Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Cat That Killed Dick and Jane

I have this mind picture of Dr. Seuss left over from my childhood. Maybe you do, too. That picture is based on no kind of reality; just a cartoon cut-out of a friendly guy created, I guess, by the happy shape the letters that formed his name made on the cover of his books.

To me, Dr. Seuss looked very similar to the way I imagined Santa Claus; though thinner, of course. And he looked not much different from the way I pictured God: Friendly, ultimately benevolent though somewhat obsessed with the concept of right and wrong.

Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel, in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2nd, 1904. Like his work, even the honorific was fiction: perhaps a nod to the doctorate in literature he intended to get -- but didn’t -- at Oxford in the 1920s.

The “Seuss,” of course, he came by honestly: it was his mother’s maiden name. Most of us have spent a lot of our lives mispronouncing it, however. While the popular pronunciation has the name rhyming with “Zeus,” the good doctor himself was quoted several times explaining that his name was “Seuss -- rhymes with voice.” (Though I can’t imagine we’re all going to stop with the mispronunciation now.)

While The Cat In Hat turns 50 in March, in some ways it celebrates so much more than an anniversary. Though Seuss wrote 48 books for children, The Cat In the Hat remains one of the most popular. In 2000, Publishers Weekly compiled a list of the bestselling children’s books of all time. Green Eggs and Ham (1960) was number four, while The Cat In the Hat was not far behind at number nine. It’s actually an amazing list: 24 of Seuss’ books were in the top 140.

In 2002, Louis Menand took a brilliant look at The Cat In the Hat for The New Yorker:
Every reader of "The Cat in the Hat" will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish? Terrible as the cat is, the woman is lucky that her children do not fall prey to some more insidious intruder.
Among other things -- and, truly, he leaves no stone here unturned -- Menand shares Seuss’ design brief for the book. In a nutshell, at a time when America was concerned that many children were slipping through school without being able to read, author and educator Rudolf Franz Flesch made a strong case for children learning to read with the help of phonics, rather than the rote of Dick and Jane.

Flesch included word lists in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. “The Cat in the Hat is 1,702 words long,” writes Menand, “but it uses only 220 different words. And (as the cat says) that is not all. Geisel put the whole thing into rhymed anapestic dimeter. It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane.”

The Cat In the Hat was published in March of 1957. Within weeks it was selling 12,000 copies a month. By 1960, the book had sold a million copies. However, if you have a first edition, Children’s Picture Book Price Guide tells us it’s worth $4000. However, to the millions of kids who learned to read with a copy of The Cat In the Hat pressed to their noses, the book is beyond price.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Kiriyama Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the 2007 Kiriyama Prize has been announced. One winner each from fiction and non-fiction will be selected to share the $30,000 prize. In 2007, shortlisted writers hail from Canada, China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Though eligible writers can be from anywhere in the world, books that are considered for the prize must be available in English and published in the United States or Canada. The goal of the Kiriyama Prize is to annually recognize and award outstanding books that promote greater understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and of South Asia.

The 2007 Kiriyama Prize finalists are:

  • The Haiku Apprentice by Abigail Friedman (Stone Bridge Press)
  • Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir by Ernestine Hayes (University of Arizona Press)
  • Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Viking)
  • Tigers in Red Weather: A Quest for the Last Wild Tigers by Ruth Padel (Walker & Company)
  • Chinese Lessons: An American, His Classmates, and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret (Henry Holt)
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kirin Desai (Grove Atlantic)
  • Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami (Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin translators) (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian (Flora Drew translator) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Certainty by Madeleine Thien (McClelland & Stewart, Canada; Little, Brown, USA)
  • Behold the Many by Lois-Ann Yamanaka (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Picador)
The finalists will be announced in late March.


Makin’ Movies

I can’t keep up with Marshal Zeringue at the Campaign for the American Reader.

First, he started asking authors to apply Marshall McLuhan’s Page 69 Test to their most recent novel. That exercise proved so fruitful and successful -- with almost 200 authors having taken part thus far -- it launched a whole new blog.

Not satisfied, Zeringue went back to the tested authors and asked them what they were reading. The results have been delightful. But, for the tireless Zeringue, it just wasn’t enough and last Saturday he announced a new blog: My Book the Movie. “No,” he quips, “I couldn't come up with a better title; Variety was already taken.”

The premise of the new blog is just as simple as it sounds. Writes Zeringue, “I’ll be asking authors to tackle a simple thesis: If Hollywood makes my book into a film, here’s who I'd like to play the lead role(s).”

As I said, the blog is brand new and, as I write this, there are only two entries: Anya Ulinich talks about her most recent novel, Petropolis and Allison Burnett talks about Christopher. (“The hero of both my novels, Christopher and The House Beautiful, and of my upcoming one, Death By Sunshine, is named B.K. Troop. B.K. is a tall, bald, middle-aged, potbellied, spindly legged, bearded, grey-toothed, dandruff-flaked, chemically imbalanced, erudite, witty, gay alcoholic. Sadly, Bea Arthur is past her prime. I am left with slim pickings.”)

On his other blogs, Zeringue has worked astonishingly quickly. I fully expect to see My Book the Movie on its way to being fat and sassy by the end of next month.


Jim Carrey. Virginia Madsen. And a Book

Though critics seem to have been universally underwhelmed by the new Jim Carrey vehicle, The Number 23, the premise wins it a mention here at January. See: it’s a book movie. That is, it’s not based on a work of published fiction. Rather a book plays a sort of weird evil partner to Walter Sparrow, the luckless lout Carrey portrays in the film.

Here’s what happens: A woman named Agatha (Virginia Madsen) gives her husband, Walter (Jim Carrey) a book. As he reads the strange, self-published novel, the man becomes increasingly convinced that the book is about him and that his life is somehow entwined with that of the novel’s protagonist, a saxophone-playing detective named Fingerling.

