Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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. 

 



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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

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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Friday, December 26, 2014

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 darkbest, 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 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!

 



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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.



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Monday, December 22, 2014

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."

 


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Friday, December 19, 2014

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



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A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus Walk Into a...Conversation with Renee Erickson



BoatWhaleWalrusRenee Erickson has earned local and national accolades for her Seattle restaurants over the last couple of years and this fall penned her first cookbook which we promptly chose as a Best Cookbook of October and recently a Best Cookbook of 2014

A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus--named for three of her restaurants: Boat Street Cafe, The Whale Wins, and The Walrus and the Carpenter--is a collection of seasonal menus with personal stories, lots of extras (how-to make a nice cheese plate, favorite holiday wines, intros to local purveyors and family, etc.,), and absolutely gorgeous photographs. It's a cookbook you want to own yourself and also give to your favorite people.

Like the restaurants that inspired it, A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus is relaxed, friendly, and strikingly elegant.   I met up with Erickson a little while ago at The Whale Wins to talk about cooking, restaurants, and what's next.


Seira Wilson:  You own four restaurants and a food truck now, was it easier/less stressful to open the third and fourth restaurant vs. the first?

Renee Erickson: My life’s changed so dramatically since we opened Boat Street, even four years ago when we opened Walrus, that was the big push.  I think more mentally and emotionally because the business itself is packed with stress. 

It was hard to not be at Boat Street all the time, that was the biggest challenge, it was hard to let other people make decisions and be creative and do stuff, but at the end of the day it’s your name and reputation and so that was challenging. 

IMG_2329Then you get really emotionally attached to your guests and you miss them and want to see them and for a long time it was hard, I felt like I was disappointing everyone a little bit because I couldn’t be everywhere. But I think you just kind of get used to it over time. 

Opening two was hard, opening this one [Whale Wins] was much  harder--it’s easy to split your time between two places, but having a third was..for all of us, Jeremy (my business partner), Chad and I, we all were like "whoa" [laughs].  We opened up thinking we could do things the same as the other two but we couldn't so we've been building our infrastructure. With two [restaurants] one of us could be there all the time, but now we need to have people available to do all the things we did and help manage the behind the scenes stuff.

SW: What's a typical day for you?  Do you go to certain restaurants on certain days or..?

RE:  Historically I sort of had a schedule, but now with the book...and with Whale and Walrus there have been lots of photo shoots, stuff for magazines, and that takes priority over my schedule and kind of dictates where I am right now.   It's good, it's exciting, it's always different.  Now it's more that I feel like I'm letting my staff down if I'm not there enough.  We did a photo shoot for Art Culinaire, that was super exciting and stressful because it's sort of a fancy food magazine that I was like, "really? you want me in it?"  because the one that's out right now is all full of Thomas Keller, so I was really nervous and spent two long days getting everything ready and right but it was great, everything turned out really well.

SW: When does that come out? 

RE: April, their 114th issue, it’s all about oysters, so we did a lot of cool dishes. 

SW: It's been so amazing, Bon Appetit Best Restaurant...

RE: I know, two years in a row, it sort of blew my mind. I'm definitely surprised by it all. I've sort of been doing the same thing all along, but I think the timing, all the food mania, is now.

SW: Where do you go, or what do you make at home, at the end of a long night when you’re starving?

RE: If I go out after a long night it's Delancey.  At home, sardines--canned sardines.  Historically, probably cheese and crackers--whatever cheese is in the fridge, glass of wine. Or really plain pasta--something simple.  If it’s in the summer, tomato and basil, or whatever’s around.  Anchovies and chilies.  Love canned sardines.

ClamsSW: Do you have a favorite recipe from A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus?

RE: That’s hard--it’s like your favorite kid or something. It was so much fun. Things I eat the most?  The clams, something I crave and want to eat all the time [Manila Clams from the Sunday at Home chapter]. I love rice pudding, this one’s crazy delicious [Honeyed Rice Pudding Pots from the Lummi Island Spot Prawn Dinner chapter].  Doesn’t photograph well but…  And probably the Messy Spot Prawns.  Sort of last meal food would be the Spot Prawns and...the Côte de Bœuf with Anchovy Butter, which I love. 

