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Drinks with Ben Dolnick, Author of "At the Bottom of Everything"

An interview series in which Amazon Editors meet authors at their favorite bars.


During a surprise thunderstorm, No. 7's cozy, Edison bulb-lit aesthetic was the perfect hideaway from the rain and lightning. The restaurant's classic look — dark wood, tiled floors, vaulted ceilings — is starting to feel scarcer and scarcer in Fort Greene, an old Brooklyn neighborhood that is seeing a lot of change and development since the installation of the massive Barclay's Center just a few blocks away.

This was the place picked by Ben Dolnick, author of the new book At the Bottom of Everything, a swift but haunting meditation on guilt and friendship. Though Everything is a fairly dark novel, Dolnick was cheery and energetic. I spoke with him about his neighborhood, his book, and how he wrote in the dark.

Why this bar?

Most importantly, it's around the block from my house. So it's where I stumble by default when I need a bar. It's weirdly non-crowded and the French fries — as we are discovering — are delicious. I feel like Fort Greene is one of those neighborhoods that seems like it should have excellent bars and excellent restaurants and it weirdly doesn't. There are very few places that lives up to the mental ideal of the neighborhood.

How long have been you living in Fort Greene?

We moved here right when I graduated from college, which was 2004, so I've been here nine years.

And you wrote all three of your novels in Fort Greene?

I started my first one in college, but yeah, basically.

So what are you drinking?

This is a Solid Gold, which is some combination of things I don't remember: amaretto, honey...

I think there's rye?

Yeah, they change their menu a lot, which is one of the things I like. I think what won me over was that I was here once, sitting at the bar, saying to my friend, "No I'm not going to drink tonight. I'm a little bit sick." The bartender, without saying anything, appeared with a warm cup of tea and honey and just gave it to me for free. So I was like, Wow, this place is mine.

That's very neighborhood-y.


So tell me about the book.

At the Bottom of Everything is my third novel. It's about two guys, one of whom kind of goes off the rails and disappears in India. The one who doesn't go off the rails has to go bring him home. They share in common a terrible secret that I can't get into without ruining the book.

The book is largely about guilt and how people deal with guilt. Why did you want to write a book about this? Are you a guilty person?

It's weird. I don't think so. I haven't done anything that terrible in my life, but it does seem to be a preoccupation of mine. When I was young and in college, freshman or sophomore year, I was like, I'm gonna write a novel, and in it, guilt will be embodied physically. I was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time. Guilt will be a monster, a very physical version of guilt.

So for some reason, I have always been vaguely obsessed with it. But I can't trace it to any particular thing in my life.

That's probably a good thing.

Right. Better than the alternative.

The novel starts in D.C. and quickly goes to India. Why did you start it in D.C. and move it to India?

I grew up in D.C., so it's a landscape I know. You know how during the [presidential] campaign, Mitt Romney went to Michigan and said, "The trees are the right height here" and everyone made fun of him? I actually thought that was a very beautiful, weird sentiment. Whenever I get off the train in D.C., I think, The trees are the right height here. I know it's not a special city at all, but just because I grew up there, the sidewalks and the trees and the air — I know this stuff.

Does it feel more familiar to you than Fort Greene does?

Not more familiar, but I think you need a little distance from something in order to evoke it on the page. Or at least I do. It feels a little more vivid and precious because it's a little bit gone from me. My parents don't live there anymore so it's a little bit of a lost world to me.

So India.

India — when I started this novel I knew the guy was going to go crazy and disappear somewhere, I just didn't know where. I thought it was Thailand for a while, then Mexico, maybe Japan.

Somewhere distant.

And somewhere where there would be potential for the spiritual aspect of the meltdown. My brother at the time was working for the Associated Press, and he was a reporter in New Delhi, so I went to visit him. The novel was brewing in my mind, and at some point during the visit, I was just like, This is an excellent place to get lost. You could really get into a lot of trouble here. It's interesting and bustling and busy. If your mental state was at all off, you would be in such deep trouble in India.

Which, for a novelist is great. Bad news, how excellent!

If your brother was stationed in a different foreign country, do you think the novel could've taken place there? Is the point that it's distant and spiritual, or that it's specific to India?

No, I think it could take place other places. India ended up working. It wasn't just that he was a reporter there. His knowing people there meant I could email people and say, "Explain to me if a spiritual guru was running a quasi-rip-off thing, how would that work?" Even really mundane stuff, like, "What are those little cars that look like little Flintstones vehicles?" But as a literary thing, it could've been other places.

The most resonant parts of the book for me was toward the end — without spoiling anything — when the characters are in total darkness. You captured it in a way that was kind of scary and kind of foreign. Is this something you've experienced?

Oh, no. That experience has a really mundane corollary. I wrote that part of the book in my bathroom, which is the only room in my apartment that doesn't get light. I went in there, put a towel under the door, turned my laptop's brightness completely off, and put on headphones and played, for some reason — I don't know why these albums exist — an album on Spotify that is fire sounds. The first track is like "Crackling Fire" and the second track is "Bonfire."

That actually sounds kind of nice.

It is really nice! And for some reason I have had it in my head — I might've read it somewhere — that you can start to hear sounds that sound vaguely fire-esque when you're in a cave. I read a little bit about cave rescue for the book. So I went in the dark, put on the album, and wrote. An amazing way to get typos is to have no light at all.

Oh, so you were literally typing in the dark?

Yeah. So I did that for a couple days.

Whole days?

Well I wasn't sleeping in there. But whole work days.

You were in the dark for eight hours?


Did you... go a little crazy?

No, no. I had to walk the dog, so I had some sanity mixed in. But that's the closeset I've experienced to that, which is not that close, obviously.

Was it still kind of scary? It's pretty scary in the book.

I'm a fairly anxious person, but my anxiety — like most people in New York — relates to what is essentially stupid stuff: social stupid, professional stuff —

— the subway.

