Monday, April 30, 2007

Review: Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Diane Leach reviews the first English translation of Anna Gavalda’s Hunting and Gathering. Says Leach:
Perhaps I am too much of a cynic; perhaps my tastes are too dark. But Gavalda is a fine writer whose earlier work plumbed the depths of quiet desperation (not necessarily just the English way). But not here. Hunting ends in grand style, leaving writers like Frances Mayes and Diane Johnson in plumes of garbure-scented dust. Love, an inheritance, passionate sex, babies, a chic gastropub, a house in the country: check each box, for all apply.
The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

The Word from L.A.

From all accounts, the 2007 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was an even bigger success than usual. And that’s saying something. As the L.A. Times reported after the first day of festivities, “LA Times Book Fest Day 1: Shorter Lines + More Food = More Fun.” According to the piece, the food was remarkable. “If there weren't so many book booths and authors running about, we'd think this was a cooking festival.”

Fun and food aside, one of the highlights of the event was the presentation of the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Awards, held at Royce Hall (also the location of the best secret bathroom find, but that’s from the other story) on Friday night.

The winners are as follows:

Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement:
William Kittredge

A Woman in Jerusalem, by A.B. Yehoshua, translated by Hillel Halkin (Harcourt)

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf)

Current Interest:
Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, by Ian Buruma (Penguin)

Echo Park, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)

Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction:
White Ghost Girls, by Alice Greenway (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic).

Young Adult Fiction:
Tyrell, by Coe Booth (Push/Scholastic)

Science and Technology:
In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, by Eric R. Kandel (W.W. Norton)

Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Each prize included a $1,000 cash award.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

University Says More to Comics Than “White Men in Tights”

A new exhibit at Jackson State University is designed to show students that “comics aren’t always filled with ‘big white men in tights.’”
“Other Heroes: African-American Comics, Creators, Characters and archetypes” runs through the end of June. One of the exhibit’s co-curators, John Jennings, who works at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the Associated Press the works featured in the exhibit confront stereotypes and misconceptions.
When the show closes at Jackson State, it may move on to other universities.

You can read more about “Other Heroes” here.

“Book Empowers”

The International Kuala Lumpur Book Fair is ongoing until May 10th in Malaysia. The theme of the 2007 event -- the 26th year of the fair -- is “Book Empowers.” Entrance to the event, which takes place at the Putra World Trade Centre, is free.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Reeves Remembers Halberstam

When David Halberstam died in a car crash on April 23rd, America lost one of its most influential journalists. No one has made this point as succinctly as syndicated columnist Richard Reeves.

In a column called “Journalism’s Greatest Generation” -- that really is about what Reeves sees as journalism’s greatest generation -- Reeves also manages to eulogize his friend and colleague, David Halberstam, gently, elegantly and with great respect.
Halberstam led the way, literally. There was something of Paul Revere and Thomas Paine in his journey from Harvard to becoming the only reporter on the smallest newspaper in Mississippi -- because he thought race and civil rights was the biggest (and untold) story in the country. Others came with typewriters and cameras and their hearts in their throats to make Americans confront this stain on the flag.
Reeves’ April 27th column is here.

Labels: ,

Spears Prepares to Dance With her Muse

I’m a little embarrassed to be typing these words, but it is news and people will care. And though I suspect a lot of January’s readers might not be those people who care about this particular piece of news, they’ll still want to know, if you follow. And so here we are.

According to Inside Entertainment’s virtual edition, “Britney Spears is supposedly going to put pen to paper and divulge all her inner thoughts and secrets in an autobiography.”

Here’s the thing: if she does somehow manage to get all those words into book form -- or find a way to trick someone else into doing it for her -- the book will find a publisher and will likely sell a lot of copies.

Sometimes you just can’t help wonder why you get out of bed in the morning.

The virtual Inside Edition piece is here.


Review: Magic’s Child by Justine Larbalestier

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski examines Magic’s Child by Justine Larbalestier.

Bursztynski says that the “final book in Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness series ... is tightly written, a roller coaster ride all the way, with no wasted space.”

The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Review: We, Robots by Sue Lange

Today, in January Magazine’s science fiction/fantasy section, contributing editor Andi Shechter reviews We, Robots by Sue Lange. Says Shechter:
In We, Robots, Lange takes on a heavy science fiction theme, examining once again, what it is to be human. At the same time, it’s deftly lightweight. The story doesn't try to redefine the genre (a little too much of that going on lately, I say) but it looks at the membrane that separates human and machine, which seems to be getting increasingly thinner. It’s a topic that has fascinated writers and readers for a long time, and I like Lange’s take on it.
Shechter’s review is here.

Labels: , ,

Margaret Atwood and the Defining Books of Our Era

As you might have read at The Rap Sheet, I was bowled over meeting with Margaret Atwood at The London Book Fair last week.

I dusted off my copies of The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake and re-read sections of them. It had been a little while since I had read Atwood so I was overjoyed, finding depth and insight in her use of language.

The award-winning Canadian Novelist is spending a little time in London, naturally because of The LBF and her work at her LongPen Company, so I was pleased to read about her take on writing in The Guardian.
The novels I finish -- as opposed to the sunnier, jollier ones I begin -- are always those that seem the most impossible when they first present themselves. I never tell my publishers what I’m writing, because -- being in my non-writing life an optimistic, Pollyanna sort of person -- I can anticipate the expressions of disbelief and horror that would come over their faces. “You're writing WHAT?” those expressions would say. Behind my back, they would whisper: “She's finally slipped a cog.”
She then tells of her experiences in writing Oryx and Crake:
I began writing Oryx and Crake in early 2001, while I was in northern Australia watching birds and talking about rare species, diminishing habitats, invasive animals, plants, and insects that are destroying native ecologies. In Australia it’s pigs, rats, cats, cane toads and rabbits; in New Zealand it’s rats, cats and possums; in the Great Lakes it’s zebra mussels, among others; in New Orleans -- at that time, before the floods -- it was exotic termites. The lists grow ever longer. Our ability to modify species and even create new ones would add to the effect.

The book presented itself to me as an almost-complete but distant structure -- one I needed to enter and explore. I set off to do that, paused while undergoing the twin towers trauma and the anthrax scare of September/October 2001, and resumed writing the novel, to publish it just at the moment when the Sars epidemic was splashing itself all over the papers, with one of its loci being Toronto, where I live. During the book tour, people ran for the door when I coughed. All the literature about the Black Death I'd read over the years seemed to be coming true. Happily, it didn't. Not that time.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake has become truer since I wrote it. I don’t relish this phenomenon. Surely people write such books in the belief that if we see where such roads lead, we won't go there. As I’ve said, I’m an optimist. Let’s hope.
Read Atwood’s take on the writing process in The Guardian here. You can download an MP3 podcast with Margaret Atwood talking about Oryx and Crake here:

I consider Atwood as a novelist whose work helps define and explain our times, so I was even more delighted when The Guardian provided us with the excellent supplement “TimeLife: 50 Books that defined their era”. Joe Ricketts introduces this very interesting supplement:
Everyone knows that sex began in 1963, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” Philip Larkin was merely confirming the way that -- thanks to a ludicrous obscenity trial 30 years after it was written -- DH Lawrence’s novel defined an era.
This is nothing new. Books are ever-present at the conception, peak and death of decades: breaking taboos, forging cultures and countercultures, making social and scientific strides. Of course, decades are also shaped by technology, war, music, and art; but books can wrap all of these together and add something extra.

Both reading and the experience of decades are also where, to borrow another 60s phrase, the personal is political. So it is a tricky task to sort through the riches of the 20th century and name 50 books that define the decades for us all. Approach this list as a talking point rather than a definitive statement; inclusion of Germaine Greer but not Simone de Beauvoir should be enough to start debate.

