coffee House Press)

The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon by Willie Perdomo (Penguin Books)

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)

Once in the West by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Abide by Jake Adam York (Southern Illinois University Press)

 

NONA BALAKIAN CITATION FOR EXCELLENCE IN REVIEWING

Alexandra Schwartz

  Morrison

Finalists:

Charles Finch

B. K. Fischer

Benjamin Moser

Lisa Russ Spaar

 

IVAN SANDROF LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Toni Morrison

(Ms. Morrison has a new book coming out in a couple months. It's entitled God Help the Child.

Klay 

JOHN LEONARD PRIZE (For outstanding first book in any genre)

Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin Press)

 

Blondie, 1970s New York, and Chris Stein's Heart of Glass

In the early 1970s, Chris Stein was a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, spending his off-hours photographing the pre-Giuliani Big Apple of garbage strikes, murder, muggings, and a Midtown more S&M than M&M (see this Facebook page for some of that). That was also the NYC of the Warhol's Factory and the Velvet Underground, CBGB and the Ramones, Max's Kansas City and the New York Dolls. Et cetera. There Stein met a young singer/model/waitress named Deborah Harry, and--true to the spirit of the time and place--together played in a series of bands, the last of which, Blondie, made them quite a bit famous.

To mark the Blondie's 40th anniversary (40th!), Stein and Rizzoli have published Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, a collection of Stein's photographs of the band, the scene, and--most frequently--Debbie Harry. Enjoy this excerpt from her introduction to the book, as well as a few of the images.

Chris Stein/Negative is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of 2014 in Entertainment.


Excerpt from "Voyeur," Deborah Harry's Introduction to Chris Stein/Negative

We started working together, Chris and I, in 1973. I sort of got used to seeing him with a camera, always taking pictures, so when he started shooting me, it wasn’t much of a shock really. After all, we were in the same group, the Stillettoes, and Chris had a casual ease with a camera that belied how well he knew his f-stops. I never felt comfortable in front of a camera and never liked seeing photos of myself. Chris’s sense of humor and easy, relaxed personality made me feel relaxed, too, and eventually, I started to like being shot by him, which has led to his photos of me being seen worldwide. There was an easy trust that I felt standing in front of his camera. I’ve watched him suggest to total strangers, without even actually speaking, that he’d like to take their pictures, and so I know he must have made them feel the same way. All of the experiences I had with Chris as his subject in those early days gave me a confidence that made it possible for me to do photo sessions with some of the world’s most famous photographers. Because of our personal relationship, I think, Chris’s pictures of me are the most real and unguarded and ultimately revealing.

Those days, and the nights at CBGB, were full of characters, and you will meet some of them in the following pages. I remember when we set up the enlarger in our apartment on West 17th Street. The kitchen was really large, and after developing the film, Chris would print then hang the photos under the skylight after a substantial amount of muttering and cursing. I’m sure some of the shots included in this book are from those same negatives. And I am sure you will enjoy seeing Chris’s photos and reading his comments about them—along with all his stories about the scene and the characters that have filled the frames of his camera lens.

 


Images from Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk

Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 
Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk
 

Mistakes Were Made. Dana Cowin Helps Us Fix Them.

MasteringMistakesKitchenI first became aware of Dana Cowin through my love affair with Top Chef where Cowin, the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, is a guest judge every season.  Then last fall came her first cookbook, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, which went on to become one of our picks for the Best Cookbooks of 2014

Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen is a collection of over 100 recipes that Cowin has become proficient in with the help of some of the best chefs in the country.  Having someone with such a high profile in the food world admit she's not a great cook is really inspiring and reassuring. And you can't beat the opportunity, through the pages of her book, to learn how to perfect simple recipes from people like Eric Ripert and David Chang.

When Dana Cowin was here in Seattle, Erin and I had lunch with her at a fantastic local restaurant, Sitka and Spruce.  Cowin is as lively and fun a person as you could want, and Erin and I had the best time talking to her about cooking, her book, Top Chef, and life in general while enjoying an amazing meal.  Below is a transcript of some of that conversation.


Seira Wilson: So, tell us what it's been like to have your first book published?

Dana Cowin: When your book is out in the world the amount of actual feedback from people is gigantic.  In the magazine world and the digital world--Instagram or blog posts--it's all different time frames, so you get feedback but it’s completely different. This may sound dumb but...I own a lot of cookbooks but I own them to read them. They go to bed with me, they travel with me, I sort of live through them but I don’t cook with them.  But people who buy cookbooks, the next day they're like, "I made this last night and tomorrow night I’m making this, and I’m having a week cooking through your book"--and I’m like, really?? [big smile].  It’s immediate feedback for something that I thought of as such a long term project, so it’s been really fun.

SW: What made you decide to write this book?

DC:  A couple of things:  I did wake up one day and say, "am I ever going to fix all these dumb mistakes I’m making in the kitchen?"  If I am, there’s no time like right now because all these chefs that could help me really are friends, and I’m beyond the point of being able to go to cooking school without being embarrassed.  Although I’ve just written a whole book of humiliations so not sure how that jibes, but that was my thinking--I should hang out with these chef friends of mine and learn something from them. I took recipes that I love and make all the time and learned specific and general lessons for them.  

So part of it was timing: it’s about time to learn to cook.  And then, once I realized I was going to do this for myself, I thought this would be so great to share.  I’m making mistakes on very simple recipes, so it's not like I would be doing an advanced book.  I’d be doing sort of a passionate food person and a beginner person book of recipes. The sharing part wasn’t hard but I did ask a couple people, am I an idiot?  Should I not be telling the entire world  that I don’t know how to cook?  And there were some people at Food & Wine that said, are you sure?  I obviously decided it wasn’t too embarrassing and in fact it turns out to be all kinds of good things.  It’s liberating, it’s educational, and I’m so much on a mission now to learn stuff.  At the end of the day, admitting you're making mistakes is one thing, but the learning from them is the fun part.

SW:  That's so satisfying when you make something and it doesn’t turn out well and you can figure out what went wrong and then do it again and have it work out. 

DC: A lot of chefs, when I told them I was making mistakes and asked them to help me, half of them said, "oh you’re just being hard on yourself" and half of them said, "yeah cooking is really difficult, it’s not always easy."

SW: How did you decide which chefs to work with for each recipe?

DC: The idea was that I would master these recipes, so I went to chefs that really are masters of whatever the heart of the recipe was.  So for example, Michael Symon to do meat, he’s so amazing with  meat, or Mario Batali on a baked pasta. Or Alex Guarnaschelli on anything French or Andrew Zimmern on Asian food.  Because of working with the chefs so much on the magazine, and eating at their restaurants, and calling them obsessively, I felt like I really understand what in their heart they cared the most about and where they would have the most experience to share.  And some of the things I thought, maybe there isn’t so much to teach here, but the chefs, because they do know their topics so deeply, they can go on for hours.  Like José Andrés--I was just trying to make a tomato bruschetta, which is really easy, and sometimes I’d be embarrassed to call and say, hey this is what I’m having a problem with.  But he transformed the bruschetta!  I mean, you end up with tomato jewels, and he told me to use sliced bread instead of the beautiful bread from the market.  He was transformative. Instead of saying, well you should spread the olive oil in a more even layer and be more careful when you toast-- which is sort of what I thought--no! he completely started over, from the beginning.  The bread-- you’re using the wrong bread; then the method--you’re using the wrong method; then the tomatoes-- here's a new way to do tomatoes.  So I had these three revelatory things on what I thought was the simplest recipe in the book. 

SW:  Do you have a favorite recipe that you’ve mastered as a result of working with the chefs.

DC:  There’s only one recipe in the book that I hadn’t tried before I began and it’s my favorite thing to eat in the whole world, which is fried chicken. I was really afraid of fried chicken, the bubbling oil... If you can imagine, someone who has trouble toasting bread--I can burn bread really easily--the idea of bubbling oil and chicken was really scary.  But it turns out the method that I use is a shallow fry, so you flip it, and it’s not scary at all.  So I feel like that was the biggest challenge because I was most afraid of it, but it turned out well and that was the greatest day. I love that I can actually now make fried chicken.

