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That’s some catch, that Catch-22

That’s some catch, that Catch-22

Heller_22I have been looking forward to this: Tonight, a six-part adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 debuts on a certain streaming service. Among a cast of many, the series features Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Hugh Laurie (House), and George Clooney (an all-around handsome and debonair gentleman, who seems born for this), who also served as executive producer and director of two episodes. If you haven’t yet read the book (and you should), the novel follows Yossarian, a bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II, who is as determined to escape the war alive, as the military bureaucracy seems determined to kill him. Much of it reads like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” but with mortal consequences. If you need a refresher:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

There you go. As a comment on war’s ability to bend reason and reality, Catch-22 has proved remarkably durable, spawning a line of absurdist horror stories. But if you have read it—and maybe you should read it again, considering these times—here are six descendants of Heller’s mad, mad, mad, mad opus. And for more on the book and television series, check out master deep-diver Rob Harvilla’s piece on The Ringer.


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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain

Our top pick for the best book of May 2012, Ben Fountain’s debut novel is “The Catch-22 of the Iraq war.” Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War, says so right on the jacket, and he would know. In his review, Amazon’s Neal Thompson said Billy Lynn “manages a sly feat: giving us a maddening and believable cast of characters who make us feel what it must be like to go to war—and return.”


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The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Set during the fall of Saigon and the years after in America, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is narrated by an undercover communist agent posing as a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army. The “captain” spies on the general and the men he escaped with, sharing his information with his communist blood brothers in coded letters. But when his allegiance is called into question, he must act in a way that will haunt him forever. Political, historical, romantic and comic, The Sympathizer captures the complexity of the war and what it means to be of two minds. 


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A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Another Best of the Month pick, this one from May 2008. At the time I said, “The book has been aptly compared to Catch-22 for its hilarious (though not quite as madcap) skewering of the Pakistani military and intelligence infrastructure, but it also can trace its lineage to Don DeLillo, doing for Pakistan what Libra did for JFK conspiracy theory, and Kafka’s The Trial, with its paranoid-but-true take on pathological bureaucracy.”


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The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) by Adam Johnson

Yet another Best of the Month pick, from January 2012. In our discussion about which books would make our top 10, this was described as “Catch-22 meets 1984,” largely for its surreal depiction of life under the North Korean state. Unfortunately, much of shock and awe of these descriptions can be attributed to their roots in fact. Amazon’s Chris Schluep: “Through Jun Do’s story we realize that beneath the weight of oppression and lies beats a heart not much different from our own–one that thirsts for love, acceptance, and hope—and that realization is at the heart of this shockingly believable, immersive, and thrilling novel.” Johnson later won the National Book Award for his short story collection, Fortune Smiles.


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Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) by Kurt Vonnegut

Published in 1969, Vonnegut’s apex (my opinion—there may be more out there) is more of a cousin than a direct descendant. A witness to the destruction of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim is a man who has “become unstuck in time”–and an alien abductee. Like Catch, Slaughterhouse is a dark mix of humor and real horror, a acerbic comment on the wide spectrum of war and suffering. Of course we have all read this, but it’s another worth revisiting.


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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Randall Patrick McMurphy, a red-headed wildman consigned a mental ward becomes a figure of inspiration to the lifeless patients living under the totalitarian regime of Big Nurse Ratched. The only book on this list not set in a martial context, Kesey’s book is nevertheless a classic (countercultural) tale of the individual pitted against banal tyranny.

This post was adapted from an article originally published on Omnivoracious.com many, many years ago. 


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Best books of May: Literature and fiction

Best books of May: Literature and fiction

A lyrical, morally complex family saga; an uproarious and provocative work of satire; a sobering story set right after 9/11, and a heart-wrenching but hopeful yarn. 

See all of our literature and fiction picks, or browse the rest of the Best Books of the Month.


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The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Sarah Blake’s latest novel, The Guest Book, is a gorgeous epic that charts the course of an American family over three generations, from the 1930s to present day. Blake draws you into the Milton clan, and the more I became privy to their secrets, fears, and desires, the more I felt at home with every flawed one of them. Early in the novel, Blake’s character Evie tells her students, “History is between the cracks,” and so it is in this book: a history created in moments big and small, knitting itself together inside us, and of us. Crockett Island, off the coast of Maine, bought by Kitty and Ogden Milton in 1936 as a place of refuge and legacy, is as much a character in the novel as those who gather there. Through Blake’s writing I could smell the ocean, see the lilac tree beside the door. And I could feel Kitty and Ogden’s dream fray when the grandchildren inherit the island and all it represents. The Miltons’ story mirrors the times in which they lived, and we watch as parents and siblings make choices driven by ambition, prejudice, or pride that later haunt them and their progeny. Issues of gender inequality, classism, racism, breaking free from the past—Blake tackles them all, because all play an important role in the history of the family as well as that of the country in which we live. There is so much I want to tell you about this book. So many passages I have underlined and returned to. Instead, I invite you to visit the Miltons of Crockett Island in the pages of The Guest Book yourself, so that you too may experience the emotional resonance of Blake’s remarkable and thought-provoking novel. —Seira Wilson


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Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman

Riots I Have Known is a spitfire of a novel: funny, abrasive, and intelligent. As a prison riot thunders in the background, an inmate narrates the action from the Will and Edith Rosenberg Media Center for Journalistic Excellence in the Penal Arts. For several years, the inmate has reported the facts of prison life in the literary journal The Holding Pen (a stunt led by the PR-savvy warden), which has garnered a national following. In the journal, he regales readers with the disquieting and daily events inside a prison, while meandering through bourgeoisie meditations on art, culture, religion—and there is no way you won’t laugh out loud. Like Proust and Knausgaard, his unflinching pledge to narrate his own thoughts is virtuous, ruthless, comical and addictive, and grows even more poignant as the mob closes in on the media center. Ryan Chapman is a gifted wordsmith, and his debut, which whips by, is intensely satisfying. —Al Woodworth


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Correspondents by Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy is a great writer, but what catapults him to excellence is his ability to immerse readers in hard moments in history. His debut novel, Christodora, focused on the AIDS epidemic, and his sophomore novel follows the life of Rita Khoury, an American-Lebanese foreign correspondent who is dispatched to Baghdad during the first years of America’s invasion in the early 2000s. There, she and her fellow journalists, photographers, and translators—who become more like family—bear witness to the eruption of violence, chaos and unrest. Murphy’s novel spans the generations, giving readers a panoramic view of Rita’s family and what it means to be living in America (and abroad) in the aftermath of September 11th. What makes this novel so good is the characters—the complexity of their lives and familial obligations, the empathy they evoke, the mistakes that they make and the positions they hold—as well as the author’s deftly human portrayal of the Iraq War. Correspondents is proof that the best novels are as important and insightful as nonfiction. —Al Woodworth