This is not a bid to judge the greatest books of the century, but rather those that define their eras. Breaking a literary mould is not enough for inclusion: most of these books played a role in events or shaped society's view of itself at the time. Historical fiction has been largely pushed to one side in favour of work with period furniture, or that carries a contemporary essence in its idea of the future (Brave New World, 1984).
One area is the authors that helped define the various generations. I was most pleased to see Albert Camus mentioned next to Ian Fleming, so no literary snobbery here:
The first world war also shaped the life of Albert Camus, whose father was killed on the Marne in 1914. He became a great French author, but he came from far outside French high culture. His mother was an illiterate cleaning woman and he was born and educated in Algeria, where many of his works, such as L’Étranger [The Outsider] and La Peste [The Plague] were set.
His most famous book was distinctive of its era yet took a tangent to the times. You would know nothing directly of the second world war from The Outsider, which was first published in 1942, yet its sense of the absurd is formed by that calamity. Meursault, Camus’s anti-hero, was a new modern character, unillusioned rather than disillusioned. Recognising “the benign indifference of the universe”, the only moral purpose that an individual can find is mere truthfulness about this bleak state of affairs. Meursault is a murderer, yet he dies because he is unwilling to fake the guilt required by those who sit in judgment on him.
Camus’s philosophical work of the 1940s, The Myth of Sisyphus, begins from “the one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”. He had been a communist, but before his death in a car crash aged 46, he had fallen out with his former comrade Jean-Paul Sartre largely because of his growing political scepticism. Even politics did not give life significance.
So from French existentialism we have British Thriller writing holding onto a decaying Empire.
Some authors are true to their age by giving form to a culture’s enjoyable fantasies. This is what Ian Fleming did by creating James Bond in the 1950s. You might not think from Bond’s behaviour that its author knew anything of real spies, but in fact Fleming, after Eton and Sandhurst, had worked for naval intelligence in the war. Beginning with Casino Royale in 1953, he set out to write bestsellers, with a recipe well characterised by the then leader of the Labour party, Hugh Gaitskell. “The combination of sex, violence, and alcohol and -- at intervals -- good food was to me irresistible.” With their adaptation of the traditional adventure story to a modern age and their witty hedonism, Fleming’s novels were hugely influential.
From Russia With Love may make its thrills out of the cold war, but this is not what makes it distinctive of its epoch. It is rather its sophisticated belief in pleasure. Ruthless and gentlemanly, patriotic and amoral, Bond is a connoisseur of sensations, and the enviable, not entirely pleasant hero for an age. Fleming himself, posh but populist, penning his sophisticated entertainments at his retreat in the West Indies, seemed just the man to be producing these shiny international novels.
You can read more about authors who defined their decade here.

Of course you need to consider the role of the “bestsellers” that peppered the decades and shaped our view of the world. As a Crime/Thriller devotee I was pleased to read this:
Probably the biggest selling English language author of the 20 century, for instance, was one Mickey Spillane, an author of hard-boiled detective fiction. Estimates suggest that Spillane sold over 200 million books in his lifetime, most of them in the US, but plenty here in the UK too. He was hated by critics, derided by other writers. Hemingway loathed him. Fellow crime writer Raymond Chandler (another whose artistry the critics only recognised long after the public at large) described Spillane as a writing “gorilla” and said that “pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff”. What's more, Spillane himself had a pretty low opinion of his work, putting the success of his books down to the simple fact that “people like them”. By the later years of his long life, it seemed as if he was doomed to disappear without a trace, unloved and unlamented. Then a funny thing happened. His rough prose began to win recognition, the New York Times called him “a master”, a Pittsburgh professor wrote a companion to his novels, and publishers reissued his books with pleasant, brightly coloured pulp fiction covers. His reputation is stronger now than at any time during his life, and although he may not be selling in the same mind-blowing quantities, he seems set to last.
You can read the whole story here.

The supplement then publishes what it considers are the 50 books that defined our era and this list will provoke thought and interested controversy.

The complete list: 50 books that defined each decade as denoted by The Guardian:

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Interpreting Dreams, Sigmund Freud
Kim, Rudyard Kipling

Howards End, EM Forster
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, ed Jon Silkin
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence
Relativity, Albert Einstein
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
The Waste Land, TS Eliot
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Brighton Rock, Graham Greene
Right Ho, Jeeves, PG Wodehouse
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

1984, George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl, Ann Frank
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
The Outsider, Albert Camus

From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
Look Back in Anger, John Osborne
The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Ariel, Sylvia Plath
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

Carrie, Stephen King
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Persig

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Money, Martin Amis
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
No Logo, Naomi Klein
The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi

There is a competition for you to vote which of these books you consider is the overall winner.
The winner and winning book will be chosen at this years Hay Festival and the winner awarded £1,000 of book tokens.

Other sections include Desert Island Books, Counterculture and a word from the sponsors of the article The Pilsner Urquell brewery. Is there anything better in life than sitting out in the sun, ice cold beer in one hand and a great book in the other?

The full supplement is available here, but where’s Margaret Atwood?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Review: Vinnie’s Head by Marc Lecard

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, James R. Winter reviews Vinnie’s Head by Marc Lecard. Says Winter:
Vinnie’s Head, by debut novelist Marc Lecard, brings gonzo noir to Long Island. And if I worked for the Nassau or Suffolk County chambers of commerce, I'd sue him. However, since I don't, I will simply say that this Killer Year author has penned one of the fastest, most ridiculous, and funniest romps of 2007 so far.
The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Patterson’s Five Most Important Books

Is it just me, or does James Patterson’s Five Most Important Books list look just a little predictable? From MSNBC via Newsweek’s April 30th edition:
1. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez. The great American novel, which just happens to be from South America.

2. “Ulysses” Blame James Joyce for making me a mystery writer. I read this and stopped pretending I could ever write a serious novel.

3. “Our Lady of the Flowers” by Jean Genet. Rudely woke me from my provincial, small-town view of the world.

4. “Day of the Jackal” by Frederick Forsyth. This was where I stopped being a book snob, and started loving books to death.

5. “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. I'm keen on coming-of-age novels, probably because I'm still coming of age.
And so you ask: are these Patterson’s five most important books or the five he wants us to know about? After all, if you were to sit down and draft a list of books that should be a mega-bestselling American author’s favorites, it would look an awful lot like this. Or maybe that’s the point of the exercise? Although, looking at Patterson’s schedule, he probably is way too busy to read. As Newsweek points out, Patterson has appeared on The Simpsons and has six (count ’em) books coming out this year.

Of the 15 or so authors Newsweek has polled thus far, Patterson’s is likely the name closest to a household world, though the others are all certainly esteemed and even renowned, including Michael Ondaatje, David Hajdu, Walter Mosley, Harold Bloom, Nathan Englander, Gay Talese and Geraldine Brooks.

Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.


Who Said Short Fiction Doesn’t Pay?

Julian Gough has been announced as the winner of this year’s National Short Story Prize, with David Almond named as runner-up. Julian Gough will receive £15,000 -- the largest award in the world for a single short story -- for “The Orphan and the Mob.” Almond will see £3,000 for “Slog's Dad.” The three remaining authors on the shortlist -- Jonathan Falla, Jackie Kay and Hanif Kureishi -- will each receive £500.

Announcing the winners, Chair of the judges, broadcaster and writer Mark Lawson, said that “from a shortlist which included an impressive range of subjects, settings and styles, the judges were unanimous in awarding the first prize to Julian Gough. The comedy, energy and originality of both plot and voice set him ahead of the other contenders. David Almond was a very strong runner-up for the accuracy of his dialogue and psychology in a story which managed the difficult task of combining reality and fantasy.”

You can read full details here.

