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Matthew Desmond and the Truths Behind “Evicted”

Matthew Desmond-croppedSelecting Matthew Desmond's Evicted as one of our best books of the month wasn't a difficult choice. What was challenging was reading about the devastation that eviction brings upon poor families who are doing their best to create a stable life.

Urban sociologist and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Matthew Desmond answers our questions about the people he met, the heartbreaking moments he encountered, and how to solve one of America's most troubling problems.

Adrian Liang: What sparked your idea to tell the stories of these tenants and landlords in Milwaukee?

Matthew Desmond: America is unmatched by any rich democracy for the depth and expanse of its poverty. I've always found that fact troubling and wholly unnecessary. I wanted to understand poverty from the ground level and to focus on the big role housing plays in driving inequality in America. I knew that to fully understand the matter, I needed to get just as close to landlords owning and operating in poor communities as I did to their tenants. The landlord-tenant relationship is fraught, complicated, and essential to the lives of low-income families and communities.

AL: You let the individuals speak for themselves in a frank style that harkens to Studs Terkel's works, and the effect is very powerful. How did you stay out of the way of these people's lives as they were playing out while managing to capture so many details?

MD: Living in their neighborhoods helped a lot. I spent over a year living in two very poor areas of Milwaukee, renting a trailer in a mobile home park and then a room in an inner-city rooming house. In those two neighborhoods, I began spending day after day with families facing eviction. I wrote down what I saw in small notebooks and made good use of my digital recorder. I believed that documenting the harsh realities of American poverty, recording people's strength and vulnerability in the face of hardship, and chronicling the harmful effects of eviction on families and children invite reform.

AL: Because eviction causes people to move, and move quickly, were there people whose lives you were following but with whom you lost contact along the way?

MD: I met many more people than I could write about, tenants and landlords. I followed one couple—Chester and Myesha—over several months. They lived with two teenage daughters in a home with exposed wires and a rotting floor. After a drawn-out battle with their landlord, they were eventually evicted and moved to San Antonio. I drove them to the bus station and later visited them in Texas. But the eviction took a toll on their relationship, and eventually Myesha left Chester and took the girls to California, her home state. In Evicted, they make brief appearances in the endnotes.

AL: There are a lot of dark moments in Evicted. For you, what episode was the most troubling?

Evicted-225MD: Seeing children evicted in the wintertime is troubling. Seeing some of them offer no response to such a traumatic thing—no tears, no questions, no frantic search for their favorite toy—is even more so. One of the hardest parts was the thing entire: the unrelentingness of poverty; how it can hold people underwater and keep them there, reducing people born for better things. But Evicted also is about courage, genius, spunk, generosity, humor, and love in the face of adversity—how gracefully people refused to be defined by their hardships.

AL: You make several suggestions for lessening eviction rates, which should improve the lives of families and others in the community. But some people aren't going to make the rational choices that help keep them in their homes. (I'm thinking of when one woman pushes her friend through a window for using all her cell phone minutes.) How do you respond to critics who point to those individuals as proof that laws shouldn't be changed?

MD: Crystal, who pushed a friend through a window, eventually did receive a housing voucher and is doing much better. She has gone back to school and will proudly show you pictures to prove it. After finding affordable, safe shelter, she thrived. Crystal was under incredible stress when she did that hurtful thing. If we want to address problems like violence, we have to focus on the root causes, including homelessness, poverty, and the fact that most poor renting families are spending over half of their income on housing.

AL: What's next for you?

MD: I'm talking with everyone I can about how we can fight poverty in America by providing families with access to decent, affordable housing. When I'm not doing that, I'm launching new projects that extend my work to national and global levels, including trying to understand the rise and ramifications of the unaffordable world: the fact that humanity is becoming urbanized and cities are becoming unaffordable to hundreds of millions.


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Harlan Coben on "Fool Me Once"

Amazon Book Review: Fool Me OnceThe author of eight best-selling novels, Harlan Coben is one of our most successful thriller writers. It's no surprise: Coben's books consistently offer nail-biting suspense wrapped up in byzantine plots that keep readers second-guessing themselves to the end. His latest, Fool Me Once is no different. For its selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month, our reviewer Penny Mann wrote:

"Harlan Coben brings a lot to the table in this new novel--multiple plot lines, suspense and mystery, in-depth research, the strains of being a single parent, and even the effects of PTSD--and he doesn't disappoint."

Coben answered a few of our questions about the new book, his greatest influences, and the challenges sustaining success.