SW: How fun is it being a guest judge on Top Chef?

DC: It's so fun.  I love Top Chef for so many reasons...for one thing, getting exposed to all the cooking styles of all these different people.  I try to remember who’s who after I leave the set, because inevitably many of them--not all but many--go on to have really interesting careers.  Like, randomly, when I was on set judging whatever season Kristen Kish was on, I remember her dish so well--it really, really stood out among 20.  Sometimes I’m at the end and sometimes at the beginning [of the season], but it really stood out. I told myself: remember this girl, remember this girl.  And among the whole, she turned out to be so talented. 

EK: The creativity is always so stunning too, under pressure and the things they come up with.

DC: Yes, and the guest judges are often really fun.  I did a Top Chef Duels and I was at the table with Pink. How cool is that!?  So I’m sitting here with Pink--I’d read about her in New York magazine and I looked her up once I knew she would be there, but she’s amazing!  She really does love food, but she  was really delicate about offering her opinion because she’s surrounded by people who do nothing but talk about food all day.  But she had great insights and great humor.  And of course I love Gail Simmons, and Tom [Colicchio].  And wherever you travel is fun, they try to make it fun for the viewers and it’s fun for the guests.

DC: Actually, the last time I was here [in Seattle] was for Top Chef.  I love Renee Erickson, anything she does I think is so great.  And we have a bunch of Food & Wine best new chefs from Seattle that I’m very partial to, of course.  And Canlis, and Ethan Stowell, and Matt [Dillon, chef at Sitka and Spruce and past winner of Food & Wine's Best New Chef award], of course. 

We started talking about the bounty of good cookbooks that had come out or were about to release, including Dominique Ansel's gorgeous cookbook (also a Best of 2014 selection), Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes

DC: He’s the most creative chef in America and he applies it all to pastry.  And, he has a great backstory.  We did a piece on him for the magazine where I learned a bunch of this…so he grew up very poor and he ended up working for Fauchon, launching Fauchon in Russia, and certain things mystified him--like these women who would come to work at like 3:00 in the morning, which is when bakers come to work, but they’d come in full make-up and skimpy clothing and he was like, you guys, you’re working the line, you’re making pastry here, these clothes are not appropriate.  But it turned out they were hookers!

SW: Hooker slash baker?

DC: Yes, a new job hybrid we hadn’t heard of before: the hooker-baker.  He’s so well known for the cronut--a cross between a croissant and a doughnut and layers of something delicious in it as well, it’s not just pastry.  But everything he does is amazing. Everything.  It’s almost unfair that he’s so well known for one thing because he has so many other things that are so good.

EK:  Is the cronut everything they say?  Is it just amazing or?

DC: It is, it’s delicious. And I think it’s great to have that much of what my daughter would call "a thing.”

SW: What do you think is going to be the next “thing?”

DC: I think it’s the éclair.  Not in the cronut way, where it’s one person’s genius idea--I think that strikes about once every 5 years... So first it was the cupcake, then the doughnut tried but never really made it…now we think it’s going to be éclairs.

SW: Variations of the éclair?

DC: That’s it.  Because there’s so many amazing variations, you can fill it with anything.  It’s such a perfect delivery system for layers of cream and butter and pastry and something that’s slick and glossy and sweet on it.  It’s got a lot going on.

Dana Cowin also has a lot going on--traveling, eating, making our mouths water via her Twitter posts, and no doubt mastering more recipes.

"My Own Hunt for Health" - Reading Along with Author Heather Abel

GutOriginally from Los Angeles, Heather Abel now lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and daughters. Her most recent non-fiction is about celiac disease, bananas, her mom, and the rise of the gluten-free diet. Here, Heather tells us about what she likes to read in her hunt for health.

 

When people hear I’m gluten free — and that I’ve written a memoir about celiac disease— they want to talk recipes. They tell me that they have a niece who’s gluten free and she loves this particular lasagna — have I tried it? What about blueberry muffins? Do I use rice flour or almond flour? The truth is, I’m a lousy, disinterested cook. I sit down with a magazine while leeks are sautéing and look up again when the smoke alarm is shrieking. I’m reliable only with a hard boiled egg and baked potatoes. I will occasionally wander into the gluten-free blogosphere, because I find these bloggers to be engaging in a wonderful act of generosity, as they test and tweak recipes for the rest of us. I love their attitude that the gluten-free diet is a challenge to be met gladly, with oven mitt on. But I tune out at discussions of xantham gum versus tapioca starch or agave versus honey, and I never make their recipes. Celiac disease has given me a very different pastime.

Instead of cooking, I read social histories of food. These books were crucial to my research for “Gut Instincts.” As I explored my own hunt for health, I wanted to know the roots of some of today’s food fads— probiotics and glutenphobia and the paleo diet. But now I find myself returning to these books for enjoyment. In particular, I like to read about the diet gurus of the past two hundred years.

In White Bread, by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, I met Sylvester Graham who in the 1830s convinced thousands that disease was a personal choice that could be avoided through his regimen of vegetarianism, spiceless foods, and a sexless life.

In Fear of Food by Harvey Levenstein, I met Eli Metchnikoff, a 19th century Russian doctor who believed that we could all live to 140 if we imbibed a sour yogurt, and who advocated removal of the large intestine.

In Revolution on The Table, also by Harvey Levenstein, I learned about “the Golden Age of Food Fads,” those years from the 1880s to the early twentieth century when Americans sought health through the teachings of charismatic nutritionists, including Horace Fletcher and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Fletcher, also known as “The Great Masticator,” believed that food should be chewed over a hundred times before it was swallowed. And Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake, treated the patients at his sanatorium with yogurt enemas, breath exercises, and occasionally an all-grape diet.

In “The Rise and Fall of Celiac Disease,” by Emily Abel, I learned about Dr. Sidney Haas, the most prominent celiac doctor of the first half of the 20th century, who believed that celiac disease could be cured by consuming large amounts of bananas.

Why do I find these stories of hucksterism and failure so nourishing? Well, I have a chronic disease that’s managed solely through diet. To take care of myself, I need to aggregate an enormous amount of data about gluten and the preparation, transportation, and storage of everything I eat. And since celiac is an emerging disease, theories about its dietary regimen are constantly evolving. I need to stay on top of these ideas. But as I read about food and diet on the Internet, I come across a fair share of dire warnings. The tone is often shrill and certain, even though one study might contradict the next. It makes for a dizzying, anxiety-producing reading experience. The histories of diet faddists add a dose of humor and perspective. I like to think about how certain Kellogg and Haas were of their wrongheaded beliefs. I like to think of the shrill tone Metchnikoff might have taken if the Internet had been invented two hundred years earlier. I like to think about the flame wars that would have erupted in the comments section of a blogpost by Graham. When I imagine these scenarios, none of the present-day warnings feel so dire. I can survive, it turns out, without homemade gluten-free muffins. But I can’t live without the broadening perspective of history, the fascinating, never-ending story of how humans choose what to eat, and how we try, over and over, to heal ourselves with food.

Wild at Heart: The Dark Center of Tim Johnston's "Descent"

Descent2015 may be young, but Tim Johnston's Descent has positioned itself as an early frontrunner for year-end best-of  lists. The surprise bestseller's plot is straight-up thriller: On the eve of daughter Caitlin's departure for college, the Courtlands drive into the Rocky Mountains for one last true family vacation--with the parents Grant and Angel desperately hoping that the setting will repair their faltering marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother set out on a morning run, only Sean returns, and with a badly broken leg. Caitlin has disappeared into the mountains by way of a stranger's car.

The wilderness that was to be a place of new beginnings has  become a character of its own, looming over the family and alive with jagged spires and forbidding forest, accelerant to the family's terror, grief, and self-doubt. Johnston not only pulls off this transition, but elevates his story with believable characters, impeccable pacing, and prose that serves up palpable tension, as well as serving the book's literary aspirations. This all sounds a bit hyperbolic (mixed-metaphor-inspiring, even), but Descent is that good. 

Of course, this isn't the first tale to use Nature as a key player, so we asked author Johnston for his own list of books featuring wilderness as an active force.

