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The Appeal of Post-Apocalyptic Reading


A few years ago, we put together a list of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. But I’ve been reading more and more of it, and there have been some excellent selections since then, so wanted to look into it again.

What is it that so attracts me to post-apocalyptic fiction as a genre? I’m not sure why I would feel drawn to delve again and again into subject matter that gives me nightmares (and it does), but I suppose there’s no accounting for (even one’s own) taste. And a quick scan of my reading choices over the past 5 or more years shows a definite pull.

It began with my zombie fascination, I suppose. I realize that paints an extremely immature picture, as obsession with a fictional monster as an adult is a bit strange. But there is something so compelling about the idea, even in a repellent, horrific landscape, of death not being the end, and of being forced to use your wits, skill, and luck to survive in a world completely turned upside down. And that last sentiment applies to not only zombies, but also plague, war, aliens, and a host of other catastrophic occurrences best left to fiction. There’s a pull, to that notion of necessity.

I’m clearly not alone, either. There is plenty of post-apocalyptic fiction in mainstream popular culture, zombie and otherwise, not only in books, but also in movies and television. The television series The Walking Dead, which premiered in 2010, is on its 5th season, wildly popular, and still going strong. In the fickle, flash-in-the-pan era of Netflix and piracy, that’s impressive. It’s also probably where my fascination began, when I started reading the original Walking Dead comics in 2003, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. I loved them, have kept reading them, and then also read World War Z, by Max Brooks, which is written as a historical account of the world’s downfall (again, zombies) and revitalization. That one was riveting, because it’s written so thoroughly, in such articulate, well-thought out detail, that it makes the entire event feel plausible, despite our rational brains knowing better. It looks at every angle of what would happen, in every corner of the world, in such an event. So those were my first real interest zombies (besides George Romero movie binges), sparked after an interview I read with Kirkman in which he said he loved zombie movies, but that every one ended too soon. His premise for the Walking Dead comics stemmed from his need to see what happened next – how society tried to rebuild; what day to day challenges arose when the main problem of being eaten had been addressed or adjusted to; how a new society would differ from the old in both positive and negative ways, and more.

I think that’s the part that I find the most riveting – the removal of the comforting and restrictive societal rules, norms and institutions that (largely) keep society running (arguably) smoothly.

My first memory of reading something that gave me that feeling was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which I read in the 8th grade as assigned reading. I was horrified by it, and I loved it. The speed with which the schoolboys abandoned their uniforms (and all they stood for) and submitted to their most base and primal inner instincts was shocking, yet didn’t feel unnatural in the book. Are we held in place by so flimsy a barrier? Is there such a thin line separating us from savagery?

In Lord of the Flies, as in The Walking Dead and all other post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read, the answer is yes and no. Some rise above, to find their best selves revealed in the wake of a disaster, while others have their worst brought out by fear, panic and mob mentality, and sink quickly into cruelty and depravity. Perhaps that’s what draws us to the genre – am I wondering, deep down, what my own true nature is? Am I hoping I’d be a noble leader, a humble hero helping to create a new, better way of life? Or am I afraid that I’m weak, spineless and cowardly, quick to step on others for my own personal gain? It’s an interesting question to think about – when it comes right down to it, what kind of people are we?

I recently finished the complete & uncut edition of The Stand by Stephen King (1153 pages! What a behemoth). I’m not usually a Stephen King fan, particularly in recent years (though I still think Misery is one of the most terrifying novels ever written), but I’d had so many recommendations for it that I caved, and I’m glad I did. I found the earliest parts of the book, when the flu is spreading, to be the most terrifying of the whole book. Many of the elements I’ve found so appealing in other post-apocalyptic fiction were thoroughly expanded upon and even turned into symbolic metaphor. It definitely got a bit hokey at points (okay, a lot hokey), but I still found it very engrossing and interesting, and always appreciate King’s attention to detail. What’s nice, as I realized midway through, is that the very nature of a post-apocalyptic novel helps it to be timeless. The Stand was written 37 years ago, but didn’t feel dated, because all the technology would have been absent anyway. Sure, if you think deeply, it might be conspicuous that nobody mentions missing Facebook or finding a dead cell phone or using the glare off an iPad to start a fire – but who thinks that deeply while engrossed in a good story?