Labels: ,

Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam Dead at 73

Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam died this morning in a San Francisco-area car crash, just two weeks after his 73rd birthday.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Halberstam, author of 15 bestsellers, died at the scene after the car in which he was a front-seat passenger was broadsided by another vehicle. The coroner’s office said he died of massive internal injuries.”

The resident of New York had given a speech at UC-Berkeley on Saturday night on “Turning Journalism into History.” The Mercury News reports that, at the time of his death, Halberstam was on his way “to an interview for his next book, about the Korean War.”

Perhaps best known for his work covering the Vietnam war for the New York Times in the 1960s -- the work that led to his Pulitzer at age 30 -- in later years, Halberstam turned his keen eye and passionate voice on a wide variety of topics of sharp interest to Americans.

Between 1961 and 2005, Halberstam wrote 21 books -- 15 of them bestsellers -- including The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era (1965), The Best and the Brightest (1972) about the Vietnam war and War in a Time of Peace (2002) which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

In a 1993 interview with the Mercury News, Halberstam spoke eloquently about his life and career.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” he said. “Actually, when I think about my career I am sometimes stunned. I’m stunned by the richness of it. It gave me all the things I ever wanted. I loved being a reporter.”
The Mercury News piece is lovely and it’s here. AP adds its voice here. This is what Reuters had to say.

Labels: ,

Birthday for the Bard

Today, April 23, is the date generally accepted by scholars with a special interest in these matters as the birthday of the man we know as William Shakespeare, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.

Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, and the custom in Elizabethan England was that children were baptized three days after birth. What is undisputed is that Shakespeare also died on this date, in 1616, also in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The dates of birth and death are about all we know that is beyond controversy, and almost all we know about a man who left few footprints during his lifetime. Indeed, his life was poorly chronicled, leading to a great deal of scholarly speculation.

We know that Shakespeare married a pregnant Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, in 1582. The couple had three children, two of whom survived infancy. The Shakespeare marriage was said to be an unhappy one, with Shakespeare spending years at a time in London, attending to his theatrical career. There is no evidence that Hathaway ever joined her husband in London, and in his final will and testament, Shakespeare famously left his wife his “second best bed.” Opinions differ about what this meant, and if it was meant as snub at all, since superior beds were meant to be reserved for visitors.

The controversy over the Shakespeare marriage pales in comparison to the central question regarding Shakespeare that resounds to this day: did this “man from Stratford,” with little formal education, actually write the plays attributed to him? In the 18th Century, doubts began to surface concerning the authorship of the 37 plays and over 150 sonnets.

The case against the Stratford man consists mainly of the following: the author of the plays possessed a vast knowledge of English history and Continental Europe, as well as the inner-workings of the monarchy. The plays are sprinkled with references to foreign languages (indeed, Henry V’s courtship of his future wife is conducted nearly entirely in French). How could someone as intelligent, politically connected, and as boldly theatrical as Shakespeare have managed to live and die without leaving more biographical data? Or, to state it in a way that is less politically correct, how could the greatest works in the English language have been written by some rube from Stratford who was completely removed from the aristocracy?

The current leading contender to the crown of the “true author of Shakespeare’s plays” is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and the proponents of this view, which includes noted actor Derek Jacobi, refer to themselves as “Oxfordians.” Not surprisingly, those who believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare call themselves “Stratfordians.”

The authorship question will never be resolved, and exists now mainly as an academic parlor game. What matters is that Shakespeare continues to be performed all over the world and books on matters Shakespearean continue to be produced in great number. In 2004, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt published Will in the Word: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare to great critical acclaim. British broadcaster Michael Wood produced In Search of Shakespeare in 2003, in which Shakespeare was examined against the backdrop of Elizabethan England. The list of books in print and available seems almost infinite.

The Royal Shakespeare Company continues to perform the Bard’s works in Stratford and London. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre presents outdoor productions on the south bank of the Thames in London every summer. The Stratford Festival of Canada presents Shakespeare in repertory annually from April to October in its lovely Ontario setting.

“The play is the thing” after all, and fortunately, it’s not difficult to find Shakespeare performing nearby, wherever you are.

Labels: ,

Teen Boys Scarred and Scared by Lesbian Sex Book

This one definitely comes to us via the WTF department:
A Bentonville, Ark., man is seeking $20,000 from the city after his two teenage sons found a book on lesbian sex on a public library bookshelf.

He also wants the library director fired.

Earl Adams said his 14- and 16-year-old sons were “greatly disturbed” after finding the book, titled “The Whole Lesbian Sex Book.” Adams said the book caused “many sleepless nights in our house.”
There’s just so much wrong with these there short paragraphs. In the first place, I’m having a tough time imagining the teen boys who would be put off their feed by literary descriptions of lesbian sex, let alone tell their father about it. And just in case you’re wondering what sort of porn the Bentonville, Arkansas library is stocking, “The book, by Felice Newman, is a sex guide deemed suitable for all public libraries, according to the Library Journal, which the Bentonville library uses to decide what to place on its shelves.”

It astonishes me that Bentonville has acted so quickly and pulled the book. Just about every library and bookstore in the world has at least one copy of something that will disturb someone on some level. (I routinely avoid photographic depictions of insects, for instance.) If a book bothers you, it’s very easy to avoid it. (I know this from personal experience. Back up a few lines to see about the whole insect thing.) What I never get is how some people are so concerned about what other people are reading/eating/watching on television. Please: if something bugs you, don’t read it. Just leave the library shelves -- and the good people who keep them stocked -- alone.

And it should be mentioned that all of this has nothing at all to do with The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. AP recently called the Iggulden’s book “a deliberately retro tome that has become the publishing sensation of the year in Britain.” The book has been on UK bestseller lists for months and was named Book of the Year at the Galaxy British Book Awards in March. Again from AP:
Exuding the brisk breeziness of Boy Scout manuals and Boy’s Own annuals, “The Dangerous Book” is a childhood how-to guide that covers everything from paper airplanes to go-carts, skipping stones to skinning a rabbit.
The Book Standard suggests that The Dangerous Book for Boys has sold “more than 550,000 copies to date” and all of this without even a hint of lesbian sex.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 22, 2007

American Literature Tackles Terror, Part 2

The Sunday Observer provides an interesting and topical look at where fiction can provide an insight into reality: this time in the context of the tragedy that fell upon Virginia Tech last week, and I am talking about Lionel Shriver and her prophetic We Need to Talk About Kevin which won the 2005 Orange Book Award for fiction. As fiction merges with reality at the edges, the name “Kevin,” thanks to Shriver’s book, has become synonymous with the term “campus-killer.”

Lynn Barber talks with Lionel Shriver (aka Margaret Ann Shriver) at length in the wake of the terror that unfolded on an American campus. Firstly the Observer provides us with a little background on Shriver -- an American displaced in London who is releasing her latest work The Post-Birthday World from HarperCollins:
Born : Margaret Ann Shriver, 18 May 1957, Gastonia, North Carolina, to a Presbyterian minister father and full-time mother who was also a poet, political campaigner and theology academic. Currently lives in London with her husband, jazz drummer Jeff Williams.

Education : Columbia University.

Career : Taught English in New York. Spent 12 years reporting on the Troubles in Belfast. Published six novels before achieving popular and critical acclaim for We Need to Talk About Kevin. Though rejected by 30 publishers it went on to win the 2005 Orange Prize For Fiction and has sold 600,000 copies in the UK.

She says 'Writing is fundamentally dull, and there are no real secrets to it: You sit down, you type something out, most of the time, if you have any self-respect, you throw it away.'

