Thursday, May 31, 2007

“Subversive, Eclectic and Sometimes a Bit Vulgar”

Today Gothamist’s Ben Kharakh offers up an interview with occasional January Magazine contributor Tracy Quan (Diary of A Married Call Girl). As always, Quan is articulate, erudite and an absolute delight. At one point Kharakh asks about Quan’s reading habits when she was growing up:
My tastes were all over the place. I read Black Power tracts by Stokely Carmichael, and I read as much sexual advice as I could find, but I also enjoyed all the normal kid stuff: Pippi Longstocking, Babar, Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, and The Borrowers. I loved popular entertainment, and rejected the literary snob thing early on. When I was 12, my step dad noticed that I was reading a YA novel with a rather frivolous theme. He lectured me about having the stereotypical reading habits of a “jeune fille.” I remember thinking, “That’s what I am, you idiot.” I was always, deep down, a girly girl and I loved gossipy books that were written for adolescent girls. I was a total omnivore and still am.
You can read the interview here.

Also today in Gothamist, a short item on first lady Laura Bush’s announcement of funding for school libraries:
The first lady, a former school librarian, announced a $1.3 million grant from the Laura Bush Foundation for school libraries across the country to update their book collections. Twenty-eight schools in the city will get grants up to $5,000, including the the Island School on East Houston.
This is good news, for sure. But the Quan interview is a lot more fun.

Review: Land of Lincoln by Andrew Ferguson

Today, in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Stephen Miller looks at Land of Lincoln by Andrew Ferguson. Miller says:
Abraham Lincoln has been dead and buried for over 140 years, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of folks from thinking about him -- a lot. That's the central theme of Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, an exploration of Lincoln’s presence in modern American culture. It’s a marvelous addition to anyone’s summer reading list.
Read the full review here.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review: De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, M. Wayne Cunningham reviews De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage. Says Cunningham:
Set mostly in the Beirut of civil war Lebanon in the 1980s, the dark, fast paced story involves two long-time youthful friends, Bassam and George, the latter assuming the persona of the Russian roulette playing Robert De Niro of The Deer Hunter. With time on their hands, mayhem on their minds, a motorcycle for transport and a willingness to kill, they roar around the ravaged city, “aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath and long American jeans.”
Read the full review here.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Split Decisions

I’ve commented infrequently in The Rap Sheet, January Magazine’s crime-fiction blog, on the habit of unknowing or cost-cutting book designers reusing the photographs employed previously on the covers of other volumes for their own new work. However, there seems to be an even more ubiquitous trend hitting publishing houses of late: what we might call “split covers.” These are book jackets that use not just one photograph, but two, often separated by titles and author names. Start paying attention, and see just how many of these split covers you spot while traipsing through bookstore aisles.

I can’t decide whether the proliferation of these divided fronts is due to the inability of their designers to choose between a couple of evocative shots, or because they’re simply trying too hard to attract every conceivable reader with their imagery. But in any case, there’s an abundance of these split covers decorating the mystery and crime-fiction shelves.

(And no, you’re not imagining that the jackets from Charlie Huston’s Already Dead and Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open bear a remarkable similarity. This is indicative of designers resorting to the use of cheaper stock photos.)

The same design concept has been adopted by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, which is beginning to reissue Ross Macdonald’s 18 novels featuring Los Angeles private eye Lew Archer, beginning with The Way Some People Die (1951) and The Ivory Grin (1952):

A number of fiction works, both hardcover and paperback, have been dressed up with divided jackets:

However, this trend is by no means confined to the fiction racks. I’ve found even more examples of it elsewhere in bookstores:

What’s the likelihood that pointing out these duplicative designs is going to propel art directors and publishers to pursue any different creative direction than they’re already following? Not great; somebody, somewhere has undoubtedly determined that split covers sell, which is why we see so damn many of them. And isn’t imitation supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, anyway?

On the other hand, how many of these divided book covers can there be on shelves and end caps before buyers stop being able to tell them apart easily? Once marketing departments get wind of that trouble, you can bet we’ll be on to the next book cover design trend fast.


Book Burner Inspires Young Librarian

Yesterday’s piece on the wiseacre book-burning used bookstore owner from Missouri prompted one young reader to take action.