“A loud, disorderly mess of a movie,” complains MartiniBoys. “The Number 23 showcases itself as a suspenseful tale with a clever edge but it amounts to nothing more than a high-concept gimmick film about numerology and coincidence.”

“Psycho thriller descends into silliness,” concludes The Sunday Mirror.

Despite this criticism, the premise of the film sounds so engaging and director Joel Schumacher (Veronica Guerin, Tigerland, The Lost Boys) is so competent, I’m going to reserve judgment until I’ve seen the film myself. It’s possible that Carrey’s fans are having trouble seeing the star of such screamers as The Cable Guy and Dumb and Dumber reduced to a pile of quivering manflesh the likes of which we have not seen since Jack Nicholson took on a haunted hotel in The Shining.

Or maybe, as Tennessee’s WBIR suggests, The Number 23 is “hoping to blind us with enigmas and coincidences to disguise the fact that the film’s story is absurd right from the jump.”

Either way, it looks to be an interesting ride.


Buy a Book and Good Things Will Happen

Over the last few days, I’ve seen plenty of stories about Rhiannon Barnes, the 15-month-old resident of Georgia who found $1300 stuck between the pages of a used book.

According to the child’s baby-sitter, little Rhiannon was quite insistent that the book be purchased for her. And every article I’ve read said the book was purchased at a thrift store for 25 cents. Here’s what I haven’t seen (and if you have, please let me know): What the heck was the title of the book? What year was it published? And what was it about the book that made Rhiannon so dead set on possessing it? Was it shiny? (Don’t laugh: like magpies, kids demonstrably are attracted to shiny objects.) Did it have a picture of a goat on the cover? A duck? A Smurf? Or was it just some strong instinct on the kid’s part? The heart wants, as they say, what it wants?

Either way, here’s the message I hope people (non-recreational reading people) take away from them: buying books is good. Or, further: only good things can happen to people who buy books.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Review: Be Mine by Laura Kasischke

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum reviews Be Mine, Laura Kasischke’s fourth novel for adults. (She’s also written half a dozen books of poetry and a novel for young adults.)

Though Buchsbaum feels the novel starts out strongly enough, in the last third, he reports, things begin to fall apart.
Fiction, while by design a lie, shouldn’t feel like one, but Be Mine does. It feels as if a horrible joke has been played on you, stimulated simply by your turning the pages.
Buchsbaum’s review of Be Mine is here

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Out of Print But Not Out of Mind

In this morning’s Sunday Book World, the Washington Post printed’s list of the 10 Most Sought After Out-of-Print Books from 2006.

The list predictably contains celebrity tomes, including Suzanne Somers’ attempt at poetry, but there are surprises and intriguing choices here (helicopter development?).

It’ll be interesting to see if these volumes make new appearances on eBay in the coming days.

See the list here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Review: The Taste of Lightning by Kate Constable

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews The Taste of Lightening by Kate Constable, which takes us back to the world the author created for her very successful Chanters of Tremaris trilogy.

“As in the original trilogy,” writes Bursztynski, “the main characters are likeable, the females are strong and Tremaris is still a believable world.”

Bursztynski’s review is here.

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Celebrate Books Every Day

Did you know March 1st was World Book Day? Me neither. Maybe that’s because, according to the World Book Day Web site, the organizers “are delighted to be celebrating the 10th Birthday of World Book Day in the UK and Ireland in 2007. Over this relatively short period World Book Day has become firmly established as the biggest annual event promoting the enjoyment of books and reading.”

Since I live in neither Ireland nor the UK, I guess this pretty much leaves me out. But it shouldn’t, since -- you know -- the name has that meaningful “world” in it. And books are something to celebrate.

I’d suggest we all take it over and make it our own (I mean, why should the UK and Ireland get all the fun all the time?), but there’s a snag: World Book Day has some competition from World Book and Copyright Day which, according to Wikipedia, “is a yearly event on 23 April, organised by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and the protection of intellectual property through copyright. The Day was first celebrated in 1995.”

And apparently this World Book Day has some claim on the date:
The connection between 23 April and books was first made in 1923 by booksellers in Catalonia as a way to honour the author Miguel de Cervantes who died on that day. This became a part of the celebrations of the Saint George’s Day (also 23 April) in the region, where it has been traditional since the mediaeval era for men to give roses to their lovers and since 1925 for the woman to give a book in exchange. Half the yearly sales of books in Catalonia are at this time with over 400,000 sold and exchanged for over 4 million roses.
Wikipedia (not always the best resource on the planet, but always an interesting one) is clear as mud on the whole World Book Day thing. I gather that some people celebrate World Book Day in April and some celebrate in March and some ... well, there’s probably more we haven’t even heard from yet.

Here’s a thought: maybe all the World Book Day people should get together and decide on a date. It sort of waters the whole thing down if it’s just here and there all willy-nilly.

Or are we meant to take a lesson from this? Maybe we just need to go on the way we’ve been going, celebrating books every day of the year.

I kind of like that idea, myself. Maybe we could settle it with a meeting?


Well, if Howard Likes It...

When it comes to book clubs, is Starbucks the new Oprah? I’m thinking maybe so. Even its picks are sounding kinda ... Oprah-ish. From Access Hollywood:
The second selection in the coffee chain’s book program, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, is an emotional story of hope and redemption by [Ishmael] Beah, who gives a first-hand account of fighting as a boy in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone.
Even Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz got into the act:
This is one of the most gripping books I have ever read. We were all inspired by this tale of determination and hope and knew it was an important book to share with our customers.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review: The Watchman by Robert Crais

Today in January’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Anthony Rainone reviews The Watchman, which is “technically the first Joe Pike novel, though fans of the author’s Elvis Cole private-eye series are well-acquainted with the hard-charging former LAPD officer and worldwide mercenary.”