Amazon Book Review: Fool Me Once is your 20th-something book, and they keep getting bigger, better and more interesting. How do you come up with your ideas, and how do you manage not to repeat yourself?

Harlan Coben: Well, that's flattering, thank you. I still try to make the "next" book my "best" book. I want to grip and move you in unexpected ways. Writing a novel in general is like trying to reach a mountain top you'll never quite reach -- so you try again and maybe get a little closer. I also react to what I've done before. So if I had, say, a tall, amateur male lead living on the campus of a rural college (Six Years), the next book might feature a short, cop who lives in the heart of Manhattan (Missing You).

ABR: Fool Me Once is about a special-ops pilot, and is very much about two topics very important in our world at the moment: War... and nanny cams. Do you feel your book has a political point of view on either?

HC: If it does, I won't say. I would rather raise certain topics and maybe let you ruminate on them. I'm not big on answering them.

ABR: If I had to choose one theme that comes up again and again in your work it's the notion of trust. Who can you trust? What happens when someone you trust betrays you? How do we know whom to trust? What do you think: is this a preoccupation of yours, in literature and/or in life?

HC: It's not so much trust as human complexity, I think. We all think that we are uniquely complex, that no one can see what we are thinking -- yet we also believe that we have the rare ability to read others. This fascinates me at the moment.

ABR: Who do you think of as your literary forbears, your influences, your mentors?

HC: Oh I don't know. William Goldman's Marathon Man was a novel that taught me about suspense. I was maybe 16 years old when I read it and I remember thinking, "You could put a gun to my head and I wouldn't put this book down." I loved that feeling -- and want to give it others. I feel as though I've been influenced by a ton of writers, from Robert B. Parker to Mary Higgins Clark to Philip Roth to Madeline L' Engle. Who knows? I'm also inspired by anything that I consider great. It makes me want to raise my game too -- Hitchcock movies, Hopper paintings, Springsteen concerts.

ABR: You are now also writing YA, as well as adult fiction. Is there a difference in how you approach the two audiences?

HC: Nope. The only difference is the age of the characters. You can't dumb it down for even a second.

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Richard Kadrey and Seanan McGuire on Writing Something Entirely New

Richard Kadrey is best known for his dark and hard-edged Sandman Slim novels, so readers will be in for a (very good) surprise with his hilarious new novel, The Everything Box.

Collage.-210Sci-fi author Seanan McGuire, who is an expert at diving into the entirely new, talks with Kadrey about letting your imagination have free rein—which sometimes leads to exploding rotting whales. And readers also get a sneak peek at McGuire's latest novel, Every Heart a Doorway, about a group of young people at a very special school for those who return from fairyland, the Land of the Dead, and other mysterious worlds.

    *  *

Richard Kadrey: There's not much you haven't set your hand to—crafty fae in the October Daye novels, cryptozoological adventures in the InCryptid series, wayward children, zombie apocalypse, parasitology. As I am embarking upon a new—and very different—project with the impending publication of The Everything Box, it seemed expedient to ask an extremely talented author how so many divergent authors come out of one (evidently fertile) imagination…so I thought of you!
Seanan McGuire: Thanks!

Well, I watch a lot of television and I read a lot of books and I poke a lot of sticks into a lot of holes. Life doesn't have to make as much sense as fiction does; even the most fleshed-out fictional character is going to be a lot more linear than a real person, because they don't have to justify their interests. Since I really exist, I can be interested in dozens of things, and eventually, everything I'm interested in turns into a book. I write in series because I think in series. I always want to know what happens next. Knowing what happens next is absolutely my favorite thing about working in any sort of long-form.

So, Richard, readers know you best for your Sandman Slim noir fantasy, which is absolutely worth being known for. But that's not all you've written. You do young adult, cyberpunk, fantastic tales that darkly mix mythology and theology. "Dark" often being the operative word. With The Everything Box, you've sort of swerved, taking a distinctly offbeat, humorous approach to the material. What spurred the change in direction?

Richard KadreyRK: It's true that I've tried a lot of different styles and genres over my career. Basically, I just want to explore other voices and other ways of looking at the world. Stark in the Sandman Slim books is a thirty-year-old man, and Zoe in my YA novel, Dead Set, is a sixteen-year-old girl.

They're both challenging characters and they see the world in very different terms. The books are also written in different styles, which is fun for me. Sandman Slim is in present tense, with no chapter breaks because I want it to be one long speed freak rush from beginning to end. Dead Set and now The Everything Box are more traditional in structure and style. Both are past tense and both contain chapters.