 


Environment as Character: Five Essential Novels

by Tim Johnston


The Rocky Mountains are more than a kind of character in Descent; they are the book's essential and ruling antagonist. For the Courtlands, the book's four protagonists, the realization that the mountains are not the picturesque American playground they've driven up from the plains to enjoy, comes too late, and after their 18-year-old daughter vanishes, the family sees the Rockies for what they really are, which is the same boundless, pathless, godforsaken place into which a great number of Americans far hardier than themselves once vanished forever.  Thereafter this landscape becomes so much more than majestic, astounding, or even otherworldly; it become sinister.  It becomes a world of malicious intent, no less cruel or comprehensible from one day to the next.  

 

Deliverance

Deliverance by James Dickey

A wild Appalachian river pulses through this novel like the story's own jugular vein, but its finest passage is when Ed must climb above the river, in the darkness, on a sheer face of rock. With superhuman attention to detail, Dickey transforms Ed into a being a pure sensation, and transforms the reader into Ed. You do not breathe. You do not dare look down.

 
The Shipping News

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Life-battered Quoyle washes up on the shores of Newfoundland and is marooned among a citizenry as hard and wind-scoured as the rock they call home. The image that stands out and represents both the outer and inner landscapes is the ancestral Quoyle homestead that is kept from being blown off its cliff into the sea by guy wires that cry like furies in the wind.

 
The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Having once sent me, in Blood Meridian, into a 19th Century American West before it was transformed by expansionist violence and the industrial revolution, McCarthy now immerses me in an America far down the road of its self-destruction, a lightless, ash-buried, bone-chilling world that is by far the most desolate he's ever conjured—and yet also includes a single heartening, and heartbreaking, flame of love.

 
Plainsong

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Here is McCarthy's Wild West in the modern era, as arid and unforgiving as ever, but populated now by a less violent and somehow more resilient breed of American—in particular two old-as-Moses brothers who go out day after bitter day to tend to their cattle and who find themselves, all of the sudden, surrogate fathers to one young woman who needs shelter from the harsh world. The title evokes the spirit and the artistry of the book: Plainsong.

 
Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

The opening pages so beautifully evoke Thomas Hudson's house that the reader cannot miss that the description is really about the man himself, his heart and his soul as we find them at the novel's outset. Likewise, as Tom suffers heartbreaking loss, the novel moves into a harrowing tale of the hunt for German U-boats in the Florida Keys, and those waters come to represent the dangers that lurk beneath every human heart that dares to open itself to love.

 

 

Descent is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.

 

Graphic Novel Friday: The Death of Wolverine

Let’s all admit that Wolverine will survive The Death of Wolverine. He’s been through worse (like that time he went to Hell), and he’s too much of a revenue generator to cut from Marvel’s publishing plan. Character deaths and rebirths are part of what make superhero comics…superhero comics. These stories are larger than life, grandiose—they have to be, because their characters must continue to exist with little change while the real world constantly changes around them. So, where does that leave The Death of Wolverine, Marvel’s latest event? Let’s take a look, bub.

Thanks to a healing factor, Wolverine famously doesn’t have to sweat the little things that most of us do: bullets, old age, having experimental metal grafted to his bones, blood-poisoning from said metal, and so on. In The Death of Wolverine, however, all of that changes. As Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four explains to him in a particularly fun scene:

“You have lost your healing factor. The problem is that everything you do—your entire physical structure—is built around the fact that you can rapidly heal from almost any injury. Or…you could.”

Richards then tells Wolverine that he cannot even use his claws, because there is the risk of infection. I mean, come on, Reed! This is a Wolverine comic, where the popping of claws with a “Snikt!” is a prerequisite. Never fear, though, because word on the villain circuit has already spread that it’s open season on short, hairy Canucks, and a host of mercenaries from Wolvie’s past have come to claim the bounty. Snikts are sure to abound.

Steve McNiven illustrates a tired Wolverine: he’s saved the world more times than Buffy, and he’s attended far too many funerals for dead girlfriends. McNiven displays all of this history through facial lines and grooves, finely tuned grimaces, and wearied stances. Wolverine braces himself against trees, rocks, and the occasional bar, but when his cabin in the woods is threatened, he’s still the best there is at what he does (and what McNiven does is make it look pretty).

DoW_snikt
Writer Charles Soule ignores Reed Richards’ orders and pits Wolverine against a “This is Your Life” cast of characters, requiring claws, claws, and an occasional head-butt. Soule uses repetition in clipped narrative boxes to remind readers that everything hurts: “Pain. Hands.” For all the violence, Soule’s script also allows for fun beats, like the slow opening reveal, or when Wolverine shows up in the back of a club with his hair slicked back, sunglasses on indoors, and two attractive women on his arms: “Hey man. Have a seat,” he nonchalantly says, but with enough menace that nobody could refuse.

It’s easy to approach a title like The Death of Wolverine with cynicism. We’ve been here before, sure, and I read it thinking I knew how it would end—not a death-death but rather the death of a persona. But wait! By the time I reached its rooftop conclusion, my nerd nostalgia dial cranked to 11, Wolverine can still surprise. There’s life yet in this Snikt.

--Alex

 

Like Minds: Stephen Pinker Reviews "The Moral Arc"

The Moral ArcIs the world becoming a better place? Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, thinks so, and he thinks it's all about the science. His new book, The Moral Arc, outlines his hypothesis: As humankind gains greater understanding of the universe and increasingly applies scientific reasoning to its institutions--politics, economics, and philosophy, etc.--its moral failings fall away, replaced by the ideals of truth, liberty, and justice. Thought-provoking--and maybe ire-provoking, as well.

It's a line of thought familiar to Steven Pinker. Pinker--Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and named by TIME magazine as one of the top 100 thinkers in the world--explored similar ideas in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. So who better to comment on Shermer's effort? Please enjoy Steven Pinker's guest review of The Moral Arc.

 

Guest Review of The Moral Arc

By Steven Pinker

I decided to write The Better Angels of Our Nature when I discovered that violence had declined across many scales of time and magnitude: everything from war and genocide to homicide, infanticide, domestic abuse, and cruelty to animals. The more I looked into the past the more hopeful I became for the future. We have been doing something right, and I tried to figure out what it is and how we can do more of it.

Steven PinkerIf you wanted a sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature—one which explores all our spheres of moral progress, not just the decline of violence—Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc is it. Shermer has engaged the full mantle of moral progress and considered how far we have come and how much farther that arc can be bent toward truth, justice, and freedom. The Moral Arc is a thrilling book, one which could change your view of human history and human destiny. Through copious data and compelling examples Shermer shows how the arc of the moral universe, seen from a historical vantage point, bends toward civil rights and civil liberties, the spread of liberal democracy and market economies, and the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights. Never in history has such a large percentage of the world’s population enjoyed so much freedom, autonomy, and prosperity.

Shermer also engages the conundrum of free will and responsibility. Though a thoroughgoing materialist, allowing no room for a soul to push our neurons around, he argues that we are volitional beings who must be held accountable for our actions. He explores the implications of this notion of culpability for justice, arguing that the criminal justice system must be reformed to reflect a rational and scientific understanding of human nature, in particular by adding restorative justice to a system that currently is based on retribution.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st CenturyThe themes of The Moral Arc are not just historical but in the headlines. The steadily unfolding revolution of gay marriage gives Shermer the opportunity to show how rights revolutions of many different kinds come about. Shermer devotes two chapters to showing that it is not religion that has been the driver of moral progress, but Enlightenment-inspired emphasis on science and reason. Gay rights and same-sex marriage have been opposed by most religions (the exception are the avowedly liberal religions); the expansion of the moral sphere to include homosexuals is a modern manifestation of the Enlightenment ideals of equal rights and equal treatment under the law.

Finally, Shermer debunks the lazy assumption that science has nothing to say about morals and values. Values we take for granted, such as civil rights and civil liberties, were explored and popularized by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, who consciously modeled their reasoning on the greatest scientists of their ages. They considered the project of constructing a liberal democracy and a market economy as a kind of scientific experiment.