Make no mistake: Rainone likes the book. A lot:
This reviewer has run out of superlatives to describe Crais' immense talent, but suffice it to say that The Watchman is a turbo-charged ride that further pushes its author into the stratosphere of crime-fiction immortality.
Rainone’s review of The Watchman is here.

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Three Authors Awarded Order of Canada

Authors Howard Engel, Barbara Gowdy and Frances Itani are among the 55 new members to the Order of Canada which, according to CBC Arts, “was established in 1967 to honour Canadians whose extraordinary achievements or outstanding service in various fields have made a difference across the country.” Says the CBC:
The latest inductees will receive their insignia from the Governor General at a Rideau Hall ceremony later this year.

Any Canadian may be nominated for the Order of Canada, while non-Canadians may be considered for honorary appointments. The appointments are made on the recommendation of an advisory council chaired by the chief justice of Canada.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Review: My Wedding Dress: True-Life Tales of Lace, Laughter, Tears and Tulle

Today in the January Magazine biography section, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen reviews My Wedding Dress: True-Life Tales of Lace, Laughter, Tears and Tulle edited by Susan Whelehan and Anne Laurel Carter. Says Thiessen:
Most readers will be pleasantly surprised to find these wedding day stories to be far beyond enchanting. Using the romantic image of a wedding dress as a jumping off point, the 26 writers have contributed much more than just a description of their tiaras and trains. They've poured out their souls, as women seem so able to do, while exploring memories and emotions that range from frightening to funny, depressing to delectable, whimsical to wise.
The review is here.

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Page 69 Test Gets New Home

Since he first started getting authors to apply the Page 69 Test to their books, Marshal Zeringue of the Campaign for the American Reader blog has put together quite a collection. So far, over 170 authors have answered the call, and the numbers keep growing at an astonishing rate. As a result, it was no surprise when Zeringue announced that the Page 69 Test would be getting its own home.

The Page 69 Test blog is here.


The Sky Is Falling!

From the Orange County Register:
Cavemen used charcoal to write on walls. Ancient Egyptians scrawled hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls. Medieval monks penned illuminated manuscripts on parchment. Then Johannes Gutenberg changed the world with movable type, making writing available to all.

Now a revolution is under way that is rapidly making ink on paper obsolete. Books as we know them are dead, many experts say.
The Register piece is here.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Review: Killing Johnny Fry by Walter Mosley

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, Tracy Quan looks at Killing Johnny Fry, Walter Mosley’s most controversial novel yet. Says Quan:
When a national treasure like Walter Mosley decides to publish a dirty novel, snippy reactions are inevitable. Does a journey of sexual discovery have to be quite this filthy? But if Killing Johnny Fry were a novel one could read over lunch, it wouldn't be authentic porn. Fans of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series might be put off by the surreal absurdity, but perhaps the author is reaching out to new readers. Or, like Bill Clinton, a fan of Mosley's early work, perhaps he's doing something audacious because he can.
The review is here.

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Education Secretary a “Bird Brain”

There’s a lot going on here and -- honestly? -- I could argue both sides for kids reading (or not reading, as the case may be) classic authors. You probably could, too. Perhaps as this debate continues, we’ll bring more updates. In the meantime, this had to be quoted from the Telegraph instantly:
The National Association for the Teaching of English called Mr Johnson a “bird brain” yesterday.
Maybe if Ian McNeilly, the director of said organization, had read more classic literature, he’d be able to dig for a better insult?

The Telegraph piece is here.


Monday, February 19, 2007

The Adventure Continues

Today in The Rap Sheet, Dick Adler’s “crime novel in installments,” Men’s Adventure, continues with chapter four:
Where we left off: While waiting to hear again from Saul Cooperman, who’s out West digging up clues to a murder case, Ivan Davis took dinner with his parents and then received an invitation to Vesuvio’s restaurant from his mob-connected cousin, who said he might know some things Ivan should hear.
Here’s the link.

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The New War and Peace: A Postscript

OK, here’s the deal: you must never, ever turn your back on the conventional media. Though not all journalists will spin a story to give them the best hook, a lot of them will. And, to make matters worse -- though different -- some reporters don’t ever go back to source, just taking erroneous material someone else has written, and then layering their own stuff over the top.

Case in point: not an hour ago, I reported in this space that Leo Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace was being happied up by HarperCollins. OK, I’ll admit it: that’s what everyone was saying, and I said it too.

Then, after the piece was posted, I got to thinking: I mean, this is War and Peace, right? One of the most significant pieces of literature, evah. Who would mess with that?

So -- basic, basic -- I hit the HarperCollins Web site.
This new version is sure to provoke controversy. A “first draft” of the epic version known to all, it was completed in 1866 but never published. A closely guarded secret for a century and a half, the unveiling of the original version of War and Peace, with an ending different to that we all know, is of huge significance.
OK, so check it: that’s pretty much a different story, right? They’re not happying up a really long (and arguably occasionally tedious) book, they’re publishing a previously unpublished earlier draft.

That moves the whole project to a different intellectual place. HarperCollins isn’t cheapening up a classic, but offering us a new view of the workings of genius.

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Pimp My Book

A story that author Margaret George shared with me years ago has always stuck in my mind.

George reported that, when production was about to start on a television miniseries based on her book, The Memoirs of Cleopatra, the producer lamented the fact that the ending was too downbeat. “Does Cleopatra really have to die in the end?” he said to George, though I paraphrase. “And what’s all the stuff with the snakes? Snakes don’t make good TV. Couldn’t she could just go off with that Mark dude?”

