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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Selfies, Memoir, and the World Beyond the Self

When I was a teenager in Colorado during the late '90s, I liked to climb 14ers — 14,000-foot mountains. I'd often hike with friends, and at the top we'd take a photograph of ourselves standing on the summit. We'd set the camera on a rock and use the timer function, or, if another hiker happened to be at the top at the same time we were, we might ask her to take the shot. When I hiked alone, I'd sometimes take my camera out and point it at myself, to capture an image of me floating in the clouds.

That was before selfies. Of course, people had been taking self-portraits for years, but the concept of the selfie was not part of the culture yet. Now, it's inescapable. Everyone takes selfies. On top of mountains, at the grocery store, at school, in the bathroom, at the Oscars, inside the White House.

Perhaps we live in the age of the selfie, a time of insecurity — about jobs, about the future, about our place in the world — but also a time of extreme self-regard.

We are no ...

The Book That Refused to Write Itself

I first heard of Fritz Haber in 1998, when I caught a snippet of a TV documentary about 20th-century scientists. The camera zoomed in on an image of a bald man in a military uniform, a pair of pince nez clamped to the bridge of his nose. He looked like a stereotypical German nationalist circa World War I, and that's exactly what he turned out to be: a militaristic Prussian, this chemist whose devotion to the fatherland was so unwavering he had no qualms about creating and deploying the first chemical weapons used in battle. What difference did it make whether someone died from a bullet or from the long, cruel death that ensues after inhaling gas?

"Dead is dead," said Fritz Haber.

The documentary also mentioned Fritz's wife, Clara. A chemist, too, she was kept out of the lab and relegated instead to a life of Küche and Kinder. She spent her last years railing against her husband's deadly work until, unable to sway him, she killed herself. The morning she died, Fritz Haber obeyed the Kaiser's orders and traveled to the eastern front. The Habers' 12-year-old son ...

Required Reading: Books That Inspire Travel

Required Reading Ahead of a trip, many of us gravitate toward books that depict the history and culture of our travel destination. But it can work the other way around, too. Sometimes a book provides such a powerful sense of place that we find ourselves longing to visit the area we read about. Some of us even act on this urge. Here are the books that inspired us to pack our bags and explore someplace new.

Kent Russell’s Playlist for I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son

The Powell's PlaylistI don't listen to music while I write. Frankly, I don't see how anyone can. Since all style is rhythm, and since I cannot write anything that's as clear and simple and still as the truth, needing instead to perpetrate my own Stomp!-style foolishness across the page — I can't be bumping, say, OJ da Juiceman while drafting. I have to apportion all my ear-strength for sussing out the short-long-short-short issuing from the poor soul trapped behind the walls of my skull.

That being said, I listened to music whenever I wasn't writing I Am Sorry to Think That I Have Raised a Timid Son. I'm always listening to music. Is it good music? Jesus, no. It's god-awful music. I understand this, and I take full ownership of the fact. I also understand that there are about seven million white dudes with glasses just wishing that they had this platform from which to broadcast their discretionary taste and consumptive self-worth. They'd post a bunch of Bobby Womack B-sides or something. But me, I use bad pop as my smelling salt. ...

Nine Tips for Finishing That Novel

My second novel, A Little Life — about a group of men in New York and their friendship over the course of 30 years — will be published in March. Because my first book, The People in the Trees, came out in August of 2013, people have been asking me: What happened? Why did the first book take 16 years to write, and the second only 18 months?

The true (though unsatisfying) answer is: I don't know. (Well, I partially know: I spent a lot of those 16 years fooling around and being lazy.) But not knowing is not going to stop me from sharing the following nine rules for anyone working on their manuscript, wondering if, and when, and how, they too might be published.

1) You don't need an MFA to write a novel.

2) Publishing is not a foot race. It doesn't matter how old you are when you publish your book. Or rather: it may matter (to publishing reporters, to your house), but it will never mean your book is intrinsically better or worse than it already is. And there are advantages to ...

All Signs Point to Atlantis

When I tell people I've spent the last three years working on a book about Atlantis, they usually have two questions. The first almost always goes unspoken: Are you nuts? (I don't think so, but perhaps I'd be the last to know.) The follow-up question — which almost always does get asked — is where I got the idea to write about Atlantis.