They say 'There's plenty of chick-lit in the world, and we need a Shriver to pick holes in it. We need literature not another Yummy Mummy.' (Kate Muir in the Times.)
Firstly, Shriver blogged over at The Guardian earlier in the week after the full terror of Virginia Tech exploded across our television, radio, Internet and newspapers. She said:
The campus shooting phenomenon in the US would have lost much of its power to shock by now if it weren't for the fact that the perpetrators keep ingeniously introducing new twists. Last October, it was an Amish school, of all places; in 2005 it was a school on a Native American reservation. On what was almost exactly the eighth anniversary of Columbine - hitherto a one-word thumbnail for this whole family of atrocities - the 32-body-count shooting at Virginia Tech has an uncomfortably competitive flavour. The man who killed himself all too late in the day in Blacksburg, Virginia, claimed more than twice as many victims as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did at Columbine high school in 1999. Though "Virginia Tech" doesn't have the same ring as the punchier "Columbine", you wonder if this new shooter wasn't making a bid to update the cultural lexicon - to coin the new byword for random campus violence.

While the killers continue to improvise, the media aftermath is numbingly ritualistic. We ask: why do these rampages keep happening, why primarily in the United States, and what is to be done? The answers vary, but they are universally unsatisfactory.
Lynn Barber reports in The Observer:
As I was interviewing Lionel Shriver in Foyles jazz cafe in London, a student was shooting 32 of his classmates and staff at Virginia Tech, and sure enough, next day, I heard someone say ‘Another Kevin’. It is a mark of how deeply Shriver’s novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ has penetrated that Kevin has become almost the generic term for campus killers.

When her novel won the Orange Prize in 2005, having been rejected by 30 publishers, the big question was: Who is Lionel Shriver? A woman with a man's name, an American who had lived for years, unknown, in London, she seemed to arrive from nowhere to become overnight a literary star. But it turned out to be the usual story of overnight success - Kevin was actually her seventh novel, or eighth if you count one that was never published; she was 48 and had been writing for 20 'very lean and very hard' years before she found recognition. Print runs of her early novels were so small that they are now collectors' items - a tatty copy of her first novel, The Female of the Species, will set you back £83 on AbeBooks.
As we know very little about Shriver, The Observer does allow a peep behind her curtain:
Given that Lionel Shriver is an internationally acclaimed author, we still know surprisingly little about her life. The potted biographies in her books give nothing away. But here is what we know so far. She was born on 18 May 1957 in North Carolina, the middle child of three with brothers on either side. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and later president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and she idolised him. Her mother was a homemaker until Lionel was 15 when she started working for the National Council on Churches. They were a deeply religious family - there were family prayers and Bible readings over dinner. She has said in the past: ‘There is a very thin line in my family between God and my father.’
When she was 12 she announced that she wasn't going to church and ‘My father literally dragged me into the car by my hair. And that carried on for a while and then finally, when I was 16, he couldn’t do it any more.’ But although she is not religious herself, she says it rubbed off on her: ‘You said something about my moral seriousness -- I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a terrible drag! But my father’s specialty is ethics so in that sense it’s gotten inside. I think the difference is that I’m not satisfied by liberal platitudes. I like the hard case.’
The full piece on Shriver can be accessed here.

I’ll leave the last word to Shriver’s blog as, in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, she tackles gun control:
How many mass killings does the American public have to witness before its government gets serious about gun control? While the source of armaments in Monday’s shooting has yet to be disclosed as I write, Virginia has some of the most lax gun laws in the country. You can buy “only” one handgun per month, and criminal-background checks are not required to buy weapons at gun shows.

Nevertheless, American versions of strict gun control are so farcical that many campus shooters would still have had no problem acquiring weapons while playing by the most stringent of rules likely to be applied. Who is to say that campus shooters of the future won’t be perfectly content to bide their time as a required “waiting period” between purchase and acquisition ticks by?

For America’s federal government to take gun control seriously, nothing less than mass armed insurrection is required. Were the public ever to act on the principles of their own Declaration of Independence, for example - “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive ... it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” -- Congress would shut down the gun industry in a heartbeat.
In my opinion, the edges between Reality and Fiction, as presented by contemporary literature, have never been so blurred. I remember an old English teacher of mine telling me that fact is far stranger than fiction, but in the 21st century I’m having difficulty seeing where the borders lie.

Labels: ,

American Literature Tackles Terror, Part 1

One of America’s literary giants is profiled in The Sunday Observer. I have read his work off and on for a decade now, and found this lengthy article to be of great interest. Why? Because I enjoy when literary masters such as Don DeLillo use their fiction to chronicle and tackle the changes in American society, when real-life events cause a paradigm shift in contemporary thinking, events such as 9/11, the so-called war on terror and also the dreadful murders last week at Virginia Tech.

I tackled DeLillo’s mammoth 1997 work, Underworld, with zest, but struggled to grasp its core theme at first. However, the ideas and narrative haunted me sufficiently that I read the more accessible Libra, which approaches the events of Dealey Plaza and the relationship between Lee Harvey Oswald and President John Kennedy. I share a common curiosity with DeLillo, in the somewhat unhealthy interest in conspiracy theories, and I am therefore excited about his forthcoming work, The Falling Man. The title should give you a clue as to its backdrop and theme.

If you’re not familiar with DeLillo’s work, then the following précis from Penguin’s reading group will illuminate this great mind:
The author of thirteen novels, five plays, and numerous short stories, Don DeLillo was born in the Bronx in 1936. He received his bachelor's degree from Fordham University and worked as a copywriter at the Ogilvie and Mather advertising agency in New York City from 1959 until 1964, during which time he published his first short stories. Americana (1971), his first novel, announced the arrival of a major literary talent, and the novels that followed confirmed his reputation as one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in late-twentieth-century American fiction. The subject matter of DeLillo's work runs a rich gamut, demonstrating eclectic and sometimes cerebral interests: nuclear game theory, "Hitler studies" as a scholarly enterprise, academic marriages, rock-and-roll stars, hockey and sportswriting, physics, film's impact on our apprehension of history, JFK, and the inner lives of terrorists. DeLillo’s comic gifts are also considerable, though not always recognized. They come to the fore in White Noise (1985), which won the National Book Award, and Underworld (1997), with its vivid portraits of actor Jackie Gleason and standup comedian Lenny Bruce.
While we await the publication of DeLillio’s latest work, Tim Adams of The Observer offers his take on this author:
Some weeks seem to have been foretold by Don DeLillo. This past one, dominated as it has been by the unedifying soliloquy of Cho Seung-hui, with the banal detail of television packages mailed amid slaughter, and the viral spread of the killer's monomania across the internet (necessitating the downloading of Flash players) feels like one of them.

When he first became a novelist in the late 1960s, DeLillo had two files on his writer's desk in New York; one was labelled 'Art', the other was marked 'Terror'. No writer since has been as alive to the congruence of violence and its media. The currency of our age, he has long argued, has become 'bad news, sensationalistic news. It has almost replaced the novel, replaced discourse between people ... your TV set has become an instrument of apocalypse'. Acts of random horror played on a loop on the networks, obsessively talk-showed and blogged, become self-fulfilling prophecies.
His long-awaited The Falling Man will be out next month. It sets a literary context to the events of 9/11. I enjoy when the world we call reality merges with the world we call fiction, because, for this reader, the distinctions between reality and fiction blur and that’s where the danger lies. The Observer reports that DeLillo seems to agree with my train of thought:
People talk about the killing, but they don't talk about what it does to them,' DeLillo suggests. 'The truth is we don't know how to talk about this. Maybe that is why some of us write fiction.'

Even so, the writer of fiction, he contends, particularly the writer of fiction in America, is engaged in a losing battle. His or her imagination is not as powerful in shaping the present and determining the future as that of the dominant creative force; 'Art' is not up to 'Terror'. Long before such a theory was easily imaginable, DeLillo wrote: 'In a repressive society, a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that's filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act ... people who are powerless make an open theatre of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.'