I also recently read Station Eleven by Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel, which I would very highly recommend. Like The Stand, it tells of a frightening, fast-spreading illness (The Georgia Flu, in this case), and the small numbers of survivors who are left behind struggling to survive and make sense of the new world. It also has a very interesting theater and drama bent which made the novel enjoyable on another level. It’s beautifully written, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

If you’re into YA, a really interesting choice I read recently for post-apocalyptic goodness was More Than This, by Patrick Ness. It’s difficult to discuss the novel in detail, as to do so would involve spoiling some of the unusual and unexpected developments therein. It begins with a teenager named Seth, who wakes up in a deserted neighborhood in England and comes to believe he is in hell, or purgatory. The novel follows a surprising trajectory and makes a powerful statement about modernity. It could have come across as preachy, and thankfully, didn’t (I hate that).

What else have I missed over the past few years? Leave a comment and tell me what other post-apocalyptic titles I should explore.


Movies for Booklovers – When the Silver Screen Goes Literary


Look, even the most devout and voracious reader has to come up for air sometimes to prevent our eyes from crossing. And when we do, surely we must dip a toe into the waters of other hobbies. What’s nice, though, is how many of those hobbies can still sneakily support our bibliohabits. Film-watching, of course, is a no-brainer. With many of our most beloved stories adapted for the silver screen, it’s another avenue to spend time with our favourite literary characters.

And even in the case of original films that weren’t books first, many still explore literary events, people and stories in pleasing ways, which is a boon to a booklover.

With that in mind, here are 10 Essential Movies for Book Lovers, as compiled by Decider.com:


1. Iris.
This moving drama about British author Iris Murdoch features three incredible performances from Judi Dench (as Murdoch in her elderly years), Kate Winslet (as the young Murdoch), and Jim Broadbent (as her husband, John Bayley). All three were nominated for Oscars for their work (Broadbent won Best Supporting Actor) in this tragic story about one of the greatest British writers, her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and the love she shared with her husband throughout their turbulent years together.

2. Wonder Boys
Curtis Hanson’s comedy, which stars Michael Douglas as one-time literary great who’s now a beleaguered creative writing professor, follows a wacky cast of characters (Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey, Jr., Katie Holmes, and Frances McDormand round out the cast) over the course of one nutty weekend centered around a literary festival. It’s a great adaptation of Michael Chabon’s celebrated novel, Wonder Boys — even if an entire character was cut from the script.

3. Capote
Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as celebrated writer Truman Capote. Bennett Miller’s stark drama follows Capote as he travels to Kansas in order to write about the two men who are suspected of murdering a family as they slept. With his friend Harper Lee (played by Oscar nominee Catherine Keener) in tow, Capote gets uncomfortably close to the subjects in order to judge for himself whether or not they are guilty. The film serves as an intriguing biopic of the events that took place while Capote wrote his game-changing true-crime book, In Cold Blood.

4. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
Robert Altman produced this indie directed by his protégé Alan Rudolph, which stars Jennifer Jason Lee as the writer Dorothy Parker, one of the more celebrated writers who met daily at the Algonquin Hotel and were known collectively as the Algonquin Round Table. The film boasts a cast of characters that includes writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, George S. Hart, and Edna Ferber, and also features a star-studded cast that includes Matthew Broderick, Martha Plimpton, Lili Taylor, Jon Favreau, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

5. Midnight in Paris
Like Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Midnight in Paris features an impressive roster of real-life writers and artists that will spark joy in any former English major. But Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning romantic comedy also has a fantasy bent to it, in which a modern-day writer (played by Owen Wilson) escapes into the glitzy social circles of 1920s Paris every night at midnight, where he rubs shoulders with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and T. S. Eliot.

