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"Black River" - A Conversation with Author S.M. Hulse

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Black River by S.M. Hulse

Author-Photo---S-M--Hulse_credit-Rick-Singer-PhotographyS.M. Hulse's Black River is a debut novel by a promising young author. Set in the American West, the novel is about a very memorable man named Wes Carver, a true man of the west who... well, read the interview and you'll find out. You'll also get a sense for why we picked it as a January Best of the Month selection.

Chris Schluep: How long did you work on the novel?

S.M. Hulse: About four years. I started writing Black River during my first year in the MFA program at the University of Oregon, and I’d completed a first draft by the time I graduated three years later (in 2012). I spent the next year as a post-graduate fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I was able to acquire an agent and complete most of the revisions during my time in Madison. I sold the novel to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June of 2013, just a few months after my fellowship ended. By that time, the book was essentially finished; I did one more round of light revisions with my editor as well as a round of copyediting, and then it was ready to go.

CS: Did you begin with a character, a place, an event?

SMH: A bit of all three. I was interested in writing about a character who had lost something that defined him, which gave rise to my protagonist, Wes Carver, a talented fiddler whose ability to play was destroyed when he was held hostage during a prison riot. I knew from the beginning that Black River would be set in Montana, because it’s a place I love like no other, and I was fascinated by the contrast between its sweeping landscapes and the confined spaces of prison. While living in Montana, I read about a prison riot that had taken place at the state penitentiary in the 1950s, and I began to wonder how an event like that might affect the people and community involved over the long term. While all those elements were just starting points—the town of Black River is fictional, and so is the riot in the book, which takes place in 1992—they formed the beginnings of Black River.

BlackriverCS: Recently, we've seen a number of novels about the west published—the majority (by my unofficial count) have been historical. Why did you decide to write a contemporary western?

SMH: I’m not sure I set out to write a contemporary western so much as simply a contemporary novel, and because I’ve spent most of my life in the West, the places and characters I chose to write about naturally happened to be western. I do think that so many excellent historical westerns are being written now in part because there is a desire on the part of many writers and readers to revisit some of the events and themes that have become familiar if not almost mythical in the American mind, and to take into account perspectives that may not have been offered a voice in the past. I’m interested in those same mythologies about the West, but I’m more interested in exploring the ways in which their legacies play out in the lives of contemporary westerners. Wes, for example, is a pretty classic Montana man, the sort you might find in a lot of historical westerns—he’s stoic, terse, and likes to take care of things on his own—but those traits don’t necessarily serve him well in the modern world.

CS: I just read the ebullient Ron Charles review for Black River. How did it feel being compared to Kent Haruf (a comparison I also would make)?

SMH: Kent Haruf is often one of the first authors to come up in any discussion of contemporary Western fiction, so it was a great honor to see Ron Charles draw comparisons between our work. Like Haruf’s Holt, Colorado, Black River, Montana is a fictional community, and I can only hope that I have depicted its landscape and people as vividly and empathetically as Haruf depicted Holt’s.

CS: I read that you learned to play the fiddle while you were writing the book. Tell us about that. 

SMH: I didn’t know a lot about old-time or bluegrass music when I first started writing Black River, so I was doing a lot of reading about and listening to American folk music while working on the first draft. I’d played the viola for a few years as a kid, so I had some sense of how it felt to play a stringed instrument, but eventually I decided that fiddle music was so central to the novel that I really ought to give it a try myself. I found a teacher and began taking lessons. My teacher taught the way Wes does in the book—by ear—and I found that it suited me much better than reading sheet music had. I came to love the fiddle for its own sake, and I’ve continued to play, even though I’m now working on a second novel that doesn’t focus on music.

CS: Is the next novel set in the west?

SMH: Yes! Like Black River, the novel I’m writing now is also set in western Montana, though in a different community and with different characters. I hesitate to say too much about a work-in-progress because so much changes during the writing process, but the protagonist is a woman who must cope with the aftermath of a bombing committed by her older brother.


