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 who visited bookstores all over the West for a publishing distribution group until early 2020.
Could this be the definitive California novel of this young century? I found these interlocking stories of native Californians so profoundly moving – people who float through the Golden State, mostly indigenous or pre-border Mexican from 300 years back, the fiery backbone of the California economy, anonymous & unseen. An “American epic” as they say, just not from the usual conquering Euro-perspective. And the landscape reads EXACTLY as it truly is, written by native eyes – the dry air, the baking desert sun, the Santa Anas, the smell of the orange groves, terrifying wildfire. Gorgeous. And the ending will break your little heart. THE BEST NOVEL ABOUT CALIFORNIA I HAVE EVER READ. -sm
Culled from and expanded upon Ken Layne’s super-weird & wonderful late-night desert radio show of the same name, this reads like the transcript of stories told by a mysterious stranger to your campfire at 1am. Strange headlights on the open road, aliens & murderers, la Llorona & outlaws, artists and Edward Abbey. Great for dipping into and out of for a dose of California desert history and weirdness. -sm
It's definitely a skilled writer who can take the obscure true story of the early 17th-century witchcraft trial of Johannes Kepler's mother and make it funny. I mean, at first you might think, "This is a serious take on how poorly people treat each other and/or a literal witch hunt and/or a morality tale etc etc." And okay, it is a bit of that, but it's also weirdly hilarious. Of course Frau Kepler hasn't cast any spells on anyone or walked backward with a goat or poisoned her neighbor. But the hysterical fear that spreads throughout the community is completely bonkers - even if this story is based in truth. Galchen peppers in fictional deposition interviews (that have an almost modern linguistic flavor to them) with everyone who has had contact with or heard rumors of Frau Kepler that give the whole thing an odd flair that is just so funny if you step back from it for a second. I loved it, as you can tell. -sm
A fascinating, firsthand exploration of twelve places around the world that have been abandoned by humanity – like Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ, Detroit, the Salton Sea - in an attempt to discover whether the earth is able to reclaim and heal from the effects of human hands. These are not pristine, untainted places, but rather human abandoned "islands" where "nature has (since) been allowed to work unfettered." And for the most part, Flyn finds that the planet will recover from us over long enough of a timeline - even if that means millenia. The result is a hopeful, energizing travelogue of sorts that shows we should never give up on the places we've damaged and ignored. All is not lost, but that doesn't mean we should carry on as we have been, as we should be much more responsible members of the broader, interconnected planet. -seth
Lauren Groff’s 2015 National Book Award finalist, Fates & Furies was one of my favorite books from that year - Matrix is absolutely nothing like it and somehow an even better book. I’m not sure how Groff managed the pivot from that previous contemporary novel of marriage to this 12th-century story of a nunnery, but Matrix is an absolute masterpiece of historical fiction. Marie is cast out from the court of Eleanor of Aquitane to a nunnery in the English countryside, where she becomes a visionary prioress devoted to the protection of her sisters and the sustainability of her faith and the utopian abbey she creates. Remarkably (or perhaps, predictably) this 800 year old story of female ingenuity, power, and resiliency in a male-dominated society rings true and timely to today. It's powerful, ambitious, and lovely - I wasn't sure what it would be when I started, but I found it so utterly compelling and gorgeous, it's definitely one of the best books I've read this year. -sm
I feel like every time Johnny has a new book out, I tell people, "THIS is the best thing he's written." And man, this time... this is far and away his most ambitious, sprawling, wide-perspective novel while also being his most well-crafted, poignant, & introspective work yet. This is a welcome return to his epic world-building of West of Here - my previous favorite of his - and it's clear that he has hit some incredible stride at this career point. The title says it all - even with 7 billion of us here, we do indeed live in "a small world" in some ways and you never know how your life may connect backward in time to another's to complete an unseen circle of humanity. The connecting threads between characters here all are perfectly parceled out to the reader, letting things click into place gradually as the whole epic unfolds. In the end, this is the story of America across the generations & centuries, restlessly "yearning for something out of reach", moving ever forward "collectively...like a runaway train." Absolutely brilliant - and the book I'm most looking forward to in the new year. -seth