Nathan Kim, a grade 11 student from Indiana wrote to ask if we knew how to contact Tom Wayne, the Kansas City book burner. “I am in the process of creating a school library,” Kim said. “We are starting to grow, but we always need books. Seeing as there is no need for his books, I thought that he would not object to donating/supplying our school with these books that he has gathered.”

Kim pointed out that sooner would be better than later, if for no other reason than to save the threatened books. “I think that the school would prefer actual books rather than burnt ones.”

I replied to Kim, asking his permission to reprint his comments. And he agreed. I figure that, by their very nature, book lovers tend to be a generous lot. If you want to get in touch with Kim to help get his fledgling library started, e-mail me and I’ll see he gets your note.

Review: Ladykiller by Meredith Anthony and Lawrence Light

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Anthony Rainone reviews Ladykiller by Meredith Anthony and Lawrence Light. Rainone says:
Given the sophistication of the material, the dark humor, complex characters and the chockfull-of-crime happenings in Ladykiller, Meredith and Light could become the crime-fiction-writing equivalent of Nick and Nora Charles. This is a confident and accomplished debut.
The complete review is here.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Man Burns Books to Protest Dropping Literacy

In one of those moves so twisted it makes your brain sweat just thinking about it, Tom Wayne, a Kansas City, Missouri bookstore owner, has been setting fire to his stock in order to protest what he sees as society’s diminished interest in books and reading. According to AP:
“This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today,” Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

The fire blazed for about 50 minutes before the Kansas City Fire Department put it out because Wayne didn't have a permit for burning.

Wayne said next time he will get a permit. He said he envisions monthly bonfires until his supply -- estimated at 20,000 books -- is exhausted.
Does anyone else think this is just twisted? At least a little like a restaurateur protesting slow business by dumping food into the gutter, or a liquor store owner pouring booze down the drain. Can you imagine if Wal-Mart tried this particular tactic? Home Depot? Bloomingdale’s? But they don’t. And why not? Because it’s counterproductive, counterintuitive and -- I’ll just say it -- plain goofy.
Wayne said he has seen fewer customers in recent years as people more often get their information from television or the Internet. He pointed to a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, that found that less than half of adult respondents reported reading for pleasure, down from almost 57 percent in 1982.

OK, so let's get this straight. Wayne is suggesting business is down? That fewer people are venturing to his store in order to buy books? That fewer people are reading? And his response is to... destroy his stock? Maybe if he read the marketing books in his store instead of burning them, he could buy a clue that burning inventory is not a textbook response to a changing business environment.

Meanwhile, some customers are responding to the blaze with their pocketbooks:
The idea of burning the books horrified Marcia Trayford, who paid $20 Sunday to carry away an armload of tomes on art, education and music.

“I’ve been trying to adopt as many books as I could,” she said.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Literary Lunch Menu

Since giving up smoking last week, food is always on my mind. And, as one who enjoys the literary lunch and the literary dinner, I was amused to read about a strange book featuring literary menus. Mark Crick’s Kafka’s Soup was published by Libri last year in the UK, but is now making big waves internationally for this small and independent British publisher.

When Kafka’s Soup was released last year, The Telegraph reported:
It was chronic asthma that turned Mark Crick into a gourmet bookworm. “Because I couldn’t eat much as a child, food became a source of enormous fascination -- and also frustration,” he says. “I would get halfway through a bowl of cornflakes and start wheezing so much that I couldn’t carry on, so I would go up to my room and read.”