The Moral Arc will give any reason-loving, evidence-respecting, scientifically minded reader hope for humanity. It shows that our deepest problems of the past, present, and future may been solved by our ability to reason our way to solutions and persuade our peers that they can be successfully implemented.

 

 

Steven Pinker is also the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought. His latest book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, is a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of 2014 in Nonfiction.

 

 

Miranda July on "The First Bad Man"

Filmmaker, artist and writer Miranda July has penned a hilariously irreverent and oddly romantic novel The First Bad Manin The First Bad Man. It also happens to be an achingly tender treatise on love and motherhood. But it's quite a wild ride getting there.

I wasn't prepared for how moved I would be at the end of The First Bad Man, especially when, at the beginning, you're more likely to cringe than to cry. Which part came more naturally for you to write?

The second half was easier to write--but only after I'd had my baby.  I handed in my first draft in the day before I gave birth and the second half of it was definitely a bit fuzzy--I knew how it ended and but I wasn't sure how Cheryl got there. Becoming a mother made me new again, I felt reset to zero and wildly emotional. Which is a handy thing to have happen in the midst of a long project. That said, I wrote a million versions of Phillip's return at the end of the book. When I had finally built the brain that could write final version I remember typing very slowly and quietly like it might run away if I typed too fast.


When people think of a heroine, they typically don't envision someone like Cheryl. And yet, it's actually the baser, hilariously insane aspects of her personality--her humanness--that make her a more relatable one, and one you want to root for. What was the inspiration behind that character?

Well, I identify with her a lot. She's a very familiar sort of shadow--I've done everything I possibly can not to be inert and lost in fantasy like her, but at my core I am a woman living alone, miles from any kind of human contact and feeling sort of righteous and comfortable with that. I say this having been happily partnered for ten years now--it has nothing to do with the actual life I'm living. But...Cheryl isn't knowing or politicized, she was never a punk, she doesn't listen to music--it was our differences that set me free to go full tilt with her character. I've made these movies that, because of my performance background, I conceive of without starring in. And because I'm no great thespian, I felt they had to be a person like me, at least superficially. It's a strange limitation because I'm actually the kind of writer who needs some distance from a character to really inhabit them. There's no one I could "play" in this book and that was a great relief.


The First Bad Man, among other things, examines how motherhood changes a person. How has Miranda Julybeing a mother affected you as an artist?

There's less time to think about what I feel, which for me is a good thing. I'm forced to keep moving, keep experiencing in the real world. I still dissassociate and tune out every chance I can get, but the sheer fact that I have less time to do this makes me approach it in a new way. Basically I deal with my problems, my inner problems, a little more quickly, rather than getting used to them. In terms of creativity, I've noticed that I’m having most of my new ideas as I wake up or go to sleep--it's as if these are the only moments when I'm relaxed enough for the ideas to make it through the door of my conscious mind. They see it hanging open and they (the ideas) say "Go! Go! Go!" and rush through the door like a SWAT team. That's how it feels. I will say all my fears about creative life ending with motherhood were unfounded. If you have enough time to do your work (and that's a big if--you need some money to afford childcare) you certainly only feel more and experience a more diverse range of empathies--all good things for an artist.


This story is a great read, but it's also cinematic in many ways. When you first conceived of The First Bad Man, why a novel as opposed to a screenplay, and would you like to adapt it for film at some point?


I actually did have trouble settling down to the idea of writing a novel. For the first few months I would throw out ideas for who might play Cheryl and Clee, all the while knowing that no one would play them, I would simply describe them. Eventually it was a joy to be writing a book and not making a movie--it wasn't the torture that I had come to expect with a long creative project. With writing you are in control every second, so the discomfort never gets beyond internal agony; you're not hiring and firing and making costly mistakes. I don't have any interest in seeing the novel as a movie now--it's done. But I do feel like it taught me a ton that I can apply to my next movie.


This novel pretty much literalizes the idiom "knocking some sense into someone."  It's an aspect of the book that's a bit shocking when it's first introduced. In this day and age when we've become increasingly desensitized to violence, do you find that, as an artist, it's more difficult to conjure meaningful responses from an audience?

I have yet to see if my violence conjures meaningful responses but I imagine that the desensitization works in my favor--when you're used to seeing the same things again and again (male attacker, bad outcome)  it is jarring to see violence taking a completely different role in a story.

Do you foresee a day when the Victoria Secret catalog arrives and the model on the cover is donning a long green corduroy dress with many buttons?

What's interesting is that the Victoria's Secret model is sold to all of us--men and women (and children!), old people, gay people. Those breasts hover over all of us, like the sun. So if you have someone in your life who looks like that, as Cheryl suddenly does, then perhaps you sexualize her even without wanting to. Or wanting to but not understanding why. And when you sexualize her do you imagine yourself with her? Or a man? Do you become that man? Does that make you gay? No, it just makes you a good consumer. I'm not sure the dress will make it in to the VS catalog but yesterday I was meeting up with a curator, Jeffrey Deitch, and he said "Look! I wore my lesbian suit for you!" It took me a moment to catch on: it was a green, corduroy suit.

See more of the Best Books of January.

YA Wednesday: Best Books of January

In the last couple of years January has been a really strong month for YA.  Consider 2012's The Fault in Our Stars, 2013's Just One Day, and last year's Hollow CityAll January, all stand outs for the year.  2015 is no exception and as happens some months when there is too much goodness to be celebrated, this month there are six Best Books of the Month in YA, including the spotlight, Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places.  Here is a little taste of three of the best books this month:

BOTM_Jan_YA

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Violet and Theodore (Finch) are teens at opposite ends of the popularity spectrum who are drawn together by personal tragedy and a bell tower ledge. Their story is told from alternating points of view, and my feelings of pity, anger, and compassion, swung from one to the other until both were exposed as broken, fragile, and buoyed by the other.  All the Bright Places hits the same notes as other recent YA favorites--love, heartbreak, death--and Niven does an amazing job of expressing through her characters how life sometimes makes no sense and all we can do is try to show up for the people we love and let them love us back.  This is story that you feel as much as read.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
Vivian Apple lives in a world that has been slowly overtaken by The Church of America--they run the media, own the major retailers, and nearly everyone in her town and across the country is a Believer.  On the date of the church divined Rapture, chaos breaks out because suddenly thousands of people--including Vivian's parents and neighbors--disappear.  And so begins a coming-of-age story of how a 17-year-old girl who liked to play things safe ends up on a long distance road trip with her in-your-face best friend Harp, looking for answers about the end of the world.  Funny, quirky, and wise--a great novel to shake up the new year.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Who better than Holly Black for our first great fantasy of the year?  The Darkest Part of the Forest is a fairytale for those of us who loved the Grimm's stories as children and never stopped wanting more.  Fairfold is a town of humans who have fairy folk in their forest including a prince who lies entombed in a glass coffin while the local teenagers drink beer and party around him. Everything is status quo until the day the glass is broken and the fairy prince's freedom kicks off a war between the magical, the mortal, and those in between--particularly Hazel and Ben and their friend, Jack. The Darkest Part of the Forest reads like a classic fairytale only the themes of betrayal and longing speak to a teen or adult sensibility.

The other titles we picked as the Best YA Books of January are:

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake - A contemporary story with a soupcon of supernatural from the Printz-winning author of In Darkness, this is a twisty, emotionally charged read that keeps you guessing.

Twisted Fate by Norah Olson - Two sisters who couldn't be more different each develop a relationship with newcomer Graham and nothing is as it seems in this stealthy psychological thriller.

Hellhole by Gina Damico - I really love a funny novel and Gina Damico (the author of Croak) delivers a lot of laughs in this story of a geeky highschooler stuck with the house guest from hell. Literally. 

 

5 Books We Wish Mark Zuckerberg Would Read

The Woman I Wanted to BeLike everyone in the book business, we at Amazon think it's great when a new public book club joins the party. And when Mark Zuckerberg came out with his first pick--Moisés Naim's The End of Power--we were thrilled to think readers would get to meet even more writers they might not otherwise have known. But since this is what we editors at Amazon do every day--conduct reader/writer match-ups--we thought we'd make some suggestions to the Facebook co-founder for future picks. Hey, Mark, what about these titles?