SM: It says something when "both contain chapters" is a necessary disclaimer. But I so feel you here.

RK: Yes! The Everything Box was especially exciting for me because I was also able to play with multiple points of view. As much as I enjoy writing Stark in Sandman Slim, he's one voice and vantage point for the story. With The Everything Box I was able to tell several simultaneous stories and watch the plot evolve from different points of view. There's Coop, a thief and the chief protagonist of the book, but there are also rival doomsday cults, a secret government organization, demons, an angel, and a host of other characters with different magical abilities. It was kick being able to see through all of their eyes.

The Everything BoxI'll also admit that with The Everything Box, I wanted to shock people a bit and show them that I can write something besides the hard world of Sandman Slim. No matter how far I've pushed my work in the past, it's always been firmly rooted in real life. However, The Everything Box is absurdist from end to end. Carl Hiaasen's mysteries were an influence in criminal part of the story, but Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams had a hand in the fantasy parts. I've never tried to combine elements like that before. It was a crazy process, but a fun one.

But that was a lot about me—I'd like to know something else about your process. The first thing I figured out in writing a series is that I needed a "bible" to keep track of the characters, some of the plot elements, and a lot of my magical world. I've now started a bible for the Coop books. Working in so many series and points of view, do you create bibles? If not, how do you keep things straight for yourself?

SM: I have wikis! I build little individual wikis that live on thumb drives hidden around my bedroom like an Easter egg hunt gone terribly wrong. They're easier to edit than bibles, since they're designed to be used that way, and when I'm stressed or sad, I can spend hours updating them—a remarkably good use of my time, in a lot of ways. Plus they're harder to delete by accident.

I want to ask you about the whale now. Can you tell me about the whale?

RK: I'll have to try using wikis. I create my bibles in Scrivener, but I'm not one hundred percent sure that's the best way to keep track of things. I also created a modified version on Google Docs for a project that fell through. That was laborious, but interesting.

So, the whale.

The whale sort of landed in the very first scene of The Everything Box. I knew there would be a whale somewhere in the book, just not right at the opening. But that's where it fit, so it stayed.

The whale's significance is simply that I wanted to pay a small tribute to Douglas Adams. Reading his smart, funny books years ago was a real inspiration. As I said before, Adams and Pratchett were influences on the humor in The Everything Box, but in a very British way. There's also a very American aspect to the humor that comes from S.J. Perlman and some of Woody Allen's early writing.

Okay—now it's my turn to shift gears abruptly, so here we go: While I tend to have characters associated with one geographic region, you've sent your characters all over the place, and some have ended up far from where they started. Is this a conscious decision to put your characters under the pressure of a new setting and see how they react, or is it something more unconscious, perhaps a way of expressing your own wanderlust?

Seanan McGuireSM: Mostly it's a vain effort to avoid the Jessica Fletcher Effect. I love Murder She Wrote, but if there was someone living in my small town, tripping over a dead body every fifteen minutes, I'd be like, Sorry, ma'am, you need to go. So I try to set up horrible situations hither and yon, and then send my characters to them. Also...I really do love to travel. It's less wanderlust, more "everyplace in the world has different cheese." And like most writers, I tend to think in story. It's difficult not to. When I go someplace new, my first thought is "This is amazing," and my second is "I should find a way to set a book here." It turns out, I'm pretty good at setting a book there. I've never been anywhere that wasn't interesting. My goal is to make sure everyone else sees how interesting it all is.

You, on the other hand, you really like L.A. What would happen if we dropped one of your characters in one of the smaller towns that I tend to favor? How would Stark handle small-town Michigan, or Coop deal with Columbus, Ohio? Do they need their setting to stay stable?

RK: Coop is a lot less neurotic about where he is than Stark. But Coop will always be a big-city guy. The problem for Coop in a small town or even a small city is that he'd stand out as a thief. Certain impossible crimes would take place and people would know that only one person could have pulled them off. But I think you could put Coop in any big city—New York, Houston, Chicago—and he'd get by. Of course, outside of L.A. he'd spend all his time complaining about the weather.

Stark on the other hand is rooted to L.A. in a more fundamental way. L.A. is his yardstick for measuring the world, both this one and Hell too. Stark actually sees Hell's capital as a distorted version of L.A., right down to the street names. People like Stark don't need anywhere else. I've met people like this, mostly from L.A. and New York. They're both cities that are large enough and with enough intense activity that for some of its residents, it's a whole country.

