Catapult co-owner Seth Marko founded the original Book Catapult blog in 2006. He has worked in bookstores from New Orleans to San Diego since 2001 and was a field sales rep for a publishing distribution group until early 2020.
His 10 favorite books of 2019: Underland, Late Migrations, The River, Turbulence, How to Catch a Mole, The Light Years, Rough Magic, How to Hide an Empire, The Testaments, and On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.
I foolishly thought that I knew the road this novel was taking me on & what type of a book I was reading when I began... Right out of the gate it's filled with magical healers, old Hawaiian gods, and sharks with unharmed kids in their mouths - feels pretty weird, right? But - without giving even an ounce of anything away - it does such an amazing, beautiful pivot - a perfect pirouette - right in the middle, becoming both a tighter, smaller story about the struggles of an incredible, vividly real family while also expanding into this much, much bigger, weirder, older story about Hawaii itself. A thoroughly unexpected, gorgeous, and devastating novel that I truly loved every single word of. -seth
I love a book that promises to lead you in a certain direction, only to have it completely surprise you mid-way. The Bear did that for me – I thought I was reading a “straightforward” post-apocalyptic novel about a girl surviving alone in the wilderness… and it is that, for sure, but about 1/3 of the way in it pivots ever so slightly and becomes something much bigger, more beautiful, poignant, and magical. So incredibly magical! I loved and savored every single word of it – a book that by page count should’ve taken me a day to read, I spread out over a week, not wanting it to end. THAT’s what I’m talking about. -seth
I know this looks like just another tree novel that I’m recommending, but I promise this isn’t an Overstory sequel. This has a great structure to it – 120 years of layered Greenwood family history, unveiled in portions backwards in time, then returned to the start. You really think you have the family pegged from the outset, but of course people & their lives are always infinitely more complex than they appear on the surface. Plus it has trees! Alas, the Greenwood legacy is built on cuting down trees for lumber... and most trees in the world are dead by 2038, causing dust storms & making paper books a rare commodity... All of which to say, this is a not-too-subtle call-to-arms for us all to stop treating the planet as a personal trash pit, while also being a most excellent, compulsively readable historical family saga. -seth
Macfarlane is already the best nature and landscape writer of this generation, but Underland is far and away his masterwork to date. He chronicles an amazing series of underground adventures: a harrowing caving experience beneath innocuous Somerset, England; visiting humanity's folly in a nuclear waste site far underground; spending a night traveling the vast Paris catacombs; discovering underground rivers and mountainous black sand dunes beneath the Italian Alps. Yet his experiences making his way to the incredible cave of Kollhellaren in Norway - alone - and watching 100,000 year old "deep time" ice calve from a Greenland glacier due to human-caused climate change are of the most stunning, vivid pieces of narrative nonfiction I have ever read. I promise you, this profound, moving, absolute masterpiece will change the way you see the world around you. -seth
What an incredible stunner of a book. While certainly a grief memoir surrounding the death of Renkl's complicated mother but also the story of a marriage, of parents, of family, mixed together in a most amazing way with a profound appreciation for the natural world & how it all connects. This gorgeous gem of a book is worth returning to over & over again - and is absolute perfection for lovers of H is For Hawk or Terry Tempest Williams & the like, while being wholly unique in its own beautiful way. -seth
A fascinating, meticulously researched, & highly readable “revisionist history” of the US shown through the lens of the territories and colonies that have been at the outlying edges of the American empire. And despite what our history books have always told us, it is and has always been an empire, bent on cultural domination and capitalism. I’ve lost count of how many times I was completely shocked upon learning of some horrifying political policy I’ve long been oblivious to. Native Alaskan internment camps? Decades of pre-WWII government sanctioned war in the Philippines? Horrific medical testing in Puerto Rico? If you’re like me, shamefully unaware of much of American empire building history there is out there, Immerwhar will open your eyes wide. An absolutely riveting history that feels like an especially necessary historical perspective primer for any thoughtful citizen living in today’s America. -sm
