Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Review: Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

Today in January’s children’s and sf/f sections, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Margo Lanagan’s latest short story collection, Red Spikes.

Black Juice, Lanagan's first collection of short fantasy tales, was widely admired and awarded in the author’s native Australia. Bursztynski thinks this new collection is every bit as good.

The review is here.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Oh, Yes, and I Know Mr. Tolkien Personally

Who in the hell thought up this survey? According to the UK’s Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), “a third of British adults have lied about reading a book to appear more intelligent.” What’s more,

A cunning 33 per cent of adults have confessed to reading challenging literature to appear well-read, when in fact they haven’t a clue what the book is about.

But 40 per cent of people said they lied about reading certain books just so they could join in with conversation.

One in ten men said they would fib about reading a certain book to impress the opposite sex ...
Now, I can certainly see that last part being true. (If a beautiful woman walks up to me and asks whether I’ve read her favorite book--be it Anna Karenina, The Kite Runner, or Best Lesbian Erotica 2007--I am likely to say “yes,” if only to prevent her from scurrying off to the company of another bewildered bloke.) But I find it humorous to see the MLA’s list of 10 books Brits are most prone to lie about reading:
1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien
2. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
3. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
4. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, by John Gray
5. 1984, by George Orwell
6. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling
7. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
8. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
9. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
10. Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
If necessary, I’d have to lie about having read four of those. But I’d never lie about reading The Da Vinci Code: I couldn’t make it past that novel’s first 100 pages, so bored was I with the shallow characters and so disinterested was I in the religious basis of the plot. And, personally, I would be more prone to fib about having read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (I only ever saw the movie), or a dozen other novels on The Modern Library’s “100 Best” list before I’d spout off about having poured over Men Are from Mars … etc.

But let’s do our own survey here: Which books have you lied about reading, at one time or another? And what were the circumstances?

Review: Don’t Make Me Stop Now

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor David Abrams reviews a new collection of stories by Michael Parker, author of 2005’s If You Want Me to Stay.

Though Don’t Make Me Stop Now is not without flaw, Abrams finds a lot to like:
Haven’t we all been white-veined at some point in our lives? Parker knows the majority of us have gone through life staring at silent telephones, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot at the edge of a half-empty dance floor, grinding our teeth as we lie sweaty-headed on the pillow thinking about all the Lovely Desirable Ones we let slip away. This collection is full of rootless, longing characters who walk around with holes in their hearts looking for the right person to fill that shape.

The full review is here.


Monday, January 29, 2007

“Men’s Adventure” Debuts Today

January Magazine’s sister blog, The Rap Sheet, today begins publishing Men’s Adventure, “a crime novel in installments,” penned by Dick Adler, the Chicago Tribune’s longtime, Ellen Nehr Award-winning reviewer of mystery and thriller fiction.

This approximately 60,000-word story -- new chapters of which will be posted at The Rap Sheet every Monday over the coming year -- is based in part on Adler’s experiences as an editor at Argosy magazine, a fiction periodical turned “men’s magazine,” which he joined in 1956. That, Adler explains, was back in the days “when Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) was heading up a section called The Court of Last Resort, which used writers like James T. Farrell (author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy) to help unjustly convicted prisoners.” Adler tells The Rap Sheet:
[I]n this serial novel, “Gardner becomes Perry Marcus, Farrell turns into Saul Cooperman, Argosy transforms itself into Viking,” and his editor-detective protagonist from [his previous novel] The Mozart Code, Ivan Davis, “joins a cast which includes such other real-life people as Harvey Matusow (one of the strangest figures of the Joe McCarthy witch hunt) and writers like Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather while he was churning out stories for the world of pulp magazines.” At the same time as Men’s Adventure introduces readers into the colorful and arcane realm of New York-based pulp publications, it will explore the damage done to so many lives by Senator McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) in his obsessive pursuit of alleged Communists both inside the federal government and without.
You can read the first installment of Men’s Adventure here.

Review: The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey

Today in the January Magazine crime fiction section, critic David Thayer inspects the brightness and sharpness of The Blade Itself, the debut novel from “Killer Year” author Marcus Sakey.

“The set-up of The Blade Itself is simple,” explains Thayer. “Two childhood friends, Danny Carter and Evan McGann, plan to rob a pawnshop.” But nothing else about this new book is so simple, as Sakey explores issues of trust, honesty, temptation, and personal values. “The promise of his debut effort bodes well for this novelist, and for readers, too,” concludes Thayer. “Sakey is another gifted wordsmith exploring the urban terrain he knows and so obviously loves.”

Read the full review here.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Orpah’s Choice: A Balm for Frey

Oprah’s 56th book club choice is The Measure of A Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Sidney Poitier (HarperSanFrancisco). The book was originally published in 2000.

On Oprah’s new book club pick, the Chicago Tribune says:

If her goal was to erase the memory of the disgraced James Frey, then Oprah Winfrey couldn’t have made a better pick for her book club than a memoir by Sidney Poitier.

I don’t know: I think that was maybe the point. And over the years, Oprah has certainly demonstrated that she’s someone who can grasp a point.

Since Frey’s “memoir” turned out to be almost as packed with as much fantasy as a Terry Pratchett novel, it would make sense to choose not only a book and author Winfrey admired (and there’s a lot to admire here, certainly) but one who seemed, by temperament and reputation, unlikely to have fabricated even small things.

Meanwhile, Winfrey’s Web site is offering readers the opportunity to ask Poitier an interview question and listen to an excerpt of him reading from the book.

The Tribune’s story is here, Oprah’s book club is here and the whole sordid James Frey thing is here, in case you missed it about this time last year.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Diary of A Mad Blogger

“All those years of being told not to read other people’s diaries have come to an end.” And, then again, maybe not.

Dark Horse Comics reports that they will publish Diary of Indignities, a book based on Patrick Hughes’ popular Bad News Hughes blog. Hughes, Dark Horse tells us, “has an uncanny talent for personal failure, with more than the average share of embarrassment, carefree violence, booze, bodily injury, hypochondria, inappropriate nudity, painful rashes, neuroses, colonoscopy procedures, and unpleasant smells -- all totally true.”