SW: Was there anything you had to leave out, the hard cut?

RE: I feel like this was just scratching the surface of what I love, but when we made the outline for the book it was just super easy.  I thought about it for so long that eventually when I sat down with Jess and we thought about it organized by season then it became really obvious which recipes, or events, or menus had been important enough to not let anything else compete with them.  So that part  was really satisfying, to have it come together as a full plan.  It felt really satisfying and comfortable to know it came together easily, without a lot of torture over whether to include this or that.

SW: Do you want to write another cookbook?

RE: Yeah, I would want to do another one.  I think I’d probably like to do more seafood focused, a lot of oyster stuff, I think would be really fun.  Seafood and maybe more preserving stuff because we spend a lot of time doing that too.  Not together, but...you know [laughs]. 

Photos from The Whale Wins

Wine at The Whale Wins
Renee Erickson with A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus
Danny Clinch
Renee with parents Jim and Shirlee
Wine at The Whale Wins
Wine at The Whale Wins
Danny Clinch


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Sara Says: All I Want for Christmas Is...



BlumeAll I want for Christmas, as usual, is a big fat novel I can curl up with, all the better to get some quiet time amid the usual family hubbub.  

But even though I’m going to have to wait a bit to read one of the ones I’m most excited about, at least we got an early look at the jacket for Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event.

Blume might be best known as a children’s author--many’s the woman who can quote verbatim from Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret--the fact is that her last adult novel, Summer Sisters, was a huge hit a while back. And this one--about a series of plane crashes that changed the lives of a whole town--will surely be one, too.
 
And while we’re talking about the future, let me also mention that I expect to hide out with Jami Attenberg’s Saint Maizie, which is coming next summer. Her The Middlesteins was one of my favorite books of 2012.

What else? Oh, right--there’s that adorable new Funny Girl from Nick Hornby, which so far has me thinking back to the joy of discovering one of my alltime favorites, High Fidelity.

FidelityAll that said, there are plenty of things we all can get our hands on RIGHT NOW--and for once, one of my most wished for books is not fiction. Instead it’s a gorgeous photography book about the making of the movie Boyhood, complete with pictures of the characters from the movie as they aged during the 12 years of filming. I’m never good at predicting movie awards, but as a book-about-a-film, this one is a prizewinner.

And last but not least, I’m going to catch up with the pseudonymous Italian author, Elena Ferrante, whose Days of Abandonment is one of my favorite dark-books-about-love of all time. Ferrante’s popularity is growing, and I’m sorry I missed My Brilliant Friend, which is the third in her Neapolitan trilogy. The holiday  seems the perfect time to right that wrong. I’m clearly going to have a happy reading holiday. Hope you do, too!
 



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Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Wilderness Within: Author Diane Cook on "Man V. Nature"



Man V. NatureClaire Cameron and I have something in common: we both like books about the struggle between humans and the natural world, especially when nature has the upper hand (see her list of "The Best Books About Getting Eaten" as proof). Her 2014 novel, The Bear, is the tale of camping trip gone wrong: a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness. Told through the voice of the young girl, it made the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which you may know by its former name, the Orange Prize.

So when I saw Man V. Nature--a collection of short stories about humans in peril, and particularly the ways they deal with it--passing it along to Claire seemed the obvious choice. And she liked it, enough to suggest an interview with author Diane Cook. Their conversation follows.


I was immediately intrigued by the title of Diane Cook’s new collection of stories, Man V. Nature. My intrigue doubled when I found that the title story is set on a raft.

I make a grand claim that I’ve read every "stranded on a raft" story in print. It’s probably not true, but maybe I’m close? Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an introduction to another Richard Parker in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. From there I’ve spent 76 days lost at sea in Adrift with Steven Callahan and 117 days Staying Alive with Maurice and Maralyn Bailey.