We're pretty sure you've already read Lean In--who hasn't?--but Diane The CircleVon Furstenberg's The Woman I Wanted to Be about being a woman in business before Sheryl Sandberg could read--is also plenty enlightening.

The Internet is Not the AnswerNobody's saying Dave Eggers' The Circle depicts life at Facebook--it's rumored, in fact, to be a look at another Internet giant--but we'd love to know how you'd view the view of the competition.

Speaking of the Internet, we can't help wondering what you'll make of the brand new treatise on the topic, The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen.

You're not that long out of Harvard, right? So maybe you'd "get" this book on a The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peacepersonal level. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs is a memoir about two young men who took different paths both to and from Yale.

EuphoriaOne could argue that you're something of a cultural anthropologist, studying the social behavior of the human tribe. Why not read a novel--Euphoria by Lily King--based on the life of another anthropologist who started with the natives of Papua, New Guinea?

 

The Book That Changed My Life

TidyingUpI know that sounds really dramatic, but it's 100% true.  The book is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and it has done for me what no other organizational books, articles, tips, or personal threats, have been able to do--it got my sh*t together.

This slim volume is no nonsense but also gentle and understanding of those of us who have tried repeatedly to clear out closets and household space with limited success.  Why did this work where others have failed?  I believe it's author Marie Kondo's unique method, both physical and mental, for eliminating things we do not need but have struggled to part with.  She has different criteria for different types of items--clothing, books, memorabilia, etc.,--and I'm telling you, if you follow her simple instructions freedom from clutter can be yours.

As a result of reading and following The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I gave away seven (!!) giant trash bags of clothes and shoes, and went from two and a half closets and a 6-drawer dresser down to a single closet and 3 drawers.  And I still feel like I have a lot of clothes!  My clutter-free clothing space has made getting ready much more pleasurable, and thanks to the lasting effects of going through this process, when I've been tempted to buy something that is almost perfect, I put it back on the rack.

I haven't done my books yet, but Kondo's approach for purging books actually makes sense to me--and I'm a self-identified neurotic when it comes to my books--so instead of feeling anxious about doing it, I feel calm and eager to reclaim more of my space.  I just need to bring home some boxes because I know I'm going to end up getting rid of A LOT--and it will feel really, really, good.

 

A Conversation with Graeme Simsion, Author of "The Rosie Effect"

RosieAbout a year ago, a charming and funny novel was published about a guy with  Asperger's who decides to draw up a plan to find the perfect wife. The novel was The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, and it probably doesn't need to be said that the plan does not turn out perfectly--although the novel turned into a big best seller. Just recently Simsion followed up with The Rosie Effect, in which our protagonist, Don Tillman, has returned with his now-wife, Rosie, and lo-and-behold she learns she is pregnant.

The Rosie Project sold all across the world and launched Graeme Simsion's career as an author. I caught up with him to ask him about writing the sequel and writing in general.

 

Chris Schluep: Tell us a little about yourself. What was your journey to becoming a novelist?

Graeme Simsion: A physics degree, a career in information technology, managing a consultancy business – 35 years in which I didn’t write a word of fiction. With one exception. In my forties, inspired by Joe Queenan’s book The Unkindest Cut, I made a low-budget feature film, adapting one of my wife’s unpublished novels. I caught the screenwriting bug.

I sold my business and at 50 enrolled in a screenwriting program. The Rosie Project was my project over five years of part-time study. At the end, with an Australian Writers’ Guild screenwriting award in my hand, but no money, I decided to rewrite it as a novel. I enrolled in a creative writing program…

CS: When did you first begin to think about writing from the viewpoint of a person with Asperger’s?

GS: When I enrolled in the screenwriting program, I decided that I needed a story to work on: somewhere to apply everything I would be learning. Good stories often come out of character, so that was my starting point. I knew a lot of guys who probably had undiagnosed Asperger’s – going right back to when I was a radio ham, then studying science and math, then working in information technology. Techies, nerds, and geeks. My buddies. One of them had a particularly interesting story, and that was where I began – though not where I ended.

CS: Was there much special research involved?

GS: No. I didn’t set out to write about Asperger’s. I set out to tell a story about a character who was probably on the autism spectrum – but it didn’t really matter to me if he was or wasn’t. He just had to be believable and interesting – and that came from grounding him in people I knew, rather than theory. Anyone can read a textbook: I wanted to take advantage of my life experience with these guys.

I did some basic research on DNA collection methods for The Rosie Project and read What to Expect when you’re Expecting for The Rosie Effect. My wife is a professor of psychiatry, and she helped me with the attachment theory, postnatal depression, and the Lesbian Mothers Project.

CS: How has your relationship with Don Tillman changed as you’ve written these two novels?

GS: I don’t see myself as having a relationship with my characters. They exist in a different world, which I create and control. That said, they feel very real to me, as do their relationships with one another, and it’s fundamental to me that they always behave authentically: this is important when writing comedy, where there’s sometimes the temptation to have someone behave or speak out of character for the sake of humor.

When I’m writing in Don’s voice, I do my best to take on his identity. It became easier as time went by and I became more certain in his voice and thinking. By the time I got to The Rosie Effect, it was pretty settled.

CS: The ROSIE PROJECT began as a screenplay. What were the challenges of transforming it from screenplay to novel?

GS: Adding Don’s reflections and transforming the humor from performance to observation. I also had to flesh out the detail of place and characters. And I added some complexity to the father project.

CS: Are you funny in real life, too?

GS: Ask my wife. Or my kids. Or the four guys who worked with me in a comedy writers’ room we set up during our screenwriting studies. I don’t think I got a laugh all year. But people at my book events do a lot of laughing: it’s not so hard when you’ve got fifty years of stories to choose from and only have to talk for half an hour.

CS: I understand you write short stories (but that, very practically, you don’t think too much about publishing them). What sort of stories do you write, and how does shorter form writing contribute to your novel writing?

GS: I do publish my short stories! See http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/three-encounters-with-the-physical-20130111-2cl32.html for an example. There are three early stories in The Road Home anthology (Stringybark). I use short stories to experiment, extend my range, and remind the world that I’m not a one-trick pony. I’ve used them to try out characters for novels: Don, Gene and the hero of my next novel all appeared first in short stories.

CS: What authors do you admire (and why)?

GS: I admire anyone who writes a publishable novel. It’s a great achievement, and I’ve only come to it recently. I’ve learned from, and am in awe of, many, many authors. I’ll just pick three:

John Irving is a great storyteller who manages the balancing acts between comedy and pathos, the real and the surreal, and literary and popular writing. 

John Mortimer is a role model: he kept his (comedic) Rumpole character alive, but still managed to write a broader range of fiction, memoirs and screenplays.

Jared Diamond: The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs, and Steel offer a perspective that I never got in my history or science classes at school. It’s a perspective we should all understand.

CS: Are there particular challenges to writing a sequel?

GS: At first glance, writing a sequel is much easier. In the case of The Rosie Effect, I had the main characters already in place – and getting Don’s voice and Rosie’s character right had been the toughest job in writing The Rosie Project. But that’s also the problem: the reader is not going to get the surprise of meeting Don, in particular, for the first time. The novelty is gone, and has to be replaced by something. I saw that ‘something’ as being a deeper exploration of Don’s character and his challenges in dealing with the world, trusting in my reader to stay with him after getting to know him in the first novel.

CS: What’s next for you?

GS: Sony Pictures is developing The Rosie Project and I’ve submitted my drafts of the screenplay. So there’s a good chance of further involvement there. I’m working on my next novel, provisionally titled The Candle, about a relationship re-kindled after 22 years. I may come back to Don and Rosie in a few years.

 

 

Our Literary New Year's Resolutions

'Tis the season when everyone is making (and already breaking) New Year's resolutions. But the editorial team has made some of a literary variety that we intend to keep. Have a book you've been meaning to read but keep putting it off for one reason or another? Here are the ones we resolve to dust off and dig into in 2015.