Dark Horse says that Diary of Indignities will be published “complete with humiliating full-color photo essays,” so that the author can guide “readers past good taste, sense, and even logic into that magical, mayhem-ridden world known as his life.”

If that sounds even vaguely entertaining, check your bookstore on March 27th when Diary of Indignities is slated to go on sale.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Interview: Richard Burgin

Today in January Magazine, contributing editor Mary Ward Menke chats with Richard Burgin just as his 12th book, The Conference on Beautiful Moments, is reaching stores.

“There is no voice in American letters today like Richard Burgin’s,” The Bloomsbury Review commented about the author. From the tenor of her questions, our interviewer agrees.

You can read the full January interview here.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Watch Your Marbles

I don’t know how it happened that I missed noticing that Amy Sedaris had a book out almost before it was too late to report on it (yes that Amy Sedaris: brother of David and entertainment goddess in her own right).

Meanwhile, Sedaris’ I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (Warner Books, 2006) has been screaming up the charts. And it’s no surprise: the book is built on generous dollops of what appears to be the engagingly insane Sedaris family humor, carefully interspersed with advice and even recipes that actually work. Readers had best tread cautiously, however (or maybe that’s part of the fun?) because the lines of fantasy and reality are at times blurred.

My favorite piece of advice from I Like You is a good example of this. Something silly you’d never, ever do, and yet... wouldn’t we all like to: “Try filling your medicine cabinet with marbles. Nothing announces a noisy partygoer more successfully than an avalanche of marbles striking a porcelain sink.”

Future guests at my dinner parties be warned: I’ve been armed by Amy Sedaris.


ALA Winners Announced

The 2007 winners of various American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards were announced at the Seattle Trade and Convention Center on Monday. Like the Oscars, there are a lot of awards and winners. We’ll just hit the highlights. If you want to see more, the ALA Web site has published the full list.

John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature:
The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron (Simon & Schuster), is the 2007 Newbery Medal winner.

Three Newbery Honor Books were named:
Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House)
Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson (Delacorte Press)
Rules, by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic)

Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children:

Flotsam, illustrated by David Wiesner (Clarion)
Two Caldecott Honor Books were named:
Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet, written and illustrated by David McLimans (Walker)
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, written by Carole Boston Weatherford (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun)

Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults:
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (First Second/Roaring Brook Press/Holtzbrinck) is the 2007 Printz Award winner
Four Printz Honor Books were named:
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; v. 1: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick)
An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green (Dutton/Penguin)
Surrender, by Sonya Hartnet (Candlewick Press)
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Children’s Books)

Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults:
Copper Sun, by Sharon Draper (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum Books for Young Readers) is the King Author Book winner.
One King Author Honor Book was selected:
The Road to Paris, written by Nikki Grimes (G.P. Putnum’s Sons/Penguin Young Readers Group)

King Illustrator Book winner:
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, written by Carole Boston Weatherford (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children).
Two King Illustrator Honor Books were selected:
Jazz, illustrated by Christopher Myers, written by Walter Dean Myers (Holiday House)
Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, illustrated by Benny Andrews, edited by David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad (Sterling Publishing)

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award:
Standing Against the Wind, written by Traci L. Jones (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody the artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences:
The Deaf Musicians, written by Pete Seeger and poet Paul DuBois Jacobs, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) wins the award for children ages 0 to 10.

Rules, written by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic Press) is the winner in the middle-school category (age 11-13). “

Small Steps, written by Louis Sachar (Delacorte Press) is the winner in the teen category (age 13-18).

Theodor Seuss Geisel Beginning Reader Award for the most distinguished beginning reader book:
Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways, written and illustrated by Laura McGee Kvasnosky (Candlewick Press).
Three Geisel Honor Books were named:
Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride, written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press)
Move Over, Rover! written by Karen Beaumont, illustrated by Jane Dyer (Harcourt)
Not a Box, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis (HarperCollins)

Irish Popster’s Speech Will Be Book

A speech U2 frontman Bono made at the White House in 2005 will be published as a book this coming April.

The idea to re-imagine Bono’s speech came from editor David Moberg of the W Publishing Group, a Christian publisher based in Nashville. Moberg said that he was “very motivated after hearing Bono speak and asked myself how we could help. We’re honored to publish this book and assist in whatever way we can with Bono’s efforts on behalf of the ONE campaign.”

On the Move: A Speech By Bono will include Bono’s 2005 White House address on poverty and AIDs as well as related photos the musician has taken over the years.

Find out more about the One Campaign here. Read a related piece at NME here.

A Literotican Vacation

If the term “literotica” doesn’t mean anything to you, but tweaks some long-suppressed creative desire, you might consider signing up for one of Mitzi Szereto’s weekend erotic writing workshops. Two sessions -- one in early March, the other in mid-November -- will be held at The Old Grange in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.

From the press bumph:

The course will consist of lectures, group discussions, writing exercises, collaborative efforts, and workshopping of material. A comprehensive overview of the marketplace for those considering publication will be provided. Designed for those interested in writing erotica for either personal or professional exploration. Open to all levels of writers.
Szereto is the author of Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp Through the Classics and has edited several anthologies with an erotic focus.

More information on the Literotica workshops is here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Critics Are Circling

The NBCC have announced the shortlist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Awards:

  • Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso)
  • Anne Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade (Penguin Press)
  • Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press)
  • Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (Ecco)
  • Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury)
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf)
  • Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss (Grove/Atlantic)
  • Dave Eggers, What is the What (McSweeney's)
  • Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (Knopf)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (Knopf)
  • Donald Antrim, The Afterlife (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin)
  • Alexander Masters, Stuart: A Life Backwards (Delacorte)
  • Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (HarperCollins)
  • Teri Jentz, Strange Piece of Paradise (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Daisy Fried, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (University of Pittsburgh Press)
  • Troy Jollimore, Tom Thomson in Purgatory (Margie/Intuit House)
  • Miltos Sachtouris, Poems (1945-1971) (Archipelego Books)
  • Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • W.D. Snodgrass, Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions)
  • Bruce Bawer, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within (Doubleday)
  • Frederick Crews, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays (Shoemaker & Hoard)
  • Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon (Viking)
  • Lia Purpura, On Looking: Essays (Sarabande Books)
  • Lawrence Wechsler, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences (McSweeney’s)
  • Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in Amerca: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday)
  • Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (Simon& Schuster)
  • Frederick Brown, Flaubert: A Biography (Little, Brown)
  • Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (St.Martin’s Press)
  • Jason Roberts, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler (HarperCollins)
The winners will be announced March 8 at the annual NBCC Awards Ceremony in New York City.