I won’t go on forever, but my point is that "stranded on a raft" is almost like its own established genre. There is pressure on the writer who takes it on. She must bring something new.

When I saw that Cook had her own "stranded on a raft" story all I could think was, "Oh yeah? Surprise me." She did so, in spades. The title story in Man V. Nature seethes with heat, rejection and twisted perception. Like the very best raft stories, it pinpoints that moment where being lost in the wild brings out the wild in us.

I found myself enthralled by all of the stories in this collection. Not only are they surprising, but also fresh, funny, sad, often surreal and oddly true.

When I finished, I knew this was a writer I wanted to know more about. Cook, just back from the wilderness of her book tour, answered my questions by email.

--Claire Cameron

 

Claire Cameron: Your stories place characters in survival situations, like the three friends lost on a dinghy, co-workers in an office disaster, a woman in a shelter who is waiting for a placement with a new husband, and feral boys struggling to live through winter. All this hardship and I found myself cracking up. Why am I laughing?

Diane Cook: I’m glad you’re laughing. In general, I’m a funny person and my worldview, even when sad, is still rueful. Also, I think that as unreal as the situations in the stories are they aren’t at all unrealistic. There is the feeling (to me and I hope to other readers) that these are situations entirely possible even if they wouldn’t actually ever come to fruition. That they are things people ultimately are capable of. Which is uncomfortable.

Man V. NatureHumanity has come up with the most awful ideas and has rationalized them so successfully. And so there is the lightest dusting of satire and/or cynicism over the stories. This knowing wink is a bit of a relief in situations that would otherwise make us squirm. It’s comic. The knowing wink also leads us to some hope too. We recognize what’s wrong in these worlds. That’s half the battle.

CC: At the beginning of the collection you quote Emily Dickinson: "The Wilderness is new--to you. / Master let me lead you." I kept coming back to this and thinking about it. My idea: In your stories it is often a character's instinctive response to the unknown that leads to something new. What does the quote mean to you?

DC: In an abstract way, the quote says something to me about the characters and the worlds they are inhabiting. The characters are often bewildered by something their world is presenting them. They are new to it and need some kind of guidance. As the stories go on, who and what offers relief is unexpected and surprising. But I think leaders and guiding philosophies exist in the stories.

And the wilderness as an idea is very important to me, be it a wild wood, a bewildering society, or a wilderness of the mind. But the quote actually comes from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to her longtime publisher and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I believe she is writing about the recent death of his wife. And so the Wilderness is the grief after death and she is offering help as he navigates this new terrain, the landscape of grief and loss, a landscape she knows.

This is important to me too. My mother died just before I began writing in earnest and I know that many of these stories are grappling with loss in some sense. I began to work out some of my feelings of loss by watching my characters go through their paces with grief of all kinds.

CC: A few of the stories are set in worlds where civilization has collapsed in some way, yet the collection as a whole feels hopeful. Like in 'Moving On', a widowed woman in a shelter is placed with a new husband and manages to find good. Are people inherently hopeful?

DC: I’m glad you see the hope in here. I definitely do. I think people must be hopeful otherwise, why go on?

Each breath into the next is an affirming step toward more life. I really think of it coming down to each moment. Each breath is an inherently hopeful thing. In this next instant anything is possible, isn’t it?

Even when my characters hit a wall or find themselves far from where they’d hoped to end up, they are still making the effort to survive, whether in a world-ending flood, or just survive the ending of some relationship. The book is about this yearning to survive, an almost desperate one. And to me that is the same as hope.

CC: Some of your stories are a refreshing take on social norms, like the teacher in "Meteorologist Dave Santana" who has sex for pleasure. She is also somewhat of a misfit because the other teachers don't know how to be around someone with "no secret shame, guilt, trauma or self-hatred." Why do we suppress our instincts?