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Graphic Novel Friday: Enter 2015

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The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Panic! I still have a stack of great 2014 comics to read, and it’s already 2015. This next year looks to be as full as Volstagg’s belly with must-haves from indie publishers and creators and superhero stalwarts. I’m limiting myself to the first 10 or so books that immediately went to my wishlist, but feel free to add your own in the comments below.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (February, First Second): The problem with writing the go-to book on understanding comics--helpfully titled Understanding Comics--is that when the author turns to write and illustrate his own comics story, expectations are high. Thankfully the wait isn’t long, as Scott McCloud’s original graphic novel releases next week, and it clocks in at almost 500 pages!

Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton (September, Drawn & Quarterly):  OK, the wait is a little longer for Kate Beaton’s follow-up to the original Hark! A Vagrant collection (one of our Best Books of the Year picks in 2011, but this one promises worth-the-watch-tapping literary and historical humor that made the first a New York Times bestseller.

EightballcoverThe Complete Eightball 1-18 by Daniel Clowes (June, Fantagraphics): Two volumes of classic Clowes comix reprints, “exactly as they were originally published,” in a slipcase and package produced by Fantagraphics. Yes, please. Yes. Please.

Alan Moore in April: In their continued efforts to bring Moore’s earliest superhero deconstruction back into print, Marvel will release Miracleman Vol. 3: Olympus while Top Shelf will publish his newest work, Nemo: River of Ghosts, the third in his League spin-off series. And if you have any money left this month, DC will reprint the two main Top 10 storylines in a thick paperback edition.

Absolute Editions: Two of Vertigo’s biggest writers receive the deluxe treatment, with these door-stopping, fancy-pants editions. First up is Grant Morrison’s dystopian cyberpunk series, Transmetropolitan (June), which is billed as a “Volume 1” at over 500 pages. The next month, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man begins its own multi-volume collection, when Volume 1 releases with 500 pages of story, bonus script pages, sketches, and more.Outcast.cover

Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1952 by Mike Mignola and Alex Maleev (August, Dark Horse Comics): Sure, Hellboy may be dead but that will not stop Mignola giving fans insight into HB’s early missions with a fledgling B.P.R.D. crew. As he’s currently busy illustrating Hellboy in Hell, Mionola’s words will be exceptionally paired with Alex Maleev’s painted art.

Outcast By Robert Kirkman and Paul Azaceta (February, Image Comics): The creator of The Walking Dead kicks off a new horror, and it’s a quiet, whimper-inducing story involving demonic possession. Fair warning.


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A Story About Second Chances: Stewart O'Nan on "West of Sunset"

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West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan

Lauded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald is synonymous with The West of SunsetGreat Gatsby, the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation...Not many know that in the twilight of his life and career--when his wife Zelda was in a mental asylum, and Fitzgerald was struggling financially--he tried to launch a comeback as a Hollywood screenwriter. This is focus of Stewart O'Nan's gorgeously-written fictional biography, West of Sunset. Here O'Nan discusses the inspiration behind the book.

“There are no second acts in American lives.”  When F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with this terrifying adage, he was dead broke and living in a rented apartment in Hollywood, writing scripts for MGM to pay Zelda’s hospital bills and their daughter Scottie’s private school tuition.  He’d fallen in love with a beautiful and mysterious young Englishwoman who looked like Zelda.  The novel he was working on, The Last Tycoon, is about a producer who’s lost his wife and falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious young Englishwoman who looks like her. The producer, like Fitzgerald, is in despair and has a bad heart, but his new love gives him the hope to care again. 

It’s Monroe Stahr’s second act that Fitzgerald is referring to in his famous quote.  The events of the novel are supposed to test this assertion.  Of course, because Fitzgerald cares for Stahr, so do we, so we hope it isn’t true.  Is that a romantic view of life or just human nature?  In Gatsby, the saddest, most frightening exchange is when Nick warns Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past,” and Gatsby, in the glow of his rekindled love, says, “Why of course you can, old sport.”