Fail Better

“... somewhere between a critic’s necessary superficiality and a writer’s natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost.”

In a two article series for The Guardian, Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty) doesn’t pull any literary punches. Smith’s lengthy, two-part piece is wonderful, managing as it does to be both accessible (“That’s how young readers are, too, when they start out. They are doubters and seekers.”) and urbane (She quotes both Kierkegaard and Nobokov while somehow never losing her of-the-reading-masses tone).

I have said that when I open a book I feel the shape of another human being’s brain. To me, Nabokov’s brain is shaped like a helter-skelter. George Eliot’s is like one of those pans for sifting gold. Austen’s resembles one of the glass flowers you find in Harvard’s Natural History Museum.

There’s so much here that is terrific, the temptation is just to quote and quote and quote: most of what Smith shares in the space is worth repeating. But I’ll save both of us the effort: part one is here, put two is here. Savor it for yourself.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Review: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Today in the January Magazine fiction section, contributing editor David Abrams looks at Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon’s first outing in a decade. “There is simply too much going on in Against the Day for readers to make an emotional connection with anything they encounter,” says Abrams.

Read the full review here.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

The End of Harry Bosch

If you haven’t been paying attention, today brings us the final, 16th installment of Michael Connelly’s New York Times Magazine serial, “The Overlook.” This Sunday fiction series, which features Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch, received a good deal of publicity before it commenced its run in September, but doesn’t seem to have generated much buzz since. Strange, considering that this novella has every bit as much personality and drama as Connelly’s longer Bosch stories. The author sums up the tale’s plot on his Web site:

In his first case since he left the LAPD’s Open Unsolved Unit for the prestigious Homicide Special squad, Harry Bosch is called out to investigate a murder that may have chilling consequences for national security.

A doctor with access to a dangerous radioactive substance is found murdered on the overlook above the Mulholland Dam. Retracing his steps, Harry learns that a large quantity of radioactive cesium was stolen shortly before the doctor’s death. With the cesium in unknown hands, Harry fears the murder could be part of a terrorist plot to poison a major American city.

Soon, Bosch is in a race against time, not only against the culprits, but also against the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI (in the form of Harry’s one-time lover Rachel Walling), who are convinced that this case is too important for the likes of the LAPD. It is Bosch’s job to prove them all wrong.
Currently, all 16 installments of “The Overlook” are available through the New York Times Magazine Web site, together with a page where Connelly answers questions put to him by readers. However, this story will soon be published in book form, with “new, never-before published material,” as the author promises. It’s scheduled for release in the States at the end of May, and in the UK in June.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Call Me Edgar

The 2007 Edgar Awards nominees have been announced. J. Kingston Pierce has the whole story -- and the complete nominees list -- over at The Rap Sheet:

Appropriately, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) chose today -- the 98th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth -- to announce its nominees for the 2007 Edgar Allan Poe Awards. Poe essentially invented the detective story as we know it, and these prizes named in his honor celebrate what the MWA believes are “the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2006.”
The 2007 Edgar Awards list is here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Problem with Fiction

I often disagree with the opinions of Rod Liddle, who writes about books for the London Times. But his extensive piece last weekend on the problems with literary fiction did strike a chord with me. Liddle argues that generation fiction might once have a source of brain fuel, but--at least for him--it now seldom fires the imagination:

Most of what I know about the world has been learnt through fiction. Stuff that people made up. Further, the novels that gave me the greatest insights were those that were the most deliberately difficult and obtuse, often experimental, always introspective and most consciously “literary”; those novels where truly important world events provided nothing more than background hum, like static crackling on an old radio, which impinged on the central characters only elliptically. This seems a paradox, and the sort of thing that might lead one to a flawed, haphazard understanding of the world. But when I say these books enabled me to “know about the world”, I mean that they gave me a deeper understanding than the mere nuts and bolts of historical events; that is, how undemocratically the government behaves, who invaded whom, when and where, what the labour camp was like, which calibre of bullet was used by the execution squad, and so on.

I realised all this the other day when, finally, exasperated, I threw aside my copy of John Updike’s latest novel,
Terrorist, and decided instead to watch Deal or No Deal on Channel 4. I had read just 64 pages, and it had been a struggle to get that far. Not because of its “difficulty”, but because of its bovine stupidity, its desperation to explore a burning issue at the expense of its hopeless, one-dimensional characters. Believe me--and please excuse the language--Terrorist is a f***ing awful book. I can think of no better description for it. And it dawned on me, as Noel Edmonds asked some halfwit which box he wanted to open, that it wasn’t just Updike--I hadn’t actually finished a novel, any novel, for some considerable time. I couldn’t even remember the name of the last new novel I’d finished. Somehow, fiction had lost its power to enthrall or inform.
I might suggest that Liddle venture more toward the genre side of fiction, as opposed to the literary middle-ground where, in my opinion, less-interesting work is now being published. I guess my own reading has moved with each passing year more to the genres, as opposed to general fiction; however, I do agree with some of Liddle’s selections of what are the most interesting works, in terms of contemporary literary fiction:

The French have remained stubbornly immune to the global dumbing-down. Michel Houellebecq, by a country mile, is the most exciting European writer of the past decade, but the god of literature might have a soft spot, too, for unadorned Gallic porno filth, rather than extraordinarily warped Gallic porno filth, and allow room for Catherine Millet and Marie Darrieussecq.

Since the disturbing brilliance of Bret Easton Ellis’s
American Psycho, the Yanks seem to have fallen for the Franzen argument--even Jay McInerney and Donna Tartt have begun to write middle-market novels. Easton Ellis is still capable of frightening the horses, as he did with Lunar Park. But mostly, you need to search on the margins. Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis, was as good a novel as I have read in 20 years; and there is also Ben Marcus, with two wholly wacko and disturbing novels, The Age of Wire and String, and Notable American Women. Dennis Cooper, unless you hate homosexuals, and Daniel Evans Weiss, unless you hate cockroaches, have also delivered stuff that makes you marvel that the written word can still disturb and enlighten. And Douglas Coupland, from Canada, is treasurable, especially All Families Are Psychotic.

