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Original Essays

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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


What’s in a Book Title?

Naming a novel is painstaking, agonizing, delicate. But does the title matter?

It certainly feels consequential to the author. After several years' battle with your laptop keyboard, after 100,000 words placed so deliberately, you must distill everything into a phrase brief enough to run down the spine of a book. Should it be descriptive? Perhaps make it catchy. It has to be expressive, too. And honest. And serious. And amusing. And...

When writing my latest novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (I'll explain that title shortly), I filled a pad with notes on my expanding story: character histories, timelines, plotlines — plus a single sheet of possible titles. The page remained bare throughout my first draft. By the second, I had a dozen possibilities. By the third, the page was crammed with contenders, every line occupied, titles curling up the margins, pushing each other aside, thrusting themselves forth like forefingers poking my breastbone. Some were alright — yet not quite right. Others were perfect — but not for this book. Many were stinkers.

Then, a flutter went through me. I had it.

I wrote this one ...

Ask a Book Buyer: Picky Parents, Science Lovers, Lizzie Borden

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 trying to buy a book for a male friend of mine for our high school graduation. He loves science, and he plans on majoring in engineering in the fall. He also loves history, but my fear with purchasing him a history book is that he may have already read it. He's a big fan of NPR, and I know I want to get him a nonfiction book. Any recommendations? –Rachel

A: A great gift for those interested in engineering: 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School by John Kuprenas. This illustrated book gives readers the basic principles of engineering and insight into how the engineering thought process works. Also, due in paperback this month: Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio. It's the perfect combination of science and history! –Corie

You should also check out The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. It's more about chemistry than engineering, but it's a wonderful, approachable book that any science fan will enjoy . –Tom

Q: While both highly educated, due to their conservative leanings, my parents read almost exclusively young adult fiction. While there is nothing wrong with this, when it comes to birthdays, Christmases, and Mother's/Father's Day, I try to gift them literary fiction I think they might enjoy that would perhaps expand their horizons a little. However, they are very picky with what they will read (I learned the hard way after I loaned my copies of the Thursday Next series to my mother and ironically enough got them back bowdlerized with whiteout tape). My most recent gifts were Every Man Dies Alone and Gilead, both of which went over very well, but I am low on ideas for what to gift next. Do you have any suggestions for well-written, literary fiction on the lighter side of things? –Remy

The Living Landscape: It’s All About Relationships

Last week while looking through a bathroom window, I spotted a male towhee foraging in the leafy ground layer of our garden. Melinda and I delight in the birds that share our home habitat, and over the years, as our place has become more wooded, the avian diversity has continually increased. The towhee meant a lot to me, but not because it was a new bird in our garden. My grandfather, a carpenter by trade, had a series of small Roger Tory Peterson "Birds of Our Land" prints hanging in mitered wooden frames he'd hand-made. The towhee print showed a male bird foraging in woodland duff amidst violets, ferns, and jack-in-the-pulpit, and as a child it was my favorite. That same framed print is now in my office, and looking at its depiction of a scene so like many in our garden, I'm reminded of the infinite capacity of living landscapes to reveal, renew, and enlarge upon relationships.

Beyond the Headlines: North Korea — Paradise or Purgatory?

Satellite image of North and
South Korea at night

Given North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world, it's surprising how many scholarly books have been published on the country's economy, politics, history, and culture. The growing number of refugee memoirs depicting North Korea's cradle-to-grave propaganda machine and its oppression of civilians is perhaps less surprising but more tantalizing for presenting an insider's account. Bestsellers like Escape from Camp 14 satisfy what Christopher Hitchens called our "[preoccupation with the] imposing and exotic forms of totalitarianism" ( 2/1/10). More fascinating, however, than the salacious details divvied out in North Korean histories and memoirs, is that the genre is as contradictory and elusive as the country itself: while everyone agrees that a certain level of brutality and deprivation exists in North Korea, there's virtually no consensus regarding the strength of the Kim dynasty, the threat North Korea poses to the world, or even what the daily life of the average civilian is like. The best a curious reader can do is read a bit (or a lot) of everything, seeking commonalities and making meaning of the mystery that is the Hermit Kingdom.

Here's a list of brilliant titles to get you started.

The Last Book I Loved: Short Story Collections

For Short Story Month, we asked our readers: What was the last short story collection that you couldn't put down, that kept you up all night, that you couldn't stop recommending? We were delightfully surprised by the number of replies we received. Here are some of our favorites. If you'd like to submit your own book recommendations, click here for instructions.

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The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin

Recommended by: Alice L. from San Diego, California
Favorite short story author of all time: Alice Munro — not terribly original, but there won't be much argument, except perhaps from Bret Easton Ellis, and who listens to him?
Favorite short story of all time: There are two — both Alice Munro. I can't choose between them: "Meneseteung" from Friend of My Youth and "The Albanian Virgin" from Open Secrets.

