I'm a native of Jackson County and went to school K-16 (save for a year at Smoky Mountain H.S. in Sylva, and a year at NCSA in Winston-Salem) in the Cullowhee Valley. I spent a few years as a ski-bum and paramedic in Utah, then returned to western North Carolina in 1997 and joined the City Lights family that Fall. Joyce Moore, who built City Lights into a beloved community institution over 23+ years, gave me my start in bookselling and taught me pretty much everything I know about the trade before selling me the business in 2010.
Here are a bunch of my recent and all-time favorite books.
This engrossing tale of a family devastated by the kidnapping of their daughter reads like a norse saga set in modern-day Colorado. Johnston's writing somehow makes the events seem inevitable, yet as the villain points out, it's all randomness and luck. The focus falls mostly on the taciturn father and son as they continue to search for the missing girl in a smoke-wreathed effort to make sense of a cruel and violent world.
A grand tale of devotion and adventure set in a forgotten theater of World War II, Brian Payton's second novel is convincing. Along with journalist John Easley, the stranded protagonist, you feel the arctic wind screaming across Japanese occupied Atta in the remote Aleutian Islands. The reader will also be swept along by the parallel narrative of Helen, John's wife and co-protagonist, as she sets off from her native Seattle in a bold, imaginative effort to locate her missing husband.
Top-notch historical fiction! Inspired by a tantalizing mention in the Venerable Bede's history of 7th century England, Nicola Griffith has done a fantastic job of doing the research then crafting an amazing narrative that brings her character to full-realization without allowing that research to get in the way of good story telling. - Chris
Robin and Margot loved this book too. Thanks to our librarian friend, Tracy Fitzmaurice for introducing us to HILD.
Terrifying! Read this history of the cold war and you'll be amazed humanity survived the 1980s... seriously. Alternating between a minute-to-minute account of the Damascus accident and a trenchant and engaging chronology of the period from the Manhattan Project to Perestroika, Schlosser paints a picture of near misses and amazing good luck.
Want to be be torn between following a taught plot and diving for your reference books to check an obscure word or concept from metaphysics? This is the book for you. This speculative romp explores the old idea of transplanting a consciousness into a replacement body with a fresh and convincing approach in which a very dead Samuel Johnson scholar seems to be alive in the body of a Russian prisoner.
As an avid armchair mountaineer, I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to this important 2012 book. Unlike most other titles in the category, Buried in the Sky not only gives indigenous climbers their due respect (something that a few other western writers of climbing memoir and reportage have finally started doing after decades of discrimination and condescension), its very focus is on the local alpinists of the Himalayas and Karakoram as well as their families and cultures. The research and writing here is superb, the product of a pair of journalist-cousins. Peter Zuckerman is an award-winning newspaperman. Amanda Padoan is a climber/climbing reporter and frequent contributor to ExplorersWeb. - Chris
This little novel has a huge heart. If you're a reader between the ages of 10 and 110, read this book! You'll experience heart-break and joy as 12 year old Grover tries to navigate a life turned upside down by the death of his mother. Creativity and a close-knit (Asheville, NC) community help him get through tough days with too many feelings... and Grover hates feelings. --Chris
Get your Geek on! I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-paced survival adventure. After being left for dead on the surface of Mars Mark Watney's chances of getting home alive are next to nil. If he does survive, it will be thanks as much to his attitude and mordant sense of humor as to his dual specialties in botany and mechanical engineering.