Yeah, really stupid shit. So I wanted the book to build a situation where it'd make sense to be anxious. A real-life, external situations that explains all of the horrible feelings that go on in an ordinary person.

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Weekend Flashback: A big dose of nonfiction, stepping into a book for a day, Banned Books Week, and... Jim Carrey?

Because the week can get hectic... Here's what you might have missed recently on Omni: Editorial picks for Banned Book Week defenses, Mari and Jon putting down the books and getting out into nature, a biographer compiles a list of books his subject loved, and, of course, interviews. But wait, what's Jim Carrey doing here?

Banned Books Week For Banned Books Week, the team stood up for seven great books, with each of us on the Books editorial team writing a defense of one book.

For us, cracking a new spine, turning another page, and letting ourselves be transported by the written word is crucial to our happiness. Which is why it's so painful to hear the words "challenged," "banned," and "burned." Read More
Banned Books Week YA Seira had a three-way tie choosing which YA books to defend during Banned Books Week.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Suicide, sex, drugs. Okay, I get why Thirteen Reasons Why might make some parents uncomfortable, but these are topics that frequent teenage minds and hallways. The story is intriguing: Clay Jensen receives a box of audiotapes recorded by Hannah--a classmate and love interest who recently committed suicide.  The tapes take him on a journey of the 13 incidents--and the people who perpetrated them--that led to her decision to end her life... Read More

Thank You For Your Service Chris spoke with author David Finkel about his personal and moving book Thank You for Your Service.

"My research really started when I embedded with the 2-16 infantry battalion during its fifteen-month deployment to eastern Baghdad during the Iraq War "surge" of 2007-2008. The story of what happened to those soldiers became my first book, The Good Soldiers, and The Good Soldiers is what allowed and informed Thank You For Your Service, which is the second volume of the story." Read More
Thank You For Your Service Jon dove in and asked the hard- hitting questions of controverisal scientific author Richard Dawkins.

With his latest release, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Dawkins pulls back the curtain on his upbringing, eductaion, and the events that led him to a career as a groundbreaking geneticist, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at his early research techniques and ideas. He stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk .... Read More
Erica Jong Sara and Erica Jong discussed the long-lasting effects of her 1973 book Fear of Flying.

"Fear of Flying has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide over four decades. There have been frankly sexual books before and since [see chart below], but this one is still considered groundbreaking. To what do you attribute its staying power?"... Read More
BOOKTITLE7 Mari recapped (pun intended) a Mushroom Hunters' trip with author Langdon Cook.

Our whole editorial team got an unusual invitation: Langdon was headed out to the south end of the Olympic Peninsula, hunting the first chanterelles of the season with two of the pro pickers profiled in his book. They'd be shadowed by a crew shooting a new PBS show called Food Forward. Would we like to come? This was like being asked if we wanted to step into the book for a day, to meet the characters and experience the hunt--an opportunity too rare to miss... Read More
The Longest Ride Chris got to know bestselling author Nicholas Sparks a little better.

What's next for you?

I have two feature films based on my novels slated to go into production in February 2014, a TV pilot shooting this November, and I’m working on writing two novels simultaneously. Read More
David Foster Wallace Kevin presented David Foster Wallace biographer D.T. Max's collection of 10 books DFW loved.

D.T. Max's biography of the late author David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, was released in paperback in August. To celebrate, D.T. sent along a diverse list of books Wallace enjoyed. Read More
Jason Mott Chris learned that The Returned author Jason Mott's current obsession is also his favorite method of procrastination,

Jason Mott has a lot to be happy about. His novel The Returned received multiple starred reviews. It hit the New York Times best seller list. And ABC Studios picked up television rights, with the show already slated for the 2013-2014 midseason... Read More
How Roland Rolls Seira introduced actor/comedian Jim Carrey as a debut children's book author.

"I wanted to be a part of that wonderful moment where parents read story books at night. When there's nothing else but you and the person you love most sharing a common experience. I also think that beautiful illustrations capture everyone's imagination. And at a very early age a silly little picture book can introduce kids to the fantasy world that worlds and thoughts create." Read More

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Jim Carrey: Author

HowRolandRolls250 JimCarey250Jim Carrey is best known for his many hit comedies, but now he's joining the ranks of fellow actors like Julianne Moore and Billy Crystal, by becoming a picture book author.

Carrey's book, How Roland Rolls, is the story of a wave who comes to understand that he is not alone to rise and crash, but rather part of the larger ocean.  It's a reassuring metaphor and Roland is a fun character with a personality befitting his creator. 

We had a chance to ask Carrey a few questions about his latest endeavor off the big screen, something he is clearly very passionate about:

Q: What made you want to write a picture book versus something for older kids?

JC: I wanted to be a part of that wonderful moment where parents read story books at night. When there's nothing else but you and the person you love most sharing a common experience. I also think that beautiful illustrations capture everyone's imagination. And at a very early age a silly little picture book can introduce kids to the fantasy world that worlds and thoughts create.

Q: How does the role of author compare to that of actor?

JC: Acting is a very communal art form. There is surprisingly little control over the final product. The role of author seems more direct to me. An opportunity to play writer, director, and ensemble all at once. It's also like playing the part of midwife to something that might never have been born without you.  It's primitive in a narrative sense like telling a story around the campfire with love, levity and warm intent.

Q: You’ve said that story is “the way we order life, the way we’d like it to be” – if you could live out one story, what would it be and why?  

JC: Crime and Punishment (joke). I would be Howard Roark and not Peter Keating in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I've already lived out The Great Gatsby and still I beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Q: What do you most want the kids and parents who read Roland Rolls to take away from the story?

JC: What I want children and parents to take away most from How Roland Rolls is a knowledge of their larger self and a sense of safety for both knowing that as they turn off the lights and go to their own beds there will never really be any separation between them.