For the most extreme, and you could put Stark in this category, it's the world. I've tried to take Stark out of L.A. a couple of times, but it always been a false, a "ha ha wouldn't it be funny to watch him squirm" kind of thing. However, I've figured out a way and I have a good reason for Stark to leave L.A., and we'll be seeing that toward the end of the series. Everything I'm doing with Stark now is leading up to the moment when he finally sees a reason to go on one last, possibly terminal, road trip.

Speaking of endings, how do you feel when you think about the end of a series? Is it a relief? Something sad? I'm kind of excited, not to be ending Stark, but to see where he's headed. Coop, on the other hand, is just getting started. The world is wide open for him.

SM: I'll tell you if I ever get there! I know how the Toby books end, but we have a long way left to go before we reach the point where I can say "okay, we're done, we're finished"—and I'm aiming to actually be able to say that, and mean it, because there won't be any story left to tell. She's on a quest, in a lot of ways, even if she doesn't realize it, and when the quest is over, the grail knights go back to Camelot, and they rest. InCryptid is sort of a big series made up of smaller ones, in that as each person's individual story is wrapped up, they pass the torch to the next—but that also means I can go back to fill in the blanks, and nothing has to be over before I'm ready. I guess it's sort of a weaning-off process, rather than a clean break, for me.

Endings, though...ending the world seems to be easier for both of us than ending a series could ever be. It always comes down to Armageddon in the end, doesn't it?

RK: Life hands us a lot of Armageddons, I think. The end of a major chapter in your life. A big break up. The death of a loved one. And even the end of a series you've been working on for a long time.

They're all various versions of big and small Armageddons as one world is wiped out. But with luck, the end of one world paves the way for a new one to take its place. Stark's life in Sandman Slim has been a series of literal and figurative Armageddons, and it won't get any easier for him over the course of the last few books. In some way I've made it harder than ever for him because he's come to care about the people and things in this world. The death of a universe is a messy thing, and it ought to be. Who wants too much stability? The chaotic edge of things is where the action is.

This seems like a good time to talk about how writing these new books has brought new life and excitement to our work. Why don't you go first?

Every Heart a DoorwaySM: I have to fall a little bit in love to write a book. I know that sounds sort of silly, but a book is a real commitment of time and energy and attention. When I'm writing, part of me is always in the book, never quite coming back to the real world. I live in a place that isn't, until I have a chance to come back out to a place that is. But with a really long series, where I've sort of figured out where all the rooms in the house are, and I know where the linen closet is, and I know the rules, I can get drowsy. It's not complacency, exactly, but it's a degree of comfort that doesn't force me to learn anything new unless I want to. That's a nice place to be. It means I'm free to dig deeper into things I might otherwise leave alone. But sometimes...sometimes I just want to travel. I want to go somewhere and not know all the landmarks, or where to buy the best cheese. I want to discover.

Every Heart a Doorway is all about discovering. I still don't know all the rules. I still don't know where everything is. I still don't know how to work the shower, and it is glorious, because I keep finding things. I think I will be for a while.


RK: I feel the same way about The Everything Box. I'm still getting to know the characters, the rules of the world they live in, and even the voice in which to tell the story. Voice is very important to me. In the Coop books I wanted to try something I'd never done before and that's to have the authorial voice, or "narrator" of the book, become another character, commenting on the shape of scenes, characters, and their actions. If the character is a coward or a conniver, I wanted the narrator to be free to say "Fuck this guy" as easily as a human character might. It's an experiment in tone and humor. I think it works, but it's the readers who will be the final judge, of course.

One interesting thing about working on multiple series is that each makes me appreciate the other more. Writing Sandman Slim is such a different experience to writing a Coop book. As I wind down Coop #2, I'm looking forward to getting back into Sandman Slim mode. I wasn't sure I'd like hopping worlds like this, but I'm really enjoying it.

Thanks for the chat, Seanan.

SM: Absolutely!


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The "Girls" of Summer

Amazon Book Review: The GirlsWhat's in a name?  Apparently publishers think: "a lot." 

Maybe you've heard of a little book called Gone Girl? And then another little one called Girl on the Train.

I'm not saying publishers have no imagination. I'm just saying that they (like everybody) like a sure thing, and lately it's been looking like putting "girl" in your title is just that. Here, then, is what is probably only a partial list of all the "girl" books coming out in the next few months. (One of them even had an 11th hour name change because it was identical to a much buzzed about book and sure to get lost behind it.) Which of them will get the most reader love? Check back in a few months....