Kids had to grow up fast during the Pleistocene! This magnificent speculative adventure novel from sci-fi master, Kim Stanley Robinson will stay with the reader long after flipping to the final page. I was sucked in from the first line, "We had a bad shaman." Loon is an orphaned youngster reluctantly apprenticed to his pack's shaman. Not really sure that he's cut out for the role, Loon nonetheless loves one aspect of the job: painting on cave walls. This well-told tale will appeal to a wide variety of readers, but those who are drawn to subjects such as creativity, survival, rites-of-passage, memory, anthropology and vocation shouldn't miss it. - Chris (Robin loved this one too)
Tilted World is a lovely novel crafted by a talented husband and wife writing duo. Set in a sodden 1927 Mississippi as Herbert Hoover's political star is ascendant, the co-authors create a two memorable sets of collaborators working amidst the floods that devastated the watershed that year: a husband/wife bootlegging team, and two of Hoover's best revenue agents bent on solving the disappearance of fellow revenuers last seen in the company of the husband-moonshiner. Themes of trust and parenthood eddy around a plot that sweeps inexorably along like the mighty river itself. -- Chris
Schneider tackles a massive topic in this sweeping book that succeeds in taking in the entire Mississippi watershed, from the Appalachians to the Rockies. The span of time is necessarily epic, starting 500 million years ago, and ending with the 2013 budget for the Army Corps of Engineers. In amongst all this fascinating history are bits of illuminating travelogue from the author's own explorations of the modern day River and its tributaries. - Chris
A fascinating look at the Manhattan Project as it unfolded just over the crest of the Appalachians from Sylva: Oak Ridge, Tennessee a.k.a. The Clinton Engineer Works. This well researched history provides fresh perspectives on the tense period late in the war when thousands of young women and men from myriad backgrounds pitched-in at the vast plants to help build the atomic bomb. -- Chris
Simply a great read! This novel from the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes us on a romp through the Oakland of the recent past. It's a rousing multi-generational, multi-racial tale of family, friendship, music, movies and history.
A Good American is a winning, humane tragicomedy that follows several generations of a German-American family living in the small, (fictional?) river town of Beatrice, Missouri. The rollicking story features zany plot twists, and is made more real by a mouth-watering parade of food along with an equally broad range of music typifying the 20th century American experience. Rivalrous twins, a giant, a dwarf, a sunbathing pet raccoon, a shotgun wedding, multiple funerals, illegitimate births, betrayals -- these are just some of the elements that make up a saga worthy of Wodehouse.
New Yorker writer and author of The Nine, Jeffery Toobin has delivered another excellent examination of the recent and current Supreme Court. In this book he focuses on the relationship between the Obama Administration and the Roberts Court, and details the importance of the legal concept of standing in the high court.
What an occasion the publication of Permanent Camp marks! Inveterate naturalist andstudent of the southern Appalachians, George Ellison returns to his roots as a poet afterhaving complied an impressive array of prose works. As with many of these previoustitles, such as Blue Ridge Nature Journal and Mountain Passages, Permanent Camp ismade visually stunning by the accompanying watercolors and pen and ink washes ofGeorge's wife Elizabeth. The poems included in this collection range from crystallinehaiku, to longer narrative pieces that spring from epigraphs as thoughtful responses to theworks of other writers who have also roamed and loved these mountains.
This beautifully crafted debut novel chronicles the tragic and eventful life of Confederate soldier, Abel Truman. With chapters alternating between 1864 and 1899, Weller connects the days leading up to and through the bloody battle of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania with a turn of the century quest undertaken by a maimed and aging Abel. From a driftwood shack on the rugged Washington coast, Abel and his dog walk inland and across the Cascades to meet one final challenge which may or may not bring peace to the old campaigner.Many Civil War era novels since 1997 have been likened to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. Wilderness is one that certainly merrits the comparison. Weller's prose has its own sort of lyricism and clarity that will nonetheless remind readers of Frazier's or even Cormac McCarthy's style. Motivated more by end-of-life urges than the tug of heart and home, Abel Truman's journey is different from Inman's long walk, but this fine new book deserves to join such esteemed company.
David Quammen's third "big idea" book sticks to the ecological focus that informed his previous classics, Song of the Dodo and Monster of God. In this instance he's surveying the ecology and evolution of diseases we humans acquire from other animals. Whether he's tromping through the Congo after a chimp-darting Ebola researcher, or trying to keep up with the math as molecular phylogeneticists place the date of the original SIV/HIV spillover to humans circa 1908(!), Quammen is a consitently entertaining and informative writer who is able to bring the research to life and make it understandable to non-scientists. And, even though part of what he's writing about is the next big pandemic, he's never a sensationalist. Throughout this facinating book he reminds us that we humans -- the ulimate outbreak at 7 billion and counting -- are going to be exposed to novel microbes that will challenge our immune systems as we encroach on the remaining wilds.
Not only a lucid analysis of the 1949 Mann Gulch tragedy in which 13 wildfire fighters were killed, this book is also a very personal meditation on the meaning of youth, loss and aging. A modern Moby Dick of the American west.
A nameless 21 year-old sex offender is the focus of a nameless sociology professor's studies in this brilliant novel about isolation, modern society, and morality, set in a Florida that is by turns forbidding and a stand-in for the Garden of Eden.