In the years since, I’ve retold the story often as a “isn’t Hollywood goofy” cautionary tale. Because all of that, after all, is a very Hollywood kind of thing to do: changing a classic in order to play to the lowest common denominator. Altering physics and history when necessary. That’s what the film industry does. Not publishing. Until now.

According to Australia’s The Age, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is currently undergoing a bit of a renovation:
Since its publication in 1869, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace has presented the reader with the duel [sic] challenge of an eye-straining 1500 pages and an unerringly gloomy ending.
That, however, is now to change with the emergence of a slimmed down version of the literary classic with a happier conclusion.
The new, happier version of War and Peace, is -- according to the book’s Russian PR -- “half as long and twice as interesting” and at least two characters who died in the original story, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Petya Rostov, manage to make it right through the new version.

The new and improved War and Peace (shall we call it W&P Lite?) will be available internationally from HarperCollins in April.

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Kicked Right in the Tiddlywinks

This past weekend it cracked me up to follow the coverage of the children’s book that has everyone up in arms about the use of the word “scrotum.”

Now, last time I checked, scrotum wasn’t a “bad” word. No one calls someone else that in the playground or tells someone what to do with theirs. If they have one.

However, this year’s recipient of the Newbery Medal, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, will be banned in some libraries for Patron’s use of that irksome word. In the book, a 10-year-old orphan called Lucky overhears someone explaining that a rattlesnake bit his dog in the scrotum. From The Higher Power of Lucky:
Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.
So, fast forward to the book winning the Newbery, some school librarians getting their mitts on the book and ... all hell breaks loose. According to The New York Times:
The inclusion of the word has shocked some school librarians, who have pledged to ban the book from elementary schools, and reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books
OK: so never mind debating if “scrotum” is an acceptable word for young’uns to read. (Fer cryin’ out loud!) What cracked me up was the coverage given to the issue by two really well-known media outlets, The New York Times and Associated Content. I won’t go so far as to say someone borrowed heavily from someone else’s lede, but ... well, here they both are. You decide.

The Times piece opens thus:
The word “scrotum” does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children’s literature, for that matter.
And from Associated Content, datelined one day earlier:
It’s rare to hear the word “scrotum,” in polite conversation. Seeing it on the first page of a children’s book has some parents and teachers up in arms.
I don’t know about you, but “polite conversation” is not the first place my mind goes when I hear (or read) the word “scrotum.” And, you know, I beg to differ with both of these publications. Scrotum is totally acceptable in polite conversation. Case in point, of the three sentences that follow, which would you mostly likely use at a cocktail party?

1. The baseball whacked John right in the sack.

2. When the baseball hit John in the nuggets, he couldn’t see straight for a week.

3. When the baseball hit John in the scrotum, play was over for him for the balance of the game.

See what I’m saying? You want polite conversation? If what you’re describing is that part of the anatomy, then “scrotum” is totally the way to go as opposed to ... you know ... well, all of the alternatives.

From The New York Times again:
The book has already been banned from school libraries in a handful of states in the South, the West and the Northeast, and librarians in other schools have indicated in the online debate that they may well follow suit. Indeed, the topic has dominated the discussion among librarians since the book was shipped to schools.
For scrotum? Are you serious? If anyone is on the anti-scrotum side of the fence, please e-mail me and let me know what we’re supposed to call it. Or are we meant to pretend it doesn’t exist? Pretend that we’re all like Barbies and Kens under our clothes. (All the bumps without the machinery.)

More Times:
“I think it’s a good case of an author not realizing her audience,” said Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halsted Middle School in Newton, N.J. “If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.”
C’mon Fred: give it the old college try. It’s not that hard. How would you explain a thumb? A clavicle? A coccyx? Scrotum is like one of those: a bit of the body, nothing nasty or magical. Nothing in the least bit mystical. Our own discomfort in explaining this to children says a lot more about us than it does about them. Or Patron’s book.

Honestly? I worry about the children raised in a world without scrotums. You should too. What are they supposed to do? How are they meant to function? Or do we expect to raise them to adulthood calling their sensitive bits by ridiculous cutsie names?


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hitting the Road from Your Armchair

That ubiquitous Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl recently appeared on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition to talk about a subgenre of non-fiction that has always fascinated me: travel narratives. Perhaps I’m a bit more interested than most, since I have spent entirely too much time shoveling Midwestern snow; but for whatever reason, I found Pearl’s travel narrative suggestions fascinating. They included:

Dead Reckoning: Great Adventure Writing from the Golden Age of Exploration, 1800-1900, an anthology that includes essays by the likes of George Kennan, John Muir, and Isabella Bird;

Mary Henrietta Kingsley’s memoir, Travels in West Africa, in which this blue-blooded Victorian woman travels to the Congo and climbs Mount Cameroon. Pearl is quick to point out that Kinglsey, like many travel writers of her era, included in her book political and social commentary unique to their time, which doesn’t always translate well for 21st-century readers;

And The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie and the Orient Express, by Andrew Eames, which combines modern-day rail travel with the journey Christie took in 1928, which formed the basis for her best-known mystery.

Some more recent classics that Pearl did not mention include Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways.

Listen to more about Pearl’s recommendations here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Prather Passes

It was sad to read of the passing of 85-year-old Richard S. Prather, best known as the creator of Hollywood gumshoe Shell Scott. According to the Rap Sheet:
Although Prather hadn’t seen a new book of his published since Shellshock (1987), Hard Case Crime last year reissued his 1952 standalone, The Peddler (which originally appeared under his pseudonym “Douglas Ring”), and interviewer Linda Pendleton, the widow of pulp novelist Don Pendleton, noted in her recent interview with Prather that the author was sitting on an as-yet-unpublished, 1,000-page Shell Scott manuscript, The Death Gods.
Though Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce doesn’t “feel qualified to eulogize over this author,” he’s included many links to more information about the well-loved Prather, as well as links to sites on the Web that are mourning him today.