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Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
An electric, Megan-Abbot-ish novel about an addictive and ultimately poisonous female friendship in a 1990s high school. (May 17)

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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
A WWII sudser about three women who meet up under horrific circumstances. (April 5)

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The Second Girl by retired police detective David Swinson
A provocative novel about a good (male) detective... with a bad habit.... (June 7)

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The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell (formerly known as The Girls)
A murder mystery set on a picturesque square in London. (June 7)

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The Lost Girls by Heather Young
A debut novel about a missing girl in remotest Minnesota. (July 26)

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All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
Another novel about a girl who goes missing, but this one has a new twist: the story is told backwards. (June 28)

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The Girls by Emma Cline
The buzziest, a debut about a Manson-like cult in California in the 1960s. (June 14)

*Note: This is a list of just the fiction offerings. There are at least other books, A Murder Over a Girl, Lab Girl, and Girls and Sex, but they're nonfiction, journalism, or memoir, and thus presumably aspire to different goals.)


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The Best Cookbooks of March

BOTM_MarchThis month our favorite cookbooks are an eclectic mix--ten titles that range from ketogenic cooking to real recipes for the Burger of the Day from the hit show, Bob's Burgers. Here are a handful of March's best...

*you can see the whole list here.


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This cover may not make your mouth water but crack it open and you'll soon be wiping your chin. Oppenheim's recipes are simple and deeply rooted in an appreciation for the bounty of the seasons. I can't think of a better way to head into a farmers market than with this book under my arm.

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 Quick Easy Ketogenic Cooking by Maria Emmerich
A ketogenic diet, which shifts the body from burning sugar to burning fat, is becoming ever more popular and this cookbook is a great way to get started, especially for those of us who may think we are too busy to start something new.

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Who doesn't love a good bowl?  Volger takes these popular noodle and rice dishes and makes them deliciously meatless. A boon for vegetarians or anyone looking to reduce their meat intake.

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Now anyone can create their own Burger of the Day from the award-winning show, Bob's Burgers. The 75 recipes come from the popular fan-created blog, "The Bob's Burger Experiment" and while the recipe names may be funny the results are seriously good.

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Cooking for one doesn't have to mean cereal or a quesadilla (or is that just me?). After looking at Miller's tasty ideas created specifically for a single serving, packing a lunch or making something good for dinner just got easy...
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And the Winner of the Great Literary Tournament Is...

After more than 100 duels between some of the greatest literary characters ever written, the two finalists faced off in the arena: Harry Potter, the boy wizard. And Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective.

Amazon Book ReviewOne man had a single friend by his side, the faithful Watson. His opponent had rows of friends, plus an owl or two, supporting his bid. Both contenders called England their home. Both had risked their lives against fearsome villains and were battle-tempered before engaging in this contest to determine the ultimate literary champion. Neither one had faced a serious challenge in the book battle...until now.

It was a close-fought duel, with no clear winner until the final moment, when Harry Potter unleashed a spell that Sherlock Holmes couldn't counter with a quick-thinking defensive move. Holmes graciously admitted defeat, but it was clear to all that he would willingly reengage in another bout should the occasion arise.

Harry PotterOur ultimate literary champion is Harry Potter. Congratulations, Harry!

But Harry's adventures aren't over! Harry Potter and the Cursed Child--the play that will premier in London at the end of July--also hits shelves on July 31 and is set nineteen years after The Deathly Hallows.

The full Great Literary Tournament bracket is below. Click to expand.

Final Bracket

Check back here--or sign up for our newsletter--to take part in our next #bookduel, which will take place in April.

Thank you for participating!


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“Safety Is an Illusion”: Elizabeth Percer on Her New Novel, “All Stories Are Love Stories”

It's a rare story that combines lyrical writing with a catastrophic earthquake, but Elizabeth Percer's assured, soul-wrenching novel does just that, earning a high spot on our Best Books of the Month list for March.

All Stories Are Love StoriesHere Percer talks with us about her relationship with San Francisco (which she puts to flames in her novel), the evolution of her multilayered characters, and more.

Amazon Book Review: What propelled you to write this story of three people caught in an earthquake and then fire in San Francisco?

