Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

birds-art-life-9781501154201_hrThroughout the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Kyo Maclear’s memoir, Birds Art Life (Scribner, Jan. 3). It covers a year in her life, and as you might expect, is divided into seasons, beginning and ending with winter.

“That was the winter that started early,” she writes of the first one. “It snowed endlessly.”

It was also a time when Maclear found herself “with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked.” Her father had had two strokes, one of them nearly fatal, and the “sense of incipient loss” flattened Maclear and stopped her from being able to write. Her response was to take up bird-watching.

Maclear is new to me, though she has written two books for adults, The Letter Opener and Stray Love, and five illustrated books for children. Born in England, she moved to Toronto as a child (her father is the journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear). She’s also a visual artist, whose ink-and-brush sketches of birds and artists seem to alight on the page.

Birds Art Life came along at a time last summer when I was too busy to do much more than flag it for future reading, which meant it sat alluringly on my coffee table for months—somehow I knew I wanted to read it all the way through, and not in bits and pieces. It was November before I finally picked it up again and read the opening lines, about a musician whose depression fell away when he fell in love with birds: “He had discovered his joy was bird-shaped.”

Maclear chose birds because she, too, wanted an antidote to her father’s health crises, a distraction from the writers’ block. For her, birding—“the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art”—allows her a breather: “The rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in that river.”

But the book is about so much more. Each chapter essay explores a different theme, including:

  • The frailty of humans and birds
  • What it means to alter your course in life
  • Smallness in art and life: “I don’t know when I began to prefer small things. Drawings of the small moment, nearly microscopic sculpture, compact stories, animated shorts, airy novellas, little gardens, economical studios, cozy dinner parties, small days of small demands that allow small increments of writing time.”
  • Things that fill us with regret
  • Growing up with a London-born father (a foreign correspondent) and a Japanese mother (a sumi-e artist)
  • Her relationship with her father (“who likes things distant and serious, [who] thinks I write too close and peculiar”)
  • Cages v. freedom
  • Purposeful waiting
  • The idea of “spark” birds—one that turned a person from being interested in birds to being a serious birder—which inspires Maclear to poll friends for books that “ignited” their love of reading

Each essay intimately blends home life, birding, literature and art, questioning how each aspect of life informs another. In the midst of what felt like one of the most unstable, threatening political climates I’ve ever known, these inquiries into how to balance vulnerability with strength, grief with hope, and anxiety with courage became a lodestar I turned to each day.

Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear

Not only was it comforting to escape into Maclear’s world to counteract election-year stress, but because the trouble she was having putting words down on paper mirrored my own, her book gave me hope. I had come to a point with writing where I couldn’t go any further, where the words I reached for sounded false and silly. Reading of her similar struggles with writing, I wondered if I needed, like Maclear, to go off the grid, find a way to write smaller.

“If I am guilty of hiding among tinier people in a tinier parallel world, it is because I am searching for other models of artistic success,” she writes. “The small is a figure of alternative possibility, proof that no matter how much the market tries to force consensus, there will always be those making art where the market isn’t looking.”

When Maclear reaches a hiatus in her birding activities—the end of spring migration—she explores this “lull” as it occurs in the lives of artists, noting that many fear that “creativity will flatline without constant practice. Confidence will wane, muscles will grow flaccid,” and that what began as a break might turn into a break-down. “What starts off as a lull will become a rut. The muse will flee.”

Her book reassures us that a breather needn’t be fatal. In one chapter headed On altering your course, sliding between disciplines, and leaving the door open for the unknown, Maclear riffs off “side loves” that inspire and feed our artistic lives: Bob Dylan’s welding, Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping, Emily Dickinson’s gardening, John Cage’s mushroom hunting—“intentional roaming” that results in what Maclear calls “fence-jumping knowledge.”

finchWhen I finished the book, it was mid-December. In one of her last essays, Maclear offers a list of what the bird-watcher/musician had taught her, and concludes that there is “no one person who can give you a map for living.” Instead, she suggests we make our own, with help from the dozens of writers, musicians, painters and bird-lovers quoted here, from Pete Seeger to Sei Shonagon to Rosa Luxembourg to famed New York City birder Starr Saphir.

“What he really taught me,” Maclear says, in a nearly perfect description of her own book, “was that the best teachers are not up on a guru throne, doling out shiny answers. They are there in the muck beside you: stepping forward, falling down, muddling through, and enlivening the questions.”


You can read some of Maclear’s recent blog posts and find out more about her children’s books here.

You can also go here, to read more about Birds Art Life.


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Chris Offutt’s father wasn’t always a pornographer. His first book, written when he was 12, was a novel of the Old West. He completed a 300-page historical account of Rome while still in college. Before he died in 2013, Andrew J. Offutt had written and published more than 400 books, using 17 different pseudonyms. Six of his novels were science fiction, 24 were fantasy, and one was a thriller.

The rest were XXX-rated.