Marc Hamer spent 30 years working as a professional molecatcher in Wales (no joke) but as it turns out, he should’ve been writing all that time. This book is a true nonfiction gem – Hamer is poetic, graceful, & profound in his descriptions of catching (and killing) these strange velvety creatures who tear up Welsh fields. More than that, he has an extraordinary eye for observation & a remarkable gift for putting those observations to page in a gorgeous, wondrous way. A quiet, beautiful book and a lovely meditation on the natural world around us & how we all interact. -seth
I’m not exactly sure how Chris Rush survived his own childhood, honestly, but don’t just write this off as a common drug memoir. His is an earnest, eloquent, compelling voice that completely surprised me in offering a complex, heartbreaking, beautifully told remembrance of an unusual youth. Essentially living in an odd sort of exile even while surrounded by both real and adopted families, he spent his teenage years taking & dealing drugs with abandon, hitchhiking across the country, chasing UFOs, living alone in the desert, and grappling with his sexuality on top of everything else. Chris’s story is one of resilience, perseverance, & his own youthful brand of self-instructed faith steeped heavily in LSD and a belief that the path forward would eventually reveal itself. The fact that he survived these early years – and his own family - to become a thriving adult and a successful artist is remarkable, inspiring, and plain wonderful. I think the comparisons to some of Denis Johnson’s early short fiction are apt – Rush is that good a crafter of scene, memory, and sentence that this memoir just might stand the test of time and become a classic remembrance of life as a kid on the fringes of society in the 1970’s. -sm
Being a decidedly non-horse-racing book reader, this is one that I NEVER would have noticed had a fellow bookseller not raved about it to me. At 19, Lara Prior-Palmer, who barely knew her way around a horse at all, was aimlessly figuring out what to do with her post-high-school self, so she entered a 1000 km horse race in Mongolia. As one does, naturally. She then became not only the first woman to finish the grueling, totally insane race, but also the youngest person and first woman to win the whole thing. An absolutely crazy, inspiring, and completely captivating story told by Lara, who, as it turns out, is a phenomenal storyteller and an amazing writer. And a pretty good horse racer too. -seth
A brilliant little novel about how sometimes our lives connect by the thinnest of threads, through the briefest of encounters. The man next to you on the plane spills a drink on a flight to Madrid - he gets stuck in traffic heading home to his family because someone has been killed in an accident - the man that caused the accident calls a woman he's been seeing during a flight layover - the woman flies to Toronto for an interview only to be stood up because her subject is headed to Seattle... around & around the globe, until everything connects almost magically back to the original storyline. A novella so good it begs to be read in one sitting, while on a flight perhaps... -seth
This is easily Heller’s best book since The Dog Stars – one of my all-time favorites. I found it so moving, surprising, & powerful that I couldn’t stop mulling it around in my head. We often t about how vivid or realistic or harrowing scenes in books can be but I read this during our own horrific wildfires in NorCal in late-2018 & the descriptions of a similar raging inferno in this just knocked me back hard. But Heller continues to hammer you throughout with emotional intensity & the palpable anxiety of his main characters, struggling to survive their ordeal. As in life, this doesn’t have all the answers for all involved & is just as heartbreaking & sad as it is intense and exciting. Yet he brings it all home with his stunning depictions of the gorgeous northern wilderness, the intense cold, the roar of the rapids, the heat of a wildfire out of control. Outstanding. -seth
A perfect, lovely little meditation on... lighthouses. Fits in your pocket, makes you feel good. -seth
"After spending sufficient time inside a lighthouse, who wouldn't begin to hear a song in the sound of the machinery, a voice in the wind or the waves?"
