Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 30, 2013

Red Lightning Books: Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas about Our Planet by Donald R Prothero

St. Martin's Press: The Awakening: The Dragon Heart Legacy, Book 1 (Dragon Heart Legacy, 1)

Houghton Mifflin: Igniting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology) by Robin Lafevers

Clarion Books: Speak Up by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Ebony Glenn

Editors' Note

Welcome Aboard, Alex Mutter!

Today we welcome a very special addition to the Shelf Awareness team, our new associate editor, Alex Mutter. His name might sound familiar to readers because not only has he been freelance reporting for us since the beginning of the year, but he is, as you might have guessed, the younger son of our own co-founder and editor-in-chief, John Mutter. All of us at the Shelf took first notice of Alex when he began working at his hometown bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, N.J., during high school. We gained a particular interest in his journey after he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and became an intern for the German Book Office in New York, and quickly ended up writing many of stories for its daily e-newsletter, Publishing Perspectives. While we Shelfers could plainly see from his work that writing about the book business was in his blood, his father remained proud but interestingly quiet about his rising-star son. So when it came time, as the Shelf continues to grow, to hire an additional full time reporter, the staff knew perhaps before John would admit to himself that it should be Alex. I will personally never forget interviewing Alex, and him looking at me incredulously asking, "So you are wondering if I want to fly around the country, interview and write about booksellers and their stores, and take them for a drink afterwards? Uhm, yes, please, sign me up." Welcome him aboard at and learn more about Alex here. --Jenn Risko, publisher

Red Lightning Books: The Legend of Bigfoot: Leaving His Mark on the World by T.S Mart, Mel Cabre


Amazon Severing Ties with Maine Associates

Effective October 6, Amazon will end associates accounts in Maine as because of what it calls "the unconstitutional Maine state tax collection legislation" that takes effect October 9, the online retailer said in a letter to affiliates in the state.

"It's unclear how many Amazon associates there are in Maine, and a spokesman for Amazon would not say," the Maine Sunday Telegram reported.

In a prepared statement, Governor LePage said, "Unfortunately, a damaging inequity exists in the retail marketplace because some online retailers are not required to collect Maine sales tax, but Maine retailers are. Not only does this hurt Maine businesses, it hurts the state."

The Amazon move is consistent with its apparent policy of saying it supports a national solution for sales tax collection but fighting state sales tax collection laws tooth and nail--and only agreeing when it wants to build warehouses in particular states and receives concessions from those states.

University of Pittsburgh Press: The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim

Store Closings: Brooklyn's True South, Batavia's Present Tense

photo: C. Zawadi Morris/Patch

True South, the black bookstore in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., has closed, the Daily News reported. Owner Monroe Brown Jr., 71, who founded the store in 2007, suffered a stroke in July and remains in rehab.

Brown's son Ajamu Brown said that True South's rent increased recently to $3,500 a month from $2,200, and sales and fundraisers had not brought in enough money for the store to stay afloat.

"The shelves of the shop, a former barbershop, were packed with books on African and African-American history and cultural studies," the News said. "And customers could still get a haircut, or attend a community meeting."

"It wasn't just a bookstore," Ajamu Brown said. "It was where people came and felt safe to talk about their issues. It was somewhere that had a special place in people's hearts."



Present Tense, Batavia, N.Y., plans to close November 1. The bookstore, which is located in the original home of author John H. Yates and "has been a fixture in the community for more than eight years," is owned by Erica Caldwell and Darrick Coleman, the Daily News reported.

"We've been thrilled to be able to provide books to this community for the past eight years," said Caldwell. "It was a wonderful experience, but we have decided to pursue other interests at this time.... The indie book industry is alive and well and we encourage our loyal customers to shop at some of the other great local stores in our area," including the Book Shoppe in Medina, Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport, Bindings Bookstore in Albion and Burlingham Books in Perry.

Rick Riordan Presents: Tristan Strong Destroys the World (a Tristan Strong Novel, Book 2) by Kwame Mbalia

David Rosenbaum Named University of Missouri Press Director

Effective November 1, David Rosenbaum has been named director of the University of Missouri Press. He is currently director of product development and project management for the American Heart Association. Before joining the association, he was senior acquisitions editor at Elsevier, senior acquisitions editor at Delmar Cengage Learning and senior publisher and production manager at the Iowa State Press.