If an author is lucky, he or she will be chugging along working on one book when some detail pops out that is hard to shake off. In my case, I was researching the major events of 1911 while working on the book that became Turn Right at Machu Picchu — 1911 is the year the Peruvian citadel was rediscovered — when I came across a rather unusual headline in the New York Times: GERMAN FINDS ATLANTIS IN AFRICA. Not exactly the sort of thing one expects to see in the paper of record, but when I read the article, it turned out that a German explorer had indeed made a discovery that he believed proved that the famous sunken city had once existed in ...

One in the Oven; or, Why You Should Suck It Up and Meet Your Favorite Author

At first, I was dead set against it. I would not try to meet Nicholson Baker while I was writing a book about Nicholson Baker. I had a good reason for this. I didn't want to meet Baker because Baker, in U and I, his fretful, hand-wringing account of his literary relationship with John Updike, spends a great deal of time trying to meet John Updike. This is peculiar because U and I is sometimes very critical of Updike, though in general it lauds his work, and why would you set out to meet an author, repeatedly and with only minimal success, when you were also in the process of criticizing him? Indeed, the impulse to meet Updike was one of the very few things I stumbled across in Nicholson Baker's career that sent little bolts of pain through my teeth, and this worried me because what I intended to do, for the most part, was laud Baker's widely known, yet, in my opinion, inadequately heralded, career.

There are other good reasons not to meet authors, too. If you're like me, you've had the experience of ...

Claire Fuller: The Interview

Our Endless Numbered Days tells the story of eight-year-old Peggy and her survivalist father, James, who inexplicably leave behind their London home and start a new life in an isolated cabin in the woods. Both stylistically rendered and deliberately paced, this book is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the ability we all have to endure. Amy Stewart (author of The Drunken Botanist) raves, "Like the wilderness into which Claire Fuller's characters disappear, Our Endless Numbered Days is rigged with barbs and poisons, tricks and tragedies. It's weird and wild and sometimes terrifying, but it's also beautiful and heartbreaking and breathlessly alive." Claire Fuller's debut novel marks the arrival of a remarkable new literary talent, which is why we're thrilled to have it as our pick for Volume #52 of Indiespensable.

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Shawn Donley: How did the story of Our Endless Numbered Days evolve?

Claire Fuller: It started when I was doing a creative and critical writing MA at the University of Winchester. They asked us to find something that had appeared in the news that we could use as the basis to start writing. I think ...

Erik Larson: The Interview

I've been a fan of Erik Larson's riveting brand of narrative history for years, and his latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, is his finest work yet. Suspenseful and expertly researched, Dead Wake transports the reader to the Atlantic theatre of WWI, where the luxury passenger liner Lusitania and a German U-Boat helmed by a ruthless commander race across the ocean for the safe harbors of England. Dead Wake explores the tragic sinking of the Lusitania, as well as the private and public lives of its passengers, its crewmen, its hidden submarine assailants, and the military and governmental figures involved in transatlantic travel and warfare at the turn of the century. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it "an intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster," while Shelf Awareness reviewer Julia Jenkins notes, "Dead Wake is both a thoroughly satisfying read, and an unparalleled adventure into world history. Larson's fans will rejoice, and grow in number."

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Rhianna: In the afterword of Dead Wake, you write that you "live for these moments" when "history becomes tactile." I love this expression because it suggests that, for you, writing ...

Beyond the Headlines: How to Visit Cuba

Ever since President Obama's December announcement that the United States is resuming full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the Powell's buyers' office has been suffering from an epidemic of reverse island fever. It turns out that almost all of us harbor a secret desire to visit Cuba. Some of us want to eat lobster, swim in a turquoise ocean, and drink mojitos, while others are motivated by politics, music, or wildlife. The origin of my interest is easy to trace. When I was 18, I spent a miserable, sunburnt week on the deck of my grandmother's Palm Beach condo, reading the New Testament for school and watching my family play on the beach. One day, maybe to rescue me from the Bible assignment or my grandmother's morbid habit of inviting neighbors to look at my burns, my parents decided to take us on a day trip to Miami. That evening we had dinner at a sidewalk restaurant in Little Havana, Miami's Cuban neighborhood. It was a little La Cage aux Folles meets Buena Vista Social Club: couples in neon thongs rollerbladed past our table, while old men drank espresso ...

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