In Britain? Nothing much. The late W.G. Sebald, for
Austerlitz, certainly; Liz Jensen, for The Paper Eater; Michel Faber, for The Crimson Petal and the White; Toby Litt, for Deadkidsongs; Iain Sinclair, for Radon Daughters; J.G. Ballard, for Super-Cannes; Matt Thorne, for Cherry; and, whisper it quietly, Martin Amis, for Yellow Dog. All, at least, made you happy the novel still exists.
To follow my theory that literary fiction is losing ground to genre works, you need only check out the most recent list of UK hardback fiction bestsellers. It sure looks like thrillers and crime fiction are making bookstore cash registers sing.

Meanwhile, writing for The Guardian, Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty) ploughs a quite similar furrow as she looks at the relationship between writers and readers and considers why most books fail:

It’s my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles, then you hear a slightly different language than the critic’s language. Writers do not say, “My research wasn’t sufficiently thorough” or “I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia” or “I seem to reify the idea of femininity”--at least, they don’t consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. Writers feel, for example, that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self--vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That’s why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great.

One point Smith makes excellently is that readers have a big role to play in “writing,” and that is often why readers differ in their opinions of the same book, because they bring their own baggage to the work--certain books strike a specific resonance in me, while others leave me cold. Smith concurs in the conclusion of her newspaper essay:

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing--I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.

This is a conception of “reading” we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practise reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer’s style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park.

What I’m saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston’s capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland’s strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert’s faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it’s a conjurer’s trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.
Those of us who review fiction for a living are in the position of trying to weed out what we consider the publishing dross, and serve up to thoughtful buyers those books we believe are worthy of their attention--without overselling those fewer works. It’s a harder task than the uninitiated might presume, and it often means that we don’t have the pleasure of reading only what we want to read. On our behalf, Sarah Burnett of The Guardian makes this modest proposal:

There’s a theoretical day each year called Tax Freedom Day. It marks the day when the average UK taxpayer stops working for the government and begins earning money for him or herself. It usually falls in late May or early June.

I’m thinking of introducing a similar day in my own diary this year. Its working title--until I come up with something more inventive--is Book Freedom Day. It will mark the day in the year when I start reading books for myself, rather than for other people.
Read the whole of Burnett’s short piece here.

How to Write a Book Review

With his tongue pressed firmly in his cheek (we hope!), Independent columnist Miles Kington takes on sharing the art of reviewing a book:
Evelyn Waugh once said that the golden rule of book reviewing is that you should never give a bad review to a book you have not read. This is now seen as rather old-fashioned and romantic. No book reviewer ever has time to read the whole book, not for the money they are paying you. The vital thing is to give the impression that you HAVE read the whole book.
Kington plays it for dry laughs, but those hoping to actually learn anything will be disappointed. Those with more than a passing interest in this topic could do worse than reading Martin Amis’ 2001 book, The War Against Cliché.

Though a couple of critically damned novels have damaged Amis’ star, this collection of Amis’ reviews and and essays will remind disenchanted readers of why they loved this author in the first place. Here we find him taking aim at Philip Roth’s 1974 My Life As A Man, Norman Mailer’s The Essential Mailer from 1982 and remembering Vladimir Nabokov for Atlantic Monthly in 1992. (“In a sense Lolita is too great for its own good. It rushes up on the reader like a recreational drug more powerful than any yet discovered or devised. In common with its narrator, it is both irresistible and unforgivable.”)

In all, The War Against Cliché includes reviews of the work of over 60 authors. Those wanting to learn about the reviewer’s art could do worse -- far worse -- than following Amis’ example here. He writes clearly and with passion and you never -- ever -- wonder if he’s read the book.

And, speaking of Amis, see him handling himself well in the face of some pretty goofy questions in a recent reader-driven profile. (Though the Guardian blog didn’t agree with my assessment, asking, “Just why is Martin Amis so angry today?”

ReganBooks to Be “Integrated”

It didn’t take a crystal ball to see this coming: it was really just a matter of how. And when. AP offers up the answer to both:

Bye-bye, ReganBooks. The HarperCollins imprint of Judith Regan, the publisher who nearly brought us O.J. Simpson’s imaginary “confession” to murder, has been temporarily renamed “HC” and in the fall will be sent throughout the company.
’Nuff said.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

National Book Month

The National Book Foundation is letting people know that National Book Month is fast approaching (but then, so is Christmas). I didn’t even know there was such an animal. Did you?

According to the NBF, National Book Month will happen in October. How will you commemorate the occasion? That’s really what the organization wants to know. I’m hoping they put the information to good and full use. Just in case you want to find out, you can let them know how you plan to celebrate this hallowed occasion by e-mailing them.

Review: Rain Before Morning by Michael Poole

Today in the January Magazine fiction section, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen looks at Rain Before Morning by Michael Poole. It’s a classic love story that takes place around the time of WW I. Set in a remote settlement along Canada’s western coast, the author of Romancing Mary Jane here takes a credible first stab at fiction.

The January review of Rain Before Morning is here.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Beowulf Translator Wins Poetry Prize

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, perhaps best known in the wider world for his 2000 new verse translation of Beowulf, has been awarded the £10,000 TS Eliot Prize for poetry. The award was made for Heaney’s 12th collection of poems, District and Circle. The 2006 shortlist included work by Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, WN Herbert, Paul Muldoon, Penelope Shuttle and Hugo Williams.

Heaney, 67, has been ill and did not attend the ceremony. However, he issued a statement, saying that there “are many reasons to feel honoured by the award of this prize: the aura of T S Eliot's name, for a start; the distinction of the previous winners; the quality of the other poets on this year's shortlist; and the high regard in which the judges are held. When I called one of the poems in District and Circle ‘Anything Can Happen’ I wasn’t thinking that anything like this would happen to the book, but it certainly expresses what I'm feeling at the moment.”

According to The Independent, Heaney “was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and has twice won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Spirit Level and then for Beowulf. He was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize in 2001 for Electric Light but Anne Carson took it that year with The Beauty of the Husband.”