6. Miss Potter
Perhaps your literary tastes skew a bit… younger? Well, this charming biographical film about Beatrix Potter (played by Renee Zellweger) may bring delight to your heart, especially as it includes animated sequences of her famous stories and characters, particularly Peter Rabbit.

7. Quills
If your tastes run darker, then how about this drama that follows the notorious Marquis de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush), his final years at the French asylum at Charenton, and his efforts to publish his saucy tales through the black market despite Napoleon’s orders than his books be banned. Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine co-star in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of Doug Wright’s controversial play.

8. The Hours
Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of the great Virginia Woolf in this ensemble drama that shows how three women — Woolf, a 1950s housewife (played by Julianne Moore), and a modern-day version of Clarissa Dalloway (Meryl Streep) — across time are connected to Woolf’s tour de force, Mrs. Dalloway.

9. Ruby Sparks
Zoe Kazan wrote and stars in this fanciful satire about an anxious and introverted young writer (played by Paul Dano) who struggles to replicate his early success with a new novel. After drafting up the image of a young woman named Ruby Sparks, he’s startled to learn that the woman he created with his mind has come to life. Soon he discovers how to get over his writer’s block: by controlling the woman of his dreams.

10. Dead Poets’ Society
This much-beloved, modern classic stars Robin Williams as John Keating, a new English teacher at the prestigious (albeit fictional) Welton Academy, who shakes up the lives of his students (a motley crew including young Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, and Robert Sean Leonard) and inspires them not just to read and enjoy poetry, but also achieve their best selves.

Swedish edition of Alice in Wonderland, signed by the real Alice, sells for $2,000

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Swedish

A Swedish translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Alices Äventyr i Underlandet) – previously owned and signed by Alice P. Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice character – has sold for $2,000 on AbeBooks.com.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Published in 1921 by Holger Schildts, this copy was signed “Alice P. Hargreaves”, with an inscription from her son Caryl, “A.P.H. from C.d.H. June 1929.”

Ten-year-old Alice (whose last name was Liddell at the time) asked Carroll to tell her and her two sisters, Edith and Lorina, a story while on a rowing boating trip through Oxford. Although the story clearly enchanted the children, Carroll did not begin formally writing down his tale until several months later.

The book is illustrated by John Tenniel, who provided 42 wood engraved illustrations.

Copies of Alice in Wonderland signed by Alice Hargreaves (1852-1934) are treasured by collectors of this famous title. She signed around 1,500 copies of a 1932 edition of the book printed by the Limited Editions Club.

The inscription and Alice P Hargreaves’ signature

66 bookstores on Route 66 – the ultimate road trip for bibliophiles

The ultimate bibliophile road trip – 66 Bookstores on Route 66

Some years ago, a man called Larry Portzline introduced me to something called Bookstore Tourism – vacations planned around bookstore visits. His goal was to support independent bookstores by promoting them as travel destinations. A most worthy goal.

Larry organized bookstore tourism trips where bibliophiles piled onto buses and visited bookstores in New York and Washington D.C. and elsewhere. He even wrote a book about the phenomenon.

As the years went on, I talked to countless booksellers who admitted that they organized their holidays around visiting bookstores in order to pick up books that they could sell in their own stores. A busman’s holiday.

I have also talked to dozens of AbeBooks customers who explained how they selected particular destinations due to the presence of particular bookshops – a trip to Portland, Oregon, means a visit to Powell’s, a weekend in New York means an afternoon in The Strand, a vacation in London means a day browsing the bookshops on Charing Cross Road, and so on. I would venture that some people won’t visit certain locales unless there is a half-decent bookstore in the vicinity.

With this in mind, AbeBooks has created the ultimate bibliophile road-trip – 66 bookstores on Route 66. That’s 66 bricks and mortar bookshops stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles.