DeLillo's 13 novels to date, blackly comic, humming with ideas, are laced with such aphorisms of doom, but they still aspire. Now 70, he long ago realised that the novelist's maxim, 'only connect', is also that of the paranoiac. The drama of his fiction comes from that tension. In Libra, DeLillo's indelible imagining of the Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald is told that history 'is the sum total of things they aren't telling us'. DeLillo filled those gaps. 'Believe everything,' says a character in Underworld, his masterpiece, which, when it was published in 1997 featured a cover on which a bird with outstretched wings flies towards New York's Twin Towers, shrouded in mist. ‘Everything is true.’
Tim Adams says that DeLillo is an enigmatic giant in the field of modern American literature:
Underworld, which earned an advance of a million dollars and extravagant critical praise ('DeLillo suddenly fills the sky,' Amis wrote in the New York Times), changed that to a degree, but DeLillo still refuses to play the game of self-promotion, preferring to stay outside the literary world. Though not reclusive in the manner of Thomas Pynchon or JD Salinger, he nevertheless characterises his relationship with his readers as one of: 'Silence, exile, cunning and so on.' Sightings of him are rare.
Read the full Observer piece, because it presents a insightful look at a writer who chronicles this difficult age with a keen eye, and one who provides the explanations that only fiction can present when viewing this madness we term reality.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Virtual Koontz

I got rather excited when I “met” with Dean Koontz at the London Book Fair via Margaret Atwood’s LongPen device. Meeting Koontz via the Internet and getting a book signed by him was a real thrill, coupled with actually talking to him about his work. I wrote about the experience a few days ago at The Rap Sheet.

It turns out that Koontz has a fear of flying. Due to this phobia, and his prolific output, he has really taken Internet communication to a new level. He recently appeared at a reading at SecondLife. Rather, Koontz himself did not appear, but his avatar showed up in his place.

“I wanted to thank all of you who attended,” Koontz said after the event, “in the book shop or at one of the affiliated sites -- and to also thank you for posing some interesting, provocative and some downright funny questions. I hope you continue to enjoy my work, and I look forward to the publication of The Good Guy in late May. Thanks again for helping me enjoy my Second Life.”

There are more details about Koontz’s avatar here and here.

With more than 240 million copies of his work in print, encompassing 73 novels, I wonder if his avatar will start writing at anytime soon ...

You can read more about my adventures at the 2007 London Book Fair here. A London Book Fair slide show is here and video footage is here and here. And GalleyCat’s take on the whole LBF thing can be read here.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 19, 2007

It’s All In the Robe

As almost anyone connected in the publishing industry will tell you, a lot of books are produced every year. No one agrees precisely on numbers, but they don’t argue about the fact that it’s scads. Scads and scads of books. It makes it difficult, when starting out, for a writer to get their head above the pack. Ask anyone: it’s a competitive business.

Or, rather, ask almost anyone. For Pope Benedict XVI, the road to bestseller status seems to have come with the robes. His book, Jesus of Nazareth, was a huge seller in Europe before it ever rolled out of Rizolli’s warehouses.

According to the Zenit News Agency, on Jesus of Nazareth’s European publication date -- April 16th, also the Pontiff’s 80th birthday -- the book sold 50,000 copies in Italy. Now, granted, the Pope is bound to have an especially big following in that part of the world, but Rizzoli has brought the first printing to 420,000 copies.

And don’t let the snappy title fool you: Jesus of Nazareth is no Da Vinci Code-style thrillerish romp. According to the AP:
He criticizes lifestyles of the wealthy, citing “victims of drugs, of human trafficking, of sexual tourism, people destroyed on the inside, who are empty despite the abundance of their material goods.”

Rich countries continue to do harm to the Third World by giving aid that is purely technical in nature, he says. “This aid has set apart religious, moral and social structures that existed and introduced their technical mentality in the void,” he writes.

In another chapter, however, Benedict sharply criticizes Marxism, saying it excluded God from life.
English language editions of Jesus of Nazareth will be available from Doubleday in North America and Bloomsbury in the UK, both on May 15th.


Sir Vidia’s Oxford Slapdown

Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul -- Sir Vidia since knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990 -- is known for sharp and stylish books -- both fiction and otherwise -- set against exotic backdrops. Think A House for Mr. Biswas, In A Free State, The Loss of El Dorardo and so many others.

He is not known for his sunny disposition or for being a barrel of laughs. Even so, an AP item quoting Sir Vidia trashing his alma mater seemed a little cold. Even for him.

“I wanted the time,” Naipaul told The Trinidad Guardian. “I wanted to learn to write, and I began to write in my fifth year away from Trinidad. Oxford didn’t teach me anything, nothing at all.”

Born in Trinidad in 1932, one can’t help but wonder if, without Oxford, Naipaul would have been as accomplished, as ready to take on the world. When Naipaul was awarded the Nobel for literature in 2001, the Swedish academy said that “Naipaul is a modern philosopher, carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.”

Can that even happen without Oxford? Or, rather, without the sharpness and balance that a really good post-secondary education can provide? Isn't that, after all, the purpose of said really good post-secondary education? You don’t go to Oxford -- or Harvard or Vassar or Princeton or... -- to learn how to conjugate verbs and prevent your participles from dragging on the floor. In fact, going for that purpose is a big, fat waste. Whether you know it or not, you go to learn how to organize your mind, process your thoughts.

Meanwhile, grumpy post-intellectual or not, The India Times today announced that a brace of films about Naipaul’s life will be produced in Trinidad and Tobago where 2007 is Sir Vidia year.
Tewarie said the university recognises this great son of the soil who still captures the minds of those who read his prolific writings. The films would also be a linkage to the 75-year-old author and Trinidad and Tobago.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review: The Mandala of Being by Richard Moss

Today, in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Mary Ward Menke is swept away by The Mandala of Being: Discovering the Power of Awareness by Richard Moss.
I have to admit that’s what I was thinking when I started reading Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being: Discovering the Power of Awareness. Pardon my facetious cynicism; in truth, I’m fascinated by books about spirituality and self-empowerment. This book was not a disappointment.
The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Callwood Passes

Canadian journalist, author and activist June Callwood passed away April 14th after a lengthy battle with cancer.

In her final interview, early in April, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s George Stroumboulopoulos, she addressed this moment. “I’m okay. I’m 82 years old, for heaven’s sake. Dust to dust is the way it ought to be. The death of the young is inexcusable.”

Still. We bow our heads. Another vibrant voice lost. The Toronto Star published an affectionate look at the late writer here. The CBC has a wonderful selection of interviews with Callwood over the years archived here. The Toronto Star covered a candlelight walk in memory of Callwood on Tuesday night here.


2007 Orange Broadband Shortlist Announced

The shortlist for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction has been announced:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
The Observations by Jane Harris
Digging to America by Anne Tyler

The winner will be announced June 6. The shortlist is here.


Review: Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

Today, in January’s crime fiction section, Karen G. Anderson looks at Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson. Says Anderson:
Kindness Goes Unpunished is at its strongest when author Johnson writes about the dark tensions among families and friends, and describes the uneasy alliances he forges with the flamboyant Moretti clan. With their stern detective father, the parents' troubled marriage and the five siblings -- four of them cops -- the Morettis deserve a Philly-based series all to themselves.

The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 16, 2007

2007 Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced

• Fiction: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
• General Non-fiction: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
• Biography: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate
• History: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
• Poetry: Native Guard by Natasha Tretheway
• Drama: Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

A complete rundown of prize-winners (both books and news media) can be found here.

READ MORE:Great Books the Pulitzers Overlooked,” by Mark Oppenheimer (The Huffington Post).


Review: The Rhythm of the Road by Albyn Leah Hall

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen reviews The Rhythm of the Road by Albyn Leah Hall. Readers who loved Hall’s debut novel, Deliria, have had to wait a very long time for a new book-length work from this author. Word is, but for some bumps towards the end, Rhythm of the Road was worth the long haul.