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A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm

For Taz and his wife, Marnie, the fixer-upper they buy is symbolic of so much about them and where they are in life. It’s a work in progress, the first step in the life they hope to build together. And when they learn Marnie is pregnant during the renovation, it is one more piece falling into place. But their grand plan to build the perfect life falls apart when Marnie dies in childbirth. Now Taz must navigate first-time fatherhood alone, mentally clinging to the shattered remains of how he thought his life would be, with barely enough time or mental energy to cope with the way it’s turned out. A carpenter by trade, Taz is used to fixing and making, but this is an ordeal he can’t fix or make conform to plan. Pete Fromm excels at showing how everyday people cope with tragedy and endure what they cannot evade. A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do is a quietly elegant novel about working through grief and loss by putting one foot in front of the other and about letting people into your broken places to comfort and to heal you. —Vannessa Cronin

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Girl, Rachel Hollis has your back

Girl, Rachel Hollis has your back

Rachel_Hollis_225.jpgRachel Hollis is no stranger to writing or to business success, but her 2018 nonfiction book, Girl, Wash Your Face, was a blockbuster by any yardstick.

The number-two best-selling hardcover book on Amazon.com in 2018, Girl, Wash Your Face taught readers about the lessons Hollis learned as she became an events planner, a blogger, a wife and a parent of four children, and the successful founder of TheChicSite. But really, the book encourages readers to do what its subtitle says: “Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be.”

In 2019, Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals reached readers’ hands. Blazing with Hollis’ fearless, candid, and irreverent voice, Girl, Stop Apologizing breaks down her advice into three sections: excuses to let go of, behaviors to adopt, and skills to acquire.

We spoke by phone with Hollis about her book, her desire to help women embrace the value of their dreams and goals, and her willingness to expose truths about being successful that others prefer to kick under the carpet.

Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Can you tell me about the meaning of the title of Girl, Stop Apologizing? Because I read it as meaning one thing before I started the book, and when I got to the end I realized I was… kind of wrong.

Rachel Hollis: So, ironically, I wanted to call the book Sorry, Not Sorry. I loved that Demi Lovato song when I was in the midst of writing it. And I loved this idea about not apologizing for who you were, not saying sorry for being bold or loud or different or extra or having a personality that everyone doesn’t totally agree with. And we wanted to play off the word “girl” since Girl, Wash Your Face had been such a big deal, and frankly even my fiction books have the word “girl” in the title. And that was what came to us. This idea of stop apologizing.

For me, for so many years, I didn’t necessarily say it verbally, but I apologized in the way I lived my life — meaning I wasn’t my true self, I played it small, I didn’t want to admit who I was or what my dreams were — because I didn’t want to make other people around me feel uncomfortable. And just taking ownership of who I really am was when I started to have true freedom in my life. And I hope that this is a guide, or at least my ideas help other women do the same.

Dreams and goals are big themes in Girl, Stop Apologizing. What do you see is the difference between a dream and a goal?

I don’t know anyone in the world who doesn’t have dreams. So I think dreams are these things that we imagine. It’s like this beautiful future: I’d like to get out of debt, or I’d like to get healthy, or I’d like to own a beach house — or fill in the blank. We all have a bunch of different dreams about what a possible great future could be.

I think it becomes a goal when you have a plan. It becomes a goal when you’ve got action steps to take to turn it into something. When you actually start to lay it out and figure out “How I going to get from here to there?,” then it’s something that becomes a bit more tangible than this ethereal “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” Now we actually are headed in a real direction.

One of my favorites among the behaviors that you recommend is something called “Stop allowing them to talk you out of it.” It’s not letting people talk you out of doing something dangerous like driving a car while blindfolded, but about being talked out of positive things like a new business plan or a wellness goal. Can you share with me situations that you’ve run into like this and how you’ve handled them?

I think we’ve all experienced this but don’t put words to it, but I hear it so much from my community. It’s definitely something I [experienced] when I started to get healthy, how much flak I got from my family. I grew up in a predominantly southern culture, so we like to deep-fry everything and cover it in gravy and a little cheese. When I decided to try to really go on a health journey and eat foods that were a blessing to my body and take better care of myself, I would go home for a holiday [and] everyone would dog-pile: “I can’t believe you’re not going to eat turkey!” “I can’t believe you’re having salad!”

For so many reasons, I think other people try to hold us back from doing things that they don’t understand or that maybe challenge where they are in their own journey. Women in my community will talk about wanting to get in shape, and they go get a gym membership, and their husband doesn’t like that they’re taking any time away or that he has to watch the kids. So they’ll let other people talk them out of their goals because they’re made uncomfortable by them.

One of the things that I really want women to understand is that you have just as much value — and I hate that I even have to say this! — you’ve just as much value as any man. Your goals, your dreams, your hopes, your desires for your life are just as powerful and important as your partner’s. And it’s so essential that you give yourself at least as much credit and autonomy over your own life as they are allowed to have over theirs. So even if it’s something that they don’t like… Like my career, for instance. My husband is very pragmatic and he’s married to a huge dreamer, and that sometimes causes friction because if you’re pragmatic, you want to play it safe, you want to make sure everyone’s okay. I would tell him these big lofty goals, and it would freak him out. And to try and keep me safe, he would do everything that he could to talk me out of the thing that I was working for.

You know, I remember when I first wanted to be an author. He thought that was crazy. And I would wake up at 5 a.m. before the kids got up for school, and I would write. And he loved me so much, but he it was sort of like, Aw, babe. Come on. Like, Don’t try. Don’t aim so high. And look where we are now.

So I just want women — honestly, anyone reading this, but really, truly women, I think, struggle with it most — to understand that the goal and the dream… they have value because you have value. And even if nobody else understands them, that doesn’t mean that you should give up.

So what about people who don’t believe they have value because they’ve been told that they’re not worthy of believing in? How do they find that light to guide them into believing they have their value?

I mean, I hope — I really hope — I feel like there has been an incredible shift. And maybe it’s just because I find myself in the personal development space in the last handful of years, but I really feel there’s a shift in the culture and in media right now. There are so many incredible teachers, and social media means that we are so much better connected to people all over the world. I would encourage anyone listening — even if it’s not [to] me! Plenty of people, I’m not their jam, and that’s fine — but you should find a teacher, you should find a coach, you should find a mentor. And it doesn’t have to be in real life. You can find that person on social media. My mentors? I have some of the greatest mentors in the world. Tony Robbins, Dave Ramsey, Oprah Winfrey. They have no idea who I am. For years, these people mentored me through their books. They mentored me through their podcasts. They mentored me through YouTube videos. And I absorbed that wisdom like a sponge.