This isn’t Fitzgerald’s second time in Hollywood, it’s his third.  The first two were utter failures, so he’s not trying to repeat the past, he’s trying to redeem it.  He’s living at the Garden of Allah, where his best friends are Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Parker, and his neighbors include Robert Benchley, Talllulah Bankhead, and S.J. Perelman, then writing for the Marx Brothers.  There are lots of wild pool parties and dancing beneath the stars, lots of love affairs and studio intrigues.  It’s 1937, so naturally Hemingway, at the height of his fame, blusters into town, raising money for Spain, making Fitzgerald feel like even more of a loser.  To pay off his debts, he writes for Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford and Shirley Temple.  He’s on the lot when they’re shooting The Wizard of Oz, eating in the commissary with the Munchkins and flying monkeys.  He works, uncredited, on Gone With The Wind, pulling all-nighters with the amphetamine-popping David O. Selznick.  It’s the Golden Age of the studio system, and he’s in the thick of it, and madly in love, except that every few months he flies back east to spend strange, supposedly therapeutic vacations with Zelda, taking her to Virginia Beach or Charleston for a week.  Sometimes Scottie joins them, the family reunited, but Scottie and Zelda’s relationship is volatile (Scottie is 16 and independent) and though Scott tries to hold things together, inevitably they explode.  After each trip east, he falls apart—spectacularly—and his new love, Sheilah, has to pick up the pieces—until she tires of it and he has to pledge to quit drinking to win her back.

His biographers see Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood as a failure and a waste of his time, a sad coda to a once-promising career.  I disagree.  It’s in Hollywood that he rediscovers his love of writing and his love of the world.  The dialogue he writes for Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades helps her win the Oscar for best actress; the same for Vivien Leigh two years later.  He wakes up at five in the morning to work on the Pat Hobby stories for Esquire, spends all day writing at the studio, then comes home and works on The Last Tycoon, which, though unfinished, is regarded with his friend Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust as perhaps the best novel ever written about Hollywood.  He’s a writer again.  He may be broke and in bad health, but he’s happy, because he knows the book he’s writing is good, and for a writer—it’s a terrible thing to admit, but it’s true—that’s all that matters.

The full title of The Last Tycoon, found, along with his famous quote, in his notebooks, is The Love of the Last Tycoon, A Western Romance.  That’s what I hope West of Sunset is:  a romance about a man who knew he was lost and managed to find himself again—a story about love and regret and second chances, and dancing beneath the stars.

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Creepy, In a Good Way: Harriet Lane on "Her"

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Her by Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane is the journalist-turned-novelist, author of Alys, Always and now, the psychological thriller HerHer. The tagline of this creepy (and we mean that in a good way) novel--“ You don’t remember her--but she remembers you“--says it all; Her is the story of one London woman stalking another over an incident that occurred in the distant past, an incident that broke apart the stalker’s life but probably went unnoticed for the stalkee. Told in alternate voices, Her is the definition of a page-turner. Amazon Editorial Director Sara Nelson spoke by phone to the delightful Lane, at home in London.

Some people have mentioned that this book reminds them in some ways of the movie Single White Female. Was that one of the antecedents of this book?

[Laughs] No, not really but I can see why people say that. What I was most interested in--and in my first novel, what I most enjoyed – was creating an atmosphere of unease. And also in exploring the difference between what people say and what they really mean. And that kind of thing is really tailor-made for fiction, it’s one of the best things about fiction; you can’t get it in any other medium. I read a lot of thrillers and crime fiction, and I wanted to use a lot of the same propulsion you get from those novels, the sense of stuff accumulating and the anxiety you get while you’re reading them. I also wanted to do something a little bit different with it, to end it with no “case solved” stamp on top of it.

