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Miriam Toews: The Interview

Some people are compelled by a restlessness from within; others are shaped by the unwieldy forces around them. In Miriam Toews's poignant new novel following two sisters raised in a small Canadian Mennonite community, siblinghood is a bond strengthened by this dynamic. Elf is now a world-famous concert pianist with a happy marriage, while her sister, Yoli, is a scattered, stalled writer in the middle of her second divorce. Yet it is Yoli who serves as protector for her fragile and impulsive older sister, a woman so crippled by depression that she repeatedly tries to take her own life. Says The Guardian's Stevie Davies, "I can think of no precedent for the darkly fizzing tragicomic jeu d'esprit that is Miriam Toews's sixth novel." Daring, propulsive, and deeply affecting, All My Puny Sorrows is indeed in a class of its own. We're honored to have chosen it as the featured title for our 50th volume of Indiespensable.

Jill Owens: You're known for drawing from your own life in your earlier work, and All My Puny Sorrows sounds like it's very autobiographical as well. Can you talk a bit about how this book came about?

Miriam Toews: Yes, it's ...

On Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

I'm always sorry to finish a book, to let go of characters I love, people I've struggled to understand for years, people who evolve before me. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I've never had the sense I was "making up" a character. It feels more like watching people reveal themselves, ever more deeply, more intimately. When a central character in The Binding Chair committed suicide, I moped for days, maybe even weeks. I cast my eye back over her past, reviewed the life she'd lived — the one I'd written — the trials she'd endured, and what hints she'd given me as to the state of her soul. She'd always been willful and impulsive. Though her life took her far from the childhood she endured, she'd remained captive to the torments of her early years.

After she died, I said to myself what people always say at such times: that I should have seen it coming, that I wished I'd done something, that hers was an unbearably tragic end, that I was sorry I wouldn't ever again look at the world through her eyes. It was strange ...

My Bookstore Fantasy — No Customers Necessary

"Let's open a bookstore," I say to my husband every now and then. "A used bookstore. With a few new books we really like." I'm picturing an old-fashioned shop, with comfy chairs and shelves bent under dusty treasures, and tea and cookies for favorite customers. Oh, and a cat. The cat is a very important part of the bookstore fantasy, which resembles an illustration from a madly twee children's book, only darker and browner.

"You'd hate it, Katha," my husband always says, and he tells me again about a used bookshop he always used to visit when in London, whose proprietor went slowly mad from loneliness — and probably looming bankruptcy, too — as customers less and less often rang the doorbell. "It's awful to be running a failing business."

Indeed. I remember that shop. Once, my husband told me, it had been a neighborhood gathering spot, where readers, collectors, and scholars dropped in to chat and gossip and browse. But by the time of my visit, it was a mess, with unsorted books sliding from every surface and piling up on the floor. The shop owner, a bony ...

The Powell’s Playlist: Anne Rice

The Powell's PlaylistThese are the songs that wake me up, take me out of my worries and anxieties, wash my brain cells, and send me to the keyboard to write with new vigor.

1. "It's My Life" by Bon Jovi
This is a song I associate with my beloved vampire hero, Lestat, today. I imagine Lestat loving it, singing it and playing it on his guitar. I see him riding his Harley, listening to it on his iPhone through his ear buds. I listened to it morning after morning before going to my desk to work on Prince Lestat. It shakes me up, sends me to work with optimism and spirit.

2. "Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi
Another great hit that I find inspiring. Again, when I hear this, I see my hero, Lestat, singing and dancing with the Bon Jovi sound.

3. "I Hate Myself for Loving You" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Love the pounding beat of this and Joan Jett's powerful voice. Listening to this one always gets my creative juices going. Good for the ...

New Cookbooks for September: Making the Most of the Harvest

September, when we are still working to preserve our summer fare amidst the first rains of fall, brings books on harvesting and preserving. Let's enjoy these last of the summer-oriented cookbooks and also: Cookbook Season! September, October, and November bring a bumper crop of new cookbook releases. Keep an eye out next month for a special edition of Handpicked, where our marketing and order office crew are planning a potluck photo shoot featuring recipes from the October new releases. As befits such a big release month, there will be twice as many reviews for October.

These are the rain-filled sunshine days that find many people on their hands and knees in forest and meadow searching for mushrooms. It's also the perfect time to bring out Shroom. Shroom is a mouthwatering and sometimes funny book. Many mushroom cookbooks are serious and dry, but Seattle author and chef Becky Selengut is chatty, enthusiastic, and sometimes hilarious about her topic. You can tell she has actually cooked the recipes and really knows what she is talking about. She offers tips in the body of the recipe, in case you ...