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Naked Stars Get Nixed

Superstars, a book by New York-based Singaporean photographer Leslie Kee has been banned in the photographer’s home country.

According to the Khaleej Times, the book will not be “allowed to be sold in the conservative city-state.”

The Khaleej Times reports that Superstars “contains portraits of 300 stars such as Aaron Kwok and Gong Li taken in New York where [is] Kee based.”


Friday, February 16, 2007

Review: Larklight by Philip Reeve

Today in the January Magazine children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Larklight by Philip Reeve.

Bursztynski feels that Larklight is a children’s introduction to the steam punk genre: fiction set in the Victorian era, but with science fictional elements.

“I confess that Larklight is my first taste of Philip Reeve’s fiction,” writes Bursztynski. “It won’t be the last, if this book is a good example of his work. It has been a long time since a children’s book entertained me so much, with a lot of laugh-out-loud moments.”

The full review is here.

Casino Royale Stuck on Block

An auction house in London was surprised today when a copy of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, failed to sell at auction.

The book, penned by a then-unknown author named Ian Fleming, was a first-edition and was published by Jonathan Cape in 1953. Although the copy on offer was damaged, the Bloomsbury Auction folks believed the success of the recent film starring Daniel Craig had boosted the profile of that novel so high that they set an auction estimate of £8,000 to £10,000 (about $20,000 U.S. dollars). At close of bidding, however, the reserve on the book -- an undisclosed amount -- had not been met.

Bloomsbury Auction spokesperson Richard Caton said, “It’s very disappointing. But the fact that it’s an auction means you never know what’s going to happen.”

According to BBC News, “Other Bond memorabilia which did sell at the auction included a first edition of The Spy Who Loved Me which sold for £1,200.”

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Red Is the New Pink

I’m a bit late getting to novelist (and occasional January contributor) Tracy Quan’s (Diary of a Married Call Girl) very reasoned response to what I’m now inclined to call the Dowd Debacle, Maureen Dowd’s NYT column that blasted chick lit and sent a firestorm raging through the blogosphere.

On her blog, Quan makes several very good points, but I’ll only excerpt one of them:

What I’m getting from Maureen’s column, and her conversation with Leon, is a feeling that books should be more precious and readers more aspirational. This is bizarre coming from a newspaper columnist.
You can see the balance of Quan’s good points here. ◊

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

Being There

In what is arguably one of the most flawed essays ever written about writing, in his February 14th column in The Guardian, lawyer-turned-journalist Marcel Berlins asks, “Can you think of a great novel that takes place where the author has never been?”

The matter comes up in the wake of Stef Penney’s Costa win for The Tenderness of Wolves, which is set in Canada in the middle of the 19th century. For some reason, the novel seems to never be mentioned in the press without further mention of the fact that Penney suffers from agoraphobia and did no research in person.
Penney, a sufferer from agoraphobia, had been unable to travel to Canada, where her book is set. She conducted all her research in the British Library. No doubt some Canadian readers with experience of their country’s wilderness in winter will point out that Penney hasn't got it quite right. They will be small in number compared to readers who would be ignorant of any mistakes or, if they knew, would not care. To me, though, her lack of direct knowledge matters. As a reader, I feel short-changed and disappointed. When place plays an important part in a story, I expect the writer to have been there. Admittedly, Penney's book is set in 1867, but I still would have felt more satisfied if she had absorbed the atmosphere, the cold and the scenery at first hand. She, at least, had an excuse for not doing so.
I’ve found these continuous mentions of Penney’s agoraphobia tiresome all along. After all, it is fact that, at this point, no one can visit Canada in 1867. One could argue that -- having immersed herself in research and taken pains to bring the era to life -- Canada as it was likely exists more accurately in Penney’s mind than it does in reality. And, yes, agoraphobia is a thing, but I’m not sure it’s a thing that is relevant to the story of the creation of The Tenderness of Wolves. Let’s face it, no one ever complains that J.K. Rowling has never visited Hogwarts and certainly no conditions of health stop her from doing so.

Nor are Penney and Rowling alone in not having visited the places they write about. In fact, history is packed with examples of authors who have done just that. You can see Berlins’ Guardian column here. While you’re there, make sure you scroll all the way down and read some of the comments. Apparently, I’m not alone in thinking this one was silly.

Australian Idol Inks Deal for Novel

I don’t think that headline needs an actual story, do you? It’s sort of ‘nuff said, already. But here’s the link.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chick What?

I’d love to hear Maureen Dowd respond to the widespread wit her NYT column on Chick Lit, “Heels Over Hemingway,” has fostered all over the blogosphere.

So many people have read the column -- or read about the column -- that I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice it to say that Dowd says she walked into a bookstore and was blown away by the fact that she “couldn’t find a novel without a pink cover.”
No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys’ club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of “The Devil Wears Prada.” The blood-red high heel ending in a devil’s pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.
Some of the responses have been hilarious (“Maureen Dowd Discovers Chick Lit: Welcome to the 21st Century,” trumpeted Galleycat) and none of them have been kind. (And on her Buzz, Balls & Hype blog, author M.J. Rose (The Venus Fix), never one to miss a marketing trick, points out that the books Dowd mentioned have all enjoyed a sales spike since the column ran.)