The Worst Hard TimeJon: I don’t know why I haven't read The Worst Hard Time. I love the Tim Egan books that I've read--The Big Burn, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, The Good Rain--but I've never gotten around to the one that might be his best. Of course, I haven't read it so I don't know, but his take on the Dust Bowl is probably expansive, packed with fully realized characters and period detail, and brimming with insight on the calamity's origins and broader impact, then and now. That's what people say, anyway, and it won the National Book Award. It's not even that long. OK: This is happening.

Chris: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert: I've heard and read so many great The Sixth Extinctionthings about this one that I'm really looking forward to it. The book discusses how there have been five mass extinctions in earth's history, and the author believes that we're currently living through the sixth. Which I guess is another reason to read it sooner than later.

The Kills by Richard House: A lot of people love this massive work. The back cover information describes it as "an epic crime and conspiracy told in four books." A recent Amazon reviewer (Gary) described the book this way: "The first 500 pages ok and last 500+ a slog." Right now it seems that the majority of Amazon reviewers agree with Gary--and I have no idea what side I'll fall on--but I'm game to check it out.

The Wordy ShipmatesErin: Sarah Vowell is the history teacher everyone wishes that they had. She can make the most mundane subjects fascinating and yet, even though I've read everything else she's written, The Wordy Shipmates has been sitting on my shelf for six years, unopened. It's about the Puritans and it just seems...a bit wordy. I was similarly dubious when Vowell wrote about the colonization of Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes. I've never been to Hawaii, I'm one of the few (literally three) people on the planet for whom Hawaii wasn't a top-of-my-list vacation destination. That is, until I read Unfamiliar Fishes and not only want to visit, but also personally apologize to any native Hawaiians I come across. I have a feeling, like all of Vowell's books, I'm going to wish The Wordy Shipmates was even wordier.

Seira: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. For my New Year's resolution reading, I chose a People Who Eat Darknessbook that two other people on the editorial team have raved about. People Who Eat Darkness has come up multiple times and always includes the following: "oohhh, that book is SO good!" And every time I say, "I’ve got to read that book!"  A true crime story, People Who Eat Darkness covers the 2000 disappearance of a young British woman in Japan who was later found murdered. The author, a foreign correspondent, spent 10 years digging into the case through the labyrinth of the Japanese legal system and underworld, and the dark mind of her killer. Pretty sure I’m going to want to have a go at this in one sitting, and I’m wishing I could head home right now and fulfill the most painless New Year's resolution I’ve made in a long time.

Neal: As someone whose job is, in part, to review books and interview authors, there's a propulsive forward-looking momentum to my reading habits--what's next, what's new, no time to look back. But there are so many of those "damn, I wish I had more time" books, that I had to create a special bookshelf at home. It's the stuff I'll get to when I’m laid up for a month after, say, a hernia operation. Or maybe when I retire. Some of them are series, some are older books that I missed the first time around. But this year, my reading resolution is to stop waiting and tackle one of these four:

Fall of GiantsKen Follett's Century Trilogy--ever since interviewing Follett two years ago about this Trilogy, I've guiltily watched these fat tomes collect dust on my shelf: Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, Edge of Eternity.

John Green’s backlist--I'm late to the Green party but, after falling for The Fault in Our Stars (the book, not the flick) I collected Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and Paper Towns. (A nice box set has them all.)

Peter May's Lewis Trilogy--I've been dying to dive into this dark, brooding mystery series set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides: The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chess Man.

Timothy Halinan's Junior Bender series, in which burglar turned investigator Junior Bender takes on Hollywood mobsters, movie makers, and porn stars: CrashedLittle Elvises, The Fame Thief, and Bender’s Game.

Which books do you resolve to read this year?

Amazon Debut Spotlight: "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth"

ScottonThis week we announced our Best Books of the Month, and our Debut Spotlight was a wonderful novel entitled The Secret Wisdom of the Earth. We reached out to author Christopher Scotton and asked him to write about how the book came to be:

 

Buried Sorrows and Blasted Mountains by Christopher Scotton

She was beautiful—in a kind, motherly way—but she had these eyes that stared right through me to some place in the distant past. Eyes that carried a deep-set sadness that would only reveal itself in her most unguarded moments.

She was the mother of a good friend and everyone at the party seemed drawn to her—even with the buried sorrow, she could carry a room. Naturally curious, I asked my friend about the sadness. He paused, then told me the story of how his older brother died—a brother unknown to him in life, but vividly known through his absence—for the death happened before my friend was even born.

His brother was three at the time and died in the most horrific accident imaginable (I still go desolate thinking about it today).  The incident occurred at home in their front yard and my friend’s mother witnessed the entire tragedy.  Thirty years on when I met her, I could tell she hadn’t fully healed—and probably never would.

As my friend told me the awful details, it touched me so deeply that I knew then, I had to write a novel about this boy’s death and its effect on a family.  And so, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth began assembling inside me, filling out from that awful moment on my friend’s front lawn.

I spent over a decade teasing out the story and living with the characters: Kevin, the narrator, who tells of his family’s tragedy as an adult looking back on the summer of his fourteenth year; Pops, his wise and loving grandfather; Buzzy, the half-wild hollow kid who befriends Kevin; and all the strange and wonderful characters that inhabit the novel. It’s been a journey of self-discovery that I hope will not only entertain, but remind readers of the connective tissue that is the essence of family, community, love and loss.

As the plot was finding itself, Kevin’s suburban setting just didn’t seem to lay well with where the story was going.  I needed a much more compelling landscape from which to build.

Eastern Kentucky is a place of great and tragic paradox.  A region of unmatched beauty ravaged by unbridled strip mining; an economy entirely dependent on the very industry that is destroying its mountain heritage; wonderful, place-proud folks with no chance of escaping the choke of poverty unless they leave the region they love so well. I’d visited Appalachia often in my teens and twenties and fell in love with it like a local.  This family’s tragedy and the contrarian beauty of eastern Kentucky seemed a perfect match.

So, I had interesting characters, a compelling set up and a fascinating setting…as well as a granite-wall case of writers block. It seemed every narrative path I took was a dead end; every plot point was unhinged from the others.

Then I saw my first mountaintop removal operation. 

I was visiting eastern Kentucky at the time, trying to free the jammed-up plot.  I had heard about the massive mine outside of town and found a hole in the perimeter fence on a Sunday when the haul trucks were idle and I could work my way up the shoulder of mountain undetected. 

I reached the brim of the place and looked out over a landscape of total devastation—miles of raw, broken land where a tract of mountains had once been. Flat buttes of exposed grey slag with black coal seams at the bottom; cairns of rubble with haul truck tracks crosshatched between them.

As I stood on the rimrock of that once proud, ancient hill, the disparate themes and opposing plots began aligning inside me, all joined by the connective tissue of loss.—loss of loved ones, loss of innocence, loss of a way of life, and now, loss of these majestic mountains. And once the allegory of mountaintop removal revealed itself on that December Sunday so many years ago, the rest of the story fell together.

Secret Wisdom is a story of loss, certainly, but also of love, redemption, identity and the sinew that keeps us connected to this flying, spinning rock of ours. There is splendor in these connections—a beauty in it—a tragic, graced, sad, wise beauty in it.

—Christopher Scotton

From the Archives: Sonali Deraniyagala's Memoir of Surviving 2004's Tsunami

Sonali-Deraniyagala-Wave-credit-Ann-BillingsleyLast week marked the 10-year anniversary of the massive tsunami that roared across the Indian Ocean and devasted the coastlines of fourteen countries. One of the deadlist natural disasters in modern history, the tsunami took the lives of more than 230,000 people, including the parents, husband, and two children of Sonali Deraniyagala, who was vacationing with her family at a Sri Lankan beach resort.

Sonali's devastating account of the tsunami, Wave, was an Amazon Best of the Month "Spotlight" pick in March of 2013. It was also a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and was selected as a 2013 Best Book of the Year by Amazon, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, People, and Goodreads. 

This post first appeared in March of 2013.