So if you need the motivation, if you need the encouragement, I love to remind people that this exists on the internet right now for free. I mean, you’re listening to this Amazon podcast. [Ed: This interview was recorded for the Amazon Book Review Podcast.] Go on Amazon! Not only are there so many incredible books you can buy, if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can go read, like, a billion books in a month. There’s so much incredible information out there to inspire you. So even if you don’t yet have that belief in yourself, start hanging out with people who are confident. And by hanging out, I mean absorbing through media. And you will start to feel it, too.

It’s like that old saying, right? You are the combination of the five people that you surround yourself with. So if you’re hanging out with people who are not confident, if you’re hanging out with people who are down on themselves, who are negative, who don’t have that self-belief… the chances of you being the one that emerges making a change are pretty limited. But when you start to hang out with people who are the kind of person you want to be? It is shocking how quickly your mind-set begins to shift.

So you’ve become a mentor through your books and through your podcasts, but you’re also extremely honest about how much help you have in putting up Instagram photos and blog posts and podcasts and running your business in general. You’re not trying to pretend that you’re working alone in a small room in your basement. So when did it become important to you to let people see behind the facade of a one-woman show?

I write about this in the book, but there was a time years ago where it was the first time that the audience started to realize there were a team of people — a small team, four or five — who helped me produce my blog. But I had mentioned it one time, and it was the first time that the audience understood that I wasn’t by myself. And there was such backlash because of it! And I felt so sad, I felt so insecure, and I really struggled with the criticism.

So for a while I just pretended. I wouldn’t talk about anything that I knew would upset people. I didn’t talk about child care. I didn’t talk about my team.

And over the years, a couple of things happened. One was I just got a thicker skin. It is impossible to do this work if you don’t develop a thick skin, number one. And number two — I talk about this in the book, too — but there was this moment when I was watching the Today show, and I will not say her name but there was this very famous woman who was on the Today show who was launching a new product line. And she is famously a mother. Her husband is super-famous too. And [the Today show] were just like, “Man, you’re an author, and you’re this [famous star], and you have these businesses, and you have these children. How do you do it all?” And she giggled and was like, “I’m just really, really organized.” And my heart dropped.

At the time I was in LA — I lived in LA for years and years — and I had worked with the entertainment industry a ton, and so I know, given the level of celebrity this woman has, she’s got maybe more than one nanny, definitely a housekeeper, definitely a chef. All these businesses: she’s got a team, she’s got assistance. I know that. But the mom in Ohio, the mom in Oklahoma, the mom in Fort Lauderdale… she doesn’t. And so when this celebrity with all of these things — and her perfect hair and her perfect-looking life — tells the world that she can have it all because she’s just super organized….? It is a disservice to every single woman who watched that. Every single woman who now feels less than.

Because real life is, I haven’t shaved my legs in three weeks. Real life is, I have four kids; I might not get a shower today. Real life for most of us is trying to make it work. And when you are not honest about what this really takes? You take the wind out of the sails of every woman who is aspiring for her version of more and now doesn’t feel like she can get it because she thinks that you really do do it all by yourself.

And so after that happened I was like, I will be the person. I will stand on the stage. I will write it into the book. And when I wrote that chapter, my husband was like, Oh, people are going to crucify you. He’s a pragmatist, so he’s like, Babe, do you really want to say that? Yes, I do, because here’s the deal: The men who are leading businesses, the men who are writing books…nobody is surprised that they have a team. Nobody is surprised that Jeff Bezos has a team of literally thousands and thousands and thousands of people who help him make that company run. But me with my four kids, and doing all of these things — producing these events, writing these books, speaking on these stages — I’m supposed to do it by myself? That’s insane….

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I have all the help. I have a full-time housekeeper. I have a full-time nanny. I have an assistant. These are all the things that it takes to keep me operating at the level that I need to do. And I think that if you’re not familiar with a business and how intense it is — if you don’t understand why all of those things are necessary but if you aspire to this — and not everyone does! — but if you aspire to them, I want you to know that at least for me, this is what it takes for me to operate at this level and still be able to show up for my children and my husband the way I want to.

Your story reminds me of the term “mommy blogger,” which because “mommy” is the first word and “blogger” is the second word, it’s like somehow being a mommy is more important [to the job] than being a blogger — as opposed to just calling somebody “a blogger.”

I don’t even really like the term “mommy,” because “mommy” sounds sort of patronizing. Any time that we are adding [a qualifier] to something… I don’t want to get punched in the face for this, but I hate the term “girl boss.” I hate that. My husband isn’t called a “boy boss.” I’ve never called him a “boy executive.” So why am I a girl boss? No, I’m just a boss. And being a boss, being any of these things, is incredibly difficult and so much time. Being a blogger? My goodness, talk about a job that is, for most of us, so thankless for so long. And you just keeping showing up for this audience, and the consistency, and you’re trying to figure it out. Don’t belittle what she’s done by saying, Oh, she’s a mommy blogger. Please, it is so much more than that.

When I was reading Girl, Wash Your Face, I had these aha! moments, and one I try to keep front and center is your advice to keep your promises to yourself. But what are the aha! moments that readers are talking to you about with Girl, Stop Apologizing?

Funny, with Girl, Wash Your Face, there were such totally specific things [people mentioned]. That was a huge one. With Girl, Wash Your Face, it was stop breaking promises to yourself. And the other one that was really big for people was other people’s opinions. Those were the things that I’ve heard of the most.

With this one [Girl, Stop Apologizing], it feels like — more than anything I’ve ever written — everyone is taking her own thing out of it. I haven’t heard a clear, Oh, this is what I’m struggling with. The idea for some people of just digging into excuses… like looking at that [reasoning] as an excuse instead of a real thing that’s actually holding me back. Even just questioning whether or not these things have value — like believing that you don’t have time or believing that to fail would be a bad thing — even just questioning that, for some people, is really powerful. Whereas other people have talked about the end of the book, when I’m discussing skills.

A lot of the things, like confidence, isn’t necessarily something that a lot of people equate as a skill. A lot of my readers have said, Oh, man, I always thought of confidence as something you’re born with, not something you can acquire. So even that shift in thinking [is powerful]. Yeah, I don’t know that there’s a specific one that I’ve heard of most. I hope, honestly, that with anything I’m doing, I just helping you shift your perception.

Even asking yourself the question of whether or not something is true or if you just believed it for so long that it has become a tenet in your life… Even that is so powerful to helping you make change.

So what’s next for you on a book-size scale and on a wider life scale?