Elizabeth Percer: I'm not a huge fan of the classic writing advice to "write about what you know." If I'm going to devote my energies to writing a novel, it had better feature a subject matter that I know will sustain my interest for a year or more. With that in mind, I much prefer to write about the mysteries in my life that refuse to go away, the questions that arise around fundamental curiosities. As a mom, a resident of the Bay Area, and a citizen of an increasingly volatile world, the paradox of wanting to keep myself and others safe and knowing that safety is, more often than not, simply an illusion is just the sort of tangle I care enough about to invest the time and energy it takes to start with a blank page and find my way to a novel. There are a handful of subject matters that could get me to the meat of this paradox, but I found a modern day earthquake disaster to have just the right mix of creative challenge, relevance, and excitement to cook up the kind of story I wanted to write.

Each character has his or her own complicated relationship with San Francisco—what the city represents to them, and how it affects others. What is your relationship with the city like? 

I tend to think of places as entities in their own right, infused with the experiences of the people who've trodden their soils for however many years. As only one of the millions who've called San Francisco their home, I sometimes feel frustrated by my limited ability to truly understand a place I hold so dear. By the same token, one of the reasons why I find the city so fascinating is because it always seems to be throbbing with far more layers of experience than I can hope to understand, so that being in it is a bit like being in the ocean—I'm struck by nothing more than its unfathomable depth, and comforted and entranced by its ability to shelter so much more than any one of us could on our own. Its power is similarly terrifying, but the ocean drowns so fewer souls than it rocks to sleep.

One of your main characters, Vashti, spent a period in her childhood when she ate dirt while mourning her mother. Later, she becomes a master baker. What inspired those fascinating details about her?

I've found that the longer you spend with a character without imposing too much of your own agenda on her or him, the weirder and more wonderful she or he becomes. On some level, I tend to be like a mouthy puppy in a ball factory when it comes to micromanaging my characters, but I've learned over time that sometimes the best parts of them emerge when you just step out of the way.

Elizabeth PercerIn Vashti's particular case, I knew right away that I wanted her to be sensual, and I personally love everything there is to love about food, so she was a baker almost as soon as she hatched. But those were things I wanted from her; I then had to do the hard work of figuring out what made her want them, too—what made this person, who was so inextricably tied up in this overall story, come upon her passions. With something as deep and primeval as food, I figured it must have started early. And with a character who began to speak about love in a tone of such sorrow, I figured the passion came from an experience that allowed for the gamut of her emotional capabilities. And then I just let her start wandering around, stood back as she showed me her mother and her sister and her father, the beautiful earth that supported them all in their grief, and she picked up some of that earth and put it into her mouth, in much the same way an unself-conscious child will do something so grotesque and stunning in the most casual manner possible. After she did that, it was a quick trip from dirt to her sister's protectiveness to chocolate to baking, but it's also true that the path we took to get to that dirt had many wrong turns and lots of really bad lighting. But who wants to write about what everyone can already see?

Do you have a go-bag or an emergency pack in case of disaster?

Um, now I do! I was actually pretty lax about it until I started doing research in earnest for the novel. I distinctly remember coming home from a meeting with Mary Lou Zoback, a Stanford geologist and expert on the San Andreas fault, and going online to purchase fully tripped out emergency packs for my home and car. And a renewed earthquake policy on our house. And if I'm going to be completely honest, I think it's going to be a while before I can spend an extended time in the city of San Francisco without an exit plan at the forefront of my mind.

What's on your bedside table right now, waiting to be read?

Way too much. I have a really hard time reading anything new when I'm writing, so I've got a tremendous backlog of titles I want to get to. I have this little pipe dream that I'm going to read at least one hundred books before I write another one of my own, but I'm pretty sure that's going out the window the minute I read something I really love. Reading and writing exist on the same continuum, and I find that engaging in one will always lead to some kind of engagement with the other. So while this particular reading dream might be short-lived, I suppose worse things could happen!


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The Difficulty of Writing a Difficult Woman

Terrible-VirtueEllen Feldman's latest novel, Terrible Virtue, takes on an enormously complex and polarzing subject: Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Here Feldman discusses the pitfalls inherent in writing a novel centered on such a challenging character--a project she abandoned three times over ten years, only to be drawn back by "the near impossibility of the endeavor."

Terrible Virtue is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of March in Literature & Fiction.


The Difficulty of Writing a Difficult Woman

Books are writers' children. Asked which is our favorite, we scrupulously reply, I love them all. Asked which gave us the most difficulty, we say each had its challenges and rewards. But I'm going to break with custom here. Of the several novels I've published, Terrible Virtue, based on the life of Margaret Sanger, was the hardest to write. It also had the longest gestation period, ten years from first inspiration and early research to publication.

I gave up in despair and abandoned the book once, a twice, a third time. I could not bring Margaret Sanger to life on the page, but Margaret Sanger would not let me go.