~

Memoir seems to be the theme of this month's Best Books of the Month list, which boasts an amazing collection of brave and deeply personal explorations. In fact, brave is the buzz word of the month, appearing in a few of our editors' reviews for March. These compelling first-person stories--all written by women, and mostly about overcoming hardship--include Sheryl Sandberg's bold and inspiring Lean In; Christa Parravani's "brave, raw, and ultimately uplifting" Her; and Emily Rapp's "magnificently written" The Still Point of the Turning World.

But the book that tops our list is the one that left many of us shaking our heads in awe, Sonali Deraniyagala's incredible Wave.

Some books unfold with obvious menace, suggesting, “This won’t end well.” Wave declares on page one--“the ocean looked a little closer”--this won’t even start well. But I’m urging you, dear reader, not to look away.

In an unblinking act of storytelling, Deraniyagala ruthlessly chronicles the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that horrifically snatched from her all that mattered. Throughout this fierce and furious book, I kept wondering how someone who lost so much could write about it with such power, economy and grace. At first, she shrieks and grieves openly, angrily; for years she remains stunned and staggered, shamed by “the outlandish truth of me.” Then, slowly, she allows herself to remember, sharing vivid glimpses of her past.

WaveWe see, hear, and smell two rowdy little boys, their brotherly scuffling, their muddy shoes and grass stains. By confronting and recreating moments that make us laugh and weep, we accept their absence and root for the author not to give up. As Deraniyagala's unthinkable loss becomes “distilled,” she finds herself “no longer cradled by shock.” She survives. And she does so by allowing herself to ache and to remember. By keeping the pain close, by embracing the unthinkable, she keeps alive her precious memories.

Difficult to describe, tricky to recommend, this is a bold and wondrous book. In a wounded voice that manages to convey the snide, sarcastic, funny, and fatalistic personality that survives beneath the suffering, Deraniyagala slowly pieces together the elements that represent the life--the lives--she lost. And she magically brings them back. For us, for her, for them. So brave, so beautiful, in these pages Deraniyagala’s family is brilliantly alive. And so is she. 

 

365 Days of Wonder to Start the New Year

365DaysWonderR.J. Palacio's Wonder is still one of my favorite books and continues to be discovered and cherished by kids and adults.  In the novel, Auggie's 5th grade English teacher, Mr. Browne, introduces the kids to precepts and tasks them with coming up with some of their own. 

In her companion book, 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts, Palacio includes a precept for every day of the year, some of which were submitted by Wonder readers, along with peeks at our favorite characters' lives after Wonder ends.  This seems like a fitting book to share as we step into 2015 and below are a few of the precepts you'll find within its pages.

If, like me, you can't help but want more of Auggie, Mr. Browne, and the wonder of Wonder, Palacio wrote The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story, a kindle short story that became one of our best-selling kindle children's books of 2014.  In 2015 we have another one to look forward to, titled Pluto: A Wonder Story (available February 10).   Here's hoping your new year starts off with books you already love and the joy of discovering new ones.

 

 

 


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Graphic Novel Friday: End of Year Faves

Last week, we looked at the Best of 2014 in comics and graphic novels as selected by our editors: 20 outstanding collections and original works from indie to superhero. There are so many comics published in a year, however, that one list, no matter how comprehensive, can cover them all. So in our last Graphic Novel Friday of 2014, here are 10 more selections that are worth a spotlight (along with quick commentary by yours truly).

Top 10 Favorites in Comics and Graphic Novels

  1. Here by Richard McGuire: Maybe the most ambitious graphic novel of 2014: thousands of years’ worth of stories collide in a single room. The result is a story that is page-turning but benefits from page-lingering.
  2. Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Nathan Fairbairn: An homage to Watchmen turns into something far, far greater (also available via comiXology).
  3. Doctors by Dash Shaw: What if we could visit the recently deceased in the afterlife—and what if they didn’t want to be contacted?
  4. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola: Mignola returns to tell and illustrate one of Hellboy’s darkest, best adventures yet.
  5. Black Science by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera: A family accidentally becomes reality-hopping explorers in this breathless science fiction narrative.
  6. Megahex by Simon Hanselmann: Anthropomorphic characters and one drug-addled witch come together to…torture their roommate.
  7. The Complete Elfquest Vol. 1 by Wendy and Richard Pini: Cutesy elves with incredible abs battle great evil in this mammoth collection.
  8. Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Alburquerque: A new United States President must not only defend his cabinet from conspiracy, but also aliens hovering above who are developing a space weapon. No sweat.
  9. Hinterkind Vol. 1 by Ian Edington and Francesco Trifogli: Fans of Fables will appreciate the narrative inversion: Humanity lies in hiding from the mystical creatures that have taken over Earth.
  10. X-Men: Battle of the Atom by Brian Michael Bendis and various: I am a mark for time travel/alternate future X-Men stories, and this one delivers with aplomb.

How about you, Omni readers?  What were your favorites from 2014?

--Alex

P.S. Happy New Year!

 

Guest Post: Two "Obscure Geniuses"--Alan Turing & Kurt Gödel

Yannick Grannec is the author of The Goddess of Small Victories, her debut novel about the life and marriage of one of the greatest mathematicians of the last century, Kurt Gödel. In this guest essay, she compares the lives of Gödel and legendary cryptanalyst Alan Turing, whose creation of the Turing Machine is featured in the new film, The Imitation Game (based on the book, Alan Turing: The Enigma).


YannickGGödel let himself die of hunger fearing he would be poisoned; Turing committed suicide swallowing arsenic.

Both were scientists of the absolute; both were anti-conformist and tormented. Both were obscure geniuses: idols of their colleagues, and unknown to the general public. Both were precocious founders of logic, the mathematical language on which deductive reasoning is based. Their tragic destinies and their pioneering works speak to each other, and yet they never even met. But the cursor on your smart phone is in fact the combined souls of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel that still quivers a century after they were born.

In the thirties, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing posed to themselves the same question: “Can we find a universal procedure to prove that a mathematical theory is true or false?”

They each, in their own way, answered “no”: there exist some mathematical truths that cannot be proven. In order to work around this “incompleteness” statement, Turing connected formal logic to a mechanical model. He created the Turing Machine, which is a theoretical algorithm that suggests that a human brain functions just like a calculator. Therefore, a calculator can “imitate” the logic of human reasoning, but also address its limitations.

Goddess-Cover-252x390For Gödel, the human mind is more than a Turing Machine, more than a complex connection between choices. The uniqueness of mind and matter is, for Gödel, a mere cultural prejudice. Gödel devoted his life to prove, through philosophy and mathematics, that there is “something else.” Turing, meanwhile, applied his discoveries to the resolution of the messages coded by the Enigma machine, built by the Germans to encipher and decipher coded messages.

Gödel ends up a paranoid recluse, and Turing is forced into secrecy and is persecuted—a sordid and pathetic end for two brilliant men.

Paradoxically, because they hit some limits in their scientific approaches, Gödel and Turing opened a new era that appears to us today without limits: that of computer science and artificial intelligence. The language of today’s computers owe their origin to that very logic that our two geniuses had mishandled. The true/false dichotomy has become “1/0,” the binary code.

The irony of their asymptotic destinies is that they both lived in Princeton without ever crossing paths. However, in that incredible intellectual and scientific milieu, they both rubbed shoulders with two other giants of scientific history: Albert Einstein and John Von Neumann. In light of the urgency caused by the war and the hatred of Nazism, the combined discoveries of these two geniuses led to the creation of the type of artificial intelligence necessary for deciphering the secret codes of the enemy and the making of the atomic bomb.

There is no doubt that if they were to meet today, Gödel and Turing would debate the question of the nature of human thought and intelligence and their potential incarnations, for better or worse—somewhere between your smartphone and nuclear arms.

-Yannick Grannec

~

Yannick Grannec is a graphic designer, freelance art director, professor of fine arts, and enthusiast of mathematics. Her debut novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, a fictionalized account of the lives and marriage of Kurt and Adele Gödel, was published in late 2014. She lives in Saint-Paul de Vence, France.

Pharos Editions: The Art of Small-Batch Publishing

Pharos EditionsWho doesn't like finding treasure? Who doesn't like cool books? (Nobody here, hopefully.)