So on the book side, I’m writing the next book.… It’s due this fall. As a company we’re really excited. My husband’s first book comes out in 2020. He’s writing literally the guy’s version of Girl, Wash Your Face: What are the lies that men believe? Which I think is going to be really interesting. I’m just starting to read through that one right now.

And our biggest thing [is] a huge women’s conference that we do every year [and starts on June 13]. This year we’ll welcome 11,000 women from all over the world, which is so bananas…. There’s a documentary about last year’s conference which lives on Amazon.

Excellent! Congratulations, and congratulations to your husband as well. I understand that you guys have been going through a lot of life shifts, but you appear to be handling it pretty well.

[Laughs] Honestly, the truth is that working together is not easy. It’s not easy. But it’s also been like everything in our life. I think everything in my life and everything in our relationship — even when it’s hard — we come out better people. So it’s been an interesting year to navigate, and I think anyone who’s listening who works with their partner can attest to that. But my gosh, have we gotten stronger. We got stronger and better at communication. And we are figuring it out as we go along for sure.

Great. Thanks, Rachel. I appreciate your taking the time.

Of course. Thank you so much.


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“Kickflip Boys” – a conversation between Neal Thompson and Karen Russell

“Kickflip Boys” – a conversation between Neal Thompson and Karen Russell

kflip.jpgNeal Thompson’s memoir Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood, which is about raising two freedom-seeking, rebellious skateboarding sons, published in paperback yesterday. Yesterday was also the publication date of Karen Russell’s new short story collection Orange World and Other Stories.

As it turns out, the two got together to talk about Neal’s book. Read on to learn more about Kickflip Boys and the trials of parenting. Raising children is never easy, and it’s refreshing to see such an honest, candid take on the journey we take with our kids.


Karen Russell: Our son is 2 years old and he already seems to have a risk:reward limbic calculator steering him towards thrilling risk; I see his nieces gently and cautiously sliding down cushions that he barrels towards head-first, whooping and all-body, all-joy. Of course this might change as he gets older, and slightly more familiar with the laws of physics. But I loved reading Kickflip Boys at this early hour in our own parenting journey, because it felt like a field guide that was refreshingly frank about the challenges of simultaneously encouraging your children’s independent flight while also keeping them safe, or as safe as is ever possible in this slippery, uncertain world. You write, “From their first steps, their earliest words, both boys struggled to navigate the world on their own often intractable terms.”

As you returned to your boys earliest years, and their introduction to the subculture of skating, did you gain any new insights into the shape their lives have taken?

Neal Thompson: Like you, we saw the signs of our kids’ inborn need for speed, freedom and risk from a really early age. We saw the warning signs (“No, you can’t skip third-grade English to go skateboarding”), and the promising signs of kids who craved their own unique path through childhood. So we knew from the start that we were up against some challenges they definitely didn’t cover in the “What to Expect” books. But it was more than physical risk they were after. What they sought were experiences that pushed or crossed boundaries, experiences that felt edgy and unexpected. I write about their blasé efforts at team sports (and, honestly, academia), but when they discovered skateboarding they found a sport and a culture with few rules, no coaches, no scoring, no winners or losers… literally no confined field or arena, so that all of Seattle, not just skateparks but streets and alleys and parking garages, became their playing field. I actually think part of the thrill of skateboarding for them was the trespassing.

KR: How did the act of telling the story of your boys’ journey to adulthood change the way you saw your own role in it? Did Kickflip Boys reconfigure your own understanding of a parent’s agency in a child’s life story?

NT: The word I chewed on a lot while writing this book was complicity. I wasn’t the most docile kid, either. I was a skateboarder and skier, a modest rule-breaker and boundary-crosser. So when I’d see my kids doing things that reminded me of me — skate or study? comply or defy? — I’d feel a mix of pride and dread. And I’d wonder: Is this my fault? Did my wife and I endorse this? Am I a bad dad? I describe all the parenting books I consulted, how I always felt scolded and shamed by them. But the truth is, while our kids absolutely pick up on the cues we send, they’re also these unique individuals and there’s only so much parents can (and should) control. They have to find their own way, and we have to let them, and we have to hope for the best. I can attest to the downside of trying to make them become something they’re not. For us, so much of our parenting came down to trust and hope and patience and love. And taking deep breaths.

KR: One of the things I most admired about Kickflip Boys was its commitment to telling the truth about the messiness and second-guessing and terror and uncertainty of parenting. As a reader, there is real suspense; the boys’ safe passage through the surreal landscape of adolescence never feels inevitable, and sometimes the stakes feel genuinely apocalyptic. You write that you originally conceived of a different kind of book, “a story about the gnarly history of an American-born sport that became a refuge for boys like mine.” Can you tell us how the book, and your ambitions for it, evolved?

NT: For the longest time, I imagined this was going to be a more dispassionate, journalistic look at the history of skateboarding, tracing its lineage back to Southern Californian surfing. I collected books about the history of surfing and wrote many thousands of subsequently discarded words about Hawaiian surfers rebelling against the mores of prudish missionaries, about bad-asses like Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth and Tom Blake. I loved those stories, the unwavering passion for riding waves, the embrace of danger, the rejection of expectations and boundaries and the straight-up refusal to be typical and boring. But that wasn’t my story to tell, as it turned out. It wasn’t until I allowed my worried-dad perspective to seep in, and gave myself permission to pivot from nonfiction to memoir, that I found the spark of the story, and my voice. Despite the anxiety and risk that came with writing about my family and myself, it felt liberating and thrilling and true to share our story with the world.

KR: Your previous book, A Curious Man, was a biography, and you’ve worked for years as a journalist; what did it feel like to use your journalistic training on yourself and your family? And were there other memoirs that served as guides or inspiration?

NT: Some of my favorite books have been memoirs, and a few absolutely became beacons for me – most of them by women. Mary Karr is a bold and brilliant storyteller. I’m awed by Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert and Dani Shapiro and their ability to expose flaws and foibles, to tell stories that are relatable and moving and, ultimately, redemptive. I also deeply appreciate the journalistic chops of writers who turn their reporter’s gaze on their own circumstances, like David Scheff in A Beautiful Boy, J.R. Moehringer in The Tender Bar, and in William Finnegan’s stunning Barbarian Days. And the gold standard for memoir as literature is Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. I was relieved to find that skills I acquired as a journalist and biographer were useful in exploring and crafting a deeply personal story. It also helped that I had filled dozens of reporter’s notebooks with snippets and observations over the years, never realizing that what I was doing all along was documenting our family’s messy, perilous journey. I’d argue that the story of raising rebels like ours, like the best of personal memoirs, is universally about survival.