This epic list was created by Paula Lane and Dasha Minyukova. The bookstores are very diverse from classic general used booksellers to high-end antiquarian businesses to specialists in alternative religions, architecture and art, theology and mysteries, and many other subjects. Some stores are quite large affairs – such as Gardner’s Used Books in Tulsa – while others are much smaller like The Book Den in Chicago. Some of these stores have tremendous resilience – no-one more than Sleepygirl’s Used Books in Joplin, Missouri, who had their store destroyed by a tornado only to bounce back at a new location.

Sadly, Route 66 doesn’t actually exist anymore. It was erased by soulless bureaucrats rather like the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy destroying the Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway. However, most of the original route is still driveable. It crosses eight states and three time zones, and is around 2,400 miles in length.

Route 66 has a special connection to John Steinbeck, who wrote about the road in The Grapes of Wrath. He saw the road as an escape route with thousands of impoverished Americans moving West to find a better life. There are numerous guides to Route 66, including The Ghost Towns of Route 66 by Jim Hinckley, which appeals greatly to me. A large number of people have written about it and photographed it. The road remains something truly iconic that fascinates people today.

See the bookstores on Route 66.

Route 66

Ali Smith Wins 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction


Big congratulations to Ali Smith, whose sixth novel How to Be Both has been announced the winner of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The book has been called eloquent and lyrical, unusual and magical, and a modern revelation.

This year marks 20 years of the prize, which was formerly known as the Orange Prize for Fiction.

The prize comes with the honor and prestige, a check for £30,000 (~US$45,000) and a limited-edition bronze statuette known as a “Bessie”, created and donated by an artist named Grizel Niven.

Congratulations as well to the other five finalists for their excellence and recognition:

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Bees by Laline Paull (find signed copies)

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (find signed copies)

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (find signed copies)

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (find signed copies)

The prize began with a longlist of 20 books, then down to the six semi-finalists of the shortlist, and today at last the winner was announced, live-streamed and live-tweeted from the awards ceremony.

Amazon’s Top 10 Books: June 2015

It’s that time again. Every month, members of the Books team at Amazon feverishly read, rate and vote on the best books of the month, and release a list of their top 10 recommended best books.

If you missed last month, you can still see May’s Top 10 here. And of course, here’s this month’s list, including June’s Amazon debut book of the month, The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.



1. Saint Mazie: A Novel by Jami Attenberg

2. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

3. In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar

4. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola

5. In the Unlikely Event by by Judy Blume

6. Our Souls at Night: A novel by Kent Haruf

7. Finders Keepers by Stephen King

8. Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson

9. The Water Knife: A Novel by Paolo Bacigalupi

10. The Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret

And the Amazon debut of the month, The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.

A signed first edition of The Essential John Nash sells for $1,250

The signed first edition of The Essential John Nash, sold for $1,250

A signed first edition of The Essential John Nash has sold for $1,250 following the tragic death of the Princeton University mathematician on Saturday in a car crash.

Nash was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 1994. The book most commonly associated with him is Sylvia Nasar’s celebrated biography A Beautiful Mind, which was adapted into a film starring Russell Crowe.

The Essential John Nash covers his work in pure mathematics ranging from geometry to equations. It includes nine of Nash’s most influential papers. The signed first edition that sold was the only one on the AbeBooks’ marketplace.

The 16th century book that launched a thousand travel books

Navigationi et Viaggi offered by Isseido Booksellers of Tokyo

Travel writing has been around for about two thousand years with both the Romans and Greeks documenting their experiences of early exploration. However, the 16th century marked the real start of travel writing with advances in printing technology and numerous explorers – from Francis Drake to Martin Frobisher – traveling to the corners of the globe on behalf of their respective superpowers.

Tokuei Ueda, foreign books manager at Isseido Booksellers, opens the copy of Navigationi et Viaggi

The Isseido Booksellers in Tokyo recently gave AbeBooks a special insight into one particularly important travel book from this period. Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485-1557) was a civil servant in the Venetian Republic but his real passion was geography and he keenly followed all the latest developments from the great explorers of this age.