Here’s the thing, though: Dowd is no slouch. Maybe we missed the point? Maybe... I don’t know... maybe her tongue was in her cheek? This is, after all, the writer who was Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1996 (there’s irony there somewhere) and who, in 1999 won a Pulitzer Prize for her (wait for it) coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And the woman who is (here’s the topper) the author of the 2005 non-fiction work Are Men Necessary? (Penguin), a book with a lurid quasi-detective novel cover aimed obviously and squarely at the same people who buy the books she appears to denigrate in her NYT column. (From the publicity material: “Women's liberation has been less a steady trajectory than a confusing zigzag. Feminism lasted for a nanosecond and generated a gender tangle that has bewitched, bothered, and bewildered men and women for forty years. Now comes a woman to cut through the tangle and tickle Adam's rib. The battle of the sexes will never be the same.”)

Dowd’s NYT column is here. GalleyCat pipes up here and then here.

Booksellers Sell Books

The Guardian brings word of a new award that will see the publication of writing by authors currently working in the field of book sales.
Inspired by the example of Sarah Waters and David Mitchell, who both worked as booksellers before becoming bestsellers, the Not Published Yet competition invites submissions from unpublished authors working in the book trade to win a publishing contract with Faber and Faber, and an advance of at least £2,000.
Writers of both fiction and non-fiction are invited to submit, however the prize is understood to be open only to unpublished authors working full or part time for companies that are members of the UK’s Booksellers Association. Proposals must be submitted by June 29th. The shortlist will be announced in September with the winner named on November 14th.

People in Glass Houses...

The words might have more weight if they came from other than Faye Weldon, author of that notoriously commercial work, The Bulgari Connection.
A terrible sense of inconsequence hangs over publishing houses. From outside it seems as if they act on whim. The culture of the group prevails; individual decision is discouraged, committee rules apply. It can be thumbs down for some splendid book on an unfashionable theme -- babies were in last year, not now -- or if the author is not photogenic, or is too posh, or for a variety of reasons which weigh heavily with marketing people.
In a piece in the London Times that originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Royal Society of Literature Review, Weldon posits that wildly successful works of literature -- like those written by J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown -- are killing creativity.
“Bestseller” betokens artistic success. It is the publishers’ ultimate accolade. If enough others like it, the suggestion is, so will you.
Scott Pack, commercial director of the Friday Project replies:
A good book is a good book no matter what the genre or how many copies it sells. And a bad book remains bad, whatever the pedigree of the author or how many critics fall over each other to praise it. Quality is not always in inverse proportion to the number of copies sold.
Both pieces are here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Case of the Missing Falcon

From the “you can’t make this stuff up” department: Over at the Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce reports that “some worthless schmuck” has stolen the Maltese Falcon. Read all about it here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Review: Beyond the Blue by Andrea MacPherson

Today in the January Magazine fiction section, we look at Beyond the Blue, Andrea MacPherson’s second novel (after 2003’s When She Was Electric) and her fourth book.

Beyond the Blue is set in Dundee, Scotland in 1918. Though there are quibbles, for the most part, it’s all thumbs up:
I can’t imagine that any contemporary writer has done a better job of evoking the gray hopelessness of early 20th century urban Scotland, a time so dreadful that vestiges of it all are still being cleared from many of the important centers.
You can read the full review here.



We see a lot of books at January Magazine. As one of the senior review publications in the world, we see books of every description and from every category in great number. We see great books and we see... not so great books and just about everything you can imagine in between.

With all this wonderful bookishness floating around all the time, it’s possible to get somewhat jaded. That is: a book has to be particularly wonderful or stunning -- or both -- to make us sit up and take notice as soon as it rolls in the door.

That was certainly the case with The Marvel Vault by Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson (Running Press), a book we’ve gotten our hands on so far in advance of publication, we don’t even know what the publication date is. And though at present, the book seems to be some kind of big secret -- Amazon, B&N and even Running Press don’t include even a whisper of the book on their Web sites -- as I write this, the book is sitting on my desk. It’s real, it’s finished and it’s gorgeous.

We’ll leave a review for closer to press time (whenever that is) and for a reviewer with more expertise than I have with the world of comics and collectibles. Meanwhile, though, if you have an interest in either of those things, The Marvel Vault is the bomb. Expertly written and prepared (authors Roy Thomas and Peter Sanderson are well known in this arena), The Marvel Vault is like a real collection shared by a knowledgeable friend (because who but a friend would let you touch such treasures?) with the added bonus of Thomas and Sanderson’s expert commentary.

And the fact that January Magazine art director and art and culture editor David Middleton contributed a photo (look for Neil Gaiman’s smiling mug on page 178) has nothing to do with the fact that we like this book so much. I think it might, however, have something to do with why this copy showed up so early.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Richard, Judy and The Girls

Readers in the United Kingdom know that, when it comes to influencing the reading habits of television viewers, no one beats out Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, the married co-stars of Richard & Judy, a variety show that airs in the early evening, five days a week on Channel 4.

The format of the show is familiar the world over: couches, celebrities, light banter plus enough books that The Guardian has referred to the duo as “the most powerful people in publishing.”

Powerful enough, for example, that when the pair recently chose a relatively unknown Canadian’s sophomore novel to highlight on their show, the book started shooting up UK sales charts.

The Girls by Lori Lansens, first published in Canada in 2005, had enjoyed positive reviews and modest sales, but nothing like what happened when the book got the nod from Richard & Judy. According to The Chronicle Herald:
Just an hour after the program aired, the book had already jumped from number 7 on the bestseller list to number 3. The Girls was only kept out of the number 1 position by pre-orders for J.K. Rowling’s upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the adult and children’s editions of which held the top two spots.
Author Lansens, who recently moved to Los Angeles where her husband is a director on 24, told the CBC that “For an author, this sort of thing is like winning the lottery.”