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10 Books David Foster Wallace Loved


D.T. Max's biography of the late author David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, was released in paperback in August. To celebrate, D.T. sent along a diverse list of books Wallace enjoyed.

D.T. Max:

David Foster Wallace once made a surprising list of his ten favorite books.

Was Wallace joking? Partly. Alligator was a childhood favorite, as his sister remembers but Fear of Flying? And as a mature adult and author the novels he loved tended more to high art. In published essays and even more in letters to friends and editors, he declared his real passions. For instance, in 1990 the wrote the novelist David Markson: "...I’ve read and reread every word of Pynchon, Barth, Delllo, Puig, Cortazar, and Jean Rhys — my own little Olympus."

Here are ten of DFW's particular favorites:

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New Chapters for "The Billionaire and the Mechanic"

The Billionaire and the Mechanic Whether or not you follow boating as a sport, you've likely caught the news that history was made this week when the America's Cup was awarded to American billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA. The 19-day match (the longest in the competition's 162 years) ended in a 9-8 win against New Zealand, marking a stunning comeback for Oracle, who won 8 straight races to overcome a 1-8 score.

Why are we book people so excited about a sports story?

In May this year, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Julian Guthrie published The Billionaire and the Mechanic, the story of how Ellison found an unlikely partner in car mechanic Norbert Bajurin and together they prepared for exactly this moment in time.

The timing was perfect; the book came out just in time for this year's competition. But, of course, now there's so much more of the story to tell... and Guthrie intends to tell it. The paperback and Kindle editions of The Billionaire and the Mechanic, due out the end of November, will include two new chapters covering this extraordinary development.

The paperback edition is already available to preorder here. And, in the spirit of the moment, we've rounded up three more books that boating fans might enjoy.

Grand Ambition
by G. Bruce KnectGrand Ambition


Sailing on the Edge
by Bob Fischer
Sailing on the Edge
It's Simply...SAILING
by Cali Gilbert
Sailing on the Edge

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Amazon Asks: Nicholas Sparks


Nicholas Sparks' The Longest Ride was published just over a week ago and will soon be landing on best seller lists near you. We caught up with the mega-best-selling author to learn a little bit more him.

Describe your book in 10 words or less?  

Epic love story, crossed with college-girl-meets-cowboy.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Loved Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat.

Favorite books of all time? 

Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin, The Power Broker by Robert Caro, The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy, and Lisi’s Story by Stephen King.

Book that made you want to become a writer?   

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Catch-22  by Joseph Heller, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and all of the works of Stephen King.

Most memorable author moment?   

Hearing Warner Books’ offer to publish my first novel, The Notebook.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?  

Uncanny good luck.

Sparks-Nicholas-2013aWhat are you obsessed with now?

My Foundation (

What are you stressed about now? 

Wondering how deep the creative well really is.

What are you psyched about now?

Readers’ reactions to my latest novel, The Longest Ride.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My wife of course, but I would hardly refer to her as a possession. As far as material items go, perhaps the ring I recently bought for her.

Pen Envy - Book you wish you'd written?

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

What's next for you?

I have two feature films based on my novels slated to go into production in February 2014, a TV pilot shooting this November, and I’m working on writing two novels simultaneously.

What's the last dream you remember?

I’d rather not say.

Favorite line?

Plan and prepare for the downside, while working hard and intelligently . . . and the upside will take care of itself.

Favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?  

Reading! I read 150 books a year.

What do you collect? 


Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

A letter from a 14 year-old girl, written in such a distinctive, elegant and polished voice that it made me feel as if I had known this girl her entire life!


(Photo Credit: Nina Subin)


>Visit the Nicholas Sparks author page.


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Some Things Never Change: "Fear of Flying" Still Soars

Erica Jong

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying, in which a 30-ish woman seizes and celebrates her power as a sensual woman. For women of a certain age (which would include this writer, who, by the way, hates that expression!), it was a book that changed our lives. But how do young women feel about  the book and about Jong, whose daughter, the 30something writer Molly Jong Fast, often introduces affectionately  as "my mother the sex object" or "my mother, the feminist icon"? I talked with Jong about what her book means to several generations.

Sara Nelson: Fear of Flying has sold more than 20 million copies, worldwide, over four decades. There have been frankly sexual books before and since [see chart below], but this one is still considered groundbreaking. To what do you attribute its staying power?

Erica Jong: I think people love books that help them change their lives, in whatever way. Books that give them courage. In the era that I grew up in, we had many novels about women who were in scary, awful marriages, couldn't break free, couldn't imagine their lives in a different pattern... so in a way I was rebelling against that when I wrote Fear of Flying. I wanted to write about a woman who changed her life. A lot of the books we read about women, the women were either bodies or minds, never the two together. I remember thinking I wanted to write a book about a woman who was very smart and very sexual. There weren't a lot of them out there.

SN: What have readers said to you over the years about Fear of Flying?

EJ: Very often I'll hear from men who say 'Whenever I saw that book on a woman's night table, I knew I was going to get lucky.' But women have often said that the book gave them a lot of relief. "I thought I was a freak," they'll say. "I thought I was a bad girl, because I was having 'bad thoughts' about sex. And then I read this and realized I was normal." Sometimes, I'd be standing there after a reading, and women would come up to me and say, "I remember exactly where I was when I read THAT BOOK' -- and they always said 'THAT BOOK.'" Sometimes, now, when I'm walking through Grand Central Station, someone will notice me and yell out: "Keep on writing." That's nice. That's really nice.

SN: In the novel, a woman named Isadora Wing, discovers she can have 'zipless f#$@,' a/k/a unencumbered sex just for the pleasure of it. That was a revolutionary idea at the time, but maybe today it's a little less shocking. If you were to write a Fear of Flying for the21st century, how would it be different from the original?

EJ: Actually, I don't think it would be all that different, at least not in terms of the broader themes of the novel. Being a woman today is about the same stuff as it was then: embracing your own soul, finding a man (or woman) who celebrates you for who you are, having your own self but also being able to have an intimate relationship with a partner.