Now, aged 42, he has combined his love of reading and cooking in Kafka’s Soup, a book of recipes recounted as if famous authors had written them. Jane Austen gives tips on tarragon eggs; Harold Pinter on cheese on toast. Homer gives a stunning oration about making rabbit stew and Geoffrey Chaucer rattles off a medieval recipe for a sweet onion tart.
“I hate celebrity cookbooks -- they’re really boring,” says Crick. “But I thought of what you could do if you had a huge budget and a time machine and could use any author or artist in history.” Illustrating the recipes are Picasso, Matisse and Warhol pictures -- all painted by Crick.
Irvine Welsh’s recipe for a chocolate cake was chosen, says Crick, because “people become terribly selfish when there’s chocolate cake around, just as they do with drugs. It’s the closest many get to taking heroin.”
The Independent reports that this little book has now has become an international sensation and is now taking the U.S. by storm in a culinary sort of way:
After garnering a handful of good reviews in the UK press, the book was picked up by Waterstone’s and, over the following year, acquired a cult following by word of mouth. A small theatre company in the West Country even began using the recipes as audition pieces. Then, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, foreign publishers began bidding briskly for the rights. Since then, it has been published in 23 countries and translated into 18 languages. When the book was published in Croatia, it knocked The Da Vinci Code off the No. 1 spot in the bestseller lists.
Harcourt snapped up the U.S. rights, and on its appearance there before Christmas the New York Observer’s books editor left Thomas Pynchon’s indigestible Against the Day on the side of his plate and turned with relief to this “scrumptious pastiche for the well-read cook.” The New York Times reprinted the Raymond Chandler recipe, while the Detroit Free Press bizarrely named it one of its “10 best spiritual books of 2006.”
In the course of its travels, Kafka's Soup has gained two more recipes: Rösti à la Thomas Mann for the German edition, and Moules Marinières à la Italo Calvino for the Italian. Both are included in the French edition. They will be also appear in the UK paperback, which will be published by Granta Books in November, along with a new recipe à la Charles Dickens.

It may seem strange that a book whose appeal rests so heavily on the accurate mimicry of style should do so well in translation. But the concept seems to have an international appeal, and Crick has been served well by his translators. And, as he points out, the reverential literary culture of many continental European nations means that they turn to the English “as a force of eccentricity and creativity.
Being a crime-fiction and thriller aficionado, I’ll try this recipe tonight:

Lamb with Dill Sauce à la Raymond Chandler

1kg lean leg of lamb, cut into large chunks
1 onion, sliced1 carrot, cut into sticks
1 tablespoon crushed dill seeds, or 3-4 sprigs fresh dill
1 bay leaf
12 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
850ml chicken stock
50g butter
1 tablespoon plain flour
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper

I took hold of the joint. It felt cold and damp, like a coroner’s handshake. I took out a knife and cut the lamb into pieces. Feeling the blade in my hand I sliced an onion, and before I knew what I was doing a carrot lay in pieces on the slab. None of them moved. ... They had it coming to them.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Party On!

Back on Monday, we let you know about the first anniversary celebration taking place over at The Rap Sheet. Editor J. Kingston Pierce told us they had asked “more than 100 novelists, critics and book bloggers -- running the gamut from Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin, Michael Marshall, Rhys Bowen, Peter Temple and Zoë Sharp, to Lee Child, Gary Phillips, Sarah Weinman, Barry Eisler, Sara Paretsky and Declan Hughes -- to answer one question: What one crime, mystery or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten or underappreciated over the years?”

As of this morning, the feature is up to nine installments. It’s been a terrific week that’s sent lots of crime fiction lovers running for their local bookstore.

This morning’s entry includes lost book picks from Karen G. Anderson, Linwood Barclay, Mark Coggins, Willetta L. Heising, John Lutz, Chris Mooney, Benjamin Potter, Mary Reed, Peter Robinson, Gerald So, Andrew Taylor and James Lincoln Warren.

I don't know if Pierce is planning on publishing some sort of master list once the festivities are complete. But, until such a thing appears, you can just visit The Rap Sheet and scroll and read until you’ve seen all nine installments.

Fenman’s Farewell to Readers

A few months back I wrote about Michael Allen -- aka blogger Grumpy Old Bookman -- releasing a free e-book in the form of a rather raunchy but thought-provoking crime novella called Lucius the Club.