More authors will be feeling that love soon. On February 14th, Richard and Judy’s pick is Restless by William Boyd. On the 21st, look for Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde. On the 28th the pick is Griff Rhys Jones’ Semi-Detached which will be followed by This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes on March 7th.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

To Publish and Be Damned

That old chestnut, “self-publishing,” is discussed at some length in an article by Ambrose Musiyiwa in Blogcritics Magazine. This follows an interesting survey on the same topic, hosted last year by the Leicester Review of Books. (Survey results can be found here.)

Musiyiwa raises some interesting points, among them:

Wikipedia defines self-publishing as “the publishing of books and other media by the authors of those works, rather than by established, third-party publishers.” The encyclopedia goes on to explain that although self-publishing represents a small percentage of the publishing industry in terms of sales, it has been present in one form or another since the beginning of publishing. “Many works now considered classic,” it notes, “were originally self-published, including the original writings of William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, William Morris, and James Joyce.”

The writer closes his Blogcritics article with these words of wisdom--and caution:

Another example is Graham P. Taylor who earned a publishing deal worth 3.5 million pounds after he had self-published his first novel, Shadowmancer. Taylor’s books have since been translated into over twenty different languages and are also going to be turned into movies.

Writers who are contemplating self-publishing need to investigate the industry thoroughly and make sure that their work has been sufficiently edited and critiqued before they haul it off to the printers. They should also be prepared to market and promote their books aggressively.

You can read Musiyiwa’s full article here.

Reviewing the Reviewer

I always enjoy perusing Michael Allen’s blog, Grumpy Old Bookman, which features numerous insights into the world of publishing. Allen is also a publisher, and his e-book The Survival of Rats in the Slushpile is an intriguing reality check on the business of getting into print--well worth a read. (You can download it for free here.)

In Survival of Rats, Allen references the work of philosopher and financial mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in particular his “Black Swan Theory,” which is a major feature at Taleb’s Web site.

Also available through Taleb’s site is a piece he wrote about the book-reviewing process. (Scroll down until you locate the heading, “Wittgenstein’s Ruler--The End of the Writer as a Sitting Duck”). In it, Taleb remarks:

Writers had to sit down and be subjected to the randomness of the choice of reviewer, his or her mood, and whether they are vicious or not, whether they were envious or not, or whether they had a bad day. The history of book reviews is depressing. By the narrative fallacy, anyone can say anything arbitrarily mean or wrong about a piece of work--the readers have no choice but to take it as is. Because of contagion effects, subsequent book reviews will be likely to follow previous ones, causing contagion chains and cascades ... The only option authors had was the wimpy letter to the editor. Well, no more of that writer-as-a-sitting-duck business, thanks to the Web and the long tail mechanism. Every reviewer can be now subjected to his own review, which thanks to the web, will follow him for life, in a “Googlable” way, particularly when there is intellectual dishonesty on his part. It is not my style to moan; I’d rather do nothing or, randomly, expose the perpetrator destroying the message of a book I like. If someone goes unfairly ad hominem into someone else’s background, you go into his. This is my style of deterrence: overreact to what you find intellectually unfair beyond the tit-for-tat, or ignore completely--and randomly. I wrote 11 years ago a review of a review of a book by my friend Victor Niederhoffer, which I found unfair, misdirected, and uninformed. The review is dead but my second-order review still crops up!

Grumpy Old Bookman’s Allen reports that Taleb is particularly displeased by the distortions, which have appeared in print, of his own ideas--ideas which were expressed in Fooled by Randomness, which Allen reviewed here back in 2004.

From my own modest experience of applying Taleb’s ideas to the book trade, I can testify that people do tend to misread what authors are saying. Or, to put it perhaps more tactfully, it is very difficult to ensure that a reader always knows what you mean. In fact, in the case of some readers, it’s nearly impossible to ensure that they do.

Taleb’s newest book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is due out in the UK from Random House come May.

“Tenderness” Trumps “Restless”

Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, a thriller “set in 19th-century Canada [and] written by a former agoraphobic who ventured no further than the British Library to research it,” has won the 2007 Costa Book Award, according to the UK’s Independent newspaper. Wolves beat out the much-favored Restless, William Boyd’s wartime spy saga, as well as Keeping Mum, a memoir of childhood by Brian Thompson, to capture the coveted Costa (formerly known as the Whitbread Book Award).

As interesting as her fictional tale is, author Penney’s personal story rivals it for curiosity. The Independent remarks on both:

[The Tenderness of Wolves] is a thriller about the murder of a hunter in a small community in the bleak Canadian wastelands and the simultaneous disappearance of a 17-year-old boy, the adopted son of Scots who fled their homeland as a result of the Highland clearances.

Penney, herself a Scot who now lives in London, has never been to Canada. She scoured historic documents, including the papers of the Hudson Bay Company, to write the book after first producing a screenplay about the clearances. She felt there was more to be done with the characters forced out of Scotland at the end of her film.

Penney said last night she could not believe she had won. Asked about whether her agoraphobia had helped or hindered her writing, she said: “ Just because you go somewhere doesn’t mean you have a peculiar or vivid or insightful take on that place. Any story takes place in a landscape of the imagination.”

She may now visit Canada and said that it was possible for her to travel, adding that there were many places she hoped to see. When she first moved to London, after studying at Bristol University, her phobia meant it was two-and-a-half years before she was even able to travel on a bus.

And the rest of us think we face obstacles in writing our novels ...

Like Father ...

I don’t know how I missed the fact that Stoker-winning horror writer Joe Hill is the son of power novelist Stephen King. (Yes, that Stephen King.) Hill has been writing short stories for the last decade but his well-kept secret leaked last year: just in time to pitch the writer’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, onto a wave of buzz. But the novel, which will be published next week, is braving all scrutiny. “His subtle and skillful treatment of horrors that could easily have exploded over the top and out of control helps make this a truly memorable debut,” says Publishers Weekly. “In a book much too smart to sound like the work of a neophyte, he builds character invitingly and plants an otherworldly surprise around every corner,” raves The New York Times. (Yes, that New York Times.)