In Her, the two women are close in age and from similar backgrounds, but they see themselves very differently. Nina is confident and in control, but she is clearly tortured by some things from the past. Emma, on the other hand, is frazzled by new motherhood – and yet she’s the kind of beautiful woman who has always gotten what she wanted. Which one most resembles you?

As an adolescent, I was totally much more of a Nina, the person at the side of the room watching. I distrust people who were not. Emma is like one of these golden girls who have sort of haunted me all of my life, people who probably have no recollection of me at all.

You were a journalist for a long time, for (among others) The Guardian, the Observer, Vogue and Tatler. Were you ever a crime reporter?

No, I just did arts features and interviews. But for me the writing was all about the structure I see in books and about being able to create an atmosphere and evoke personalities in a quite concise format. Having all these ideas and being alone in a room creating: that’s what I’ve sort of stumbled into in such a satisfying way.

So you decided to forgo journalism to write fiction? Had you always written fiction on the side?

I hadn’t really written fiction since school, and I always loved writing journalism. But then in 2008 quite out of the blue, I started to lose my sight. They couldn’t work out what was happening and why, (It turned out to be an auto immune disorder affecting the optic nerve. I’ve lost all my sight in one eye and the other one is all propped up by loads of drugs.)When you’re a freelancer you have to be totally dependable, so I started contacting all my editors saying “Look. This has happened. When I’ve sorted it out I’ll be back in touch.” But that moment never really came, and I couldn’t go back to journalism. And I missed the writing! It was this very peculiar sensation, almost physical, like an ache. Missing the writing, the sitting alone in the room creating something, which had always given me a huge amount of pleasure. Not having that anymore was almost as much of a loss as the loss of my sight and the loss of confidence in my future. So I joined a local creative writing class that met at lunchtime on Thursday and I was so frightened about going. After journalism, the thought that I’d go into a room and do writing exercises with a bunch of retired people and yoga teachers and what not, people sucking their teeth and going ‘Why are you here? You’re a journalist. You know how to write.’ At first, the sensation of sitting around making this up felt ludicrous and then almost immediately it felt fantastic. And I loved it. . .

And now. . .no writing anxiety?

I think because of the eye situation, the stakes are so high with that – everything else is in perspective. The prospect of losing more sight is anxiety. That’s terror. This is fun, this is enjoyable. I mean, if I have a bad day, I scrap it and start over the next day.

I think most writers would love to have that kind of attitude. . .

My background as a journalist is good experience. I write quite cleanly. I know if I’m boring myself, that’s not a good thing. I think journalism is good for making you mindful about holding people’s attention. But with journalism, it’s best to lay all your cards on the table and to be very clear and include everything that’s relevant. The brilliant thing about fiction is that you want to leave that space, leave things out and ask the reader to fill in the gaps. I love that a reader an have a deciding vote, can puzzle things through and be left to work out what’s really happened and why. That’s the luxury of fiction for me.

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Colleen McCullough Dead at 77

ThornbirdsColleen McCullough died yesterday on Norfolk Island, which is located in the Pacific Ocean. She was 77 years old.

For those of us who can remember when the internet didn’t exist and the world was a much bigger, more spread out place, it’s likely that we can also recall a runaway bestseller written by Colleen McCullough, a woman from far-off Australia. In the late 70s and early 80s The Thorn Birds, popularly known as the Australian Gone with the Wind, seemed to be in every household. (I read it as a young teenager, the first real adult book that I read, and it still holds a special place in my heart—in many ways, it opened me to reading.)

Published in 1977, The Thorn Birds went on to sell 30 million copies worldwide. It was just the second novel McCullough had written. The book was made into a wildly popular miniseries in 1983, starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward. McCullough, in typically colorful language, described the 10 hours of television based on her book as “vomit.”