Thiessen’s review is here.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Orion Publishing and the LBF

Orion Publishing -- one of Britain’s biggest publishing houses -- seems to be in the press a great deal lately. This is probably due, at least in part, to the London Book Fair which kicks off at Earls Court next week. Firstly, we heard that Orion senior executive and publisher Jane Wood was leaving the company to join the young turks at Quercus Publishing. The Guardian reports today:
This start-up independent [Quercus], backed by publishing colossus Anthony Cheetham, continues to attract some of the most talented editors from the conglomerates. The latest recruit is Jane Wood, Orion's fiction editor-in-chief, who will join former Hutchinson publisher Sue Freestone, and Jon Riley, who made his name editing the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Andrew O'Hagan at Faber.
While over at The Times today, Malcom Edwards, another Orion senior executive and publisher, is attempting to cut down the classics. From the Times piece:
To howls of indignation from literary purists, a leading publishing house is slimming down some of the world’s greatest novels.

Tolstoy, Dickens and Thackeray would not have agreed with the view that 40 per cent of Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and Vanity Fair are mere “padding”, but Orion Books believes that modern readers will welcome the shorter versions.

The first six Compact Editions, billed as great reads “in half the time”, will go on sale next month, with plans for 50 to 100 more to follow.

Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.

What was more, he said: “We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones.”

Research confirmed that “many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring. You’re not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren’t that long”.

Hmmmmm call me a purist, but this idea is perplexing.

Anyway, anyone who is anyone in publishing will be in London this week, and I’m looking forward to meeting my colleagues at the London Book Fair returning back to Olympia.

I’ll leave the last word to Joel Ricketts of The Guardian and The Bookseller:
Predicting the “big book” of the London Book Fair used to be tricky: would it be a breakthrough piece of science writing, a set of rediscovered war diaries, or a stunning literary debut? These days it's much easier: simply name a celebrity who hasn't yet written an autobiography. In 2006 the jaw-dropping pre-fair publishing deal was for Take That singer Gary Barlow, and in 2007 it is for Dawn French -- at more than double the price. The bolshy comedienne will be paid a sum close to £2m for her life story by Century, the Random House imprint which brought us the record-shattering book by another comedian, Peter Kay. The theory is solid enough: French is a national treasure, who has won generations of admirers with The Comic Strip, French and Saunders and The Vicar of Dibley. She generates the feelgood factor, and her marriage to Lenny Henry adds the requisite personal interest. Yet does she inspire Kay’s kind of fervent fans, men and women of all ages, who helped him sell out a 180-night stadium tour? There's no question that she’ll be in the Christmas 2008 top 10, but will she shift the books needed to recoup that £2m? Of course, none of these questions will trouble the thousands of international publishers descending on London for the book fair this weekend.


The Chemistry of Books

Some of you may know that I studied chemistry academically and still practice that science as an industrial chemist, coupled with my literary life.

I am therefore always interested when my love of chemistry collides with my love of books. Last week a black cloud hung over me when I learned of the passing of Kurt Vonnegut -- who incidentally also studied chemistry at Cornell in 1942. I know that Vonnegut’s work will live on and be remarked upon by each passing generation.

But what about the paper that his words are printed upon?

The Guardian reports today that the application of chemistry is also important in the preservation of books reports:
Chemists will analyse the complex mix of gases released by books at Cambridge University's library, helping them to gauge which titles are most at risk of decaying. The research is designed to help conservators at libraries to spot which books are most in need of preservation.
Primo Levi is another great writer who was also a chemist. Levi passed away 20 years ago, but a collection of some of his short stories not previously published has just been released by Penguin UK this week.

As a treat, The Guardian has published one the works today, “The Death of Marinese”:
No one was killed. Sante and Marinese were the only ones captured by the Germans. It made no sense, it was almost incredible, that, of us all, the two of them had been taken. But the older men in the group knew that it is always those who are captured of whom it is later said “Who would have guessed!” And they also knew why.

When the two were taken away, the sky was grey and the road was covered with snow that had hardened into ice. The truck barrelled downhill with the engine off: the chains on the wheels rattled around the bends and clanked rhythmically along the straight stretches. About thirty Germans were standing in the back of the truck, packed shoulder to shoulder, some of them hanging on to the frame of the canvas roof. The tarp had come loose, so that a thin sleet struck their faces and came to rest on the fabric of their uniforms.
That short story is published here in its entirety.

If you’ve not experienced the work of Primo Levi, may I suggest grabbing a copy of The Periodic Table, a work that helps explain how his love of chemistry helped keep him alive during the hell that was Auschwitz.

Labels: ,

Friday, April 13, 2007

Review: Love Like Water by Meme McDonald

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski looks at Love Like Water, a book Bursztynski feels will be most enjoyed by older teens.
Meme McDonald’s young adult trilogy, My Girragundji, The Binna Binna Man and Ngunjul The Sun, all written with Boori Monty Pryor, were coming-of-age stories centred around a young Aboriginal boy in present-day Australia. In Love Like Water, also on Aboriginal themes, the author travels back in time to the early 1980s.
Bursztynski’s review is here.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Night I Shared a Beer with Vonnegut

There’s a bar in Bloomington, Indiana, about three blocks west of the Indiana University campus. It’s called Nick’s English Hut, but all the students know it simply as Nick’s.

When you walk into Nick’s you see a wide aisle with booths along either side. Back when I attended IU, the booths were wooden and hard. There’s a small gold plaque screwed into one booth on the left side of the aisle. It commemorates a night in 1983 when the writer Kurt Vonnegut walked in with three IU students, sat down, and had a couple of beers.

The plaque is actually in the wrong booth; the correct booth is one over.

I should know. I was one of the three IU students who accompanied Vonnegut to Nick’s.

Vonnegut was the first subversive writer I ever read (unless you count Maurice Sendak). I discovered him on my parents’ bookshelf, a paperback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. I was 15 years old. I was transfixed from the opening line: “All this happened, more or less.” I had never read anything like this novel, the story of Billy Pilgrim, his “bad chemicals” and the firebombing of Dresden. It was sparse, it was cynical, it was compact, yet it yearned for hope.

I dove into Vonnegut’s work with the zeal of a convert, which I largely was. From there I went to Breakfast of Champions, followed by God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to Slapstick, which was a Christmas gift from my mother. Vonnegut was the first writer I ever consumed so passionately that was still alive and working. The news of a new book being published was cause for great celebration and anticipation.

Fast forward to 1983. I was a junior at IU, and I worked on the student programming committee that brought lectures, films, and concerts to the campus. I was on the lecture subcommittee and after years of attempts, we finally got Vonnegut to come to IU for a lecture. Even though I was 21 and saw myself as way too cool for words, I couldn’t wait to shake the hand of my literary idol.

The lecture Vonnegut gave that night to a sold out crowd was How to Get a Job Like Mine, a stump speech he had been delivering on college campuses for years. He carried the text of the speech with him to the podium, even though he probably had it memorized. He diagrammed Shakespeare with the aid of an overhead projector. He told the audience that every story needed a character like Iago. He railed against what was then called a “word processor” proclaiming that inventions that put people (like his typist) out of a job were unworthy (his idea of a perfect invention was the paper clip). He held the audience in the palm of his hand and the applause was nothing short of rapturous.

Back at an informal reception at the student union, Vonnegut fielded questions. Yes, he said, Kilgore Trout would reappear someday. Yes, he liked the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse—Five. No, he had nothing to do with the film.

During the reception, I was standing next to the chairman of the lecture subcommittee, a frat rat whose name I don’t recall, but whom I’ll call Doug. Vonnegut leaned into Doug as he was signing autographs and asked if there was somewhere nearby where he could get a beer. We piled into a university vehicle (how we had one at our disposal escapes my memory) and drove off to Nick’s.