Hill’s mother, Tabitha King, is also a writer. She is the author of one work of non-fiction and seven novels. The most recent of these was published in 2006: Candles Burning (Berkley), which was a collaboration with the late Michael McDowell.

(Hat tip to the Campaign for the American Reader.)

Citizen Jim Remembered

James A. Michener, the late “writer-citizen of the world” is being remembered this month: 100 years after his birth and nearly a decade after he passed away in October of 1997.

Christopher Reynolds, an L.A. Times staff writer who, in 1997, conducted one of the last interviews with Michener, takes an affectionate look at the writer who is often denigrated for his “brick-sized paperbacks”:
This man -- who was born on or about Feb. 3, 1907, and died in 1997 -- may have taught more Americans more about the rest of the world than any other writer in his century. And once that teaching made him rich, he plowed the money back into charity, perhaps as much as $100 million, with the lion’s share going to the University of Texas at Austin, home of the James A. Michener Center for Writers.
Celebrations of Michener’s own centennial are scheduled throughout the United States -- and on the Web -- throughout the month. Authorlink, for example, is offering up an audio interview with Kate Medina, a Random House editorial director and vice-president who was Michener’s editor at the time of his death.

In honor of the centennial, Michener’s 1991 memoir, The World Is My Home, was reissued in trade paper by Random House last month.

In a two part series that began last weekend, Richard Keppler Brunner of Allentown’s Morning Call, takes another affectionate look at the writer:
On this, the centenary month of his birth, it is appropriate to use the author's own words to understand the man, his work and how Citizen Jim saw his times and his world.
Part one is here. Part two is here.

The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has what looks to be a pretty complete listing of events being held to commemorate the life of one of the 20th century’s top-selling -- and -producing -- writers.

How to Get a Book Deal

Want a publishing contract? You could sit down for a year or three and write the great modern novel, then wring your hands in anguish while you stand in line for an agent and then a publisher. Really, though, all of that is quite a lot of work. Far easier to take the post-modern route: become an astronaut, strap on a diaper and take to the road. GalleyCat has the details: I just can’t bring myself to repeat them.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Small Press Month in March

Both readers and publishers will want to know about Small Press Month, now in its 11th year, and intended to bring attention to the work produced by small and independent publishers.

Small Press Month is co-sponsored by Small Press Center; PMA: The Independent Book Publishers Association and The Council of Literary Magazine and Presses.

Check the Small Press Month Web site for a list of 31 things for publishers to do as well as to request posters and to let the organization know what you’re going to do to celebrate Small Press Month. At present, the Web site is long on what you can do for Small Press Month and short on what Small Press Month can do for you. Presumably this will change as March draws near.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

No Harry E-Book Planned

While anticipation for the seventh and final instalment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series heat up, the rumour mill begins to swirl. For instance, while there have been whispers that young Harry won’t make it through the book, this seems to be more speculation than inside information.

The e-book rumor, however, is another matter. Neil Blair, a lawyer for Rowling’s agent, made a formal announcement that there will be no e-book version of the Harry Potter books. At least, at present none are planned. According to Associated Content:
Piracy was a major factor in the decision, but not the only reason that Blair gave; he also cited Rowling’s personal preference for printed volumes over electronic publications. Rowling has publicly stated her partiality for writing and reading works on paper rather than on-screen. In interviews, Rowling repeatedly confirms that she wrote the entire Harry Potter series longhand, and that she prefers her readers to “experience the books on paper.”
The publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the series, also marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, first published without much fanfare in 1997. To date, the first six books have sold over 325 million copies.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Who’s Killing Who?

Last weekend was an important one for crime fiction enthusiasts, with two conferences taking place in different parts of the United States.

Our sister publication, the Rap Sheet, covered the events, including the winners of the awards offered by both conferences. Read about Left Coast Crime in Seattle here and Love is Murder in Rosemont, Illinois here.

While you’re there, check out Men’s Adventure, the “crime novel in installments” by Dick Adler currently unfolding under the startled eyes of regular Rap Sheet readers. Chapter two went live this morning.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

France Takes Another Hit

British novelist and film producer Peter James has been awarded France’s prestigious Prix Coeur Noir award for his 2005 novel, Dead Simple. Shotsmag Confidential reports:
The win is the latest in a succession of foreign accolades for Peter’s writing, firmly rooting him as one of the UK’s most internationally successful crime writers. Last year, Peter received the 2005 Krimi-Blitz award for Crime Novelist of the Year in Germany, and he also won Le Prix Polar International 2006, France, for Best Crime Novel--Dead Simple.

On receiving the prize, Peter James said: “France is a country known for its patriotism; when I heard I was shortlisted against two French authors and the award is voted for by the public, I didn’t think I had a chance. I am very proud and very thrilled. To have won one French award was an incredible feeling. Now to have won two, I’m just amazed! And very, very honoured.”

Le Prix Coeur Noir is organized by librarians, readers of
Les Amis des Médiathèques and booksellers of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. The public were able to vote from October 2006 January 2007 from shortlist of three crime novels.

The shortlist comprised of [
sic]: Le Chien Tchéchène by Michel Maisonneuve, Comme une Tombe by Peter James and La Lune de Glace by Jan Costin Wagner. Peter James was the clear winner with more than 50% of the votes.
There seems to be a trend of late toward foreign authors winning coveted French prizes. Last year, you will recall, American Jonathan Littell captured the Académie Française’s top literary prize with his debut literary novel, Les Bienveillantes (The Furies).