KR: You write, “Everyone knows a teen rebel and/or they were one themselves.” This is exactly what makes the prospect of parenting a teenager feel so harrowing to me presently. Lord knows what the Xanax and Juul of 2030 will be. What felt familiar/unfamiliar to you about the nature of your boys’ rebellion, relative to your own?

NT: As a former teen rebel, I thought I knew the extent to which we were in for a version of what my brother and I put my parents through. But I’d convinced myself that: a) my parents gave my brother and me too much freedom, a mistake I’d surely avoid, and b) at least my wife and I wouldn’t have to deal with half the shit my brother and I put our poor parents through. My brother Jeff was legendary in his teen exploits – stealing motorcycles, wrecking snowmobiles and cars, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who tried to climb hand over hand across a moving ski lift cable, only to fall 40 feet onto the rocky side of a cliff, and survive. With memories of my brother as a guide, I really thought I was prepared to raise two boys. Of course, I was wrong. Each generation evolves, and even if I recognized their intentions I was out of my league when it came to the Prozac, Ambien, Molly, and Xanax that became the life-threatening temptations my kids and their friends flirted with. It also didn’t help that our home state of Washington legalized marijuana just as my boys entered high school. All these drugs — worst of all, heroin — became the villains my wife and I had to learn to battle. So… I’d look back on my parents, and the occasional dime bag of weed or hash they’d find in my room, and think: how quaint.

KR: Unlike staid parenting manuals with their static advice, Kickflip Boys is experiential, and engages all the senses; there’s no way to paraphrase out its wisdom, it’s a wild, joyous, treacherous ride through time that you embark on with this particular family. It’s also a coming-of-age story that applies to the entire family. As a skate dad, can you tell us a little about the transformative impact this sport had on your family? What are some of the mistaken assumptions people have about skating? What were some of your own?

NT: What’s been so gratifying is how unimpeachably resonant and grounding the skateboarding experience remains. I’m so relieved to feel thankful, not resentful, for my kids’ skate friends and grateful to the off-piste skate culture that dominated our family lifestyle and continues to echo through their lives and ours. Karen, you live in Portland now, so I know you see these kids — tattooed, pierced, probably stoned… They’re the kids most people understandably might avoid on the streets. But I can’t begin to convey how much I’ve learned – about empathy, acceptance, creativity, patience, trust and love – from my kids’ friends, who continue to stop by our house, reminding me there was a point to all the turmoil of giving our boys a long leash. They may not all be STEM-savvy, but they’re street savvy and worldly; they understand the world in exactly the way I’d hoped they might. They’ve come of age at an incredibly fucked up time, but they’ve been shaped by a culture that embraces tolerance for those less fortunate, for those who are different, edgy, not cut out for mainstream expectations. As one tolerant middle school teacher put it, they’re the kids who ask why. They’re also just nice boys, boys trying to stay true to some of their skater instincts while making their way deeper into the grown-ups’ world.


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A sign of the times

A sign of the times

We are living in a world that is more data laden and technology dependent than ever before, but in spite of that–or more likely because of it–we are seeing a renewed interest in books on astrology, crystals, and chakras.  It’s a funny time we’re in; even as gardens are being planted and chicken coops built, it’s all being documented via the same social media platforms that are changing the way we meet our mates, interact with our friends, and measure our self-worth. So why not conjure up positive energy with pretty rocks and see what love signs have got to do with it? Doesn’t seem any crazier than choosing a date based on Photoshop, I mean, photographs, and a directional thumb swipe. Here are a handful of recent releases for those interested in this growing trend that is a blast from the past. 

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Astrology: Using the Wisdom of the Stars in Your Everyday Life by DK

I love the layout of this one.  The user-friendly style provides all the basic info on each sign in short, easily digestible, paragraphs.  The different houses, and positions of a sign are also thoroughly covered so you can begin to understand how the astrological elements interact with one another. A solid starter book for those with a budding interest in astrological signs and how to use them to make changes or decisions in everyday life.

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The Crystal Fix: Healing Crystals for the Modern Home by Juliette Thornbury

I’m pretty fascinated by this one.  Crystals are for the most part quite beautiful, so the idea of placing them around the home in order to promote harmony and ward off negative energy seems like a win-win.  The Crystal Fix explains how to use healing crystals in conjunction with feng shui, and is organized by room so you can think about what stones to use according to the energy you are looking to achieve in each place. 

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Chakra Balance: The Beginner’s Guide to Healing Body and Mind by April Pfender

Chakras are said to influence both physical and emotional well-being and this is a great beginner’s guide to identifying possible imbalances.  Simple yoga poses, crystals (see previous book–two birds, one stone. So to speak), and essential oils can pave the way to better mental and physical health.  In this book you’ll learn about each of the seven chakras and a symptom chart makes it easy to find the chakra related to the concern.  A  great introduction to this self-healing practice, I took this one home right away after it came across my desk.

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Friendship Signs: Your Perfect Match(es) Are in the Stars by Brianne Hogan

We’ve all heard to using astrological signs to find out perfect mate–or avoid the worst matches–but what about finding our closest friends?  This fun guide includes quizzes and characteristics for all the sun signs to help you figure out why you get along so well with some and not-so-much with others. I really like how in-depth the sign profiles are in this one, providing a well-rounded picture of what each has to offer (good listener, loyal, etc.,) as well as what they need in return.  Written in friendly language and colorful font, this is something a little different and equally as interesting as looking at the best signs for a romantic relationship.


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Star-Crossed: A Novel by Minnie Darke

For daily horoscope readers, this novel is an especially fun read.  Star-Crossed is a romantic comedy about childhood sweethearts, Justine and Nick, who reconnect as adults and it would seem that love is in the air. The only problem? Nick is obsessed with horoscopes and uses the one in his favorite magazine like a guide to life.  It just so happens that Justine works for said magazine and decides to take matters–and Nick’s horoscope–into her own hands.  A charming story about friendship, choices, and of course, astrology.

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Amazon Book Review Podcast: The best books of May, and an interview with Lori Gottlieb

Amazon Book Review Podcast: The best books of May, and an interview with Lori Gottlieb

ABR-POD-Lori-Gottlieb.jpg“We do things differently with our emotional health than we do with our physical health. If we’re experiencing chest pain we’re gonna go to a cardiologist and get that checked out. But if we experience emotional pain, we wait until we have the emotional equivalent of a heart attack to go see somebody and then it’s harder to treat—and you’ve suffered unnecessarily for longer.”

Lori Gottlieb is a bestselling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, but when an unexpected breakup lays her flat, she seeks help of her own with “Wendell,” a quirky (if seemingly a little on-the-nose) counselor. But the experience also helps her with her own patients: a Hollywood producer, a newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening suicide, and a twenty-something with terrible relationship instincts. As a view from both sides of the couch, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is a witty, relatable, moving homage to therapy and the human condition.