The day I tossed it out for the first time, or at least put it in the dormant file, I ran into a friend. When he asked how I was, I confessed that I had just given up on more than two years of work. He was so appalled that he told the story at a dinner party that evening, and for several weeks I got calls and e-mails of condolence. They were kind, but they didn't make me feel any less a failure or a traitor. I was deserting a friend I had lived with, intensely and intimately, for two years. After writing another novel in the interim, I tried again. A year later, I put the novel aside a second time. Would I never learn, I chastised myself, and once again turned my hand to another book. The third time I returned to the idea and again failed, I was furious at myself for throwing good months and years after bad. Why couldn't I relinquish this obsession, which clearly was ill-conceived?

The answer to why I couldn't give up the book is the same as the answer to why I was having so much trouble writing it – Margaret Sanger, her singular genius, her towering achievements, and her maddening contradictions. How do you bring to life a woman who was at once selfish and altruistic; loyal and ruthless; arrogant and insecure; devoted to improving the lot of all women and fiercely competitive with other women; determined to expose society's hypocrisies and a maker of her own myths; a breaker of sexual taboos who somehow managed to maintain a spotless public persona; a woman who married twice, but didn't believe in marriage, and had countless affairs to prove it; a mother who loved her children but was hopeless at caring for them, and endured the worst heartbreak a parent can know?

It would have been demanding enough to capture this charismatic larger-than-life character in a biography; it was daunting to try to penetrate her mind and heart, which any successful novel must do. But the near impossibility of the endeavor is what attracted me in the first place. As a young woman, I had admired Margaret Sanger and her triumphs, but the more I read about her, the more her incongruities confounded me, and the more determined I became to try to figure out what made this towering figure tick. For that only fiction will do. And in fiction, perhaps more than in any other literary form, what we leave out is as important as – perhaps more important than – what we put in.

Therein lay the key to writing Margaret Sanger. I had been adhering too closely, not to the facts – I was determined to stick to those, and I have – but to the minutia of Sanger's life. I was sacrificing the essence of the woman to the details of her existence. I was losing the magic of the individual to the particulars of her struggles, strategies, marriages, affairs, and encounters with her children. I had become a bore on the subject of Margaret Sanger rather than a novelist bringing to life her indomitable spirit. When I realized that, when I took a step back to see Margaret Sanger whole, she began to come alive in my imagination and on the page.

I have lived with Margaret Sanger for a decade. Even when I was writing about other characters and times and places, she occupied a corner of my mind. I can't say she is always sympathetic, but I can say she is superb company – exhilarating, inspiring, passionate, brilliant, capable of great love and petty hate, canny about her cause but often blind about her personal life, and always deeply human. She is, in the end, the woman who not only wrought a major social revolution but, more than any other single person, fashioned the sexual landscape we inhabit today.

And here's a footnote to the story behind the book. While I was doing the research for Terrible Virtue, I had a recurrent surreal sensation. The contemporary headlines I was reading with my morning coffee were uncannily similar to those of a century ago that I was unearthing in libraries and archives. The experience made me realize that from her opening of the first, then illegal, birth control clinic in America in 1916 through her founding of Planned Parenthood to her role in helping develop the Pill in the 1960s, Sanger's story is alive with yesterday's struggles and as timely as today's headlines.

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Jim Harrison: An Appreciation

I actually got to know and love Jim Harrison before I really knew his books. Well, actually, I had read Dalva, and I knew about Wolf and, of course, Legends of the Fall, but it was only after I'd assigned myself to interview him, for Publishers Weekly, back in 2006, that I read his almost complete oeuvre. Harrison, who died on March 26 at his home in Arizona at age 78, was a great, prolific writer, and his examinations, in many books, of the racial melting pot that was his beloved UP (Upper Peninsula in Michigan), have more Legendsenergy, passion and wit than just about any other writer's, whatever the topic. Many say he was Hemingwayish in his interests and topics – the outdoors, hunting, eating, imbibing any- and everything – but he was more soulful. He was also funny, both on and off the page. And, for a guy known for his excesses of behavior, he was surprisingly old-fashioned and courtly; I remember checking into a hotel in Grand Rapids, MI, where Harrison went a few days a year to teach – the university there had offered him more for his papers than any of the fancier places back east – and finding a note at the desk, inviting me for breakfast – in his room. "There's a parlor," he wrote, in a strikingly careful hand. Just so I wouldn't misunderstand. I showed up for breakfast and for 36 hours, with just a few hours off for sleep, we drank, he smoked, and we talked, about his books, but also about food, and friends, and life. (We had several friends in common; I told him how one of them had been my secret crush for years. "You should have said something," he said.) And most of all we laughed – and for a few months afterward, we stayed in touch by email, beginning with the note he sent me that complimented me on the piece I'd written, "It's good – there are only two mistakes! Here, then a little bit of that piece from bit of that piece...