Allen has a new e-book available in PDF format. And, since I rather enjoyed Lucius the Club, I was intirgued and asked the author to tell us more about his latest project:
Mr Fenman’s Farewell to His Readers is in two parts. The principal part of this short book (84 pages in printed form) is a brief memoir, written in 1836 by the long-forgotten English writer Thomas Fenman. This is preceded by my own introduction to the memoir, which sets it in context. And it is a rather mysterious work. Fenman himself assures us that every word of it is true, to the best of his recollection. And yet he himself admits that, if the world is ordered as we think it is, his account cannot be true. Fenman offers us various explanations of this state of affairs: that he is lying about certain details, perhaps; or that the story is complete fiction from start to finish; or that he is becoming senile; and so forth. But for the modern reader that is not, perhaps, the principal puzzle.
The most interesting question raised by Mr Fenman is this: who was the mysterious Madame de Mentou? She was, we know, the mature and sophisticated woman with whom the young Fenman became totally besotted -- or says that he did. But, whether she was real or a figment of Fenman’s imagination, who was she? Happily, you can read the book and form your own conclusion. And, insofar as there is any pleasure to be had in it, therein lies the reader’s interest and satisfaction. But, having read the book, and having resolved the mysteries in your own mind, you may wish to turn to an authoritative and erudite critic for a complete explanation.
The page on the Kingsfield Publication Web site dedicated to Allen’s new book clarifies things further:
Who was the mysterious Madame de Mentou? And how did she become such an expert teacher in many different art forms? These are the questions which the writer Thomas Fenman addresses in a brief memoir which was written a few months before his death. Fenman’s puzzling memoir is now published for the first time; Michael Allen provides a scholarly introduction.

Please be aware that a fascinating new interpretation of Mr Fenman’s memoir has recently been published in a review article by
Professor R. Gowan Haverges. This review appears in Underneath the Bunker, “Europe’s premier cultural journal.” Professor Haverges offers a fascinating hypothesis which explains many of the more puzzling aspects of Fenman’s work. It is suggested, however, that readers should delay reading Haverges’s elucidation until after they have read the memoir, in order to form their own opinions first.
You can see more from Allen himself at the Grumpy Old Bookman blog.

Review: Ibiza Style by Ingrid Rasmussen and Chloe Grimshaw

Today, in January Magazine’s art & culture section, contributing editor Aaron Blanton goes over the moon for Ibiza Style by Ingrid Rasmussen and Chloe Grimshaw. Blanton says:
Rasmussen and Grimshaw have succeeded brilliantly. I may be completely under their spell -- and though I detest a rave as much as a rant -- I simply can’t imagine the person who would not enjoy spending time with Ibiza Style, it so fulfils at every level. Those with a curiosity about Ibiza -- the would-be armchair traveler, for instance, or the reader who thinks they might like to journey there at some point themselves -- will enjoy the Rasmussen and Grimshaw’s casual insider glimpse. This is, after all, no one’s idea of a travel guide. However, brilliant color photos and well-crafted text give us a very solid look into how Ibiza lives now.
The complete review is here.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Byte-Sized Books

This feels like the e-book reimagined. This feels right. From Reuters:
A new Web site is offering to send classic books in bite-size installments to your handheld device or e-mail every morning before you go to work, or whenever you want, for free.
Daily Lit sends excerpts intended to be read in five minutes or less. At that rate, it’ll take a while to get through a book. Reuters tells us that, “Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days comes in 82 parts while Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina could take nearly two years of working days to read at 430 parts.”

A long time, yes. But it’ll get the job done. The free part is fun, but savvy readers will have guessed the price can only go up.
Since the books are out of copyright the company can offer them for free, but it plans to expand and start charging a fee for newer titles licensed by major publishers within four or five weeks. The e-mails are free of advertising and the revenue model will depend on fees, sharing revenues with publishers.
DailyLit told Reuters that, though the site’s official launch was in May, they’d been operating in beta for a few months and Daily Lit cofounder, Albert Wenger, said that, thus far 50,000 people had signed up. Wenger’s partner, Susan Danziger, said:

“Publishers like it because it’s a new format they haven’t yet exploited,” she said, adding that she was in talks with publishers about releasing advance installments of new books before publication date that would help market the titles.

It sounds like one of those terrific win-win-wins where everyone ends up happy and the world gets turned on to more books. I like the sound of it. We’ll be watching this one closely over the coming months.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Review: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum looks at Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. Says Buchsbaum:
At the mere mention of a new novel by Michael Ondaatje, there is what feels like a spontaneous frisson in the literary community. A rolling, whispered excitement about where he will take us, what he will reveal about us.
The complete review is here.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Books Just Wanna Have Fun

Mark Haskell Smith, the self-styled dean of “tropical noir,” has honed the recipe for writing a beach book. In an interview with the AP’s Tim Malloy, Smith hones the sub-genre to its finest point:
“When you’re on vacation you’ll drink a mai tai or a pina colada, and normally you wouldn’t,” he says.