Gottlieb recently stopped by our offices to talk with Erin Kodicek about the book, which you can find the interview at the 10:50 mark of the podcast embedded below (or read a transcribed version here). We also spend time discussing some of favorite releases of May (notes below), including the long-awaited new novel from Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris.

Discover more author interviews and book-talk in our podcast archive, and you can subscribe via iTunes or TuneIn. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone was an April 2019 selection for Amazon’s best books of the month.


We discuss a few of our picks for the best books of May:

Seira: Cari Mora by Thomas Harris (1:00)

The first novel in more than a decade from the creator of Hannibal Lecter, Cari Mora is as cinematic as one might expect (and hope for), charged with smugglers and lawmen, gruesome deaths, and deceit that crisscrosses the ocean between Colombia and Miami. Just when you think you know what’s coming, Harris has another twist up his sleeve. And we think it’s pronounced “Carrie.”

Erin: The Apology by Eve Ensler (3:03)

Written as if it were a letter from Ensler’s father, it recounts the sexual, physical and psychological abuse he inflicted on her from the ages of five to 10, and acknowledges the reverberating effects on her life. Moreover, it does what the master gaslighter and coward couldn’t before he died: take accountability for his crimes and ask for absolution.

Jon: The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them by Dean Kuipers (4:44)

At once a difficult account of a broken family, and an enjoyable work of natural history, and an ode to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, The Deer Camp is raw, personal, and deftly written, and it seems likely that it was both a necessary and sometimes difficult project. 

Chris: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (7:03) 

A book composed of many parts, any of which would make a good book. Together, they make a great book, describing the elements of a gothic true crime set in the south, and then placing Harper Lee there to cover the trial and write about it. It’s a story concerned with justice and the truth, but it is also about art, mystery, and our darkest temptations.


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Best science fiction and fantasy of May: 5 top picks

Best science fiction and fantasy of May: 5 top picks

Unicorns in space, twins with powers, and a woman who can move through mirrors are among the characters inhabiting a wide range of excellent sci-fi and fantasy reads this month. Below are our 5 top picks, but click through the link at near the bottom of the page to see all our editors’ favorites.

So set up your hammock or stake out your favorite corner of the park, brew some iced tea, and crack open a book. Your imagination will thank you.


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Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

One of the things I appreciate most about Seanan McGuire’s stories is that she Has Ideas, and those ideas are rarely regurgitated in slightly different form from book to book. Plus, she crafts characters like she loves them, warts and all. Middlegame ambitiously pulls together alchemy, twins with spooky powers, and a villain who is playing a truly long game, and its atmospheric edge is as sharp as a scalpel. There’s a lot packed into this book, and readers who particularly enjoy immersive, twisty tales will find this book is exactly their jam.


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We Hunt the Flame (Sands of Arawiya) by Hafsah Faizal

“People lived because she killed. People died because he lived” says the cover copy for this book, and that alone sucked me in. (The cover is gorgeous, too.) Zafira disguises herself as a man in order to hunt in the forbidden enchanted forest, and to feed her people. Nasir is a prince and an assassin whose soul has been almost wholly corrupted by his father’s bloody power plays. It took me a while longer than I expected to get into this YA fantasy, but once the hunter’s and the assassin’s courses were set to collide, the pace picked up. Shame, heroism, ambition, and duty twist together until they are nearly inseparable in this complex journey of two people seeking a better life for themselves and their people, even if it means bringing back magic to make that happen.

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Five Unicorn Flush (The Reason) by TJ Berry

Berry’s follow-up to Space Unicorn Blues is just as zany and inexplicably touching as her first novel. The galaxy’s magical creatures have been whisked away and hidden from humanity, who earlier treated them like criminals, or slaves, or slaving criminals. Without the Bala to serve them—and, importantly, without unicorn horn to fuel their faster-than-light engines—humanity is swirling down the drain fast. But some of the Bala don’t love their new home world, and it’s only a matter of time before the secret location is revealed. Half-unicorn Gary and his former nemesis Captain Jenny again form the core of this SF space opera fueled as much by humor as by heart.


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A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Readers of Kay know to expect a richly detailed story with fascinating, flawed characters, and he delivers on expectations once again with A Brightness Long Ago. An assassination of a noble (who richly deserves it) threatens to tip the balance of power among a group of provinces in which peace is already fragile. The fates of a healer with a past, a commoner raised up to be a courtier to the powerful, and a first-time killer interweave in unexpected ways as skirmishes blossom and war looms.

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The Missing of Clairdelune: Book Two of The Mirror Visitor Quartet by Christelle Dabos

The Amazon editors picked Dabos’ A Winter’s Promise as the best fantasy book of 2018. Combining the intricate world-building of Harry Potter with the dark trickeries of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, A Winter’s Promise unceremoniously thrust young museum curator Ophelia into the deadly politics of the magical families of the icy Pole when she became affianced to Thorn, the Pole’s most disliked noble. Dabos’ sequel (translated, like the first, from French into English) picks up with Ophelia again stepping into jeopardy when she gains the attention of Farouk, the capricious and all-powerful Spirit of the Pole. On top of that, people start disappearing from Clairdelune, including one noble who is among Ophelia’s very small group of allies, forcing her to rely more and more on her closed-off fiancé, Thorn. This book meanders more than I liked, but the ending is ferocious and well worth the journey. As I flipped the final page, I wished I’d retained more of my high school French so I could jump right into reading book three.

To see all our picks for May, visit the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Month.


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Weekend Reading: Mother’s Day Edition

Weekend Reading: Mother’s Day Edition

It’s the weekend! Hooray! The weather is supposed to be in the 80s in Seattle so we will undoubtedly be taking our books outdoors and soaking up some sunshine and pollen. And let us not forget Mother’s Day! What better gift for Mom than a book? Well, maybe a book and the solitude to read it. At least one of us is planning to take advantage of both those things…. So what’s on the to-read pile for us? We’ve got the memoir from Queer Eye fashion expert Tan France, a history of punk rock in L.A., a gorgeous how-to guide to beautiful spaces from Joanna Gaines, and more.