Last year, the university announced plans to close the press, a decision that was reversed after protests from authors, professors and the publishing world.

University of Missouri Provost Brian Foster said: "We all know that scholarly communication is in a state of extreme volatility, changing at every level. David brings to Mizzou a very aggressive, out-of-the-box perspective that will be very important in making the press successful in the current publishing environment. He has some compelling ideas of how to create a more visible presence for the Press in the world of scholarly publishing."

Rosenbaum said he's "very optimistic" about the press. "When I was on campus, I was gratified to hear the tremendous amount of support that faculty and staff had for the Press. I'm convinced that the university will support the press as long as the press is committed to making improvements to help itself financially. If the University of Missouri Press can make it--and I'm convinced that it will--we will have learned lessons that can apply to other scholarly presses throughout the country."

Expanded SCIBA Draws Authors and Booksellers

The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association expanded its annual trade show to two days this past weekend in downtown Los Angeles, and executive director Andrea Vuleta said attendance was up 30% over last year. Vuleta, who was given the directive from the SCIBA board to tweak the trade show when she took the association's helm in February, added that she will be open to feedback from both booksellers and publishers.

SCIBA Book Award winners (l. to r., top row): Christine Moore, Tom McNeal, Robert Landau, (bottom) Pseudonymous Bosch (who is supposed to be anonymous, so he covers his face), Jon Klassen.

What has not changed is SCIBA's ability to draw an eclectic mix of authors, which was evident by the nearly 40 featured at the Authors Feast and awards dinner on Friday evening. Mary Williams, SCIBA president, kicked off the banquet by presenting the Rep of the Year award to Penguin's Amy Comito. "I don't know a rep who doesn't work hard," Comito said. "So I accept this for everybody. It's what makes this a community."

Jon Klassen said he has "always edged toward the scary parts of picture books" long before he illustrated The Dark (Little, Brown), written by Lemony Snicket, which won the SCIBA picture book award. In accepting the award for middle grade fiction for Write This Book (Little, Brown) Pseudonymous Bosch joked that he always wanted to write a book he didn't have to write and that, for an author whose identity was supposed to remain a mystery, he still knew about half the booksellers in the room.

Tom McNeal acknowledged his wife, Laura, with whom he has collaborated on "several books and a couple of sons," as he accepted the YA award for Far Far Away (Knopf). Now that their sons are teenagers, McNeal said, he saw this new book as perhaps his last chance to write something that would mean something to them in their youth.

The Glenn Goldman Art, Architecture and Photography award went to Robert Landau for Rock 'n' Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip (Angel City Press). The T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award went to Debra Ginsberg for What the Heart Remembers (HarperCollins). Ginsberg, a former publishing member of SCIBA, was unable to attend the ceremony but asked Harper's Gabe Barillas (who happens to be her husband) to read a note thanking the SCIBA, which "has always been like family to me, and in a couple of cases are family."

Penguin rep Tom Benton (sporting a California Bookstore Day T-shirt) on the floor with Dorling Kindersly rep Carol Stokke.

Chef Christine Moore, who quipped that she wore high heels for the occasion since she would be out of the kitchen, very graciously accepted the award for adult nonfiction for Little Flower: Recipes from the Café (Prospect Park Books). Though Marisa Silver was not in attendance to accept the adult fiction award for Mary Coin (Blue Rider), it seemed fitting that Tom Benton, the Penquin rep who has been championing the novel about the iconic Dust Bowl era photograph since last year's trade show, did the honors for her.

Author reception attendees: Kris Vreeland and Maureen Palacios from Once Upon a Time bookend Catherine Linke from Flintridge Books, whose debut YA novel, A Girl Called Flawless, will be published by St. Martin's in May.

At the children's breakfast the next morning, the speakers took attendees from the subjects of lice to mice, with stops in between at 19th-century locomotion and literature. David Shannon's Bugs in My Hair! (Blue Sky) might not seem appropriate to discuss over eggs, but Shannon said the topic (which his family faced head-on when his daughter got lice) was a "breeding ground--if you will--for humor." Teachers, he pointed out, are especially welcoming of a book that takes the stigma and shame out of dealing with lice. The book comes with a warning label about phantom itching. Brian Floca said that when he first started working on Locomotive (Simon & Schuster) he thought of trains as "tea cups on wheels," but after much research and even taking the controls of a locomotive himself, the author admitted it turned out to be one of the most complicated projects he had even done. He shared archival pictures of trains from the 1860s, along with shots he took on a road trip following the tracks of the first Transcontinental Railroad.