Born June 1st, 1937 in New South Wales to what could only be called a terrible family—her father was a volcanically-tempered sugar cane cutter with at least two other wives; her mother was cold, distant, and abusive—McCullough overcame the odds. Her first career was as a neurophysical researcher, and she eventually landed at the Yale School of Medicine. At Yale she observed her colleague Erich Segal’s success as the author of another wildly popular book of the era, Love Story—and after polling her students on why they loved Segal’s book, she took those components (romance, characters, and plot) and set them in the Australian outback. She went on to write 25 novels.

She is survived by her husband Ric Robinson, along with 2 step-children and 2 step-grandchildren.

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Sara Says...Welcome to Our Parlor

There used to be a column in a famous women’s magazine called: “Welcome to My Parlor.” That quaint locution keeps coming to mind as I think about introducing you to our brand new Omnivoracious, now called The Amazon Book Review. It’s kind of our version of a reader’s salon, a literary parlor if you will. So, with apologies to the late Helen Gurley Brown, I say: please, come in, sit down, take a look around. This is one renovation that’s been worth the wait – and it’s very close to our hearts. Sara Says...

You’ll notice that there’s lots to read: interviews with authors, book reviews, quirky essays on trends and then some regular features like a writerly Quote of the Day from our friends at Goodreads. There will even be a regular column from myself – maybe about the book I’m reading this week, or the one I want to read next, or maybe on whatever trend or idea is keeping me awake at night.

So enjoy: I’m proud that today, on our launch date, we’re running a fantastic interview with the author Kristin Hannah, whose The Nightingale is one of our very favorite books. (Truly: as long as six months ago, one of our Amazon colleagues got her hands on an advance copy: she hasn’t stopped talking about it since!)  A story about two heroic French sisters in WWII France, it’s a weeper and a thinker all at once. I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot about it in the weeks and months to come...and I bet you’ll feel lucky to have gotten to hear from Hannah so early in the publishing game.    

And even if you’re new to us, you’ll also be able to access all the great pieces that have come before: Best of the Month reviews, Celebrity picks, and more. You’ll get to see why (she says not so modestly) Omnivoracious has won praise and awards for a couple of years now. Newcomers, we hope you’ll be thrilled. To our loyal readers: we hope you’ll appreciate the little bit of work we’ve done to your beloved books blog, the best kind of necessary but never obtrusive facelift.

Read on.  Please.  And let us know what you think.

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Kristin Hannah and Megan Chance on "The Nightingale"

"When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life--and more importantly, my child’s life--to save a The Nightingalestranger?" This question spawned Kristin Hannah's emotionally-charged historical novel, set during WWII, The Nightingale. Here, Hannah and her good friend, author Megan Chance, throw back a few Mai-Tais and "talk book."

Rather than write a blog entry about my latest novel, The Nightingale, I thought you might like a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the writer’s world.  My writer’s world, anyway. Most writers will tell you that we lead solitary lives, and we do.  We often spend entire days in our pajamas.  We can be hard to talk to sometimes because we are constantly listening to conversations going on in our heads. 

All of that is true, but we also have our writer friends.

Megan Chance—the award winning, best-selling author of Inamorata and An Inconvenient Wife--and I have been friends and critique partners for more than twenty years.  I was a new mother and recent law school graduate when we met at a writer’s conference on the Seattle waterfront. We didn’t know much about writing, and even less about publishing, but we had tons of ambition and we shared a nearly endless thirst for knowledge.  Together, we set about the task of learning to write fiction.  More importantly, we learned to edit.  Some people use a pen to edit a friend’s work.  We’re more comfortable with blow torches.  No egos in our writer’s room, no pretending, no false praise.  The great gift we give to each other is absolute, unvarnished honesty.  (Okay, so sometimes it’s a gift I would love to return).  She is always my first reader.  More than anyone else, Megan helps me to find the heart of any story I choose to tell.  She does it with a combination of tough love and stubbornness—asking and re-asking the same question until I give an answer that satisfies her.  No easy quest.  A satisfactory answer usually requires me throwing away a lot of pages and starting something over. 