Plotted like a thriller but told in Cold Mountain author, Charles Frazier's distinctive lyrical style, Nightwoods is a highly enjoyable and evocative read.
This Southern-Gothic quest novel features masterful writing of the same caliber as Ron Rash or Cormac McCarthy, and a teenaged heroine that is as tough and memorable as any protagonist I've run across in a while... and this in a period when I've been introduced to Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen. In broad outline, the story is like a meth-fueled version of True Grit, set in a bleak, cold corner of todays' Ozarks. Contemporary yet timeless, horrifying and beautiful, this little book will sock you in the gut. Read it, then see the darn good movie adaptation which cleaned-up at Sundance. Take a look at Gary Carden's review at the Tuck Reader.
This breath-taking first novel is full of rich incident and visceral (often literally) detail. It is epic in scope -- four decades, four continents -- and covers an operatic range of emotions. The narrator was born to a nun who died giving birth to him and a twin brother.
With Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, Hal Herzog delivers provocative popular science at its witty, 'gee-whiz' best. With headings such as "Feeding Kittens to Boa Constrictors" this book challenges the reader to think through the knotty ethics of human interactions with other animal species. While it might make you squirm, you'll have fun reading this informal, often-humorous survey of the emerging, interdisciplinary field of anthrozoolgy. Like Malcolm Gladwell, Herzog blends scientific abstracts with anecdotes to form a compelling narrative.
This exceptional little memoir takes in an incredible sweep of experience. Structured around the reading list for the first course in Gay and Lesbian Literature taught by the author, Jody uses wit and a deeply humane sensitivity to show how those students (and re-encountering the readings) helped her confront a life time of secrecy. While the recollections range from joy and adventure to pain and sorrow, the overarching message of this well-crafted book is a one of hope.
I concur with Eon on this magnificent novel about a boot lieutenant's first two months in Vietnam.
This is the first of twenty addictive historical novels centered around a compelling pair of protagonists named Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin. In this book, set primarily in the western Mediterranean, we find Jack getting his first command in England's early nineteenth century navy and meeting the friend that will follow him through many adventures. The decidedly un-seaman-like Steven Maturin is a genius of many talents.
Encompassing the world of long distance running, the focus here is the Tarahumara indians who have fun running continuously for a day or two through the rugged, scorching Copper Canyons of Mexico... wearing homemade sandals! McDougall visits the reclusive tribe and compares them to the competitors in ultra-marathon races -- often 50-100 miles in extreme environments such as Death Valley or the high Rockies. He cites convincing studies which conclude that modern humans evolved as long-distance runners. Whether this hypothesis is correct or not, the book is a fascinating peak into two misunderstood groups of people brought together by running.
Wild Trees is a nice mix of biographical sketches and natural history. Preston got interested in recreational tree climbing and canopy travel, and then connected with a group of scientists and enthusiasts that are pushing the envelope of tree climbing by ascending some thirty stories off the forest floor into the canopy of Coastal Redwoods. Preston tags along with them and gets to know the individuals who have made careers and hobbies in the temperate rain forest where this threatened giant grows. His portraits are humane and insightful. When I picked up the book, I was expecting a little more natural history, but the sociological and psychological stories made for an unexpected treat.
This is one of my all-time favorite adventure narratives. In the mountains, there are only consequences.
This book is the first in a wonderful series of autobiographies that follow the author and his family through the first three decades of the twentieth century. This first volume starts with family's move from New England to Colorado when Ralph is eight. The range of emotions the reader (and the audience if reading aloud - highly recommended) experiences covers the spectrum. The Ralph Moody books should be shared and cherished by any family that enjoys reading together.
As good a novelist and poet as he is, Rash is perhaps at the top of his game in the short prose form. Many agree he's one of the finest short story writers working today.
Attention fans of Patrick O'Brian's fiction about the Royal Navy -- this is a piece of American history you will enjoy reading. You will be introduced to larger-than-life characters and make good use of that specialized vocabulary you developed in reading the Aubrey/Maturin series.