Erica Jong was neither the first nor the last author to make waves with the literary Establishment.  Here are some titles that led up to, and out of Fear of Flying.

Chatterley Chatterley
This  sexually graphic tale of a gamekeeper and a wellborn woman challeneged traditional notions of class and sexuality, which was one reason it faced a 30-year road to American publication.  
Portnoy Portnoy
A sexually explicit exploration of a young Jewish boy’s emerging sexuality.
Jong Jong
While most sexually explicit books up to this point were written by men, this debut from a Barnard-trained poet and scholar was the first to discuss women’s sexuality in a conversational, mainstream way. The book has sold 20 million copies over four decades and paved the way for...

Irving's fourth – and some would say, breakthrough – novel was, according to Jong, influenced by Fear of Flying’s frank depiction of sexuality and the examination of the lives of women. Jenny Fields, the protagonist's nurse-mother, conceived him in a kind of zipless manner, after all.
Franzen Franzen
Franzen might protest, but Jong believes that the character of Patty Berglund, the heroine and author of the memoir-inside-a-novel is a Flying-like character for her yearning to break out of a boring, sexually unsatisfying marriage.
James James
The most obvious descendant of Fear of Flying: a mainstream novel that portrays sexuality frankly. But Jong points out that the submissive nature of the heroine is, in fact, anti-Isadora Wing, because she chooses to be a man’s "slave." Regardless, it's hard to imagine that 50 Shades (and its three sequels) could ever have taken off if we hadn’t all experienced some fear of flying.

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Some People Will Get Mad: An Interview with Richard Dawkins

Dawkins_WonderThroughout his storied scientific career, Richard Dawkins has never backed down from big or controversial ideas. Whether he's revolutionizing the discussion over genetics and natural selection (as he did with The Selfish Gene, his landmark 1976 book that also expanded the conversation well beyond the scientific community) or making provocative statements in the debate between atheism and religion, Dawkins has never backed down from a good fight, either. (Check The God Delusion and its more than 2,000 customer reviews for a taste of that fracas.)

With his latest release, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, Dawkins pulls back the curtain on his upbringing, eductaion, and the events that led him to a career as a groundbreaking geneticist, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at his early research techniques and ideas. He stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the memoir (available September 24), as well as other topics--some big, some controversial, but all definitely Dawkins. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Jon Foro: Why did you choose to write a memoir at this point of your career?

Richard Dawkins: I’m getting on a bit, and my mother’s getting on, too—she’s 96—so it was a good opportunity to tap her memories about my childhood. Quite a bit of it is about my childhood. I hope it’s funny, I hope it’s entertaining. And I’ve long wanted to do something like this.

A: You adopted computers early on in your research. Are there affinities between thinking about natural selection and programming computers? It struck me, when you were speaking about hierarchical organization of behavior [a sort of modular set of prioritized actions that governs animal behavior], that it’s like object-oriented programming.

RD: Yes, very much so. And I think that programming computers—quite apart from being useful—does actually help you to think. But when you’re thinking about how animals work, how the brain works ... brains must in some sense be programmed, and probably using the same kind of software tricks. But of course there’s no programmer, it’s done by natural selection and genes--the genes that program development of brains. But in some sense, it’s helpful to think about brains as being computers. But of a very different kind, and having software of a very different kind.

JF: Except that computers can be said to be completely deterministic, whereas humans have the opportunity to override….

RD: [laughs] Do you think?

JF: [laughs nervously] Well, I don’t know. I’m asking you.

RD: Yes, I think philosophically speaking, we’re probably all deterministic. But humans and animals have such complexity that we have the illusion of having a kind of free will that we can override it.

JF: How did the Dawkins Organ fit into your research?

RD: That was a device that I invented for recording animal behavior, when you’re watching an animal behave, or a human for that matter. Well, humans are animals. You want to record what they do, when they do. In the old days, people used to write it down, and then they moved on to keyboards, and the keyboards would sometimes record it onto a moving belt of paper. And it was immensely tedious to decrypt it, to transcribe it. So you want to do it straight onto the computer, and if you’re doing it out in the field, you haven’t got a computer with you—in those days, you didn’t have laptops. So the Dawkins Organ was literally an organ. It played different musical notes. You couldn’t hear them, but they were [recorded] electronically onto the tape. So as you watched an animal doing a whole series of things, you’d press buttons--BEEP boop BOOP boop BOOP BOOP boop BOOP BOOP boop—and each note represented one behavior pattern. And my invention was to write a computer program which could decode this. The computer was programmed to behave like a person with perfect pitch, and listen to the notes, and print out a record of exactly what the animal did when. And the trick was that I used software to work out the pitch of the note. There were no electronics doing that. It was all done in software.

JF: You write a lot about your experience at prep school in this book, and a lot of the social lessons that go along with that. And the theme of the bully pervades your work thereafter in genetics. Did your social experience inform your ideas about The Selfish Gene?

RD: Ah. I never thought of that. It’s true that I ruminate on bullying a fair bit in two of my schools. And I do think that at a certain age, children are pretty barbaric--a Lord of the Flies sort of thing. And it occurrs to me that The Selfish Gene has echoes of that. There is a sense that I suppose it’s true that The Selfish Gene is about… well, I hesitate because a lot of people think that it means that we are selfish or should be selfish. It’s actually that genes are selfish.

JF: And there was another suggested title: The Immortal Gene.

The Immortal Gene might well have been a better title, and it was suggested to me at the time I was writing the book. And perhaps I should have adopted that.

JF: What would you say is the most misunderstood aspect of evolution?

RD: Oh, that it is a process of chance, of blind, random chance. If you think that, as many people do, no wonder they doubt it. Because you’ve only got to look at a living creature to know that it can’t possibly be the result of blind chance. It obviously has to be the result of some non-random process. And it is. And the non-random process is called natural selection. It’s just that people rush to the conclusion that because it’s not designed, the only alternative is random chance, which it isn’t. Natural selection is an elegant substitute for random chance and for conscious design.