Shortly after his father’s death, Chris, then 54, found himself the beneficiary of a “secret will,” stipulating that he handle Andrew’s papers, specifically including “instructions about his porn, where it was hidden and what to do with it.”

While cleaning out his dad’s cluttered office space in the family home in rural Kentucky, Offutt opened a closet lined from floor to ceiling with pornography: everything from books, manuscripts, photographs, magazines, postcards, comics and pinups, to ”a pile of dusty catalogs from Frederick’s of Hollywood [that] ran back 50 years.”

It was a tunnel into a past he had never suspected, into the mind of a man he soon realized he never knew: My Father, the Pornographer (Atria Books).

Offutt’s onetime belief that his father occasionally wrote porn “to supplement his income” as a science fiction and fantasy writer — his parents claimed the senior Offutt cranked out a few dirty books to pay for Chris’s orthodontia — falls apart in the face of Andrew’s “incredibly vast and inclusive” pornographic library.

Not only had his father published three decades worth of porn titles (conveniently listed in the back of the memoir), he did so under an array of aliases, notably John Cleve, who posed as a 1970s swinger, and Turk Winter, the final persona behind his collaboration for 25 years with Eric Stanton, the underground fetish artist.

Offutt Sr.’s mass-production of porn was coolly efficient — Chris compares him to “Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with premade parts” — and included mind-boggling varieties: “…farm porn, cowboy porn, Hollywood porn, Nazi porn, swapping and swinging… pirate porn, ghost porn, science fiction porn, thriller porn, zombie porn, and Atlantis porn …” Of these “subgenres” galore, the exhausted Offutt is “thankful for the utter absence of kiddie porn.”

Chris Offutt (photo Sandra Dyas)

Chris Offutt (photo: Sandra Dyas)

Immersed in cataloging his father’s Augean and “increasingly dark” life’s work, organization turns to quagmire, and Offutt grows depressed, morose, even suicidal. He eats little and loses all interest in sex. Andrew’s shadow hovers: “The project felt less like clearing a room,” Offutt writes, “and more like prospecting within his mind.” His siblings urge Chris to destroy the pornography, worried the job will ferry him too far back into the hell they escaped.

Refusing to turn away, Offutt insists that “as a son, I wanted an opportunity to understand him further through his work.” The result is a heartbreaking coming-of-age story in which memories of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood prove just how much of a toll the father’s obsessive career took on the family.

Life with Offutt Sr. was anything but ordinary. Remembering days before his father quit his lucrative day job to write, Offutt contrasts rare moments with his once adored, playful dad with the stay-at-home Mr. Hyde he became. “Bullying and critical, angry at the breaking of his ever changing rules regarding bathroom doors, sound, laughter, talking,” his crushing presence and bottomless need for obedience and attention made life unbearable for his family.

Many scenes rival the stories of Jeannette Walls or Mary Karr for parental neglect and craziness. In one stunning chapter, Offutt describes the many sci-fi conventions his parents attended, shuttling their children off to a separate room with orders not to bother them — emergency or no — while Offutt Sr. enjoyed the swinging lifestyle he’d developed for his alter ego, the childless, freewheeling John Cleve.

Not that the kids didn’t come in handy: Andrew stole their college fund, cashed his younger son’s college financial aid check and sold Chris’ “comic book collection of 1,500 titles and kept the proceeds.” Even after Chris left home, his dad’s moody, controlling behavior dictated their communications, which didn’t improve when Chris’s work began to attract the sort of literary acclaim Offutt Sr. had always craved.

The hard-won understanding of his father’s insecurities and frailties is dutiful but damning. Offutt — the author of two short-story collections, two memoirs, a novel, and TV scripts for “Treme,” “Weeds” and “True Blood” — commends Andrew’s pre-pornographic work as “energetic, funny, concerned, serious and original.” Rereading it, he “wept for the talent [his father] had as a young man, the great writer he might have become.”


Andrew J. Offutt, reading in the 70s.

Offutt Sr.’s tone-deaf approach to his son’s talent, by contrast, shows little concern for such fine points: When Chris, a struggling writer at age 25, refuses a job co-writing one of Andrew’s porn novels, his father lashes out in a letter so vicious I agree with his friends who said it should have been burned.

He feels “a horrified sympathy” for his father and “the world he carried inside himself at all times — filled with pain and suffering.” Yet he’s often revolted to the point of nausea — especially with one of his last finds, a cache of chillingly nihilistic S/M comic books his father worked on from 1958 until his death.

It’s exactly how the reader may end up feeling, despite Offutt’s survival of his trial by fire, having sweated out the fear of his father like a plague. In the end, he makes no attempt to reconcile his father’s conflicts or his own, leaving this record of his journey into the heart of darkness — awe-inspiring, tender, gut-wrenching, forgiving — just as he found it.


Read Offutt’s original essay for the New York Times about his father here.

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Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:


Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)


The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)


A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)


Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)



What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)


Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)


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Barefoot to AvalonIn the beginning, when novelist David Payne heard the voice in his head urging him to write about his younger brother who had died six years earlier, his “first thought was that it might be something wistful, elegiac, something like A River Runs Through It.”