DC: This is one of my main fascinations in life, which must be why I end up writing about it so much in the book. All the characters grapple with this tension between how they want to behave and how they must behave. Some give in to impulses, others don’t.

In my own life I tend to catalogue these moments myself and wonder why I act how I act, and wonder how different I am from others when it comes to my impulses. I think we suppress our impulses as an overture of peace. I do what is expected of me in certain situations because someone, usually someone I love or someone who has influence over me, expects it. Or because I know that to not behave in a certain way causes problems for everyone else.

I’m the kind of person who tries to avoid making more work or hardship for others. I am, however, endlessly fascinated by people who don’t live like this. Fascinated and perhaps a little jealous sometimes. I write about these people sometimes, and other times I write the characters who are more like me.

In this way I end up stringing together a kind of portrait of how complicated it can feel to be a regular person in the world.

CC: The wilderness looms everywhere in your book, sometimes in the center of the story, sometimes in the edges and sometimes inside a character. What is the wild to your writing?

DC: I get most of my inspiration from the natural world. Many of the situations in these stories came from my observations of the lives of wild things and asking myself how humans would deal with a similar situation.

Like, with the story "Somebody’s Baby," I was thinking about how precarious the lives of newborn animals are in the wild and how there are always predators waiting to strike when a mother isn’t looking. Danger is just a way of life. And survival is a daily thought. I wondered how mothers in a suburb might react to a threat that is unavoidable and constant. Loss in the wild is a stark and common thing. I love thinking of humans as wild things just farther along a spectrum of being.

And I try to keep that sense of wildness in my characters. For me it is the only way the actions of people can begin to make sense. I think we’d be so much more comfortable in our skin as people or as a society if we didn’t deny our wild lineage. It’s always been my belief that the world makes more sense when we acknowledge that sometimes our rationality is at odds with our instincts.



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"Nine Questions for Jim Shepard" by Andrew Eisenman



Shepard9 QUESTIONS FOR JIM SHEPARD

By Andrew Eisenman

 

“What the hell am I doing here?” says Air Force Captain Gordon Phelan, the first time he sets foot on Texas Tower 4, the Cold War-era offshore platform at the center of Jim Shepard’s heart-crushing new Kindle Single. Tower No. 4—or “old shaky,” as one of the servicemen has painted over the mess hall door—was one of the Air Force’s “most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters.” In “Safety Tips for Living Alone,” Shepard mines this forgotten piece of American history not only for its page-turning drama, but for what it says about us now—a nation suspended in the wobbly space between achievement and disaster.

One of America’s best living writers, Shepard is the author of six novels—with one on the way—and four collections, including most recently You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011). “Safety Tips for Living Alone” (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading) is a selection for Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. It’s on sale now.

Over email, Shepard answered questions about the real-life events that inspired the story, his research process, government surveillance and his own recommended reading.

 

AE: What is “Safety Tips for Living Alone” about?

JS: The triumph of the human spirit. No: actually, I suppose it’s more about the way we turn our lives over to others—in the case of the servicemen, over to the military, and in the case of their wives back in the 50’s and early 60’s, over to their husbands—and the way that that trust can then be so devastatingly betrayed.   Reading about the disaster, I was moved by the servicemen’s trust in the Air Force, and their wives’ trust in them. Especially in the face of what happened.  

 

AE: In his introduction, Joshua Ferris calls Texas Tower 4 a “forgotten, misbegotten episode in American history.” What about the story of “old shaky” captured your imagination? 

JS: See above. Also, it was precisely that forgotten and misbegotten aspect of the episode that struck me. Not only had these guys all been killed—and their families devastated—but the whole thing was now so lost to history. And it seemed like such classic military episode: one of those maddening disasters that’s so eminently avoidable. There’s a reason SNAFU is a military acronym.  

 

AE: What kind of research goes into writing a story like this?

JS: A dispiriting amount. The record of the congressional hearings on the collapse of the Tower—which ran to nearly 300 pages—was a particularly bottomless source of information for a sad-eyed nerd like me. I also read memoirs of women from the 50’s and 60’s who suffered stoically (and usually proudly) in various ways as the wives of service members. Those were hugely helpful about the kinds of complicated emotional dilemmas that interested me. 