The Independent has the full story here.

We Blush

In the almost 10 years we’ve been publishing January Magazine, lots of things have been said about us. Refreshingly, most of it good. But today said something that tickled:

January magazine is one of the best outlets for bookchat that isn’t stuck in the NYTBR rut.
Since we’re talking about the Blowhards, here’s what they say about themselves:

In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.
Updates are frequent, touch on a wide variety of topics and usually consist of the sort of thing that provokes some thought. You can find them here.

Excerpt: Exile by Richard North Patterson

From the bestselling author of Silent Witness and Balance of Power, comes the story of a trial lawyer who must defend the woman he loves against a charge of conspiring to assassinate the prime minister of Israel.

Exile, Patterson’s most ambitious work to date,” says the New York Daily News, “exploits the personal drama of a heroic lawyer’s defense of his ex-lover, but embroils him as well in an issue fraught with lethal passions of biblical proportions: the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

You can read an excerpt of Exile here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Review: Chinatown Beat by Henry Chang

New today in the January Magazine crime fiction section, contributing editor Anthony Rainone reviews Henry Chang’s debut effort, Chinatown Beat.

“Some of the best crime novels are sociological explorations of place and time,” Rainone writes, “in which law-breaking and mystery-solving elements are infused into a framework of cultural mores. There is perhaps no finer example of this technique than in Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat.

Rainone’s full review is here.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Review: Rose By Any Other Name

Today in January Magazine, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Rose By Any Other Name by Maureen McCarthy.

Bursztynski notes that, while all of Maureen McCarthy’s novels for young adults are quite different, in the end, they all seem to be about family. “Another fine book from one of Australia’s best young adult novelists,” she says, and not without some pride.

You can read the whole review here.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Thrill Me, Baby

Though as far as we know, no one is mapping the growth rate of organizations for writers, one would have to guess that the International Thriller Writers (ITW) pretty much smokes ’em all.

In a recently circulated membership report, co-membership chairs, authors Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, announced that at the end of 2004, ITW’s inaugural year, the organization had 21 members. At the end of 2006, ITW had 540 members with combined book sales of “well over two billion.”

And because this is an aggressive young organization representing most of the top thrillerlishcious authors writing today, they’re not about to stop there. The organization’s latest thrilling scheme -- and there are always lots of them afoot -- involves ITW’s e-mail newsletter and 150 member books.

You can enter to win ITW’s latest contest by signing up for their free newsletter. New subscriber’s names are then entered for a chance to win a library of 150 autographed thrillers (that’s no typo) by some of the top thriller authors writing today, including books by Joseph Finder, Tess Gerritsen, John Lescroart, Gayle Lynds and David Baldacci.

The subscription form has to be filled in by February 15th and can be found here and you can read more about the contest here. Meanwhile, while your interest is piqued, you can take a tour of the International Thriller Writers Web site and see what all else this thrilling lot is up to. It won’t surprise anyone to know that, with a busload of thriller writers at the helm, this isn’t an organization where anyone spends a lot of time sitting on their hands.

International Literacy ... and Chicken?

Just in case there aren’t already enough reasons to love New York, the National Book Awards and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) have cooked up another series of events that include food, wine, authors and live music. Eat, Drink & Be Literary “continues the momentum of the past two sell-out series, bringing major contemporary authors to BAMcafé for intimate dinners, readings, and discussions that are always entertaining and engaging.”

BAMcafé’s executive chef, Coleman Foster, will create a buffet for each event and dinner will be served with wine from Pine Ridge Winery. Meanwhile the Brooklyn Academy of Music will kick in the tunes while the National Book Foundation brings along the authors.

The nine events will be moderated by Brigid Hughes (A Public Space, The Paris Review) and Jessica Hagedorn (The Gangster of Love, Dogeaters). Some of the events are already sold out, so book quickly. Still available are events featuring Francine Prose (A Changed Man, Blue Angel); Pete Hamill (Snow in August, Forever); Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, How to Be Alone); Cynthia Ozick (Heir to the Glimmering World, The Puttermesser Papers); Sandra Cisneros (Woman Hollering Creek, The House on Mango Street); Gary Shteyngart (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan); Kurt Andersen (Turn of the Century, Heyday).

A family-friendly event is scheduled for March 10 and 11. The BAMfamily Book Brunch will feature the father and son writer/illustrator team of Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers.

Look for more information -- including a sample buffet menu -- here.

Costa on the Mind

The Costa Book Awards -- formerly the Whitbread Awards -- have been announced:
The five successful authors who will now contest for the Costa Book of the Year are:

William Boyd who, after winning the First Novel Award in 1981 for A Good Man in Africa, returns 25 years later to claim the Novel Award for Restless

Former film-maker Stef Penney wins the First Novel Award for The Tenderness of Wolves, a murder mystery set in the snowy peaks of Canada, a country she has never visited

Brian Thompson wins the Biography Award for Keeping Mum, a witty account of his own childhood which the judges called the perfect antidote to the "'misery memoir'"

John Haynes beats Seamus Heaney to take the 2006 Poetry Award for Letter to Patience, set in a small mud-walled bar in northern Nigeria at a time of political unrest

Linda Newbery, a former Whitbread Book of the Year judge, triumphs in the Childrens Book Award category with Set in Stone
With 500 shops in the UK and 150 overseas, Costa is the “fastest growing coffee shop chain in the UK.” This is the first year Costa has sponsored the former Whitbreads, which recognize “the most enjoyable books of the last year by writers based in the UK and Ireland.”

One of the five winners will be named Costa Book of the Year. The winner will be announced at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London on February 7th and awarded a £25,000 prize.

The press release announcing the winners is here. The London Telegraph runs it all down here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Harvey “Gobsmacked”

Screenwriter, poet, broadcaster and crime fictionist John Harvey has been awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger by the Crime Writers’ Association (UK).

The Cartier Diamond Dagger is awarded for sustained excellence in the genre of crime writing. It will be presented by M. Arnaud Bamberger of Cartier at a champagne reception at London’s Savoy Hotel in May.

Recognized as one of the masters of British crime fiction, Harvey has written almost one hundred books, including his latest, Gone to Ground, which will be published in Britain in February 2007 by William Heinemann.