Terrifying indeed! Bergreen does a wonderful job of bringing the Age of Discovery to life and placing Magellan in the context of his times. We tend to forget that Magellan sailed off during the height of the Spanish Inquisition, so it's hardly surprising that, faced with mutiny, Magellan employed the techniques of the inquisitors to discourage further upheavals. And these horrors came even before exiting the Atlantic and sailing into the unimagined distances of the Pacific, which was thought to be a largish bay between South America and the Spice Islands. The descriptions of the scurvy-plagued fleet are not for the faint of heart. -- Chris Wilcox
In his new book, Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly does for the psychology of the unconscious mind what he did for the sociology of trends in his first book, The Tipping Point. Like that bestselling earlier book, Blink is packed with fascinating studies and profiles. Here Gladwell starts with art historians' knack for sensing a sophisticated forgery (they couldn't initially verbalize the exact problem), and ends with a notorious failure of intuition, the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Along the way we are by turns wowed and disquieted by scores of other examples that bolster his conclusion that good "thin-slicing," or ignoring all but a few salient facts in the face of potentially overwhelming amounts of data, is what makes for truly expert judgment. --Chris Wilcox
[paperback release Fall 2007]
In his third novel award winning author Ron Rash once again revels in the complexity of southern Appalachian history and culture while giving us another engaging story with universal ideas. Four of the major characters -- a boy in the process of becoming a man, an habitual victim, a former teacher turned small-time drug dealer, and a slightly bigger-time drug dealer who makes for a complex villain -- interact around themes of redemption and family. Set in the 1970s with a doctor's journal entries providing glimpses back to Civil War- era Madison County, Rash turns his poet's gift for nuanced language and storyteller's knack for tight plotting to tell a violent tale reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's writing.
A marvelous historical novel that depicts Alexander the Great as a eccentric yet charismatic youth, clearly vibrating at a higher frequency.
Gladwell is thought-provoking as usual. Serious scholars of Appalachian Studies don't think much of the Ulster migration portion of Albion's Seed, Gladwell's main source for a chapter on West Virginia feuding.
This wonderful collection of 29 short stories and three poems is something of a change for Gary. His earlier publications include several plays and two books as co-writer: Belled Buzzards, Hucksters & Grieving Spectres: Appalachian Tales, Strange, True & Legendary with Nina Anderson and Papa's Angels: A Christmas Story with Collin Wilcox Paxton. Here for the first time is a collection of Gary's stories written entirely in his own voice. In his introduction Gary implies that he struggled to move his stories from a lifetime of performance to the published page with no live audience to engage. Reading these stories, one would be hard pressed to find evidence of any struggle; the transition from the storyteller's stage to written word is seamless. Readers will get a distinct impression of Gary's voice with its implicit, often deadpan, humor even when telling a few of the grimmer tales. The first section of the book is comprised of the semi-autobiographical Harley Stories. The first of these is "Mason Jars in the Flood," in which young Harley sends notes in his grandmother's canning jars swirling off into the waters of a branch in Rhodes Cove during the flood of 1940. Gary says this is a metaphor for this book, in which he sends his stories off to unknown readers. This audience is in for a real treat.
No synopsis captures the potential for this book to haunt you. This being said, the story follows a woman living a secluded life in a tower on the coast of New Zealand. She is torn from her isolation by a single father and his mute son.
Jesuits in space. Who better to send on a First Contact mission than the black robes?
Suttree is said to be the novel that "got (the author) kicked out of Knoxville". A masterpiece!
The Tiger's Wife marks the debut of an impressive talent -- Tea Obrech is the youngest of The New Yorker's 20 Writers Under 40. A young woman and her grandfather, both physicians in eastern Europe, are confronted with real-world manifestations of legends (such as the Deathless Man) that strain credulity. Elements of folklore, Balkan history, and the dynamics of a family confronting mortality intertwine to make a novel that I found utterly engrossing. Look for the paperback release in November.- -Chris Wilcox
The interior world of Thomas Cromwell, the common-born mastermind operating behind the throne of Henry VIII, is brilliantly and sympathetically portrayed in this Booker Prize winning novel.
This deftly rendered sequel to Wolf Hall is even better as Cromwell's maneuvers within the Tudor court are further developed, and now Anne Boleyn has to go. Bring Up the Bodies marked the first time a woman author was awarded a second Booker Prize, and the first time the prestigious prize went to a sequel.
This beautiful adventure story features lovely descriptive language, a toad with a startling ego, and several of the nicest friendships ever conceived in children's literature.
Breed is a mad scientist tale that is well-wrought, horrifying and hilarious in a way that makes you cringe. Chase Novack is a psuedonym for Scott Spencer.