Megan and I are going to sit down (hopefully at our favorite tiki bar in Hawaii) and order a pair of mai tais and talk book.  Pull up a chair and join us…

Megan: (How much rum is in this Mai Tai? Okay, I’ll try to be focused here). Thematically, we’re both interested in women’s experiences and women’s stories, and until now, you’ve mostly dealt with how it feels to be a wife/mother/sister/name your poison in today’s world.  But this story is told from the perspective of two sisters during the German occupation of France in WWII.  What was it about Vianne’s and Isabelle’s experiences that resonated with you? Why those two women?

Kristin: (Have I taught you nothing? You should never ask how much rum is in a mai tai).  Now, to answer your question.  Honestly, I really didn’t want to take on World War II France, but when I came across the story of a nineteen-year-old Belgian woman who created an escape route out of Nazi-Occupied France, I was hooked.  I had read a lot of books on World War II, but I didn’t know that downed airmen had hiked over the frozen peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in shoes that didn’t fit, in clothes that weren’t warm enough, with German and Spanish patrols searching for them. 

The woman who led them was named Andrée De Jongh and her story—one of heroism and peril and astounding courage—became the inspiration for my novel.  Her story led me to other stories of women who joined the Resistance in France. I found literally dozens of memoirs written by women who had become spies and couriers and helped to create the escape network. These women were like action-star heroes.

But there were others, women with stories that were told in a quieter voice: women who hid Jewish children in their homes, putting themselves directly in harm’s way to save others.  Too many of them paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism.  And like so many women in wartime, they were largely forgotten after the war’s end.  There were no parades for them, very few medals, and almost no mention in the history books.  It felt like an oversight to me, something that needed to be corrected. They deserved to be understood and remembered.

Megan: Over the years, we’ve brainstormed a lot of ideas together, and some ideas just keep ricocheting back until we find the perfect story for them. Historical tends to be my bailiwick, while you’ve made a career out of writing contemporary novels mostly set in the Pacific Northwest. So I have to admit that WWII France was not at all on my radar for you.  Honestly, the idea seemed to come out of nowhere. How did that happen?  Were you frightened to write it?

Kristin: I see the emphasis on a lot of ideas and I know that’s directed at me.  You come up with an idea, hone it, and write it.  I come up with thirty ideas, flesh each one out, research each one, come up with characters, and then decide I don’t like it.  I know it is a real test of your patience, but unfortunately, that’s my process.   Coming up with the idea is the worst part of writing for me.    

With The Nightingale, I had been kicking the idea around for years.  I was frightened to write it because on the surface it seems so different for me.  But sometimes a story grabs hold of you and won’t let go.  This was one of those stories.  I simply couldn’t walk away from it.

Megan: You and I spend a lot of time on the phone and in restaurants (this is one excellent Mai Tai, by the way—wait … is that Jill Marie Landis doing the hula over there?) debating every aspect of plot and character. Really, we spend so much time on it you would think we knew every permutation of a novel in advance.  I know you block out scenes and chapters before you start, so you have some sense of where you’re going; but I wonder if you would tell us a little about your process.  And was there anything about the characters or story in The Nightingale that surprised you?

Kristin: (Of course that’s Jill.  We are in Hawaii and there is ukulele music playing; you can never keep her in her chair).

To be honest, I wrote so many drafts of this book and changed the characters so many times; the real surprise is that I finished the book at all.  It ended up being a huge undertaking—a daunting amount of research on a subject that many people know intimately, a country I had not yet been to when I first started planning the book, an entire war.  But in the end, the best part of the whole book to me was the research, reading about the courageous, ordinary French women who put their lives on the line to save others.  It was really inspirational.