“You drink it because it’s slightly exotic, it’s got a little umbrella, it’s kind of sexy, it’s in a funny-shaped mug. It’s sweet, and yet it packs a sneaky punch. And that’s what a good beach read has.”

A lot of metaphors from the Los Angeles writer involve drinks, or food, or other guilty pleasures. It comes with his literary territory.
Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising from a writer whose books have titles like Moist, Delicious and, most recently, Salty.

If Smith’s titles are just a little bit ... different, many would find his writing advice even more so:
“With any novel you need to have a compelling character, a vivid setting, and you want to make a page-turner,” Smith says. “But if you talk about a beach read, you need a book that’s really got an element of fun. Because people are going to choose between parasailing and scuba diving and sitting on their butt reading your book.

“The Great Gatsby is a great novel but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a fun novel,” he adds. “And I unabashedly try to make my books fun to read, ‘cause then I have fun writing them.”
The full article is here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

One of a Kind

Tomorrow, May 22, will mark not only the birthdays of novelist Arthur Conan Doyle and comic-book creator Hergé, but also the first birthday of The Rap Sheet, January Magazine’s sister blog, a popular resource for crime-fiction fans. To celebrate, we’ve asked more than 100 novelists, critics and book bloggers--running the gamut from Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin, Michael Marshall, Rhys Bowen, Peter Temple and Zoë Sharp, to Lee Child, Gary Phillips, Sarah Weinman, Barry Eisler, Sara Paretsky and Declan Hughes--to answer one question: What one crime, mystery or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten or underappreciated over the years?

Most of the works selected are familiar; others are out of print, but apparently worth tracking down. The Rap Sheet will be rolling out these nominations over the rest of this week.

The only downside to this birthday project is that it may cause you to add a lot more books to your to-be-read pile.

Read the first installment of The Rap Sheet’s commemorative “one book project” here.

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Waterstone’s Selects Authors to Watch

Waterstone’s, a leading British book chain, has announced its list of the top 25 new talents in the field of fiction. I am very pleased to see genre fiction represented by Nick Stone, Louise Welch, Richard Morgan and Chris Simms, all of whom are big favorites of mine.

Publishers, editors and agents were asked to nominate the current and emerging authors most likely to make an impact over the next 25 years. More than 100 names were submitted. Waterstone’s selected the final list of 13 women and 12 men, drawn up to mark the bookseller’s 25 years in business.

So who are the top 25? Drum roll, please (and in alphabetical order):

Naomi Alderman
Her first novel, Disobedience, was set in north London’s Orthodox Jewish community. She lives in Hendon.

Susanna Clarke
After 10 years of writing, her 800-page debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She lives in Cambridge.

Siobhan Dowd
Dowd based her novel, Swift Pure Cry, on the unsolved “Kerry Babies” murders and the death of schoolgirl Ann Lovett, both in her native Ireland. She currently lives in Oxford.

Jasper Fforde
The former film industry worker received 76 rejection letters before finding a publisher for his debut, The Eyre Affair. He lives in Wales.

Julia Golding
Golding has won the Nestle Children’s Book Prize and the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize for her stories about feisty heroine Cat Royal. She lives in Oxford.

Emily Gravett
Gravett writes and illustrates picture books for children, including Wolves, Orange Pear Apple Bear and Meerkat Mail. She lives in Brighton.

Jane Harris
A former writer-in-residence at HM Prison Durham, Harris has written several award-winning short films and short stories, in addition to her first novel, The Observations. She lives in London.

Steven Hall
Hall’s debut novel was The Raw Shark Texts. Film rights have been optioned and the book has been sold to 20 international publishers. He lives in Hull.

Peter Hobbs
His first book, The Short Day Dying, was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and was notable for containing almost no punctuation. He lives in London.

Marina Lewycka
The 61-year-old Ukrainian was born in a refugee camp in Germany. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian has been translated into more than 30 languages, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been on bestseller lists for almost a year in paperback. She lives in Sheffield.