JF: The other side of that coin would be the supposition that evolution is a path forward toward some goal.

RD: Exactly. And that’s also quite erroneous. It’s not aimed at any particular goal. But with hindsight, the illusion of design is pervasive. And so the “progress”—I use the word advisedly—towards an eye or an ear or a brain or a heart or a kidney, you can see it as “progressive” towards something that works well for what it does. But it’s not aimed to a distant target the way humans might aim at a distant target in formulating some plan.

JF: Does technology or civilization change the evolutionary game for humans?

RD: Yes, possibly. I mean it is perfectly possible that human technology can take over the reins. We’ve already been doing that in selecting of domestic animals and plants for centuries, even millennia. And so you can set out to improve the milk yield of cows--that has been achieved by humans taking control of selection. Not natural selection in this case—artificial selection.

The other half of the Darwinian equation is mutation: the production of the variation that selection can act upon. And humans have hitherto not taken control of that, but they’re going to in the future. They’ve already started inducing mutations.

JF: Natural selection is not random. Mutation is random.

RD: Yes. Mutation is random, but it may not be in the future, when humans take control of it.

JF: You’ve been described as a “strident atheist.” Is that a position you took intentionally, or were you surprised at the ardency of the reactions that you’ve received?

RD: I am an atheist. I’m not a strident atheist. It’s almost as though the word strident is just tacked onto the word atheist automatically. “He’s an atheist, he must be strident.” I think people actually may even hear stridency when it isn’t there because they’re so used to the idea that religion gets a free pass. You don’t criticize religion. Why don’t you? Because you just don’t. Well, people got so used to that, that if they hear an even mild and very unstrident criticism of religion, they hear it as strident.

It’s an attack. But strident would be the voice of a Hitler, a voice of a revivalist preacher who’s shrieking at the audience, that their sins will find them out and they’re going to hell and things. That’s strident. But I talk in sober, measured tones, not strident voice. [smiles]

JF: You describe yourself as a child—you were religious, and maybe a little bit superstitious, as well (there’s a funny bit about describing the ghosts that you imagined were chasing you). When did that start to change for you?

RD: Well, I suppose in my teens. I think most children inherit the religion of their elders, their school, the culture in which they’re brought up. I was brought up in Anglican culture, Anglican schools.

JF: Do you think there's a possibility that the religious urge is genetic?

 RD: Yes. I think there’s a distinct possibility. After all, it’s certainly true that anthropologists, looking around the world, find something like religion in all cultures. That seems to be a human universal. It’s not a human universal in the sense that everyone has it. In the same sense that heterosexual urges… it’s a human universal, but not everyone has it. I think I prefer to say that there is some psychological predisposition in the human brain which leads it to become religious under the right circumstances, and many cultures provide the right circumstances.

JF: How remarkable would you say Darwin's achievement is, considering the tools at his disposal when he did his work?

Darwin’s achievement was to explain a colossal amount that was totally mysterious before. Darwin explained the rich diversity of life, the complexity of life, the beauty of life, and above all, the remarkably powerful illusion of design. And he displayed all that with a truly remarkably simple idea. An idea so simple that we have to wonder why on earth nobody thought of it before the 19th Century.

I contrast it with the achievement of, say, Newton two centuries earlier. Optics, gravity, the laws of mechanics, calculus.  And it never even occurred to Newton or Aristotle or any of the great philosophers to just explain what living things are, why they’re here, why they’re so complicated. And I think the problem may be that the true explanation is so simple. It can’t be right! Something as complicated as life has got to be explained by a designer. And I think that may be why nobody got it until Darwin, and nobody got it until the 19th century. When you get it—when you understand it—it’s so simple. As Huxley said when he closed The Origin of Species, “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!” I think that’s an appropriate reaction.

JF: Your memoir leads up to the publication of The Selfish Gene. Is there a volume two in the works, and when might we expect it?

RD: There is volume two. This was originally going to be all one book, taking me up to the present. When I got halfway through, I think I realized that the second half was going to have to be rather different, anyway. The Selfish Gene did provide a very natural watershed, and it would have seemed like two books. And so I asked the publishers whether it would be OK to split it, and they were quite pleased with the idea. And I’m very pleased with the idea.


An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is available September 24, 2013.


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"Their War Had Become an After-War" - David Finkel Discusses "Thank You for Your Service"

519pIIEpK4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some books just sneak up on you and you're never the same after. I'd heard very little about David Finkel's Thank You for Your Service before reading it, and I hadn't read his previous book, The Good Soldiers, so my expectations were muted going into it. That changed quickly. This book is so personal, so moving, that I devoured it. Although the subject matter is difficult, you grow with the book as you read. One might even expect it to be a little dry and boringit is not. David Finkel's nonfiction account of soldiers returning from combat is one of the best books I've read in a long time. I'll leave you with this blurb from author Katherine Boo, who couldn't have summarized my reading of the book (and hopefully yours) any better:

“I’m urging everyone I know to give Thank You for Your Service just a few pages, a few minutes out of their busy lives. The families honored in this urgent, important book will take it from there.” —Katherine Boo, National Book Award–winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Read on for an interview with David Finkel  


Chris Schluep: Describe your research. How much time did you spend with the returned soldiers in the book?