I was sitting on the outside of one side of the booth at Nick’s. Doug was to my left and Vonnegut was directly across from me. Baskets of popcorn appeared and Vonnegut reached into his suit coat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he lit one after another (this was 1983, remember).

I was utterly stupefied, unable to fully comprehend the fact I was seated at a booth in a bar, sharing popcorn, beer and second hand smoke with Kurt Vonnegut. My self-consciousness shifted into overdrive. I could barely stammer anything remotely intelligent or articulate. I remember asking him what he read for pleasure. He sighed and confessed that he read a lot but rarely for pleasure. He felt obliged to read new books so he could stay on top of what was discussed at the cocktail parties and dinners he attended. He felt burdened to read the books of his many friends, just so he could remain social and polite.

I’ve thought a lot about my brief encounter with Vonnegut since I heard of his death. I wasn’t terribly surprised at his passing. There had been rumors of declining health and of injuries sustained in a house fire. Truthfully, even 24 years ago he looked like he already had one foot in the grave. His face was haggard and drawn, he appeared too thin, and he smoked like a blast furnace.

And yet, even though it’s been at least 15 years since I read any of his work, I always thought of him as being there. To me, he was the Old Faithful of literature, occasionally blasting a hot plume of words, then settling down beneath the surface until another eruption seemed appropriate.

I get nervous about returning to the work of my idols after too many years have gone by. I have a suspicion that Vonnegut, like Ayn Rand and J.D. Salinger, is a writer best experienced in the bloom of one’s youth. I am middle-aged now, about to turn 45, and I’d hate to revisit his books and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Yet, two of my favorite Vonneguts are staring at me from the bookshelf: Jailbird, his fictional explanation of the Nixon White House, and Palm Sunday, a marvelous anthology of non-fiction pieces. Plus, there is that copy of Deadeye Dick that he signed for me after our beers at Nick’s.

But maybe all you need is to be young at heart, and Vonnegut will speak to you again. I hope so. God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.

Labels: ,

Vonnegut Passes

Kurt Vonnegut, considered by many to be one of America's finest authors, died in New York City on April 11, of complications after a fall. He was 84 years old.

Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and about 17 others, was born in Indianapolis on November 11, 1922. The Los Angeles Times’ Elaine Woo has put together an affectionate and in-depth look at the literary giant:
An obscure science fiction writer for two decades before earning mainstream acclaim in 1969 with Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut was an American original, often compared to Mark Twain for a vision that combined social criticism, wildly black humor and a call to basic human decency. He was, novelist Jay MacInerny [sic] once said, “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion.”

Although he was disdained by some critics who thought his work was too popular and accessible, his fiction inspired volumes of scholarly comment as well as websites maintained by young fans who have helped keep all 14 of his novels in print over a 50-year career. Five of his novels have made the leap into films.
His last novel was 1997’s Timequake, a book that critics said was murky and odd and confusing, but mostly loved anyway. Valerie Sayers called it both of those things in The New York Times, then gave it some serious love:
Nearly 30 years later, Vonnegut is still making the pompous look silly and the decent and lovely look decent and lovely. His new so-called novel, “Timequake,” is, as Vonnegut describes it, a “stew.” He has taken the best pickings from a novel that wasn’t working and interspersed them with a running commentary on his own life and the state of the universe. The mix is thick and rich: a political novel that's not a novel, a memoir that is not inclined to reveal the most private details of the writer’s life.
The NYT review of Timequake is here. Elaine Woo’s LAT remembrance is here.

Labels: ,

Review: It’s In the Bag by Winifred Gallagher

Today, in January’s art & culture section, Tracy Quan examines It’s In the Bag by Winifred Gallagher:
Does carrying one of these grown-up security blankets make you a slave to fashion, or a more independent, mobile person? Gallagher engages sociologists, historians and, of course, bag designers, and comes up with some remarkable answers. Fashion historian Valerie Steele thinks women with multiple bags are practicing a form of serial monogamy, while a shoe collection is more like “a harem.” Steele sums it up as “affairs versus marriage.” In other words, shoe collectors are sexual tomboys, while handbag lovers embody feminine virtue. If your harem, like mine, consists of handbags, you might, as I did, take exception to these roles.
Quan’s review is here.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Review: Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, James R. Winter reviews Red Cat by Peter Spiegelman.
Spiegelman strips the layers off even his most minor characters and reveals them to be something more than they appear at first to be. Initial impressions here serve only to misdirect the reader.

Kind of like real life, though much more exciting.

And unsettling.
Winter’s review is here.

Labels: , ,

Beam Me Up, China

Like a lot of people, I just can’t get enough of China Miéville, so when I heard that The Bat Segundo Show had added a podcast interview with the author, I beamed on over. It was worth the ’Net sweat. From the podcast:
When we say “world-building,” we tend to think of that D&D-esque kind, which is not a diss incidentally. It’s just a description. It’s sort of a consolidation between the geography and the history and the culture and so on before writing the story. At that’s one way of doing it. But then there are others, which are less rigid, less to do with internal coherence, in the same way. So in terms of something like Un Lun Dun or some of the short stories or even King Rat, and the book I’m working on [at] the moment as well, it’s less to do with having a coherent back-narrative and more to do with having a coherent moral and emotional feeling.
Ed Rants and The Bat Segundo Show have also just published podcast interviews with Ellen Klages, Arlene Goldbard and Ken Alder. You can catch up with all of them -- and more -- here. And if you want even more of Miéville, here’s Andi Shechter’s January Magazine review of Un Lun Dun from back in March.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Lest They Forget

I must have read Mark Mathabane’s moving autobiography, Kaffir Boy, pretty close to the time it was first published in the mid-1980s. I remember the quiet power of this book and the way I felt resonations from it months -- maybe even years -- after I’d read it. Mathabane’s book did not leave me untouched.

A couple of decades later and so much has changed. For one thing, Kaffir Boy is based in South Africa and centered around Apartheid and, of course, Apartheid is no more. That doesn’t detract from the power of this book, however, even if it is pleasing to realize that many of the horrors Mathabane wrote about are history. After all, we still read books about the Holocaust, decades after the Second World War. We still read Anne Frank. And we’ve come to read Maus. And so many more. It’s good for us -- healthy -- to remember all of the things humans are capable of: the bad as well as the good. Literature can deliver this in a way that is arguably more personal and immediate than any other medium. Read Kaffir Boy now and -- for a few hours -- the intervening decades may as well not have happened. You share in Mathabane’s confusion and degradation and pain and -- ultimately -- you are part of his triumph. It’s a singularly worthwhile book. Shocking. Horrifying. Uplifting. And, when all is said and done, important.

Some parents in Burlingame, California don’t agree. Kaffir Boy has recently been pulled from the school library and removed from the high school curriculum.

“Part of the reason we felt it was appropriate,” Principal Ted Barone told the San Mateo Daily Journal, “was that kids today see violence through movies, video games and books. There’s so much violence and sexual violence, even in newspapers. We felt it was important because it gets so dehumanized. This is very humanized. You come to love this guy, the main character, it makes it like your best friend went through it.”

But more than a few parents of Burlingame higher schoolers did not agree. Though, in fairness, the Burlingame school system isn’t the only one to wonder if Kaffir Boy is suitable reading for young adults. Mathabane’s book has been on the ALA’s most banned list for many years.

You can read the San Mateo Daily Journal’s piece here.


Come Together!

Get ready: National Library Week is zooming up quickly: April 15th to 21st. Galvanize your reading community with materials and information from the ALA Web site.

And, just as the festivities get going, remember that the 17th is National Library Workers Day. Library workers shouldn’t get too excited, though. After all, they won’t be getting the day off, will they? Not with all those National Library Week events to look after! Seriously, though, if you have a favorite library worker, scurry on over and “submit a star.”