Gautam Malkani
The Cambridge graduate and Financial Times journalist divided opinion with his debut, Londonstani, which chronicled the lives of British Asians in Hounslow, west London, and was written in rudeboy patois. He lives in London.

Robert Macfarlane

His first book, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, was born out of Macfarlane’s passion for mountaineering. He lives in Cambridge.

Charlotte Mendelson
Her second novel, Daughters of Jerusalem, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. Her latest, When We Were Bad, was published this month. She lives in London.

Jon McGregor
His debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, made him the youngest contender for the 2002 Man Booker Prize longlist. He lives in Nottingham.

Richard Morgan
A former tutor at Strathclyde University. Two of Morgan’s novels, Altered Carbon and Market Forces, have been optioned by Hollywood studios. He also wrote the Black Widow comic book series for Marvel. He lives in Glasgow.

Maggie O’Farrell
Her debut, After You’d Gone, won a Betty Trask Award and was followed by the bestsellers My Lover’s Lover, The Distance Between Us and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. She lives in Edinburgh.

Helen Oyeyemi
Nigerian-born Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl while still at school. It was shortlisted for a British Book Award, has been published in 18 countries and has been adapted for the stage. The Cambridge graduate recently won a creative writing fellowship from Columbia University.

Jo Pratt
The food stylist and home economist began her career working behind the scenes for Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsay. She is now a regular on TV cookery shows. Her first book, The Nation’s Favourite Food, was published in 2003. She lives in London.

Dominic Sandbrook
Sandbrook is a member of the Oxford University history faculty. His first book, a biography of U.S. politician Eugene McCarthy, was followed by Never Had It So Good, a history of postwar Britain. He lives in north Oxfordshire.

C.J. Sansom
Sansom gave up his career as a solicitor to become a fulltime author. He made his name writing historical crime novels featuring Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. He lives in Sussex.

Chris Simms
His first novel, Outside the White Lines, features a serial killer who stalks Britain’s motorways. Simms came up with the idea while stranded on the hard shoulder of the M40 on his way to his mother’s house for Christmas. He lives in Manchester.

Nick Stone
His father is historian Norman Stone and his mother descends from one of the oldest families in Haiti, the setting for his novel Mr. Clarinet. He lives in London.

Louise Welsh
The best-selling Scottish author of The Cutting Room and Tamburlaine Must Die won the Crime Writers’ Association Creasey Dagger Award in 2002. She is currently living in Germany.

Ben Wilson
The history graduate has published two non-fiction books, The Laughter of Triumph and Decency and Disorder. He also worked as a researcher and writer on David Starkey’s TV series Monarchy. He lives in Buckinghamshire.

Robyn Young
Young ran a nightclub and worked in a building society before publishing historical novel Brethren, the first in a trilogy. The second installment, Crusade, will be out later this year. She lives in Brighton.

The BBC reports on the list here, while The Times Online does so here.

Good-bye to an Editor from My Childhood

Before the irritating Harry Potter became ubiquitous in youth literature, there was an influential British editor called Margaret Clark who shaped some of my juvenile reading. I’m sad to report Margaret Clark passed away last month. According to The Guardian:

Margaret Clark, who has died following a brain tumour aged 80, was one of a distinguished band of children’s book editors who were responsible for changing the profile of children’s book publishing during the 1970s and 80s. They were passionate about the quality of the books themselves and about reaching more readers by publishing a wider range of fiction and picture books which reflected the changing experiences and expectations of contemporary children.
The Guardian’s obituary is here.

Some of us still remember the publishing houses that became imprints when larger conglomerates gobbled them up. One of these was Bodley Head where Clark found herself as a senior editor. I recall reading her “new adults” series which included work by Aidan Chambers -- who I remember reading avidly along with Paul Zindel’s The Pigman.

The Times reports:

Like all the Bodley Head books of these years before the firm’s absorption into the Random House conglomerate, Clark’s were helped towards distinction by the genius of the production director, John Ryder, and it is matter for regret that many of the books whose publication she oversaw have not survived the current fashions.