As to process, I am in search of a new one, so if anyone has any ideas, please let me know.  I am one of Megan Chance and Kristin Hannahthose authors who believes (perhaps foolishly) that she is in complete control of the story.  I do not often follow my characters off on tangents or change my story on a whim.  I have an outline which I follow quite sternly…for a good long while.  Then it turns out in some way to be insurmountably wrong and I am forced to re-think every component.  Usually at this point I throw hundreds of pages away.  I know that sounds ineffective and daunting, but it is actually my favorite part of the writing process.  I love what I call “re-imagining,” where I throw everything up in the air and let it fall in a different way.  It’s not the most efficient way to write a book, but it’s how I find the story.

Megan: Okay, here’s a fun one for you (and this second Mai Tai is even better than the first!). You’re having a dinner party (I’ll bring the French pastry, wine for me and cosmos for you), and you can invite five fictional characters. Make this good. As you know, I hate being bored. Who are they?

Kristin: (It’s a rule; the second mai tai is always better than the first.  It’s the third one you need to watch out for).  Ohh!  A dinner party!  How fun.  I am more than happy to invite my five favorite fictional characters.  Let’s see. First on my list is Sam Gamgee from The Lord of The Rings.  Sam is a beautiful character; in him, we find the profound heroism of an ordinary person. He epitomizes the saying that courage isn’t not being afraid, courage is going anyway.  I just love that.  It’s a theme that big in The Nightingale. Next to Sam, I would have to seat Severus Snape.  I know I’m not normal in this, but Snape is absolutely my favorite character in the Harry Potter books.  He is completely mortal—good, bad, strong, weak, motivated by hatred, motivated by love.  A gorgeous, compelling, complex character who definitely earns a spot at my table.  Next would be Roland Deschain from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  There’s a whole world about Roland left to know.  I’ve got questions.  He’d have answers. So pour him a glass of wine.

I know, I know.  You’re seeing a pattern here.  I absolute adore epic journeys that require a protagonist to fight for every victory in the hopes of finding triumph. 

My next guest would be Scarlett from Gone With The Wind.  I mean, come on, I have to know if she ever got Rhett back.  And finally, I’d extend an invitation to Lisbeth Salander.  She would definitely shake the party up and get it started.  I think she is hands down one of the most original, innovative, kickass female fictional characters ever. 

Megan: We talk about our favorite books and authors a lot, but weirdly enough, although I know your favorite books, I have no idea what books or authors you feel most influenced you as a writer. What are the top three novels/authors that made you the author you are today?

Kristin:  This is actually a pretty easy question.  I read a ton of fiction—historical, contemporary, literary, commercial, I love it all.  So, of course, there are hundreds of novels and authors that have influenced me.  But to choose three, they are: Stephen King/The Stand (and really most of his books); Anne Rice/The Witching Hour; and Pat Conroy/The Prince of Tides.  These authors write my favorite kind of book—epic feel, gorgeous prose, unique characters, and a pace that keeps you turning the pages.  From them, I learned a lot about characterization, pacing, prose, voice, and originality.

Megan: As I am really ready now to turn my attention to that phenomenal hula (Do you have that kind of flexibility? Because I don’t), here’s my last question:  I know how much you love The Nightingale, and I know that you are always your harshest critic.  What is it about that book that is so special for you?  What do you hope readers will take away from it?

Kristin:  I think The Nightingale is my best, most mature, most moving novel, but maybe that’s just because I love these characters.  I love the setting.  I love the idea of ordinary women making extraordinary sacrifices.  I love women being the heroes of the piece.  There is just something so dramatic and important about this story. 

The women of the French Resistance astounded me.  Isabelle and Vianne are my homage to those brave and forgotten women.  In doing the research, I found myself consumed by a single, overwhelming question, as relevant today as it was seventy years ago: When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life—and more importantly, my child’s life-- to save a stranger? 

That question is at the very heart of The Nightingale. I hope that everyone who reads the novel will ask themselves the question. 