Gris Grimly--known for illustrating the work of Edgar Allan Poe in his own signature style--told breakfast attendees that he felt like, and was treated as, a monster himself, after 80% of his body was burned in an accident the summer before he started school. He called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (HarperCollins) a multilayered a masterpiece that has long consoled and inspired misanthropes and the misunderstood. His interpretation progresses as the story does, he explained, from line drawings and black-and-white illustrations to sepia and even color artwork.

There was really only one mouse at the breakfast: Richard Peck's The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (Dial), which is about a mouse during the time of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. "We, who live in the age of her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee, are testament that history repeats," observed Peck. And fiction serves a great purpose of bringing history to children, he concluded, by "writers in lonely rooms from booksellers at their posts," who offer them "pages turning to their future."

 Luncheon speakers David Laskin, Robert Hilburn and Roy Choi.

At lunch, Roy Choi talked about L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food, the first book from Anthony Bourdain's Ecco Press imprint. The Korean-American Choi grew up in Los Angeles, where his family owned a restaurant, went on to become a chef at New York's Le Bernardin, and is credited with revolutionizing the food truck with the creation of the Korean taco truck, Kogi. Choi candidly shared that drugs changed him from a good student to a bad one, and that he hit bottom before landing in New York. The book, he said, helped him bridge these worlds. "There are Mr. Magoo moments and Weebles Wobbles moments--and then there's recipes, too," he said.

"Open the book of your family and you will be amazed what you find--I know I was," said David Laskin, who discussed his latest book, The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (Viking). Laskin had always known about the tycoon in his family, the chain-smoking 4'1" woman behind the Maidenform company, and the pioneer relative who tilled the soil in the Holy Land, but it was only through researching this book that he discovered a third ancestral branch that perished in the Holocaust. The larger question for the author was not how working on this book changed him as a Jew, but as a person. "It's the story of every American family," he said, because the history of all American families involves pain, success and death.

Norton rep Joe Murphy showing off The Great War by Joe Sacco, with a little help from Jenn Wittle and Arlo Klahr from Skylight Books.

If any celebrity's life and work represented the story of the individual's experience of rise and fall and rise again, it was Johnny Cash, and Robert Hilburn tried to capture that in Johnny Cash: The Life (Little, Brown). "People didn't just listen to Johnny Cash, they believed in Johnny Cash," he said. One of the biggest challenges for Hilburn was that sources told different versions of the same story. "Johnny Cash made stuff up all the time," he said. The two met as Cash was taking a career risk to perform at Folsom Prison, and they remained in contact, through Cash's TV success and Rick Rubin-engineered second revival in the 1990s, just before he died. "On his deathbed, his own message [of fall and redemption] had become real in his own life," said Hilburn.

From award-winners to featured authors, rep pick sessions and books discovered on the show floor, SCIBA offered plenty of fodder for those handselling opportunities that publishers, authors and readers count on. --Bridget Kinsella

BISG Annual Meeting: Transitions, Awards

Among highlights of the Book Industry Study Group's annual meeting on Friday in New York City: the group came up with a new mission statement that may lead to a name change; the organization gave out its inaugural book industry awards; and industry executives, notably Madeline McIntosh of Penguin Random House, spoke about how the industry is changing.

Executive director Len Vlahos called the past 12 months "a year of transition" for BISG that "reflects the transition most of you find yourself in, a thoughtful and methodical transition." It's not a jump from caterpillar to butterfly, he added, but more like "a backwards compatible software upgrade."

Determined "to act now to be prepared for tomorrow," BISG has been "rethinking our mission and brand," as chair Ken Michaels, global COO for Macmillan Science and Education, put it. Some 650 members responding to a BISG survey on the organization's future said that their major concern is, not surprisingly, the digital transformation. However, No. 2 on the list was "other," reflecting that concerns are becoming more "individual and fractured," Michaels said.

Among the themes that emerged from "lots of meetings and brainstorming," Michaels continued, were that the larger publishing "ecosystem" still needs a centrally situated body to do problem solving and find consensus and that books as "an organizing principle for a trade association" is insufficient. This last point increases the likelihood that in the near future, BISG's name will change and that the word book will no longer be a part of it.