His mother, who knew better, begged him not to.

But Payne was drowning. “My single-jigger vodka had become a double and I was often having double doubles and, on bad days, triple doubles…” His marriage was on the rocks, and worst of all, he had become his father: a manipulative, angry husband who drank.

“Everything I vowed not to repeat I have repeated,” he realized, and the life he had built in Vermont to escape his past had begun to look a lot like what he was running from. So he set to work on the story that began long before his brother, George A., volunteered to help Payne move back to North Carolina in 2000.

Their relationship was fraught with jealousy, rivalry and David’s long-standing resentment of George A.’s dependency on their mother as a result of a bipolar disorder that left him unable to work. But they had bonded again during the week of packing up David’s belongings.

“We picked it up where we’d dropped it somewhere long before, as if no time had passed at all. In the middle of a bad thing, I got my brother back.” And then, on the second day of their drive, David watched helplessly in his rear view mirror as his brother’s car and trailer jack-knifed across the interstate, and George A. was killed.

Out of that day, and the grief, guilt and desperation that followed, comes Barefoot to Avalon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 304 pages) a memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka. The story is loosely chronological, though Payne lays out much of what’s to come in the opening chapters, then goes back, relentlessly and often, to gather evidence in an attempt to understand George A.’s illness and “who my brother was and who we were together.”

Between Payne’s revisiting of the wreck, which bookends the memoir, he opens the vein of his family relationships with unswerving, bitter intensity. He examines his childhood and his parents’ marriage — a grim and violent affair marked by his father’s drinking, threats and broken promises — for clues to his brother’s madness and his own demons.


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At a party to celebrate the birth of her first child, Jowita Bydlowska did what a lot of relieved, new mothers might do: She drank a glass of champagne, after nine long months of sobriety.

Oops. Make that three and a half years of sobriety—gone in the space of a split-second and not to return anytime soon.

Her frankly titled memoir—Drunk Mom (Viking Penguin, $16)—doesn’t begin on that day, but during a much later one, an evening when she’s at a museum and finds a baggie of coke in the women’s restroom. This baggie is perched on top of the toilet paper container, no less. Bydlowska sets the tone for her story that will underlie nearly every decision:

“So what do I do?” she asks, then answers: “I pour the powder down the toilet.” Pause. “No, no I don’t.” She gets out her makeup mirror, cuts “a slug of a line,” snorts it, and returns to a party. Immediately, she’s overcome by an appetite for more, “no ordinary wanting.”

This wanting is more like a giant baby, “a wet hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.” Like the one she left at home, with her sister babysitting him: her few-months-old baby, whose appetites will now compete with her own throughout a book that reads like Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but with a baby in it. (more…)

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If I had to name my favorite memoir about loss, it would be Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning, by Debby Bull. It’s not sad, and no one dies. But it has some of the best lessons about how to work through despair of any book I’ve ever read on the subject.

In it, the author mourns the end of a relationship—“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart”—and copes with her heartache by learning how to can jellies, jams, preserves, and chutneys.

Sound lightweight? Maybe not, if you’ve just broken up with the love of your life. Besides, despite its charming and hilarious premise, Blue Jelly offers an instructive way to overcome depression.

Through canning, Bull says, “You create an orderly little world. Unlike what has happened to you, these steps take you to what you planned on. You become a person in a world in which things turn out the way you thought they would.”

And that, on so many levels, is the answer to dealing with grief and loss: the remaking of your broken world.

If you’re like me, you’d rather write about it than can your troubles away. As a former contributing editor and writer for Rolling Stone, Bull had an advantage when it came to telling her story. But what if you’re new to the craft and not sure where to start? What if your grief runs deeper than the end of a romantic relationship? What if you’re afraid of alienating family and friends by writing about it?

That’s where Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss comes in, a comprehensive new handbook that answers all these questions and more. Author Jessica Handler has walked the walk. When she was ten years old, her eight-year-old sister Susie died of leukemia. Their sister Sarah, then only four, was diagnosed with a rare and fatal blood disorder and died when Handler was 32. In 2010, the memoir Handler wrote about them, Invisible Sisters, became her means of remembering those lost girls, of “capturing our lives and holding them for myself, our friends, family and perhaps people who never knew us …”

It also became Handler’s way of remembering herself, of understanding who she was then and how the events shaped her as a person—“who I became after grief changed me.” A good memoir, she explains, tries to share that journey. One of the first questions she suggests we ask is Why do I want to tell my story? and quotes memoirist Robin Hemley, who agrees: “The first detective act is to try to peer through the keyhole into who you really are. Figure out why you’re telling the story in the first place, and who is this person telling the story.” (more…)

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This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)

Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)

Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.

Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.

Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.

Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.

Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.

Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.

Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)

Tom Robbins, by Stuart Isett

Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”

Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”

Want more? Here are my favorites from 2013. Or you can try the Millions—their list of most anticipated upcoming books is one of my favorites.

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