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"Happy are the Happy" - An Excerpt from Yasmina Reza's New Book

HappyThe title is a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, but don’t be fooled by that erudition. Yasmina Reza’s Happy are the Happy is universal and accessible to anyone who has ever wanted to be, or has been, in a relationship – as long as she wants to admit her ambivalences. It’s dark in places, and funny, and unusual; but these 20 short chapters, each told by a character who may or may not reappear in another piece, are the tragicomic portrait of love. Here, a portion of one of our favorite chapters:


Odile Toscano


Everything gets on his nerves. Opinions, things, people. Everything. We can’t go out anymore without the evening ending badly. I find myself persuading him to go out, yet on the whole I almost always regret it. We exchange idiotic jokes with our hosts, we laugh on the landing, and once we’re in the elevator, the cold front moves in. Someday someone should make a study of the silence that falls inside a car when you’re returning home after having flaunted your well-being, partly to edify the company, partly to deceive yourself. It’s a silence that tolerates no sound, not even the radio, for who in that mute war of opposition would dare to turn it on? This evening’s over, we’re home now, and while I undress, Robert, as usual, is dawdling in the children’s room. I know what he’s doing. He’s

Yasmina Reza

checking their breathing. He bends over them and takes the time to verify unequivocally that they aren’t dead. Afterward, we’re in the bathroom, both of us. No communication. He brushes his teeth, I remove my makeup. He goes to the toilet room. A little later, I find him sitting on the bed in our bedroom; he checks the e-mails on his BlackBerry and sets his alarm. Then he slips under the covers and immediately switches off the light on his side of the bed. For my part, I go and sit on the other side, I set my alarm, I rub cream into my hands, I swallow a Stilnox, I place my earplugs and my water glass within reach on the night table. I arrange my pillows, put on my glasses, and settle down comfortably to read. I’ve hardly begun when Robert, in a tone that’s supposed to be neutral, says, please turn out the light. These are the first words he’s spoken since we were on Rémi Grobe’s landing. I don’t answer. After a few seconds pass, he raises himself and leans across me, half-lying on me, in an effort to reach my bedside lamp. He manages to switch it off. In the darkness, I hit him on the arm and the back – actually I hit him several times – and then I turn the light on again. Robert says, I haven’t slept for three nights, do you want me dead? Without raising my eyes from my book, I say, take a Stilnox. —I don’t take fucking sleeping pills. —Then don’t complain. —Odile, I’m tired…turn off the light. Turn it off, dammit. He curls up under the covers again. I try to read. I wonder whether the word tired in Robert’s mouth hasn’t contributed more than anything else to our drifting apart. I refuse to give the word any existential significance. If a literary hero withdraws to the region of shadows, you accept it, but the same doesn’t go for a husband with whom you share a domestic life. Robert switches on his lamp again, extricates himself from the bedclothes with uncalled-for abruptness, and sits on the edge of the bed. Without turning around, he says, I’m going to a hotel. I remain silent. He doesn’t move. For the seventh time, I read, “By the light filtering through the dilapidated shutters, Gaylor could see the dog lying under the toilet chair, the chipped enamel washbasin. On the opposite wall, a man looked at him sadly. Gaylor approached the mirror…” Now who exactly is Gaylor?



Copyright Yasmina Reza, 2015. Reprinted by permission of Other Press. _____________________________________________

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Constructive Criticism: Announcing the NBCC Award Nominees

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

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

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


An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press)

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

Euphoria by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)

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

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)



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

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

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

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart (Random House)

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (Coffee House Press)

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

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

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

Abide by Jake Adam York (Southern Illinois University Press)



Alexandra Schwartz



Charles Finch

B. K. Fischer

Benjamin Moser

Lisa Russ Spaar



Toni Morrison

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


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

Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin Press)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Mistakes Were Made. Dana Cowin Helps Us Fix Them.

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

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

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

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

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

SW: What made you decide to write this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SW: Hooker slash baker?

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

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

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

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

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

SW: Variations of the éclair?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Environment as Character: Five Essential Novels

by Tim Johnston

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



Deliverance by James Dickey

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

The Shipping News

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

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

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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


Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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

Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

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



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


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