Doerr’s finest book to date – and even better than his Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light You Cannot See. An astounding novel about libraries, books, and the preservation of stories - with Doerr's trademark gossamer threads of human connection that will blow you away. Easily the best book I've read in 2021. -sm
This here is the novel you didn't know needed to be written, but it did. Oh it did, friend. A delightful novel about a computer printer repair technician named Claire who works at New York's vaunted Tekserve repair shop during the 90's heyday of Apple's pre-iPhone, more Macintosh era. Claire struggles mightily with human interactions, but can navigate the innards of 45 lb laser printers with her eyes closed. Plus, some sections are narrated by the inner parts of those behemoth printers - the gears, the octagonal mirrors, the ceramic capacitors, the malfunctioning fans. As much an ode to the lost, scrappy, pixelated upstart Apple as it is to the New York City of the 90's and our own pre-internet computerized world. A super-funny, weirdo palate-cleanser. -sm
Like their previous collaboration, Around the World in 80 Trees, Drori & Clerc's latest book is really one that begs to be handled, thumbed through, savored, and appreciated in person. If ever there was an advantage that small bookshops have over online mega-websites, it's this tactileness of certain special volumes. Drori concisely and eloquently highlights 80 plants from around the world that have a human connection, often altering the course of our history as we bend them to our will or are bent by theirs. But without Lucille Clerc's incredible, stunning illustrations, you might never give this book a second thought on the shelves of your local bookshop. Did you know that artichokes don't exist in the wild? Or that the Breaking Bad poison ricin comes from the innocuous castor bean? Or that linoleum floors are made from flax? While you gush over the gorgeous illustrations, the facts come fast and furious and your plant knowledge will expand beyond your wildest imagination. A stunner! -seth
For any fellow Robert Macfarlane completists out there.... Roger Deakin was Macfarlane's mentor and fellow English landscape explorer, featuring prominently in The Wild Places. Macfarlane was pivotal in getting this volume back into print - Deakin's meditative, joyful exploration of the waterways of Britain through "wild swimming." -sm
From the outset of this incredible debut novel, I really thought I knew what sort of book I was getting into. Magical healers, old Hawaiian gods, sharks rescuing children. But midway through, the story does a perfect, gradual pirouette to become both a tighter, smaller story about the struggles of a complex, flawed 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. -sm
I love a book that promises to lead you in a certain direction, only to have it completely surprise you mid-way through. 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 a third of the way in it becomes something much bigger, beautiful, poignant and magical. Suspend your disbelief, friends. Maybe the natural world has more going on in it than we self-involved humans can comprehend. I loved and savored every single word - a book that by page count should have taken me a day to read, I spread out over a week, not wanting it to end. -seth
I picked this for the Catapult Book Club and was completely surprised & enthralled by it. It perfectly transported me to a time and place that I've never been to before or even thought about - early 20th-century agrarian island life on the Norwegian archipelago. The isolated, tight-knit Barrøy family is earthy, real, flawed, familiar, and lovely - another bookseller perfectly described this as a Wyeth painting come to life. I've been spending so much time reading the news lately, thinking about the current state of the world, discussing systemic racism, defunding police departments, global pandemics, co-raising two feisty little girls, working long, weird hours at the shop - and this gem from Norway was the perfect escape for me. I'm sure it's not for everyone, which is the beauty of fiction - but sometimes that perfect book comes along out of nowhere for you and helps push that reset button in your brain. This was just the ticket for me. -seth
See also the equally excellent second volume in the trilogy, White Shadow!