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Naturally Tan: A Memoir by Tan France

It was a sad moment when I realized I had finished binge-watching the last episode of Netflix’s Queer Eye. My mourning period has been mitigated, however, by the upcoming memoir from Fab Five fashion expert Tan France. In Naturally Tan (June 4), he employs his signature wit and enviable optimism to explain his unlikely trajectory from closeted South Asian Muslim to happily married gay man (to a Mormon cowboy from Salt Lake City, no less). —Erin Kodicek



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More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk by John Doe

A few years ago, John Doe—co-leader of the legendary LA band X—gathered friends and musicians for Under the Big Black Sun, a crowd-sourced tale of the origins of punk music in Southern California. He takes the same approach in More Fun in the New World, a second volume (again with co-conspirator Tom DeSavia) that continues the story into the mid-1980s, when punk might have seemed dead, but actually evolved and diversified into any number of sub-genres that subtly influenced (and continue to influence) mainstream culture. —Jon Foro


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Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave by Joanna Gaines

I suspect like many moms, I want to spend a portion of Mother’s Day with my children—who will be on their best behavior, of course—and a portion of the day alone. I plan to spend that alone time with one of my favorite famous mothers, Joanna Gaines. I pre-ordered her beautiful book Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave and received it on its pub date (November 6, 2018). And although I’ve longingly flipped through the pages, life happened (as they say) and I haven’t given the book the attention it deserves. What I already know is that it’s a beautiful book—the photography is inspiring, the page stock is thick and creamy, and there’s an extra-cool feature of blank pages with grids at the end of the book so that you too can design your dream space. In other words, this is a great gift book. And if I hadn’t already bought it for myself, it’s just the kind of book I’d want to receive on Mother’s Day morning, next to my twice-baked almond croissant and nonfat latte. So while Joanna Gaines may be spending the day gardening or crafting with her children, I’ll be holed up in my room—gloriously alone—finally enjoying this lovely book. —Sarah Gelman


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Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

It has been twenty years since Stephen Chbosky’s last novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was published. (For fans of that book, I’ll let the relentless movement of time sink in for a moment.) The Perks of Being a Wallflower spurred a movie of the same name and went on to sell millions of copies. And while Chbosky’s new book, Imaginary Friend, may reach similar levels of success, a different audience will be reading and watching. Imaginary Friend is a literary horror story set in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. A seven-year-old kid named Christopher disappears for six days and returns from the woods outside of town with an imaginary friend in his head. This is followed by a battle of good versus evil.

I really like the Stephen King-ish book cover, and I also appreciate it when authors step out of their lanes—or rather the lanes that have been made them rich—and write what really interests them. Looking forward to a great weekend of reading. —Chris Schluep



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The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth by Josh Levin

The Queen has been waiting patiently on my bedside table, and this weekend I’m all set for a good biography/true crime read. Linda Taylor was a con woman who became the face of the “welfare cheat.” Never mind everything else she was up to, or what was going on in the South Side of Chicago in the mid 1970s—the media and politicians of the day decided to make her the example. Josh Levin spent years researching Taylor’s life, and the book got a great blurb from one of my favorite nonfiction authors, David Grann, so I’m looking forward to learning the whole story…. —Seira Wilson



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Recursion by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch’s upcoming mind-bending thriller reminds me of Michael Crichton at his best, as cutting-edge technology collides with humanity to ignite an unexpected crisis. New York City detective Barry Sutton is first on the scene to a potential jumper—a woman sitting on the ledge of a skyscraper who claims she suddenly remembers a whole life she lived apparently in parallel to her “real” one. Dubbed False Memory Syndrome, FMS is blamed for an upsurge in suicides, but the strangest aspect of FMS is that friends and family of the afflicted also remember aspects of the false lives. Is it a contagion? Mass hysteria? Motivated by a tragedy in his own past, Sutton is determined to find out whether FMS is truly false or a new, better reality. I enjoyed Crouch’s Pines and Dark Matter tremendously, and Recursion (June 11) has me longing to start the weekend now and get back to uncoverering its secrets. —Adrian Liang


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Look, Ma, No Rope!

Look, Ma, No Rope!

Honnold.jpg

Alex Honnold 


As far as celebrity goes, Alex Honnold’s seems a bit unlikely; self-possessed practitioners of niche sports, performed in the hardest-to-reach corners of the Earth, usually keep to the edges of the mainstream. But much has changed over the last decade: Drones, adventure cameras, and the internet have allowed armchair adventurers and other lookie-loos unprecedented access to the farthest frontiers, as well as the daredevils who push them. And with E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo—the Academy Award-winning ride-along with Honnold on his rope-free climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan and its 3,000 feet of vertical granite—well, that’s the sort of thing that’ll make you famous.

On assignment for National Geographic, writer Mark Synnott also covered Honnold in Yosemite, and the resulting book, The Impossible Climb, is a must-read for anyone curious about Honnold’s background, personality, and motivations—even the physiology of his brain, which doesn’t seem to acknowledge fear. Synnott shadowed the enigmatic climber for months as he prepared, deliberated, and occasionally wavered over the project. He even followed him up a wall on occasion—Synnott also happens to be a professional climber, and his first-hand experience makes his account much more than a summary of an unprecedented, previously unthinkable feat. Synnott recounts his own first ascents—beginning with the Crazy Kids of America, a club he founded as a hell-bent-for-danger teen—and harrowing adventures with Honnold, Chin, and other legends of the sport. He also chronicles Yosemite’s climbing culture, from the “golden age” rivalry between big-wall pioneers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, to latter-day risk-takers like Dean Potter, who push the limits of extreme sports, often at the cost of their lives. When asked why anyone would test their fate against a mountain, George Mallory famously said “Because it’s there.” The question is ultimately unanswerable, but The Impossible Climb gives the rest of us a firmer hold, even as we watch from a safer elevation. You might say this book goes.

I spoke to Synnott on the phone about the book, the climbing life, and Alex Honnold (and his brain). The Impossible Climb was a selection for Amazon’s best books of the month for March 2019.

When did you start climbing, and what drew you to it?

I started when I was about 15 years old. My dad was a banker. Listening to [him] describe what his life was like caused me to veer off, to get as far away from that as I possibly could, because I could see what the straight and narrow looked like. I didn’t really actually get on the rock until I was 15 years old. I was doing the Crazy Kids of America, just trying to a mini daredevil—an Evel Knievel wannabe. Now I’m 49, so I’ve been going for 34 years.

Does getting older changed your approach to it? Or are you just going to try to compress whatever adventure you can squeeze in before you just can’t do it anymore?

I would say that my appetite for risk has diminished, but I think that’s kind of a theme. I do the compare-and-contrast with Alex a bit, as far as that goes. I don’t know whether it has to do with the fact that I’m a father of four children, or that I just have gotten older and matured over the years. Or is it a combination of the two? I honestly think that it potentially has a lot more to do just with aging than it does with parenting. I do feel those responsibilities, but deep down the thing that’s causing me to reel it in is, as I get older, mortality becomes a little more real. But I am so in love with this whole thing—going on adventures and storytelling and exploring and all the people you meet—that I really don’t want it to end.