Harvey is best known for the Charlie Resnick novels, including Lonely Hearts, which was named as one of the Hundred Best Crime Novels of the Last Century by the London Times.

According to a release issued by the CWA, Harvey was surprised when he was told he’d won the Cartier. “My reaction to hearing I was to be the recipient of the next Diamond Dagger? Gobsmacked. Absolutely, totally taken by surprise. And then, of course, delight. It was all I could do not to waltz out into the street and accost any stray passers-by with the news. Instead, I calmed myself down with a strong cup of coffee, phoned my editor at Random House, and relaxed under a small tide of congratulatory e-mails and phone calls. It is a terrific honour, coming, as it does, from my fellow scribblers and scriveners, whose judgement I value perhaps above all others -- and to see my name added to a list which includes so many leading exponents of the craft.”

As Harvey suggests, the list of Diamond Dagger award winners is impressive, indeed. Recipients in the award’s 22-year history include Eric Ambler, Lawrence Block, Leslie Charteris, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, Reginald Hill, P.D. James, Elmore Leonard, Peter Lovesey, Ed McBain, Sara Paretsky, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, Julian Symons and Margaret Yorke.

Review: The Do-Re-Mi

Today in January Magazine, Stephen Miller reviews The Do-Re-Mi by Ken Kuhlken.

“Ken Kuhlken first burst onto the crime fiction scene with The Loud Adios,” writes Miller, “which won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Award for Best First Private Eye novel for the year 1991. Set in 1943, it introduced private eye Tom Hickey and his family, and continued for two other books, The Venus Deal (1993) and The Angel Gang (1994). As the Hickey novels stretched into the 1950s it appeared that the thread had run itself out.”

But, as Miller discovers, appearances really can be deceiving and Hickey and company are back for another run.

Miller’s review of The Do-Re-Mi is here.

It’s Never Too Late

"It’s never too late to return your books." That’s what the librarian said when a man in Hancock, Michigan, returned his book to the local library 47 years late.

According to ABC News, Robert Nuranen said his mother had misplaced the copy of Prince of Egypt that was due back at the library by June 2, 1960, when he was in ninth grade. Nuranen says that, in the intervening years, the book would resurface every so often, only to go missing again. When he came across the book last week, he figured he’d better face the music and take the book back:

“I figured I'd better get it in before we waited another 10 years,” he said after turning it in Friday with the $171.32 check. “Fifty-seven years would be embarrassing.”
The ABC News piece is here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Review: Paradise Regained

Today on January Magazine, contributing editor Pedro Blas Gonzalez takes a close look at Jeffrey Burton Russell’s latest book, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It.

The book is an “examination of the history of transcendence that most cultures have identified as heaven,” writes Gonzalez. “Professor Russell’s insightful series on the history of the devil is, in the estimation of this writer, the single most in-depth and penetrating study of this subject.”

The January Magazine review of Paradise Mislaid is here.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Tale of Two Publishers

I read with interest this weekend that Briton Pete Ayrton has sold his 20-year-old Serpent’s Tail publishing house to fellow independent publisher Andrew Franklin of Profile Books.

This is a little alarming for me, as I have followed many of the authors Ayrton and Serpent’s Tail championed over the years, from Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos, to David Peace (Nineteen Eighty) and Derek Raymond (He Died with His Eyes Open). In fact, while I was in Dublin over this past holiday, it was thanks to Serpent’s Tail that I discovered French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose novel The Prone Gunman Ayrton’s house recently reissued in translation. Pelecanos told me once: “I owe ST publisher Pete Ayrton (and his staff) a tremendous amount of debt. Pete was the first in the world to publish me in paperback, and what happened in the UK because of the Serpent’s Tail effort got me going everywhere else. I’ve been blessed to be with both [Orion and Serpent’s Tail] houses. And both have shown this Greek boy a good time on my frequent visits to the UK.”

Profile Books tends to focus on non-fiction works, hosting a handful of rather high-profile bestsellers, such as Lynn Truss’ love affair with punctuation, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and a couple of New Scientist hits, Does Anything Eat Wasps?, and its followup, Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?--which, incidentally, was the second-best-selling book in Britain over the holidays. Serpent’s Tail is no slouch on the charts, either; it’s had its fair share of high-profile bestsellers, including Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

Of this publishing house sale, Joel Rickett of The Guardian reports:

Between them [Serpent’s Tail and Profile] have been responsible for some of the most popular and successful books over the last few years, providing everything from grammatical polemics to Christmas bestsellers.

But even this stellar success cannot stand in the way of a fiercely competitive industry which has led to two of Britain’s best known independent publishers merging in a bid to protect themselves from book industry pressure. ...

Franklin said the deal gave Profile a ready-made fiction list and would push turnover above £10m. Crucially, the deal enables Serpent’s Tail to join the Independent Alliance, a collective sales force for some of the UK’s most distinguished houses including Faber & Faber, Canongate, Atlantic, and Short Books.

The alliance has attempted to extend its reach to independent bookshops by offering them special deals. But Ayrton said that while there were similarities between small publishers and bookshops, Serpent’s Tail relied on the wide stockholding of Waterstone’s, Borders and Amazon.
This merger is also reported excitedly by Publishing News, in which Ayrton and Franklin reveal something of their future plans:

Andrew Franklin, Managing Director of Profile, said, that Serpent’s Tail will remain a “self-contained imprint” under the new arrangement. “Pete Ayrton is a great friend of long standing. In fact, when I was thinking of setting up Profile he was the first person I went to see. He is one of the most admired publishers in London with a list of breath-taking quality. His commitment to the imagination, to international fiction, to reading beyond the mainstream, is unwavering. This is one of the great international lists of the world and taking it on is both thrilling and daunting. We are very excited to be publishing fiction--and of such exceptional quality--but we are doing this only because Pete is staying on and will continue editing and publishing his authors exactly as before.”

Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail, added: “The concentration in the retail sector is making the survival of small publishers more and more precarious. The acquisition of Serpent’s Tail by Profile, a publishing house known for its idiosyncratic brilliance and consistent profitability, guarantees that Serpent’s Tail remains within the independent sector. It also means I can devote myself to publishing and editing--a dream come true. Twenty years is long enough to be on your own: I look forward to working with everyone at Profile.”
To give you more insight into the world of British book publishing, check out a list of the 50 movers-and-shakers in the industry, as chosen last March by The Guardian’s Robert McCrum. Ayrton appears on that list at No. 15.

* * *
Continuing with book-related notes from The Guardian: Joel Rickett offers some positive news in his latest publishing industry column, reporting that this last holiday season’s UK book sales were up 6 percent over the same time in 2005. The downside? “The highly commercial nature of the top sellers points to the burgeoning influence of the supermarkets, which piled books alongside mince pies,” Rickett writes. “Tesco even targeted ‘heavy readers’ through advertisements in broadsheet literary supplements, while Waterstone’s started its own campaign in the Sun. The high street shops had a decent final week, particularly after Amazon’s final order deadline lapsed.”

Saturday, January 06, 2007

On the Horizon

Following an unexpected holiday-time hiatus, Dave Robeson’s Bloodstained Bookshelf is back with an updated list of crime and mystery novels set for publication in the States over the coming year. Destined to wind up on my own to-be-read pile during the next several months: Robert Crais’ The Watchman, Steve Hockensmith’s On the Wrong Track, Ed Gorman’s Fools Rush In, Declan Hughes’ The Color of Blood, Loren D. Estleman’s American Detective, Reginald Hill’s Death Comes for the Fat Man, and Los Angeles Noir, edited by Denise Hamilton.

For those of you who already have trouble keeping up with new offerings in this genre, it might be best not to click here for more information.

Resolve This

Book lovers who have resolved to shed a few pounds in the new year aren’t alone ... nor will they find themselves without books to back them up. In fact, Reuters suggests that the opposite may be true:

Anyone seeking advice on how to shed the pounds in 2007 may be suffering from information indigestion with new diet books offering a feast of tips ranging from more exercise, to more wine, to more sleep.
Publishers “traditionally target the post-holiday period in early January to release diet and fitness books,” and 2007 is no exception. Especially, says Reuters, in a society where people are becoming increasingly aware of the health dangers of overweight and obesity.

In this new year, the diet books currently enjoying popularity include You: On a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management by Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz (Free Press); The Diet Detective's Count Down by Charles Platkin (Fireside), The Biggest Loser Cookbook (Rodale); Sleep Away the Pounds by Cherie and John Calbom (Warner Wellness) and, in the UK, The F2 Diet by Audrey Eyton (Bantam), author of The F-Plan Diet from 1982.

The Reuters piece can be seen here.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Putting Your Best Book Forward

The novels people choose to read in public might differ from what they decide to indulge themselves with in private, at least according to The Guardian, reporting on a survey done for the Costa Book Awards.

85% of those surveyed admitted to having an author they turn to for sheer gratification, but whom they might not admit to reading in pubic.
The survey contends that while something appropriately literary might be placed proudly on the desk at work, say, or read on the bus or subway, readers are likely to enjoy the “literary guilty pleasure” of a novel by Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Danielle Steel, Catherine Cookson or Terry Pratchett, pretty much in that order.

While we won’t dispute the survey results, we would encourage readers to stand and be proud. Reading is good, no matter whose face is on the back cover.

The Guardian piece is here.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Hergé at 100

When it comes to the arts, I often think that people divide into two cultural camps. For instance, in the late 1960s, you either liked the Beatles or you were a follower of the Rolling Stones. For me, it was always the allure of the anti-establishment ethos of Londoners Mick and Keith, rather than John and Paul from Liverpool.

The same sort of split existed between readers of early European comics: You were either a Tintin follower, or you preferred the broad farce of Asterix. I feel in love with Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the other bizarre characters created in 1929 by writer/illustrator Georges Remi (aka Hergé), who was born in Etterbeek, in Belgium, in 1907. The first of the Tintin works I read was Tintin in Tibet (1958), and this started my love affair with these beautiful comic books. My collection of Tintin books now belongs to my children, but every so often, I dip back into them, just to regain the bittersweet memories of my childhood. These wonderful works, with their weird and surreal perspective on the world in all its wonder, the stories filled with eccentric characters and fanciful storylines, sparked in me a love of both comics and mystery tales. I now consider Hergé to be the father of the graphic novel.

With the centennial of Hergé’s birth coming up in May of this year, Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou has mounted a special exhibition (on view through February 19) for Tintin lovers, much heralded recently by the London papers. As The Times reports:

There are some readers who might think that things have come to a pretty pass when comic strips, as Hergé’s work might simply be called, get shown at the Pompidou. There was some fuss, you may recall, when an exhibition of the art of Walt Disney, Il était une fois Walt Disney, opened at the Grand Palais in Paris in September ... Never mind the French casting away their usual scorn for American “culture”, what was on display were cartoons. Is this art? We may refer to the Leonardo cartoon, but we don’t mean it that way. We don’t mean talking mice. This kind of thing can only show that the end times, artistically speaking, are nigh.

So some might say, but it’s hard to get away from the fact that what’s now increasingly called graphic art (though not necessarily by the artists who practise it; they generally prefer to call them comics) has an increasingly respectable profile. For many non-specialist readers,
Art Spiegelman’s Maus led the way. A depiction of Spiegelman’s father’s experience of the Holocaust, and the author’s own troubled relationship with his father, this was a memoir like no other. Published as a book in 1986, its second volume won its author a Pulitzer Prize six years later. It was Spiegelman, surely, who led the way for artist-writers such as Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel, whose illustrated memoirs transcend any genres.

But where does that all leave Tintin, quiff-headed boy journalist? He was not, it must be said, Hergé’s first creation, and the Pompidou exhibition covers the artist’s entire career. So fans of Totor (who appeared in the Belgian magazine
Le Boy-Scout in the 1920s) will not be disappointed, nor those of Quick and Flupke, two troublemaking boys who also graced the pages of the journal that was the first home of Tintin, Le Petit Vingtième. But the Tintinophiles are probably the most numerous among the Hergélogues, those, such as I, who discovered as children the world of Moulinsart. I read Red Rackham’s Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls, The Castafiore Emerald first in English and then in French, because it was good practice. Mille milliards de mille sabords! And while I never thought of it as “art”, why should anyone think of anything they enjoy as fitting into any particular category? Recently, it’s true, Tintin has been the subject of an amusingly arcane treatise, Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Granta), which looks at the books from a literary standpoint and finds comparisons with Austen, James and Dickens. Yes, really. ...