 

AE:  How do you know when you’ve done enough research and it’s time to start writing? 

JS: Writers are geniuses at procrastination, and you can always tell yourself there’s more research you have to do, so I usually start writing once I’m sufficiently excited about what I’m doing that the anticipation overcomes the sense of hubris involved. I usually begin by writing about one small corner of the world I’m researching, so that I can sort of nose outward from that. And by writing, I also discover what else it is I have to learn. 

 

AE: Before “Safety Tips,” I was reading Ron Hansen’s astonishing, gorgeous novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—also historical fiction. You both find ways to inhabit history through language. Does the constraint of authenticity make the writing easier or harder? 

JS: I love Ron’s work.  In fact, "Safety Tips" was hugely inspired by one of my favorite of his short stories, “Wickedness,” about the Nebraska blizzard of 1888.   If you haven’t read it yet, boy, do you have a treat ahead. The constraint of authenticity makes the writing both easier and harder, as you would probably expect. On the one hand, you’re provided with all sorts of elements to work with, and a kind of a box. On the other, all of those elements are constraints.   

 

AE: The story is told from the perspective of the wives of four men who go to work on the platform. What about the experience of the wives resonated with you? Why did you choose to tell the story from their vantage?

JS: I was struck, reading the memoirs of military wives, by how violently they found themselves in their own accounts whipsawed between feeling absolutely powerless and complicitous in whatever disaster happened to be going on. That seemed to me a paradox that a lot of us as Americans can relate to at this point, as we feel our political system becoming increasingly unresponsive to the public will.

  

AE: You were three years old when the bulk of this story takes place—in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. What did you discover about the America of your early childhood?

JS: Well, for one thing, I discovered that lethal fuckups like this took place, made headlines, caused no change whatsoever, and then were swept under the rug.   

 

AE: Texas Tower 4 was a surveillance radar station built in part to give the U.S. extra warning in case of a Soviet bomber attack. A different kind of government surveillance is in the headlines these days. Was any of that on your mind while writing? 

JS: It was. Speaking of the story’s relevance to our current political position as an utterly surveilled population. This mania that our government has to know all, a mania justified by its—and our—apparent inability to live with or tolerate any sort of fear of an outside threat: that hasn’t gone away. And a lot of people want to make sure it doesn’t. 

 

AE: The story was published by Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series. What books do you recommend?   

JS: Well, I just gave a shout-out to Ron, but of course there are a lot of newer books out there I’d recommend as well. If someone’s looking for non-fiction, I’d recommend without reservation Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, or Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. If they’re looking for fiction, I’d be equally enthusiastic about Jim Crace’s Quarantine, or Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brien. That’s a start, anyway.   

 

 

 

 

 



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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Danny Clinch & the Majesty of Rock



If you love music, you've probably seen Danny Clinch's work. Over decades of work, he has photographed the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Tupac, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Jay-Z, and... the list goes on. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Spin, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker, as well as on hundreds of album covers.

His new monograph, Danny Clinch: Still Moving, collectes more than 200 iconic photographs, personal anecdotes, and a foreword by Bruce Springsteen. Enjoy these images from the book, a selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of 2014 in Arts & Photography.

Danny Clinch also plays harmonica. See more at www.dannyclinch.com.