A special board working group came up with this new mission statement: "BISG's mission is to facilitate innovations and shared solutions for the benefit of all companies and practitioners that create, produce and distribute published content and the organizations that support them."

BISG has been busy in other areas as well. It is launching what Michaels called "the first meaningful industry forecast," something members and others have asked for repeatedly; holding its first international conference, which will take place in the first half of next year in Brazil; and will publish more best practices for various aspects of e-books.


Speaking on the panel on "profiting from transformational change," Madeline McIntosh, president and COO of Penguin Random House, said that the biggest challenge for the newly merged publisher is "how to make sure the greatest number of consumers find the greatest number of our books as possible."

Consumers are using different devices and formats, she said, "but there's no evidence that they want to move away from the core experience of reading a book--they want us to provide an immersive reading experience. They want to be completely absorbed in a great novel," whether they read it on paper or on a screen.

Some 70% of the company's business is "long-form narrative," McIntosh said. The rest of the business is "illustrated, complex content," including children's, cookbooks and other nonfiction. McIntosh said there is no particular type of digital material that has "taken off" in a major way. "Maybe consumers are not looking for us to dramatically move things around."

Asked about self-publishing, McIntosh noted that Penguin had purchased Author Solutions, which is run separately from Penguin Random House trade. For the rest of the company, she said, "the advent and explosion of self-publishing has helped us continue to double down and focus on the services we offer authors." These services include an "intense relationship between the author and editor" and the ability to "publish a book on scale and bring much more reach than they can reach on their own." The house continues "to be selective and focused about where we can bring more to the book than the author can on their own."

McIntosh noted that the company's "best consumers"--readers who buy books regularly--are "not slowing down. They were probably the first to go into digital and were responsible for the massive growth rates for a while."

For now at Penguin Random House, "the biggest challenge facing us is integration of the two companies," made a bit more difficult because the "Penguin system was really run by Pearson." She said that it's a long process to merge "without slowing down all the other things we do"--everything from acquiring and editing books, to selling rights, to launching books. All of this is happening as "the marketplace is continuing to evolve. And no one else is going to pause for a year while we change."


Also at the meeting, BISG announced the winners of its inaugural industry awards. In addition to Wendell Lotz, v-p, metadata, Ingram Book Group, whose award for lifetime achievement was announced earlier, the winners are:

Industry innovation: Edelweiss (Above the Treeline)
Most valuable committee participant: Laurie Stark, v-p, publishing operations support, Penguin Random House
Friend of the industry: Phil Madans, director of publishing standards and best practices, Hachette Book Group USA
Disruptor: Allen Lau, CEO and co-founder of Wattpad 
--John Mutter

Obituary Notes: Marcella Hazan, Nancy Stitchberry Farley

Marcella Hazan, "a chain-smoking, determined former biology scholar who reluctantly moved to America and went on to teach a nation to cook Italian food," as the New York Times put it, died yesterday. She was 89.

"The impact Mrs. Hazan had on the way America cooks Italian food is impossible to overstate," the Times wrote. "Even people who have never heard of Marcella Hazan cook and shop differently because of her, and the six cookbooks she wrote, starting in 1973 with The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating." The books were translated by her husband, Victor Hazan, who survives her. Hazan also wrote a memoir, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.

When Hazan arrived in New York from Italy in 1955, "Italian food was still exotic, served in restaurants with straw-covered Chianti bottles and red-checked tablecloths," the Times continued. "She was a newlywed who did not speak English, transplanted to a country whose knowledge of her native cuisine was not much more than spaghetti covered with what, to her, tasted like overly spiced ketchup.

"The culture shock nearly crushed her. She was appalled by canned peas, hamburgers and coffee she once described as tasting no better than the water she used to wash out her own coffeepot at home. At her first Thanksgiving meal, she nearly gagged on the cranberry sauce."

She didn't know how to cook, but quickly learned and began teaching cooking classes. In 1970, she "caught the attention" of Times food editor Craig Claiborne, which served as an entrée into a cookbook career.


Nancy Stitchberry Farley, co-owner of Farley's Bookshop, New Hope, Pa., died September 23. She was 73.