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
Macdonald's collection of nature writing essays (a followup to her brilliant 2015 book H is for Hawk) was the perfect COVID-Trump-2020 escape for me - a dose of balance inserted into my days. Whether learning about how swifts sleep on the wing or that seven billion insects "pass over a square mile of English farmland in a single month" or reading of her early childhood on the grounds of the very British estate Tekels Park (a gorgeous essay, that) or passages like this one, from an essay about summer storms:
All my clearest summer memories are of storms. The afternoon in the early 1980s on the Kennet and Avon canal when I heard my first nightingale singing into charged grey air, accompanied by distant thunder that swung closer and seemed a voice answering the bird. Or that hot week in Gloucestershire in the 1990s when thunderstorms came every evening so the air turned sepia at six and before the first drops of storm rain sent pollen-dust up in puffs from the skylight I'd open the windows and wait for thunder while little owls called through the thick air, and in the morning tiny white dots of storm-blown blossom covered the house with wet French lace. I've measured all my summers by their storms.
Who doesn’t love summer? The approach of the solstice brings days lengthening to their longest as we reach the furthest point from the darkness of winter. Days of corn on the cob, sand between the toes, fireflies, ice cream, summer camp. Nina MacLaughlin (author of the excellent memoir, Hammerhead and the novel Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung) has put together a gem of a little book - just 60 pages of concise, languid, beautiful prose: a meditation on all things summer. A pocket-sized beauty with French-flaps and a letter press cover, published by the equally excellent & tiny Black Sparrow Press. It’s one of those books you'll be surprised & delighted by when you stretch out in your hammock with your lemonade for the afternoon. -sm
Oh this book! A wholly unique, beautifully perfect gem of an essay collection - a gorgeous, joyful mix of personal memoir and nature essay by poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Stories of fireflies & narwhals, axolotls & corpse flowers braid together with her experiences growing up a person of color in Kansas & Arizona and raising two sons to have her same sense of wonder at the natural world around them. What can a firefly teach you about climate change & respect for the planet, memory & family, how to treat one another, what to do when you feel overwhelmed by the weight of the world? One of the best books I've read in a good long while. -sm
The latest novel from literary impresario David Mitchell arrives driving the beat full-tilt with an entire universe created around a fictional British folk-rock band and their brief, meteoric rise to fame in the late 1960's. A dreamscape universe of sound, parties, musicians, acid trips, studio sessions, Roman prisons, & smoky London clubs, populated by a cavalcade of 60's counterculture icons that provides a perfect escapist read. You could swear you had a poster of singer Elf Holloway on your childhood bedroom wall and saw Utopia Avenue play the Troubadour that one time.... And for the fellow Mitchellverse travelers, there are plenty of Horologists, de Zoets, music by Robert Frobisher, and moon gray cat sightings to keep you doubly engaged, have no fear. -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
Ben Ehrenreich's unclassifiable, brilliant new book is a polymath's mix of personal memoir, nature writing, micro-histories, Mayan mythologies, and how it all relates to the (outgoing) American president, the acceleration of climate change, the politics of race, and the nature of time itself. It's a most unusual book, as you can tell, but one I can't seem to shake - and it's holding up as one of the best books I've read this year. Ehrenreich's general theory is that "Trauma stops time. Catastrophe breaks all cycles. Whatever rhythm had once been attained collapses." 2020 has definitely been such a massive, yearlong trauma point for most of us - whether racism, COVID, climate, Trump, or a heavy combination of all of the above. Now how do we deal with that trauma and move forward into the future? Through the desert, friends. -sm
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
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
A most excellent series of essays about the deserts of the West by anthroplogist/archaeologist/adventurer Craig Childs. He hikes his way into Burning Man across the hard pan, climbs among improbably balanced rocks thousands of years in the making, camps atop a New Mexico mesa in the middle of a thunderstorm, and - best of the bunch - flies in a small plane through evaporating rain ("virga") over the deserts of the Four Corners. Stick this in your back pocket on your next hike out into the wilderness. -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?"
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
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
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
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.
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