David Finkel: The short answer is a year and a half, but the more accurate answer is ever since early 2007. I say that because my research really started when I embedded with the 2-16 infantry battalion during its fifteen-month deployment to eastern Baghdad during the Iraq War “surge” of 2007-2008. The story of what happened to those soldiers became my first book, The Good Soldiers, and The Good Soldiers is what allowed and informed Thank You For Your Service, which is the second volume of the story. In Iraq, I was with Adam Schumann on the day he so guiltily left the war, and Tausolo Aieti on the day he was blown up and his dreams began. I met Nic DeNinno there and was there on the day that James Doster died. After The Good Soldiers was published in 2009, it became clear that the story was only partly told. So many of the soldiers, home now, and so many of their families, were tipping over so many edges. Their war had become an after-war, and so I began traveling to Kansas, where the 2-16 is based, to see what I might be able to write. That brings me back to the short answer of eighteen months, which was how long I spent with the Schumanns, the Aietis, the DeNinnos, the surviving family of James Doster, and the rest of the people documented in Thank You For Your Service. That’s how long it took for me to feel confident that the story I’d be writing would feel true to a reader and true to them as well.


CS: When did you decide that Thank You For Your Service should be the title? Was it always the working title? What were your thoughts behind naming it that?

DF: I had a different title in mind when I was writing the book. Let’s just say it had the phrase “suicide room” in it, and when I mentioned it to someone at the publishing house, the reaction was: “That’s terrific. By the way, are you trying to put us out of business?” Or something like that. The reaction was better when I suggested Thank You For Your Service. Everyone liked it immediately – my editor, my agent, the folks in publicity -- except, for some time, me. I was concerned that people would think I was being sarcastic, or ironic, or bitter, or that I was expressing my own sugary gratitude. Instead of it being a title that would reflect the journalism inside the covers, I worried that it would instead be seen as reflecting an opinion of mine, and I’ve tried hard in Thank You For Your Service to keep any hint of my opinion out of the work. What finally turned it for me was coming up with an answer that, if I were asked about the title, would neatly explain my intentions: These are some of the people you’re thanking, and this is what you’re thanking them for.


CS: Did your opinion of the war and the people in it change between writing The Good Soldiers and writing this book?

DF: Well, I try hard to keep my opinions out of my work, and I’m reluctant to bring opinion into the mix now. To me, the emphasis should be on the soldiers and their families because they were – and are – the ones in the midst of it. Can I recast the question to: Have their opinions changed between coming home from the war in 2008 and now? The answer: absolutely, although I can only speak anecdotally, based on the people I’ve spent time with. It’s worth emphasizing that they are among the wounded ones and that most of the people deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan are unwounded and presumably doing fine. Among the subset of the mentally wounded, though, which has been estimated at between 20 and 30 percent of the two million U.S. troops who have been deployed into the two wars, which works out to roughly 500,000 or so people, one of the profound changes in them is reflected in this line from the book: “while the truth of war is that it’s always about loving the guy next to you, the truth of the after-war is that you’re on your own.” In other words, in addition to the grief and guilt so many of these people carry, there’s also a widening sense of isolation and lonesomeness, which has led to an ever-deepening wondering of what their war was all about. Their initial sense of mission is largely gone, replaced by in some cases anger and in many cases a churning feeling of bewilderment.


CS: How did writing the book change you?

DF: Since I’m now nearly seven years older than when I began these books, maybe these changes would have happened anyway, but I’m probably a little sadder than I used to be, and also more grateful than I used to be. What else? I like ending a day with wine on my front porch more than I used to. I like shenanigans less than I used to. I grew up in a house where the threat of suicide was present for several years, so it's been interesting to revisit that. I think of war now not only intellectually but viscerally. I dream about it sometimes, but not as much as I did. I’m glad my friends now include soldiers, and that their friends now include someone like me. 


CS: Who specifically would you hope would read the book? Congressmen? The president? Soldiers returning from war? Everyday citizens? Why?

DF: After The Good Soldiers was published, I began getting letters and emails from soldiers, eventually in the hundreds, that said some version of: When I came home from the war, everyone wanted to know what it was like, and I couldn't talk about it, and I still can't talk about it, but now I can give people your book and tell them that if they read it they’ll know what it was like and why I can’t talk about it.

As you can imagine, those were some pretty great messages to get. I have no idea who will read Thank You For Your Service, but whoever they are, I’d like for the book to reach them at a similarly deep and lasting level. I have no illusions about this book. Even if its readers include the president, members of Congress, and the rest of official Washington, it won’t change war policy. A book about the after-war won’t change war. But an author can have some hope, right? Maybe it will affect how people think about the after-war. Thank You For Your Service is about some wonderful people – all of them wounded and angry and sad and funny, and all of them trying to get better as hard as human beings can try. Here they are, in this book, not to be honored, which, believe me, all of them can see through, but hoping to be seen and heard. That’s their hope in this. As for mine, I’m hoping that anyone who reads Thank You For Your Service will realize that such stories are happening not only between the covers of a book but across our war-weary country, are in fact happening right now. Wars end, but the after-war doesn’t, which, if you’ll forgive the corniness, is the story I wanted to tell.



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Defending the Greats For Banned Books Week

For us, cracking a new spine, turning another page, and letting ourselves be transported by the written word is crucial to our happiness. Which is why it's so painful to hear the words "challenged," "banned," and "burned."

It's Banned Books Week Sept. 22-28, and in celebration of the freedom to read, Amazon has compiled an extensive list of book's that have -- in some way, at some time -- been under attack.

For our part here at Omni, each editor has selected one book from the list and has written a "defense," or reaction to the mere thought of its being banned.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on those we chose and more. Offer a defense of your favorite banned book in the comments section below.

Snow Falling on Cedars

Banned Book: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Defended By: Sara Nelson

I guess I don't get why Snow Falling on Cedars is on the Banned Books list in the first place. I mean, I get it: it's about a relationship between a white boy and a Japanese girl. But c'mon, guys: even though the story is set in the mid 20th century, it was published in 1995, something like 30 years after the repeal of the miscengenation laws that had prohibited such interracial marriages. (The kids in the book were never even married, but never mind.) Anyway, I love this book because my son's father is Japanese (I am not) and I have some experience dealing with American attitudes toward that quaint but not forgotten old word MISCEGENATION, and with race in general, I guess. Which even in this so called liberated day and age isn't nothing. So maybe I do get why the book was banned, but I'd like to think we've moved on to a time where if they even had to ban books, they wouldn't even think to ban this one. It offends no one and should move nearly everyone, with its beautiful writing, the compelling mystery at the center of the story, and its irresistible characters.