I recently read a 1981 collection by Laurie Colwin, The Lone Pilgrim. Colwin's work has become a secret garden for short story enthusiasts, increasingly obscured from view due to her untimely death in 1992 at the age of 48. I've heard her ...

Powell’s Q&A: Geoff Dyer

Describe your latest book/project/work.
Another Great Day at Sea is an account of my experiences aboard the USS George H. W. Bush. It's a masterpiece of the form, widely hailed as the best book ever written about my time on the George H. W. Bush. Also, I have two early novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search, which are only now being published in the U.S., even though they're masterpieces, too.

Describe a recurring dream or nightmare.
Trudging and trudging with my legs getting heavier and heavier and not getting anywhere. I have this dream all the time. Fortunately I don't have nightmares.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Lots, many of them D. H. Lawrence related (Taormina, Taos, Eastwood). But yeah, I'm always up for a bit of the old lit pilg.

What scares you the most as a writer?
My brain packing in. Even more than that, the suspicion that it already has.

What do your bookshelves look like? Are you a book hoarder? Do you embrace chaos, or are you a meticulous organizer?
I hoard books, but my beautifully organized ...

The Powell’s Playlist: Josh Malerman

The Powell's PlaylistI can't imagine writing a novel without some sound. When you're facing a few hundred blank pages, silence can be cold. Thing is, I love lyrics so much that rock 'n' roll can be a distraction (though maybe I should try it again). Instead, I go for horror movie soundtracks. So many moods, so many colors; it's kind of like listening to a ne'er-do-well child trying his hand at classical music. Like any album, the good ones soar, but the truth is, I think they're all good, and they probably end up influencing my books more than I'll ever really know. Let's look at some:

"Prologue/Welcome to Creepshow" by John Harrison, Creepshow
I was seven years old when Creepshow came out, and I'm guessing I was around 10 when I saw it for the first time on VHS. The opening theme reminds me that there are five stories to be told, all so different, and the process of telling a scary story is a dark, glorious trip.

"Flight" by Bernard Herrmann, Psycho
Marion Crane is fleeing Arizona, $40,000 in her car. We're catching her ...

Handpicked: New Cookbooks for May

One of the trends we're seeing in new cookbook releases this May is the concept of small-batch cooking. Portland loves food, so cheese making and home beer brewing are right up our alley. And what better to serve with small-batch goods than homemade street food?

There are stores and restaurants I will go to especially for their artisan cheese, but it hadn't occurred to me that I could make my own. Claudia Lucero's One-Hour Cheese is an eye opener! I can easily make my own paneer and string cheese? A prerelease copy of Lucero's book has been passed around our office and made a few field trips home with employees so we could try out the ridiculously easy recipes. Each recipe has roughly 8 to 24 accompanying photos that finely detail the process of cheesemaking. Yes, 8 to 24 photos per recipe! How amazing is that? To make it all even easier, Lucero also puts out DIY cheese kits. And it must be said: Ms. Lucero is a Portlander!

Caprese Salad
Coworker Aubrey made this wonderful Caprese salad with



Following a freak vacation decision in 2013, I found myself hiking an Arctic glacier with other eco-tourists. In this magnificently strange environment, I learned a new and very useful word: umwelt. It means an animal's experience of its surroundings, and a German fellow-traveler taught it to me, following a slightly uncomfortable exchange (perhaps familiar to many writers) in which she politely asked exactly what I was working on. I told her. She frowned. "So... it's all set in a beehive? And everyone in it is... a bee?"

I nodded. My book was still stacks of paper in my writing shed, a distant concept in a distant country. I had no agent, no publishing deal. She took pity on me and asked no more. We clomped on together over the ice, listening to the chafing of our high-tech fabrics. Suddenly she put her wadded mitten on my arm and smiled. "Ah! You are writing the umwelt of the honeybee! Great!"

She told me about the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1920s Germany, who championed the theory, which revolutionized how animals were studied. Before, they had been considered only as passive ...

Ask a Book Buyer: The Answer Is Robin Hobb (and More)

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 flew through Codex Alera and loved it. I got hooked on The Iron Druid Chronicles but am waiting for the next book. I stumbled upon and devoured Blades of the Old Empire (again, waiting on the next book). I am on the waiting list at the library for The Name of the Wind but am getting antsy for a good read. Can you suggest a series that isn't in fashion — an oldie but goodie, perhaps?
–Jeremy B.

Q: I just finished hate-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I need that bad taste out of my mouth. I wouldn't mind starting a new series, but I'm at a loss here. I want to read something epic. I've not read much fantasy, but I do kinda like it. So... what do you think? (And don't say A Song of Ice and Fire because I've already started in on those.)

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