The World of Publishing: 1991 vs. 2014

The Diamond Lane, published in May 1991, was my second novel, and what is most striking about the difference between the publishing process 23 years ago and now is not that the book was written on a Kaypro, Xeroxed at Kinko's, and sent overnight in a FedEx box to G. P. Putnam's Sons, but that after the manuscript was accepted and given a pub date, I asked my esteemed editor, "What should I do now?" and she said, "Just write the next one."

Before I get too far down the road extolling the good old days, let me say that I'm not particularly nostalgic by nature, that Xeroxing manuscripts and sending them FedEx was a pain in the ass, as was hanging around the house waiting for your editor to call, which felt exactly like waiting for a boy to call in 8th grade; that I love my Kindle, enjoy a lively love/hate relationship with social media, admire the pioneering souls that have forged the way for quality self-publishing, and have no desire to hop in the way-back machine.

That said, in 1991, the main job of a ...

A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors

Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost control of, he relishes the little bit of control that can be got by sticking oneself behind the cockpit of a WWII airplane or facing off against a small band of Nazis. His fellow council members know this about him. He shows up disoriented and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep at council meetings. Some have embraced this (for what else can they do?), and purchased civilization-building games for him they suppose might give him a leg up on his duties, such as SimCity 2000! But Mayor Bartlett only plays first-person shooters. He desires that raw, unhinged control of an avatar with a machine gun.

Based on this character, I began to wonder what video games other leading politicos might get addicted to. Below I've detailed my research.

The Rude Burl of Our Masks

One day when I was 12 years old and setting off on my newspaper route after school my mom said will you stop at the doctor's and pick up something for me and I grimaced and said something almost rude but not all the way rude and off I went on my bicycle. In autumn where we lived the afternoon didn't slide gently or melt easily into dusk but just snarled and surrendered and suddenly everything went brown. My mom had lost interior parts one after another over the years but I knew nothing and cared nothing of which parts and why and how they had been lost. I had 60 papers to deliver and I could deliver them in exactly 70 minutes if all went well but now I would have to go easily five whole minutes out of my way all the way over by the woods by the highway and I would not get home until long after five o'clock which meant I would miss most of the one television show we were allowed to watch per day why my mom would be so thoughtless ...

Ask a Book Buyer: Exploring Europe Through Fiction

Ask a Book BuyerAt Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident experts. Need a gift idea for a fan of vampire novels? Looking for a guide that will best demonstrate how to knit argyle socks? Need a book for a vegetarian who loves Radiohead and Flight of the Conchords? Email your question to We'll be posting personalized recommendations regularly.

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Q: I'm staying in Germany and looking for some fairly lighthearted books with a strong sense of place set in Europe. I read a mystery years ago set in Prague that was playful and not highly charged (no gore), but the clues were throughout the city and some referred to its history as well. I really enjoyed visiting there after reading the book. Does your team have any suggestions for a similar read? –Sandra

A: A few of my favorite lighthearted novels set in Europe are Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (a hunt for Dracula across modern Europe), Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind (a book-centric mystery set in post-war Barcelona), and Dan Simmons's Drood (in which he imagines the rivalry between 19th century authors Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, with some truly creepy descriptions of Victorian London). And while Philip Kerr's Berlin mysteries aren't exactly lighthearted, they're an amazing introduction to the seedier sides of the city, pre- and post-WWII. Try Berlin Noir. –Rhianna

Knowing vs. Knowing

On a hot July evening years ago, my Toyota Tercel overheated on a flat stretch of highway north of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A steam geyser shot up from beneath the hood, and the temperature gauge spiked into the red zone. I pulled onto the shoulder and shut off the engine. Except for my car's gasps and sputters, all was quiet. To the west, nothing but corn beneath the falling sun. To the east, an oat field nearing harvest. It was Sunday, traffic nonexistent, the cell phone era still more than a decade off. With the few tools I kept in my trunk, I tore off the frayed end of the radiator hose and reclamped what remained — it was enough — to the radiator, which of course was now dry. Half a mile away, across the oat field, I could make out a farmstead partly hidden in a clutch of trees, and I set out for it briskly, aware of time passing and thinking of my wife at home in Minnesota, expecting me back.

As I entered the yard of the little farm, a man watched from ...

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