The Glass Castle

Banned Book: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Defended By: Chris Schluep

It's ironic that people would seek to ban a book about the banning of books. There's a weird circular logic at work. (Like eating all the pretzels out of the Chex mix because you don’t like pretzels.) I once had a discussion with Ray Bradbury about what he was thinking when he wrote the book. I told him that I thought it was a response to the excesses of McCarthyism. He told me, "I wasn’t thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking about the burning of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years before." He wrote the book in a typing room at UCLA in the early '50s -- he said, "I would walk through the stacks at UCLA, look at all those books, and think about more recent events in Italy and Germany, and the rumors about Russia during the war. What could endanger all those books?" Turns out normal, well-intentioned people can.

The Call of the Wild

Banned Book: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Defended By: Neal Thompson

The Call of the Wild goes like this: a domesticated St. Bernard mix named Buck becomes sled dog in the Yukon and, indulging his wild tendencies, battles other huskies to become the pack leader. A memorable scene is the death match against a foe, from which Buck emerges the bloodied champ, "the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good." Any kid who's been in a schoolyard fight (I can recall three – never bloody, though I once broke my hand) can relate to Buck's desire to beat the bully, to impress his peers, to win. Call of the Wild is hardly the man's-best-friend story some people assume it to be, which is why the book has sometimes been deemed inappropriate for younger readers. Interestingly, the violence and brutality are precisely what the New York Times predicted, in its 1903 review, would lead to its popularity -- "it will satisfy the love of dogfights apparently inherent in every man." Call of the Wild faced it's harshest opposition in totalitarian Yugoslavia, Italy, and Germany, where it was banned and burned in the late 1920s and early 1930s, due to the author's socialist and "radical" views. The themes of individuality and self-reliance that London promoted were apparently dangerous ideas. Schoolyard boys might just get the idea they could someday become a leader.

The Sun Also Rises

Banned Book: The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway
Defended By: Jon Foro

As far as banned books go, The Sun Also Rises has a lot going for it: sex, bad words, unsuccessful sex, a girl with a boy’s name, Paris, Pernod--these are just a few of the louche particulars that tend to bunch staid underpants. And, predictably, those underpants were bunched, landing Hemingway’s landmark novel on banned lists in Boston, California, and Ireland at various points since its 1926 publication (we might also assume it was banned in Hemingway’s mother’s house; she reportedly called it "one of the filthiest books of the year," which is better than "of all time," I guess). But the Nazis took it one step further, burning the book along with some of his others (A Farewell to Arms), either because Hemingway was a decadent communist or for his accurate depictions of war (apparently depravity is in the eye of the beholder). It’s unclear. But here’s the thing: while it was banned in Boston in 1930, Ireland (1953) and Riverside, CA (1960) took offense after the Nazis. When anyone bans a book, or burns a book, or takes violent action against the author of a book, they are probably not asking themselves Hey, the Nazis did this. Should we be doing this, too? As for the book itself, some love it while others find it insufferably self-absorbed (I can understand both; I loved it as a young man, though that’s a gray memory and I haven’t tried it recently). But its impact on 20th Century literature is undeniable, even if Hemingway’s terse, direct style has taken its hits over the years. There’s risk in being successful and inimitable: many people will imitate you, and when they can’t, they resort to parody, which at this point is an overtold joke. You think you can do better? Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Slaughterhouse Five

Banned Book: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Defended By: Robin A. Rothman

I'll own up to a bias for all things Vonnegut. He's my all-time favorite author, and it's not just because I grew up in Indiana, his home turf. It's his imagination, his ability to laugh in the face of tragic events, his ability to craft a perfectly timeless sentence that makes everything okay: "So it goes." But no, not "So it goes" when I think of kids at the age I was when I first discovered him who are denied the opportunity to read him. It seems obscene to me that this book should have to be defended at all, but I can do it in one word: War. Slaughterhouse Five is the satirically sci-fi story of a WWII soldier who's captured by the Germans and held in a slaughterhouse as a POW during the Dresden bombing. But it's not the time-jumping that has caused schools to ban and even burn this classic practically since its publication in 1969. Critics of the book will cite any number of excuses to deny young people the right to read it: violence, profanity, religious irreverence, etc. Again, one word: War. In fiction, these "inappropriate" elements often fall within creative license. But it's even more justifiable here since much of what Vonnegut describes, historically speaking, happened... to him. Which is to say, he witnessed the Dresden firestorm, from a slaughterhouse, as a POW, because he fought against (known for their book-burning skills) Nazis. Too bad for everyone the war wasn't PG-13.

The Glass Castle

Banned Book: The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Defended By: Mari Malcolm

I'll bet that the parents who raise a stink in an effort to protect their honors-English high schoolers from Jeanette Walls's memoir, The Glass Castle, don't see the irony of their behavior: Walls and her siblings overcame their chaotic, often dangerous childhood and went on to thrive as adults largely because they read widely and learned the power of stories. Books were their survival maps. When I saw this one on the Banned Books list, I honestly couldn't remember the passages that so offended these parents. I did remember being deeply disturbed by the kind of hunger Walls describes, how she had to sneak half-eaten food from her school garbage cans after hours, how the shame of being hungry ate at her, how her mom let her kids go hungry while saving a chocolate bar for herself. And I remember being in awe of her tenacity, the way all of those kids saved themselves and still managed to love their parents. I've been fortunate enough to never go hungry, but one in four American kids goes hungry every day, including a lot of smart teenagers who might feel uplifted and less alone while reading The Glass Castle.