Fluent in several languages, Ramusio amassed various books and manuscripts, and compiled his learnings into Navigationi et Viaggi (Navigations and Travels). The book includes details on the travels of  Marco Polo, Niccolò Da Conti, Magellan, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Giosafat Barbaro. Early maps of Brazil, Canada, New England, Africa, Asia and Japan were included.

The first volume was published in 1555 with the third volume published in 1556. The second was delayed by a fire that destroyed the manuscript (a not uncommon occurrence at this time) and was finally published in 1559. The book was so popular that is was reprinted several times and translated into several languages. People were genuinely eager to learn about the extent and nature of the world around them.

The copy offered by Isseido Booksellers covers volumes printed in 1563, 1565 and 1583, and is priced at $40, 845. There are four more copies available on AbeBooks for higher prices, which indicates the importance of this particular book.

Navigationi et Viaggi

A shotgun/bookstore mystery! Who’d shoot a poetry book & then reshelve it?

It’s a bookstore mystery. Miegan and Chan Gordon, the AbeBooks’ sellers who run The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, North Carolina, opened up their bookstore last month to find the poetry section had been tampered with and that a signed first edition of a Billy Collins’ poetry book had been blasted with a shotgun.

The Asheville Citizen-Times reports:

The book had been blasted with a .410 shotgun at close range that sent more than 20 pellets through the pages and out the back. On the rear inside cover, Collins’ author photograph had been meticulously defaced in ink with a devil’s beard and mustache and the eyes blacked out.

Oddly, there were no signs of a break-in and the book had been returned to its shelf.  So could this be a Hunter S Thompson-style librarian who really hates poetry? Could it be someone who really doesn’t like Collins?

Collins has twice been named US poet laureate. The book, called Nine Horses, is a collection of poems published in 2003. Collins is a professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York and is the senior fellow of the Winter Park Institute, Florida. He doesn’t seem to have a link to North Carolina.

Huckleberry Finn and making the effort to read a classic book

There are some classic books that we know but have never read. Moby Dick is probably the most common example for 99% of the reading population. These titles have become so famous that you don’t need to read them. They’re referenced again and again in popular culture, and there are probably a couple of movies anyway.

Three nights ago, my youngest daughter and I were looking for a new book at bedtime. She’d wandered into her older sister’s bedroom and emerged with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now, I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but it was many years (er… decades) ago. For a second, I hesitated and then said: “OK, we’ll give it a shot.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The status of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn goes beyond classic – it’s categorized as the greatest American novel by numerous people who matter in literary circles.

Ernest Hemingway apparently said: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

My hesitation came from wondering if an eight-year-old used to iPods and Netflix would like the plot, grasp the main themes and understand the language.

So we’re six chapters in and, I have to say, it’s fantastic bedtime reading. My daughter is completely focused on listening and is sitting still as a statue when I read. And I’m reading more slowly than usual because it’s easy for me to stumble over the Mississippi slang and terminology used by Huck and his “pap”.

It felt odd to read the N-word out loud. I stopped and explained what it meant because my daughter had never heard it before. Imagine that? Having no idea at all about one of the most controversial words of the past 200 years. I have a feeling that we’re going to spend more time discussing slavery as we go on.

She grasped pap was a bad person very quickly but it needs a little more context for someone so young to understand the magnitude of someone utterly hooked on drink.

Now, I’ve actually read Moby Dick and it was hard, hard work. I won’t be going aboard the good ship Melville for a second voyage. It’s probably the same with Thomas Hardy – his long, long, long descriptions of Egdon Heath in Return of the Native put me off his prose forever (even though Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge both offer plots that few other novels can match).

It’s the Russians that I am most curious about. One day, when I have a lot of time on my hands, I’m going to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov and Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol – and two of them are definitely classics by any stretch of the imagination.

I am 100% sure that I will never read Jane Austen – sorry about that. I can live with it because that list of classics waiting to be read is very, very long.