Georges Remi died in 1983; his second wife, Fanny, survives him. When asked recently if her husband was aware of the importance of his work, she said: “I don’t think so. He rarely spoke about his work. He was punctilious and ultra-professional, but he was more of an admirer of the talents of other people. He even collected the works of artists he admired. At one time he was interested in abstract painting and wanted to emulate it. He soon realised that this was not for him. He was very lucid about himself. He had the good sense to stop. He simply concluded: I’m a cartoonist. That’s all.”
Not to be outdone, London’s Independent on Sunday delivered a special feature titled “Father of Tintin: Hip Hip Hergé!” in which writer Michael Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White, The Apple), among others, pays tribute to the Belgian cartoonist:

I first read Hergé’s Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon in a state of deep historical and personal confusion. I was nine; the year was 1969. I’d recently emigrated to Australia from my native Holland. As well as leaving my brother behind, I’d been parted from all my familiar comic book characters. Sjors and Sjimmie, Ollie B. Bommel, Agent 327 ... these names meant nothing to my Antipodean playmates. Still, at least there was Kuifje. Even Australians knew Kuifje: the intrepid teenage explorer with his dog Bobbie and his dear friend Kapitein Haddock. Except they didn’t call him Kuifje (a Dutch nickname denoting a duck-tail hairstyle), they called him Tintin.

My first encounters with The-Adventurer-Formerly-Known-As-Kuifje were those two extraordinary, prophetic spaceflight books that Hergé produced in 1953 and 1954, 15 years before the
real moon landing. Except I didn’t know that, either. The books were brand new when my parents bought them for me in 1969. I thought Hergé had just written them to capitalise on the Apollo mission. The Americans struck me as a solemn bunch, but Tintin was sprightly as ever. His moon mission was an action-packed ballet of pratfalls and fisticuffs.

As a child, I never noticed how vacant a personality Tintin was. Unfailingly practical, coolly plucky, and 100 per cent free of vices, he tackled his adventures as though they were bicycle repairs. Hergé understood the narrative shortcomings of his hero, of course, and surrounded him with wonderfully dysfunctional grotesques. On the moon mission, not only did the dipsomaniac Captain Haddock and the dippy Professor Calculus come along, but there were bonus stowaways: the imbecilic detectives Thomson & Thompson, and a dastardly Syldavian spy. Hergé even added a touch of psychedelia, as the stress of space travel triggered a relapse of a syndrome from which the Thom(p)sons periodically suffered -- the sprouting of thick, multicoloured hair growing at several metres per minute, thus needing constant barbering.

For all the knockabout fun in
Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, Hergé constructed them with obsessive care, researching space travel as diligently as he researched the different countries to which he sent Tintin over the decades. But that’s not what makes the books undiminishedly enjoyable even for an adult re-reader. Prose like Enid Blyton’s loses its appeal because the mental pictures we supplied as children vanish when we grow older. The pictures in Hergé’s books continue to exist outside of us. His clear, deft style, perfectly balanced between kinetic cartoon and realistic detail, retains its allure as the years fly by.
To find more information about the Hergé centennial celebrations, click here. If you’d like to learn more about the Centre Pompidou’s exhibition, visit the center’s Web site, or call 0033-14478 1233. Again, that exhibit runs through February 19, 2007.

READ MORE:Dalai Lama Honours Tintin and Tutu” (BBC News).

So Long, Hemingway

In a piece that will send cultural alarm bells ringing through library systems everywhere, The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein writes that “in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah’s Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.”

That’s not the hook of the piece. The hook is more topical and, in this case, the hook is in the headline: “Hello, Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway?” The gist is that, with shelf space at a premium, libraries are culling books that don’t see much action. In the article, the situation is viewed through the lens of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Library system, but a quote from the president of the American Library Association indicates it may be the new library reality.

“I think the days of libraries saying, ‘We must have that, because it’s good for people,’ are beyond us,” said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. “There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody’s got a favorite book they're trying to promote.”
Back in Fairfax, a lot of perennial favorites are currently on the chopping block of some of the branches in the system, including Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway and many, many others. The complete list -- and the Post’s piece -- are here.

Literal Wife Swapping

Today in January Magazine, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen looks at Small Acts of Sex and Electricity by Lisa Haines.

According to Thiessen, the author of In My Sister’s Country has “perfected the art of the sentence fragment. The result mirrors the thoughts and actions of a woman who is living moment-by-moment, without the incentive to get to the end of her thoughts, let alone to the consequences of her actions.”

You can read the review here.

Commemorating Oblivion

“How will we remember 2006? As the year Kiran Desai won the Booker, or the year that David Mitchell didn’t?” Stuart Kelly asked in The Scotsman on Sunday. “For the return of Thomas Pynchon or Hannibal Lecter? Given there are so many awards, prizes, commendations, best-ofs and authorial accolades, I’ve set up a few of my own.”

Whether or not you agree with Kelly that we should devote some time to “oblivion, obloquy and the outrageously bad” his list is amusing, even occasionally thought-provoking. For example, he offers up his opinion on who made the year’s most pretentious comment (Alberto Manguel in his Book of the Year contribution to the Times Literary Supplement), what was the most shameful moment in publishing in 2006 (you probably don’t even need a clue) and offers a tongue-in-cheek salute to Neel Mukherjee for being the “Critic with Angriest Bee in Bonnet” when Mukherjee trashed (and I do mean trashed) Irvine Welsh’s Bedroom Secrets Of The Master Chef last summer.

On the other side of the pond, NPR’s Kim Masters seems to be working on a single note from Kelly’s far-reaching (and entertaining) essay when she says that publishing “got a bloody nose” in 2006, “from James Frey to Judith Regan. The publisher has made a lot of money for Harper Collins but obviously went off track with the O.J. Simpson book. She now stands accused of bizarre anti-Semitic conduct and speech, apparently tolerated by Harper Collins until her recent firing.” You can find a link to Masters’ audio piece here.