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The Powell’s Playlist: Daniel H. Wilson

The Powell's PlaylistLike many writers, I'm constantly haunting coffee shops with a laptop out and my headphones on. I listen to a lot of music while I write, and songs do eventually get tangled up with certain characters. My novel Robogenesis is a techno-thriller that largely takes place in the country, pitting high-tech machines against decidedly low-tech human beings. As a result, my playlist ends up being a strange mix of golden-age country songs and chest-throbbing dubstep/trap electronic music. Whichever you prefer (and both is a good answer, too), these are the songs that congealed in my mind as I created Robogenesis in Portland's coffee shops and with the kiss of rain on the nape of my neck as I walked the streets.

1. "Mama Tried" by Merle Haggard
I went and licensed these lyrics from Sony to put inside the novel, as they perfectly explain the journey of the cowboy Hank Cotton as he descends into madness and worships a false god. Hank's mother told him to never pray to a devil, but he disobeys… and for that he will pay a ...


Handpicked: New Cookbooks for June

With Memorial Day under our belts and the hot summer fast upon us, we're already in the thick of barbeque season. To be honest, I've yet to fire up my sturdy Weber, but I've been doing some hearty armchair reading of recent releases. June is turning out some fine BBQ titles.

There's nothing like a carnivorous visit to a Brazilian churrascaria, but if you don't have one in your town, try Brazilian Barbecue and Beyond. The cooking techniques are simple and basic, and the way-south-of-the-border zing is what makes this meat-focused grilling fresh and new. Also, banana upside-down cake! Why have I never thought of this amazing creation? Likewise, chicken fried in a coating of tiny matchstick potatoes? Genius! From cover to cover, this book is a color fest of modern Brazil.

I love food on a stick, so The World's 60 Best Skewers... Period is right up my alley. Most BBQ books have filler recipes of sides and drinks, but this is nothing but skewers. Cooking techniques are both over a flame and over an indoor grill, which is nice for our unpredictable PNW summers. Amidst ...


Why Living Hard Is Way Easier Than Writing Hard

Lately I've found my job requiring me to do frightening things — bouncing around in small planes, jumping off ropes courses, rafting through Class IV rapids, poking away rattlesnakes. In these cases, I was a teacher in charge of students — undergraduates, graduates, writing retreat folk, and so unlike other scary endeavors I get myself into for my own writing (interviewing meth addicts, say), I'm supposed to be the brave and confident one, the one who shows equanimity and grace and leads by example. I'm supposed to have my chin up and my eyes calm.

Well, ah, let's just admit that I can poker face as good as anyone (and we are all very good at it, methinks), and also, adrenaline-based activities aren't really my natural path. Or, as the Greeks say, "Everything in moderation and save thyself" (okay, I made that last one up). Or at least, those are my mantras when the world starts spinning so fast that it nearly flings itself out of orbit, or when vomit seems lodged in the same tube that is designed to carry oxygen to my lungs — which are ...


Of Books on Baguettes

I was chatting idly with my best friend the other day, and as usual, we ended up talking about books and food (this is doubtless a big reason why we are friends in the first place). Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other, but in this particular case, it was both of them combined.

"I love book clubs," he said.

"Oh, me, too," I agreed. "A bunch of people sitting around, preferably with a glass of wine in hand, talking about books. What could be better?"

"But there has to be food," he insisted. "There always has to be food at any kind of party. So what food would you serve that would be as stimulating, nourishing, and satisfying to a group of people with different tastes, as whatever book you all had gotten together to read?"

The query instantly made me fantasize about my very own perfect book club party.

It would be on a hot summer's day, cooling down then with just enough of a breeze to wake up the curiosity of the readers involved in the discussion. And the talk itself would be held under some trees in a shady meadow, around five in the evening. There would be wine for those who wanted it — red, white, and a lot of my favorite rosé. There would be sparkling water, with lemon and lime slices, for those who wanted that. There would be discreet little bowls of olives and roasted nuts and cloves of pickled garlic, for those who wanted a bit of a lagniappe before supper.


Powell’s Q&A: Joanna Rakoff

Describe your latest book.
My Salinger Year is a memoir about my sojourn as the assistant to J. D. Salinger's agent, a job that involved answering his fan mail, typing letters on an ancient IBM Selectric, mastering an archaic device known as a Dictaphone, and generally coping — or trying to decipher — the odd, outmoded customs and practices of the agency. When I took the job, my boss warned me that I'd never see Salinger, that he would never call, and if by some crazy chance he did, I was to utter as few words as possible and immediately put him through to her. As it turned out, this was not the case! Salinger decided, during my first month at the agency, to publish a new book: a standalone edition of his last published story. And soon he began calling frequently, if not as often as his fans.

Over the course of my year at the agency, I got to know Salinger better than I ever thought I would, but also got to know those fans, whose letters affected me in a profound and unexpected way. ...


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 askabuyer@powells.com. 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" (Slate.com 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 ...


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