Banned Book: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Defended By: Kevin Nguyen

Last March, the Chicago Public Schools banned Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis, which followed her upbringing during the Iranian Revolution. "Banned" is actually putting it a little strongly. The group, led by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, deemed the book inappropriate, removing the comic memoir from the seventh-grade curriculum because it included several panels involving torture. And yet, there are plenty of books dealing with similarly controversial themes that don't draw the same negative attention. I recall reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars in fourth grade during a unit about World War II. Lowry's Newbury Award-winning novel has never, to my knowledge, been banned, despite being about, well, the Holocaust—a subject that might be as objectionable as torture (and perhaps moreso). According to Byrd-Bennett, it was Persepolis's "powerful images of torture" (emphasis mine) that led to its removal from the curriculum. Persepolis, by virtue of being a comic (and a great one!), is composed of strong visuals. If we are teaching our kids about the Iranian Revolution, should we pretend that torture wasn't an important part of it? Should torture not be a powerful image?

Seira Wilson discusses banned books for young reader in this week's YA Wednesday.

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Weekend Flashback: Writers Recommend, Matilda on Broadway Sweepstakes, National Book Awards Longlists, Author Interviews, and more

Because the week can get hectic...

Here's what you might have missed recently on Omni:

Susan Conley recommending books about Paris, books that matter to Amanda Lindhout, three fictional detectives Louise Penny would trust with her life, a chance to win a magical New York/Broadway trip; Gillian Flynn's chat with John Searles, the National Book Awards longlists with readers' faves, the YA Best of the Month, and interviews with Kate Manning, Fiona Maazel, Pierre Lemaitre.

All now collected in one convenient post.

My Notorious Life Sara interviewed Kate Manning about how documentary and history helped her to write My Notorious Life

"I was really looking to write a good old-fashioned rip-roaring tale. Since I really love New York history, I knew the work of photographer Jacob Riis. His pictures [of 19th century New York were] are so compelling, I just wanted to insert myself in the streets of old New York and see what that's like. And writing about that time gave me a chance to play with language in a way that you can't do in a modern, contemporary, white person voice." Read More
My Notorious Life Robin A. Rothman rounded up the National Book Award longlist nominees and tallied readers' votes for their faves

The National Book Foundation took a new approach to its award nominee announcements this year, releasing longlists for each of four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young Adult Literature. The lists each consist of 10 nominees, which will be halved in the next few weeks. The winners will be announced at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York on Nov. 20. But you don't have to wait that long to learn the winners of public opinion. We presented each longlist as a poll in which our readers could vote for their favorites. The results are in! Read More
Fangirl Seira Wilson revealed the September Best of the Month picks for YA Wednesday

September is notoriously one of the biggest months for new books and this year it seemed like publishers outdid themselves with their releases. Usually the Best Books of the Month for Teen & Young Adult list is four titles but this month that was just...well, impossible. And really, if the ALA can choose a different number of honor books from year to year, that's good enough precedent for me. Read More
Paris Was the Place Neal Thompson asked Susan Conley for her 10 favorite books about Paris

"A funny thing happened after I wrote a novel starring Paris as the main character. All these other books about Paris began showing up at my book readings. People in the audience call them out during the question and answer period. Then everyone writes down the titles they haven’t heard of on the backs of shopping lists and paper napkins. It turns out that everyone has a favorite Paris novel or memoir (or two). What is it about that city?" Read More
A House in the Sky Mari Malcolm explored six books that matter to"A House in the Sky" author Amanda Lindhout

One of the books that's really mattered to me lately is A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout's memoir of how she became a fearless traveler and scrappy journalist--and how she survived 460 days of captivity in Somalia, by violent extremists. If you've ever felt powerless at the hands of circumstance, her tenacity and resilience will astound you. I came away keenly aware of my power to choose how I react to circumstances beyond my control. Read More
Woke Up Lonely Kevin Nguyen spoke with author Fiona Maazel and captured it all on video

"I've always been interested in some basic questions about loneliness. Is it congenital, is it something we're just born into, is it just froofy and existential, is it surmountable, is it circumstantial? Why is it that so many people who are in a group of their best friends, their lover, their family, do they still feel so estranged? I decided to write a novel that might try to explore some of those questions." Read More
Louise Penny Neal Thompson asked Louise Penny: if wrongly accused of murder, which three fictional detectives she would want to help her

"Now, setting aside Armand Gamache since that would be just too obviously self-promoting (though I am, of course, dying to include him)--I would have to add to your premise that I would be living in London of the mid-century, only because, for the most part, my love of detective fiction is rooted in the Golden Age of British crime novels." Read More
Pierre Lemaitre Robin A. Rothman got to know French writer Pierre Lemaitre, author of Alex

When I learned that it was the author's first work to be translated from his native French into English, but the second book in an established series -- known overseas as the"Commandant Verhoeven Trilogy" -- I couldn't help wondering about the reasons for that decision. Is the first book not as good? Did a super-secret test group relate better to this installmant than the others? The answer, it seems, is simple. Read More
Matilda Seira went Dahl-erious with a collage of covers and an awesome announcement about a Matilda the Musical sweepstakes.

Sadly, I'm not eligible to enter for a chance to win the Matilda The Musical sweepstakes, which includes a trip for four to New York and VIP show tickets (NO PURCHASE NECESSARY.  Sweepstakes ends 9/30/13.  See Official Rules), but the lucky Roald Dahl fan is who wins this one is in for a real treat (and yes, I am totally jealous). Read More
Help for the Haunted Robin A. Rothman presented Gillian Flynn interviewing John Searles about his latest Help for the Haunted

John Searles' third novel, Help for the Haunted, is a chilling mystery and a subtle yet gripping thriller that draws you in emotionally and doesn't let you off the hook until the very end. Or as my colleague Chris Schluep put it in his review, it's"an expertly-wrought, coming-of-age story with a healthy dose of creepiness." It's also one of our Best Books of the Month picks for September. Read More

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