As the store noted on Facebook: "Nancy founded the bookshop with her husband of 43 years, Jim, in 1967. Nancy, a former school teacher who graduated from Millersville University, was the person responsible for building, stocking and buying for, our large children's book section. The children's book section was her brainchild and anyone who has ever received a kid's book from Farley's has in many ways enjoyed and benefited from Nancy's personality and legacy.

"There is more than one employee here who as a child was given a children's book from the bookshop, a gift that down the road made them want to work here. For all the people who have complimented our store on our children's book section, or our cards and gifts which were also Nancy's specialties, we thank you, but we can't take all the credit. We're just following a path laid out for us by a very special person some time ago. Nancy was always quick with a laugh, a smile and a great idea and her presence around here will be dearly missed."


Image of the Day: The Kent 'Sisters'

Last Thursday, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis., hosted an event featuring Hannah Kent, author of the debut, Burial Rites, and Kathleen Kent, whose latest book is The Outcasts (both titles were published this month by Little, Brown). The authors met at BEA and joked that they were long-lost sisters reunited through their writing of historical fiction. As it turned out, their respective book tours were close to overlapping in Wisconsin, so Little, Brown helped arrange a joint event at Boswell. Afterward Kathleen wrote: "We agreed by the end of the night that we are indeed Soul Sistahs."

DIESEL Larkspur's Grand Opening Draws SRO Crowd

An SRO crowd attended the grand opening of DIESEL in Larkspur, Calif., at the Marin Country Mart, yesterday, which featured assorted festivities, libations and comestibles, along with great company and music. As part of the celebration, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and essayist Gary Snyder read and signed.

Nervy Ad of the Day

Did Jeff Bezos personally approve this?

Amazon's new TV ad for the Kindle Paperwhite takes place outdoors, on a set on Broadway in New York City, where various "real people" rave about the new e-reader. In several shots, the Flatiron Building is visible in the background, and at the end, the camera lingers on the venerable building. Of course, the Flatiron is home to Macmillan Publishers, which has had the most public run-ins with Amazon, including Amazon's delisting of Macmillan titles in 2010. Of the five defendant publishers in the price collusion e-book agency model suit, Macmillan fought the longest against the Justice Department, which chose to "carry Amazon's water," as Macmillan CEO John Sargent memorably put it at BEA.

Inkwood Books: 'Best Bookstore Transition'

Congratulations to Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., which won in an unusual category in Creative Loafing Tampa's annual Best of the Bay awards: best bookstore transition. The paper wrote in its entirety:

"The news that Carla Jimenez and Leslie Reiner were selling one of the area's most cherished literary resources--South Tampa's independent Inkwood Books--was more than a little dread-inducing. But never fear: the two co-owners did their successor search right, and came up with a perfect replacement: longtime customer Stefani Beddingfield, who clearly shares her predecessors' enthusiam for books and civic engagement."

The store and Alison Powell of the Oxford Exchange Bookstore were also cited for "best sign that people are still reading books": a reading by Khaled Hosseini for And the Mountains Echoed at the Tampa Theatre that drew more than 1,000 people.

Media and Movies

Media Heat: Valerie Plame Talks Blowback

This morning on Good Morning America: Theresa Caputo, author of There's More to Life Than This: Healing Messages, Remarkable Stories, and Insight About the Other Side from the Long Island Medium (Atria, $25, 9781476727035).

Also on GMA: Marie Monville, co-author of One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting (Zondervan, $22.99, 9780310336754).


This morning on Morning Joe: Richard North Patterson, author of Loss of Innocence (Quercus, $26.95, 9781623650926).


Today on NPR's Diane Rehm Show: Bill Bryson, author of One Summer: America, 1927 (Doubleday, $28.95, 9780767919401).


Today on Fresh Air: Daniel Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease (Pantheon, $27.95, 9780307379412).


Today on Tavis Smiley: M. Night Shyamalan, author of I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America's Education Gap (Simon & Schuster, $25, 9781476716459).


Today on the View: Sophie Hayes, author of Trafficked: My Story of Surviving, Escaping, and Transcending Abduction into Prostitution (Sourcebooks, $15.99, 9781402281037).


Tonight on the Daily Show: Bill O'Reilly, co-author of Killing Jesus (Holt, $28, 9780805098549).


Tomorrow morning on CBS This Morning: Valerie Plame, co-author of Blowback: A Vanessa Pierson Novel (Blue Rider, $26.95, 9780399158209). She will also appear on NPR's the Takeaway and the Tavis Smiley Show.