I grew up in New England and spent part of every childhood summer on Cape Cod, so this book captures a special place for me personally. But it is a gorgeously written mediation on the natural history of the Cape, its dunes, tides, wildlife, waves, water, and its people. They say that between natural erosion & human-caused climate change, the entire Cape will be swallowed by the ocean in the next 6000 years. Finch brings all of the Cape’s majestic fragility to life in these pages as an ode to this landscape that holds such a quiet, beautiful resonance to anyone who’s spent any time there. And it will make those who have not been there ache to visit. -seth
A lovely, meadering contemplation of walking and the paths our feet take us down. I read most of this while walking from home to the shop everyday. Peaceful, inward, perfection. -seth
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Many scientists hypothesize that we are living in the midst of Earth's 6th major extinction event - and, of course, it's almost completely our fault. We are the asteroid this time. Terrifying, fascinating, compulsively readable, and completley excellent. One of those books that everyone on the planet should read. -seth
A fascinating approach to the anthropology of the Ice Age - was North America populated by crossers of the fabled land bridge? Or did they paddle along the ice-covered coast line from Asia to California? Or, even more controversially, did they paddle from Spain to Nova Scotia, following the ice? Anthropologist Childs puts himself out there on the glaciers and deserts to help himself figure out how we got here, how we formed a continent-spanning community and communication network through stone tools, and how we handled life on a continent that was not prepared for such an apex predator. -seth
I had a moment early in reading The Overstory where I paused & realized that this was one of those great, resonant books that come along only so often in a reader’s life. The multiple narratives to this intertwine like the roots of an old redwood grove in magnificent, surprising ways – with trees being the one connective thread to all. A story for the ages that cries out for humanity to take note of the destruction of the planet’s forests & how integral to our own health & happiness they truly are. Read it slowly, soak it all in, consider this incredible invisible world that that the storyteller is inviting you into. An absolutely stunning novel. -Seth
Sometimes a book just speaks for itself – you're going to have to come into the store and open this beauty up to see for yourself, internet friend. Filled with fascinating capsules about 80 different tree species from all over the world paired with stunning artwork by Lucille Clerc. For instance, did you know that the upas tree (yes, Upas is also a tree) has a toxic sap used for poison darts in Malaysia? (Cashews are also toxic until the seed is steamed open.) Or that our ubiquitous jacarandas are from Argentina? And that the quinine tree is the national tree of Peru & Ecuador? Well, all this knowledge and more could be yours! -seth
A strange, almost magical tall-tale about a giant Swedish immigrant who comes to the West in the 1850’s in search of a better life. Hakan accidentally arrives in SF alone & spends his youth trying to reach his brother in NYC. He instead wanders the desolate landscape of the American West, weirdly growing into a giant & encountering all manner of Homerian characters – a brothel madam with rotten teeth, a murderous sheriff, a magnanimous vintner, a naturalist searching for the missing link. All in all, this is a sad tale of the lonely life of the immigrant and a parable for the modern plight of those attempting to cross today’s southern border or seek political refuge from afar. A polarizing novel that was the 2nd selection of The Catapult Book Club & a 2018 Pulitzer finalist. -sm
Mostly through the lens of literature, I’ve always had a fascination for the ancient pathways that course across the landscape. (I also read a lot while I walk.) That faded trail that runs between the hedges, the dusty track over the distant hilltops, old seaway routes, & a pathway that disappears with the rising tide. Macfarlane has written an elegant, gorgeous, truly wonderful meditation on walking those old paths – mostly through Britain – mixing in geology, cartography, literature, & the philosophy of “walking as a reconnoitre inwards & the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” -seth
It seems that half of Northern California is named for Alexander von Humboldt, but I knew absolutely nothing about him before I read this fantastic, illuminating biography - the best nonfiction book I've read in several years. The most famous naturalist in his day, Humboldt had a profound influence on the likes of Muir, Thoreau, Darwin, Goethe, and Simon Bolivar. He was the first scientist to hypothesize that human activity has an effect on Earth's climate and spent his entire life on the then-radical idea that all of the natural world is one interconnected web. Super-famous in the 1800's, how he is not well-known today is baffling. An immensely important figure in science, ecology, and environmentalism whose work resonates anew in today's charged political climate. -Seth
Dare I say it? Could this be my favorite book of all time? I've read and re-read my dogeared, annotated copy over and over again, only to be surprised and delighted each time anew. Cloud Atlas is just the tip of the David Mitchell iceberg, mind you - each one of his books is a piece in a gigantic puzzle he is spending his entire writing life crafting, with characters floating through multiple books, revealing more and more about themselves each time. I read this for the first time in 2004 and I can still remember what it felt like when I saw all the blocks dropping into place like it was some strange, disassembled magical puzzle filled with fictions-within-fictions, false leads, multiple writing styles, and absolutely unforgettable characters. It's unlike anything else you've been reading, I'm fairly sure of that. Time to read it again! -Seth
A remarkable, beautiful, emotive book that will reduce you to tears (on more than one occasion) and make you hug your loved ones all the closer. Aren’t those the sort of things we want out of a good story, after all? A book that you can’t wait to return to, to read again for the first time. I can’t stress it enough – go to this book, read it, love it, pass it along. Repeat. -Seth