Thursday, April 05, 2007

P.I.s and Gondolas

Sometimes, the expansive world of the Internet only serves to illustrate how small the world really is. While reading an architecture listerv I subscribe to, I came across this selection of books about Venice, Italy. I looked it over a couple of times before I realized the author was none other than Sharon Zukowski.

Zukowski, the creator of the Blaine Stewart private-eye series, hasn’t been heard from in crime-fiction circles for 10 years (since the publication of Jungleland). Her books were among the most underrated in the subgenre containing women detective protagonists, and among the first to explore Wall Street as an active setting for mystery fiction.

Zukowski is also an intrepid traveler, and further poking around took me to her Web site and to her blog. Weird Venice is where you can find Zukowski's musings about and around the City of Light.

Another entry in the Blaine Stewart series would be nice. Until then, though, we can enjoy Weird Venice.

(Hat tip to the Traditional Architecture Listserv.)

Review: Magic City by James W. Hall

Today, in January’s crime fiction section, Stephen Miller looks at Magic City by James W. Hall. Says Miller:
... to call Magic City a yarn about the chase for a single photo is to simplify it to the point of caricature. Hall layers so much more into this novel: Miami social history during the time of the heavyweight fight; the boiling passions of the exiled Cuban community that took root in Miami (and is still largely there, anxiously awaiting Fidel Castro’s death); the mobsters who reigned in 20th-century Miami and nearly made Havana their next home base; and CIA operatives who were barely wet behind the ears during the Bay of Pigs invasion and are still, four decades later, awaiting their turn at claiming the ever-elusive glory that would have been theirs if not for their own tragic incompetence.
Read Miller’s review here.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Dibdin’s Short Finish

The sad news coming out of Seattle, Washington, today is that Michael Dibdin, the 60-year-old author of an award-winning series starring Venetian detective Aurelio Zen (Back to Bologna) died there last Friday, March 30, after what Britain’s Telegraph says was “a short illness.”

Of both generous size and tone, the Telegraph’s obituary of Dibdin, who was born in Wolverhampton, England, in March 1947, but has lived in the United States since the early ’90s, is the best one I’ve seen yet. As it explains:
Dibdin combined a flair for complex plotting and biting characterisation with a mastery of satire and the surreal.

In all he produced 16 novels, 11 of them featuring Zen, and his work was translated into 18 languages. With popular success came critical acclaim: “During the Nineties,” noted the legal commentator Marcel Berlins, “no writer of crime fiction attracted as much praise, and gave as much enjoyment, as Michael Dibdin.”

His trademark was the multi-layered literary whodunnit, couched in prose that his contemporary
Val McDermid described as “limpid and extraordinary”; another admirer concluded that Dibdin remained “one of an elite cadre of crime fiction writers for whom literary critics break out all of their favourite adjectives”.

Dibdin deliberately tapped into British middle-class fantasies in the
Aurelio Zen series. The appeal of the books lay partly in his decision to set each one in a different part of Italy (starting in the beautiful medieval city of Perugia), but also in the character of Zen himself: Dibdin invented him as an outsider, coming to Perugia as a stranger, much as Didbin himself had done when he arrived to teach English at the university there in the late 1970s.

Aurelio Zen’s initials offered a clue to his creator’s methods and motives; in the course of the series, Dibdin pieced together an A to Z of contemporary Italy, a composite of finely-drawn observations about the country and its people. The picture he painted, however, was no rose-tinted idyll: his tenth Zen mystery,
Back to Bologna (2005), opened with a football club tycoon slumped dead over the wheel of his Audi, a bullet in his brain and a Parmesan cheese knife rammed through his chest.

Dibdin was an outsized figure with outsized traits and appetites; he had a fondness for fine food and drink, and liked to sport a Panama hat (“he embraces excess”, one observer wrote). Although in person he was private and shy, his books were larded with sex and violence--“two of the things we can do,” Dibdin noted, “which were not possible for earlier generations [of writers], so there’s an understandable tendency to want to take it to the max”.

Although his plots were convoluted (“as tangled as a dish of spag bol,” as one reviewer put it), Dibdin was a thoughtful exponent of crime fiction with a literary cast, specialising in unsympathetic heroes (someone noted that Aurelio Zen is not a man with whom one would want to be marooned in a gondola), and he took an academic interest in the history of the genre.

As for politics, Dibdin was careful not to taint his narratives with an identifiable ideology, but he believed that a wider political lens was not only essential to telling criminal tales but also unavoidable. He admired
Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom were Left-leaning and disturbed by the corruption and abuses they saw in the society they wrote about. Like them, Dibdin shunned an overt political agenda in his books. “They exposed problems,” Dibdin said of them, “they didn’t propose solutions.”
The Telegraph piece goes on to quote Dibdin on the reason he devoted his novel-writing career to crime fiction: “The mainstream has lost its way. Crime fiction is an objective, realistic genre because it’s about the real world, real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lived in.”

Dibdin’s first published novel, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, was The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978). It was followed 10 years later by Ratking, the first of his Commissario Zen crime novels, which won the Macallan Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award. “Other books in this series,” The Telegraph notes, “include two of his best titles, Cabal (1992), which was awarded the French Grand Prix du Roman Policier, and Dead Lagoon (1994). Cosi Fan Tutti (1996), a brutal exposé of Italian organised crime and a brilliantly funny pastiche of Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera buffa, was followed by A Long Finish (1998) and Blood Rain (1999), in which Zen faced death at the hands of the Sicilian Mafia.” In addition to his Italian series, Dibdin wrote standalones such as Dark Spectre (1995), which was set in an American town traumatized by an apparently random set of killings, and Thanksgiving (2000), about a journalist fixated on the recent death of his wife.

Back to Bologna was Dibdin’s most recent title, but he has an 11th (and probably last) Zen novel, End Games, due out in the UK in July and in the States in November.

I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Dibdin only once, shortly after the publication in 1997 of The Vintage Book of Classic Crime, a rather curious literary sampler he’d edited. He was by then living in rainy Seattle, after meeting (at a 1993 writers’ conference in Spain) and then marrying local mystery author Kathrine Beck (aka K.K. Beck). I found Dibdin to be a bit gruff at first, delivering clipped responses that he evidently believed would be quite sufficient for an interviewer with no more than passing interest in crime fiction. After we’d spent a good while talking about his work and the genre at a coffee shop in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square district, though, he realized that I was no general assignment reporter, but instead had a longtime interest in the very variety of story to which he had devoted himself. We then carried on for another hour or so, exchanging the names of favorite recent books and talking about some of the acknowledged giants and lesser-known stars of this genre, many of whose work figured into his Vintage collection. We promised to get together again someday, but never did.

My January Magazine colleague Linda L. Richards had a similar experience when she sat down to interview him in 1999. In the resulting article, she wrote:
In person Michael Dibdin’s warmth is not immediately apparent. There is, at first, almost a shyness to our exchange: perhaps a caution. This is the slightly self-protective, intensely private Dibdin who--when he married Seattle writer and single mom Kathrine Beck ...--acquired the house next door to hers in order to have a peaceful nest where he could spin his yarns.Dibdin does warm, though. He has the sort of passion for his work and his genre that doesn’t allow distance in discussion that he finds interesting. Before long, his self-protection is abandoned and his eyes sparkle with interest and intelligence as he discusses his work and his passions.
Regrettably, such encounters are now no longer possible.

Blogger-mystery maven Sarah Weinman remarks that Dibdin’s demise is a “huge blow to the crime fiction world and to literature at large.” I’m sure that much more will be expressed about Dibdin’s loss in days to come. He demonstrated crime fiction’s potential for making sense of the world, at the same as it entertains. Can literature expect to do any more than that?