High literary allusions cheek by jowl with silly, sometimes childish wordplay? Who knew? In my marathon daylong-plus interview with Jim Harrison in Grand Rapids, Mich.—where he teaches at Grand Valley State University five days a year—he told the class of undergraduates, for instance, that he counted among his influences Rimbaud "the French poet, not the character played by Sylvester Stallone." While backseat-driving his assistant, Joyce, around town, looking for a liquor store to purchase the vodka he mostly drinks now that his doctor told him his beloved wine is bad for his diabetes, he spouts a line of familiar poetry. "Who wrote that?" I ask him. "Yeats," he says. "Billy." Maybe because he gets the reaction he wants—Joyce nearly drives off the road, we're laughing so hard—a few minutes later he regales us with some lines from Keats, Johnny. But here's what's irresistible about Harrison's humor: he slays himself. He's hugely amused at how amusing he is. When he's having fun, he laughs, he barks, he coughs, he wheezes—he has a cold, he says, but he also smokes a couple of packs of American Spirits a day—and then he fixes you with a cockeyed stare that at first is unsettling, thanks to his wandering, half-blind left eye. But it's not long before you find the whole act charming; the total effect is of a slightly mad, aging elf, a Rabelaisian observer who's had plenty to drink.

What a wonderful, voracious, hilarious, hugely lovable guy he was. RIP Jim Harrison.

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Jim Harrison (1937-2016)

Amazon Book Review: Jim HarrisonJim Harrison died March 26 at the age of 78 at his summer home in Patagonia, Arizona. 

Widely considered the master of the novella, Harrison's stories often dealt with outsiders living in wild spaces, especially Michigan (where he was born), Montana, and Arizona. He is perhaps most well known for "Legends of the Fall," a story of three brothers ranging from their Montana home to the battlefields of World War I and back again. Despite its concise length, "Legends"--the title novella of the collection of the same name--is an epic of desperate acts and ruinous consequences, and was later adapted as a 1994 film that helped jumpstart Brad Pitt's early career.

Harrison was not only an insightful writer, but a prolific one as well. His more than thirty books span criticism, poetry, and culinary writing, where his frontier-sized appetites (not always limited to food) often found their most eloquent (if unintuitive) expression, many collected in The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. Other books include True North, A Good Day to Die, In Search of Small Gods, and Dead Man's Float, published in January. 

Like many of his characters, Harrison was an avid outdoorsman, drawing frequent comparisons to Ernest Hemingway for his taste for a rugged and rough-edged life. But Jim Harrison was one of a kind, and his contribution to Western literature cannot be overstated or replicated.  

The cause of death has not been released. 


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The Great Literary Tournament: And Then There Were Two...

Last week, sixty-four book characters entered the Great Literary Tournament. More than one hundred matches have been fought. More than 25,000 votes were cast by readers. And we're finally down to the final two contenders, who will face off on Monday, March 28, in the match of the century:


Some fun facts about the last several rounds:

In round three, Jo March (Little Women) went up against Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs). As in round two, when Jo faced off with Deadpool, our readers on Facebook cast their votes to Jo, but Twitter-based readers favored Hannibal the Cannibal, ultimately delivering victory to Lecter. Lecter fell, however, in round four to James Bond, in the closest battle of that round.

Tyler Durden (Fight Club) and Satan (Paradise Lost) fought to a dead heat in round three on Twitter, but Facebook readers gave the win to Tyler Durden. This was the third very close competition for Durden, and he finally fell in round four to Lisbeth Salander, who was also coming off a bruising battle with Black Widow.

In each of the five rounds, both Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes consistently took home more than 70 percent of the votes. In the last round, their challengers fell fast and hard, especially on Facebook, where voters gave both Potter and Holmes more than 90 percent of the votes. Strong contenders since the very beginning, Holmes and Potter will be coming in fairly fresh for their final duel on Monday, March 28. Hopefully Watson and Hermione will be on hand this weekend to give our finalists tips on how to defeat the other.


Visit us on Facebook and on Twitter on Monday to vote for Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter. We'll crown the winner on Tuesday here on the Amazon Book Review.

Full bracket is below:



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