So about Alex. One of the most rewarding things about the book is that you learn a bit more about this guy who is kind of inscrutable and mysterious—not even Free Solo exposed a whole lot of who he is.

I would say one of the first things that you might notice about Alex is just how incredibly real he is. I would describe it as a person who just doesn’t really have any layers covering over his real self. When you communicate with him, it’s just incredibly refreshing. He doesn’t have much in the filter as a result. He has more now. When I first met him, he was by far and away the most brutally honest person that I’d ever met in my life. But the type of people that I like the most are totally real and down-to-earth, not playing any games with you.

You mention his mastery of fear, if that’s the way to put it, and your book investigates the possibility that his brain—specifically his amygdala, the fear center—is different from most.

I don’t know if that is specifically related to his ability to control fear to a degree way beyond what most people can do, but he’s not the only one. Really good athletes are the ones that learn how to control the nerves—it’s one of those things that kind of differentiates people that are great from the ones that are the absolute best.

This idea that there might be something defective without his brain…. I felt like I needed to explore that idea thoroughly. I think he found it annoying because here was another example of people trying to explain him away, instead of giving [him] credit for an acquired skill that he had worked really hard to develop. This idea of the defective amygdala as Alex’s superpower [has] entered the collective consciousness of the climbing community. I don’t really blame him for getting irritated…. let’s just say I’m a big fan of Alex’s, and I don’t think there’s anything defective about him at all.

When you signed up to cover Honnold’s El Capitan climb, did you have the same ambivalence that Jimmy Chin expressed—watching someone you’ve known a long time, who was a friend, do this incredibly dangerous thing?

Yeah, 100% I think Jimmy and I both looked at it the same way, and we talked about it a lot. I really and truly thought It’s a great dream, but it won’t actually happen. Then at the end of 2015, he said, “It doesn’t scare me as bad as it used to.” And I thought, Whoa, that’s crazy.

What I didn’t realize was that he had actually already decided that he was going to try to get it done. The very first thing that I thought was What is my responsibility as Alex’s friend? Should I try to talk about of it?

I’ve never done anything nearly as risky as he has, but I’ve been in a position where other people who care about me think that I was pushing it too hard. And I would not be okay anybody ever trying to micromanage my risk-taking. I realized this is [Alex’s] dream, and it’s not my place. And also I couldn’t do anything about it.

Do you have concerns about how that exposure will affect the sport? Some people are concerned that this will inspire a whole lot of unqualified people to try to climb El Capitan without a rope.

I’ve heard that, but I hope you realize how utterly ridiculous that, is course. [I do—ed.] To even get off the ground you’d have to be quite a skilled climber, and you’d look up and be like, No, I am not suicidal. So this isn’t going to happen. So that is definitely not a thing.

What is the thing is, is that our sport is moving into the mainstream. It’s getting more recognition and it’s drawing in more and more people. When I started there were no climbing gyms, and I think that’s really the big game changer. I personally can’t look at it as anything but a positive thing, because climbing [is an] incredible sport and I’m not the type that would want to hoard my cool thing for myself.

What’s your favorite climbing book written by a climber?

My favorite climbing book might be The Shining Mountain by Peter Boardman. It’s about a climb that took place on a mountain called Changabang—this crazy first ascent. [Boardman] was one of the best climbers of his generation, but not necessarily a writer by trade. It just has this incredible authenticity and voice. I found that thing on the shelf in the library when I was 15 years old, and I really think that it changed my life.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 


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Writing the West, and Other Myths

Writing the West, and Other Myths

fromm.JPGPete Fromm’s heart-wrenching but hopeful A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do finds a hapless husband needing plenty of help raising his daughter when his wife dies during childbirth. Our own Vannessa Cronin calls it “a quietly elegant novel about working through grief and loss by putting one foot in front of the other and about letting people into your broken places to comfort and to heal you.” Five-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Award, Fromm has been dubbed “one of the West’s best literary legends.” But what does it mean to write the West? Is that label even necessary? (or helpful for that matter). Here, Fromm weighs in:

Labels. Western writing. Nature writing. Outdoor writing. Sometimes those three bundled together in one ungainly mass. I hear any of those pigeon holes and it’s hard not to sigh. Western.  Instead of picturing wide, sweeping skies, the Tetons jagged peaks jutting so perfectly up out of that Wyoming river valley, what I see instead is that classic of old westerns and antique shops, the bear trap. Because, as soon as you combine Western and writing, I see those iron jaws snapping shut over another story, holding fast with the jagged teeth of clichés, myths, and stereotypes, or, if not that severe, holding that story chained down, struggling to reach anything beyond strong jawlines, haunted, horizon-aimed gazes, people held down by that vast stretch of sky, driven wild by the winds, lost among the landscape that’s bigger and tougher than us all.

I see the real stories buried beneath the piles of so many mountain men in their Hudson Bay blankets, ranchers hunching into the savage wind, painted red men pinned to their ponies with nothing but their knees, eagles soaring, grizzlies rearing, wolves pointing their snouts to the moon.  Romanticized, mythologized, marketed to a world without a clear idea of what this place truly is, it’s an awful lot to sift through to find the stories about people in these places who aren’t romanticized, who don’t hold true to the myths, who are, in fact, living, breathing people just like us, as flawed, as funny, as wondering, as searching, and, as, well, real.

Yes, they’re living their lives in a landscape different than what most people know.  The size of that country, and the census reports guarantee that.  But, still, these same emotional lives could take place in any soot-streaked city in the rust belt, the hollows of the Ozarks, or, yes, even the streets of New York.

There are differences of course, but a square-jawed man in New York doesn’t have to be the trail-bit, taciturn Marlboro man.  But, put him in Montana, and try to make him something different.  Anything.  The Tetons loom up behind him all on their own.

There can be tough, taciturn hard men anywhere.  Same with women.  All just trying to get through to the next day.  This wild, sprawling place may influence them, but it does not preordain their lives.  It’s simply the world they find themselves in. And it’s a world of unique individuals, something the labels ignore or forget.

In A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do, Taz is a finish carpenter, more a perfectionist at this trade than a wily businessman perhaps, but his wife, Marnie is right there with him, side by side as they renovate the starter home they can barely afford, start the family they’ve longed for.  But, when she dies in childbirth, Taz’s world zeroes down to the baby he’s left with, but at the same time opens up to the people around him who will help him through all this, build his world back up with the same meticulous care he puts into every house he finishes.

Yes, it takes place in Montana, a place they love, know, live and die in, but the emotions are universal.  It’s only the world’s need to put a name to something that makes this Western Writing, rather than simply work that makes you feel what it is to be alive in this world we all share.

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