Pharos Editions does. For just over two years, Pharos has dedicated themselves to "bringing to light out-of-print, lost or rare books of distinction." Their strategy is simple and unique:

  1. Reach out to an interesting writers for books that have been important to their lives and careers.
  2. Go get the book.
  3. Have the authors write introductions for the new editions.
  4. Publish beautiful books. But not too many.

So in addition to great books that have often been unavailable for years, you get a little bit of insight into the authors that pick them. Sometimes it's intuitive: Sherman Alexie chose a book about basketball; David Shields took a book about death. Sometimes it's not: Ursula LeGuin selected a story about a boy who runs away from "civilization" with a Native American friend, while The Simpsons creator Matt Groening resurrected a forgotten noir classic from the 30s. In any case, the introductions will solve any mystery.

Enjoy this excerpt from Wild author Cheryl Strayed's introduction to The Lists of the Past, and see more selections from Pharos Editions below.

 


The Lists of the PastThe Lists of the Past Introduction
by Cheryl Strayed

It began as things do these days: with a Facebook post. My friend the poet Cate Marvin wrote of her admiration for a writer I’d never heard of, a woman named Julie Hayden. Cate had assigned one of Hayden’s stories to the students in her college class. When I emailed her and asked her to tell me more, she responded with an urgent tone, imploring me to read Hayden’s work, and included a link to a New Yorker fiction podcast of Lorrie Moore reading Hayden’s story “Day-Old Baby Rats.” The story had been published in the New Yorker in January 1972 and three years later it was collected in Hayden’s only book—the long out-of-print The Lists of the Past.

I clicked play and listened. I sat very still and half held my breath. I was rapt.

In the silence that followed the last line of the story I typed writer Julie Hayden into my computer’s search function and was immediately lead to the illuminating essay by S. Kirk Walsh that is reprinted here (it was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books). Walsh’s piece begins with a retelling of a story essentially like my own—the almost accidental discovery of a writer who had all but been forgotten. Like me, Walsh was stunned. But more, she was compelled to dig deeper. In moving, sad, fascinating detail, Walsh shares details of Hayden’s short life that she was able to glean after interviewing Hayden’s younger sister, Patsy Hayden Blake, as well as Elizabeth Macklin, Charles McGrath, and Daniel Menaker, Hayden’s colleagues at the New Yorker, where she was employed for twelve years in the 1960s and 1970s.

A graduate of Radcliffe, the daughter of a poet who was both popular and esteemed—her mother, Phyllis McGinley won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1961 for her book Times Three—Hayden committed herself to fiction writing early on, taking notes about the things she felt and observed and crafting stories. In 1970, when Hayden was 31, the first story in this volume, “Walking With Charlie,” appeared in the New Yorker and in the four years that followed another nine of her stories—all of them in this collection—were published there. They, along with two previously unpublished stories, compose The Lists of the Past, which was published by The Viking Press to critical acclaim in 1976.

The acclaim was well-deserved. Hayden’s stories are unlike anything I’ve ever read. Her writing is original and bold, plainspoken and poetic, haunting and profound, merciless and tender. There’s a cavernous loneliness at the core of her work—one that echoes the difficulty of her short life, no doubt—but also a vast beauty, one that I believe must also reflect her inner world. It’s this intelligent, emotional depth and breadth that ultimately convinced me to select this book for re-issue in The Pharos Editions. Hayden isn’t just a dazzling writer. She’s one who has done the real work of great literature: she has shown us to ourselves. She has reminded us again and anew what it means to be human.

Hayden died of kidney failure at the age of 42, five years after The Lists of the Past was published. By then she’d suffered the death of her mother, breast cancer, alcoholism and a long struggle with anxiety that grew debilitating in the final years of her life. What remains is this book, born again in your hands. I hope you’ll treasure it.

 

 More Books from Pharos Editions:

Reapers of the Dust: A Prairie Chronicle

Reapers of the Dust: A Prairie Chronicle by Lois Phillips Hudson

Selected and introduced by David Guterson

"Lois Phillips Hudson is recognized as a major chronicler of America’s agricultural heartland during the grim years of the Great Depression. Reapers of the Dust, now reprinted for a new generation of readers, vividly evokes that difficult time. From Hudson’s childhood in North Dakota spring these unusual, moving stories of simple, joyful days, of continuing battles with hostile elements, and of a family’s new life as migrant workers on the West Coast."

 
A German Picturesque

A German Picturesque by Jason Schwartz

Selected and introduced by Ben Marcus

"Haunting in their tone, brilliant in their images–very like fantastic presences moving across glass–the twenty-one fictions in this startling debut collection seem both inexplicably familiar and like no writing we have seen before."

 
The Dead Girl

The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom

Selected and introduced by David Shields

"Melanie Thernstrom’s senior thesis was entitled 'Mistakes of Metaphor', an account of the mysterious disappearance and murder of her best friend, Bibi Lee. That thesis, reworked as The Dead Girl, was published by Pocket Books in 1990 to major critical acclaim."

 
The Lists of the Past

The Lists of the Past by Julie Hayden

Selected and introduced by Cheryl Strayed

"In selecting The Lists of the Past as her nomination for reissue by Pharos Editions, Cheryl Strayed was moved by “the intelligent, emotional depth and breadth” of the stories, all but two of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. Hayden’s New York hums with eccentric observation, humor and grit."

 
The Tattooed Heart & My Name is Rose

The Tattooed Heart & My Name is Rose by Theodora Keogh

Selected and introduced by Lidia Yuknavitch

"Two short novels of lust, love and the intimacies of an examined life by one of the 20th century’s most overlooked prose stylists."

 
Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life

Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life by Raymond Mungo

Selected and introduced by Dana Spiotta

"A year in the life of a back-to-the-land hippie commune in late 60’s rural Vermont. Total Loss Farm attracted widespread attention, critical and commercial success in 1970, when the “back to the land” hippie commune movement first emerged."

 
Crazy Weather

Crazy Weather by Charles L. McNichols

Selected and introduced by Ursula K. Le Guin

"In four days of 'glory-hunting' with an Indian comrade, South Boy, who is white, realizes that he must choose between two cultures. Crazy Weather is a unique, much-revered young adult tale of American identity that serves as 'an important document in our cultural history.'"

 
Inside Moves

Inside Moves by Todd Walton

Selected and introduced by Sherman Alexie

"Jerry Maxwell and his good friend Roary are both handicapped. They divide their time between Max’s bar in San Francisco and the bleachers of the Oakland Sports Complex to cheer on the Golden State Warriors. Together the two set out to make Jerry’s dream of playing professional basketball a reality."

 
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris

Selected and introduced by Jonathan Evison

"A poor dentist scrapes by in 19th century San Francisco. When his wife Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery, the pair set in motion a shocking chain of events that take them from riches to rags and, finally, to murder."

 
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas

Selected and introduced by Matt Groening

"Dick is a Depression-era drifter searching for his son and runaway wife in the seedy underbelly of 1930′s Los Angeles. You Play the Black was a bestseller when originally published in 1938 and is a noir classic."

 
The Land of Plenty

The Land of Plenty by Robert Cantwell

Selected and introduced by Jess Walter

"A strike at a lumber mill in a sleepy Washington town pits bosses against workers in this gripping epic of American labor. Land of Plenty created a political firestorm when it was published to great success in 1935."

 

Graphic Novel Friday: Best of the Year

Our editors pushed up their ruby quartz glasses and debated a Top 20 list with the fierceness of Black Panther and the eloquence of Cypher. What follows below is a collection of New York Times bestsellers alongside blockbuster reads and indie darlings. Of course, no list can cover everything, so we hope Omni readers will share their picks in the comments section below.

Best of the Year 2014 in Comics & Graphic Novels

  1. Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast
  2. Saga Deluxe Edition Volume 1 HC by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  3. The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by The Oatmeal and Matthew Inman
  4. Batman: A Visual History by Matthew K. Manning and Frank Miller
  5. Seconds: A Graphic Novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley

And that’s just our Top Five! Find 15 more selections (and more highlights in other categories) in our Best of the Year store!

--Alex

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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