Tomorrow morning on the Today Show: Chris Matthews, author of Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked (Simon & Schuster, $29.95, 9781451695991). He will also appear on Morning Joe, Fresh Air and MSNBC's Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell.


Tomorrow morning on Fox & Friends: Elisa Medhus, author of My Son and the Afterlife: Conversations from the Other Side (Atria, $16, 9781582704616).


Tomorrow on Live with Michael and Kelly: Theresa Caputo, author of There's More to Life Than This: Healing Messages, Remarkable Stories, and Insight About the Other Side from the Long Island Medium (Atria, $25, 9781476727035).


Tomorrow night on the Daily Show: David Mitchell, co-translator of The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida (Random House, $22, 9780812994865).


Tomorrow night on the Late Show with David Letterman: Nick Offerman, author of Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living (Dutton, $26.95, 9780525954217).


Tomorrow night on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: Joel Osteen, author of Break Out!: 5 Keys to Go Beyond Your Barriers and Live an Extraordinary Life (FaithWords, $26, 9780892969746).

Movies: East of Eden; Captain Phillips

McIntosh & Otis, the agency representing John Steinbeck's work, has closed a deal with Universal Pictures/Imagine Entertainment for the rights to produce a new version of East of Eden. The film will be directed by Gary Ross and star Jennifer Lawrence, with Anna Culp as executive producer.

The New York Times noted that "the production of East of Eden will be down the road a bit, with Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Ross already scheduled to complete the final two installments of The Hunger Games."


New images and TV spots have been released for Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, Indiewire reported. The project, based on Phillips's book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, opens October 11.

Books & Authors

Awards: Cundill Prize for Historical Literature

Finalists have been announced by McGill University's Faculty of Arts for the $75,000 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature, Quillblog reported. The winner will be named in Toronto on November 20. This year's shortlisted books are:

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 by Anne Applebaum
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941 by Lynne Olson
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Book Review

Review: Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid

Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid by Jessica Alexander (Broadway Books, $15 paperback, 9780770436919, October 15, 2013)

What Mary Roach does for the alimentary canal in Gulp and Robin Nagle does for garbage collecting in Picking Up, Jessica Alexander does for global catastrophe in Chasing Chaos--entertainingly enlightening us with a hands-on look at something we'd really rather not see. Whether prowling refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa, combing the tsunami ravaged ruins of South Asia or helping out in the post-earthquake shambles of Haiti, Alexander shares her own weaknesses as she provides humanitarian relief to victims of war and weather.

Chasing Chaos is the personal journey of a young single American--an Eat, Pray, Love without as much self-indulgence. A naïve do-gooder who "had spent more time in Cancun and Jamaica over spring break than anywhere else," Alexander studied at Penn and then drifted to New York City for PR work, grad school and a fiancé before she shucked them all to fly to Rwanda. As she works her way through aid organizations in Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka and Haiti, she brings not only compassion but also an eye for the story behind the story and an ear for the humanitarian lingo. She observes aid groups fighting over the Indonesian tsunami's huge relief jackpot "like watching a dog pee to mark his territory" and participates in expat workers' frequent parties of moonshine janjaweed juice, bootleg hip-hop tapes and casual hook-ups.

Humanitarian work is no frat party, though. Reality is never far away, like the Darfur curfew "in place because 10 p.m. was when the militia, usually drunk and wielding heavy artillery, came out to patrol the streets." Alexander doesn't shy from the horrors she experiences: the starvation and disease, the mindless violence, the red tape and stolen supplies. In moments of frustration and discouragement, she wonders if her meager efforts matter at all. "Did the covers we put on the latrines to stop flies mean anything anymore?" she asks. "The country needed a government that didn't terrorize its own population."

Eyes opened, Alexander returns to New York intent on finding ways to deliver humanitarian aid more effectively. Such a process might include cash transfers directly to those in need. ("Give the money to women," she advises. "Women will spend it on the family.") She also returns with a new-found respect for the simple efficiency and ease she left behind... where "even the DMV seemed well organized." Chasing Chaos is a journey well worth the chase. --Bruce Jacobs

Shelf Talker: An entertaining memoir of life on the front lines of global catastrophe reveals as much about its author as the world of humanitarian aid.

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