 


Images from Danny Clinch: Still Moving

 

Danny Clinch

Radiohead, 1994

 

Danny Clinch

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 2010

 

Danny Clinch

Nas, 1993

 

Danny Clinch

Gregg Allman, 2010

 

Danny Clinch

Eddie Vedder & Neil Young, 2006

 

Danny Clinch

Bruce Springsteen, 2003

 

Danny Clinch

Chuck Berry, 2011

 

Danny Clinch

The Roots, 2011

 

Danny Clinch

Lucinda Williams, 2008

 

Danny Clinch

Arcade Fire, 2010

 

Danny Clinch


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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Amazon's Best Books of December: Part One



This is the time of year at Amazon when The Best Book of the Year program takes center stage, which is as it should be. But we're still reading and choosing the Best Books of the Month during this time, and there are some very good books coming out in December. Here are our Top 5 books of the month for December:

MoriartySpotlight: Our top pick is Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. Endorsed by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, Horowitz "begins where Conan Doyle left off,"Senior Editor Neal Thompson informs us, "with Holmes and his evil nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, having tussled right off the edge of Reichenbach Falls." Thompson continues: "The action begins when Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase and Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones meet in a Swiss village days after Holmes and Moriarty have disappeared. The two collaborate in their search for the ruthless Clarence Devereaux, a depraved criminal mastermind seeking to fill the void left by Moriarty’s drowning. But, as with all good Holmes tales, things are not always what they seem. Horowitz proves himself a worthy successor, packing this violent, energized tale with foot chases through Victorian London, clever disguises, encoded messages, feints and fakes, plus buckets of blood and a platter of red herrings.

BooksandwarPick #2: Here's a fascinating story about the power of books. Amazon's Amy Huff describes Molly Guptill Manning's When Books Went to War as follows: "The image of the Berlin book burning in May of 1933 is a common photo in history books. What’s less common is how books became a strategy to undermine the Nazi propaganda that had been proving surprisingly effective throughout Europe. While re-telling the history of the war, Manning threads through the impact that books had in fighting the Nazis, providing a narrative of their influence on the war that has previously been left out of most history books. Book lovers and history buffs should enjoy this new perspective."

 

HerePick #3: Here is probably the book that surprised and charmed us the most this month. It's a graphic novel, which would lead many readers to think it's not for them; but many readers should reconsider. Amazon Editor Erin Kodicek describes Richard McGuire's work as "slyly clever and unexpectedly moving." The entire book, first envisioned in 1989, is the record of what takes place in one room—"visualizing," as Kodicek explains, "the goings-on in a specific corner of a specific room over the course of hundreds of thousands of years (past, present, and future)." It's a trip through time, one page at a time, told in nonchronological order (the form allows McGuire to show differnt events from different time periods on the same page). This is surprisingly powerful stuff that will alter how you think about time and the room you are sitting in right now. 

StrangePick #4: When did Haruki Murakami become as prolific as Stephen King? Maybe that's an overstatement, but The Strange Library is Murakami's second book this year. It's shorter than his usual fair, and it's not easy to decribe—so I'll make full use of Amazon Senior Editor Neal Thompson's review (slightly edited for space): "What an odd and oddly beautiful little book. A little boy enters a quiet library where he meets a creepy old librarian who leads him deep into a maze of dark catacombs beneath the library. There, we learn of the librarian’s ghoulish designs and the boy encounters a small man wearing the skin of a sheep and a pretty young girl pushing a teacart, their worlds now 'all jumbled together.' The Strange Library was designed and illustrated by famed book jacket designer (and frequent Murakami collaborator) Chip Kidd, whose moody and mysterious depictions of a child’s (and a parent’s) darkest dream match Murakami’s surreal imagination. This is vintage Murakami and, at the same time, something entirely fresh. No one puts animal skins on humans like Murakami. No one would dare."

SparepartsPick #5: Joshua Davis' Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream is a timely book that reads like a movie script. That's a  good thing, because there's a movie based on the book comoing out next month. Amazon's Amy Huff fell in love with this "fantastic story of four Mexican-American teenagers struggling to find their place." Brought together by a robot competition, these teens learn about a lot more than robots. Huff says, "by describing how these teens came together, author Joshua Davis gives us a succinct history of immigration and a micro-lesson in Arizona politics. It all leads to the a scene in a pool in Santa Barbara, CA—with each team member realizing how they fit on the team, and in their adopted homeland." Our feel-good read of the month.

You can find all of our Best of the Month picks here.



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