Lucy Boston, whose later work she edited, paid tribute to her skills in her memoir Memory in a House (1973) and these are seen most notably in her cultivated regard for poetry, conspicuous in her editing of David Mackay’s A Flock of Words (1969) and of the Bodley Head Poets series (1964-72) – great poetry selected by eminent and sympathetic modern writers.

Clark was also foremost among British editors in seeking to cater for a teenage readership through the Bodley Head’s “New Adults” series of fiction, following and sometimes, as with Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, adopting texts from the already busy exploitation of the genre in the US. (An influential British “first” came with Breaktime (1978) by Aidan Chambers.)

In 1980, Clark became the chief of the Bodley Head’s children’s division, and even after her retirement in 1988 she continued with what was more or less a lifetime’s preoccupation with children’s literature.
The Times piece is here.

Margaret Clark was born September 19, 1926 and died April 25, 2007. I celebrate her contribution to my early reading habits. Her efforts still linger in my memory.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Street Adds Book Reviews

The serious reduction in column inches devoted to book reviews in a number of mainstream United States newspapers has been wreaking havoc wherever the conversation turns to books. January recently discussed the unfortunate trend here and here.

But you’ve just gotta love The Street for actually stepping up and doing something. Here’s how Marek Fuchs opens the first installment of “Maven Takes on Business Books”:
Trying to outrun their financial demons, newspapers have been trimming -- or altogether eliminating -- book reviews. As far as investors go, these cutbacks may have limited impact because those dearly departed reviews never looked at books through their eyes anyhow.
In a new column special to The Street, Fuchs will look at books that might be of interest to the publication’s very targeted readership:
Whether an investment advice book, a business leader’s biography, a history tome on a particular Wall Street era or even a financial thriller, a book can either add to or detract from an investor's basic understanding of high finance.
Those preparing to flog a book that falls into one of those categories will want to take note. Fuchs wants to know about your book:
A quick housekeeping note: Authors, readers and even those famously lazy flacks in book publishing, feel free to drop me notes, letting me know of upcoming books.
The Street’s
new column, datelined May 19, is here.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Review: Hal Spacejock #3: Just Desserts by Simon Haynes

Today, in January Magazine’s science fiction and fantasy section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski looks at the third novel in the Hal Spacejock series. Says Bursztynski:
This is the third in what is likely to be a long-lasting series. At least, at the front of Just Desserts, author Simon Haynes says there will be about 15 volumes in the saga, or until someone takes away his keyboard. As this keyboard theft seems unlikely to happen in the near future, fans of the series should have plenty more Hal adventures to anticipate.
The full review is here.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hagar Goes Hollywood

How did I miss this?
Director Kari Skogland takes the reins for a Buffalo Gals Pictures production starring Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn as author Margaret Laurence’s much lauded heroine Hagar Shipley.
The Hollywood Reporter called Skogland “one of the 10 directors to watch” in 2002, after the release of Liberty Stands Still, a film the Winnipeg-based filmmaker wrote and directed.

Even if Skogland weren’t quite so highly recommended, or Burstyn quite so esteemed, I’d still be on the edge of my seat for a film re-telling of The Stone Angel, one of my favorite books ev-ah.

IMDB says the film is complete and the Telefilm Canada Web site says The Stone Angel will be distributed by Alliance Atlantis, but it doesn’t tell us when. Expect more details as they become available.

Gone With the Wind S’more

The New York Times’ Motoko Rich reports that what had begun to seem like an impossible task is finally about to happen:
It’s taken 12 years, three authors and one rejected manuscript, but tomorrow will be another day when “Rhett Butler’s People,” the second sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” is published this fall.
To those of us standing in the sidelines, the whole GWtW sequel business seems kinda ... well ... cursed. First, poor Ms. Mitchell (pictured at left) died in 1949 before anyone could convince her to write the sequel herself. (Remember that even The Eagles said they’d never reunite. Then hell froze over.)

Alexandra Ripley’s 1991 sequel, Scarlett, was a huge bestseller, though, as the NYT tells it, Scarlett has “sold more than six million copies to date worldwide — but suffered a critical drubbing.”

In 1995, the Mitchell estate got the smartypants idea to commission Emma Tennant, the British novelist who had written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice to do the same for Mitchell’s beloved and Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

When Tennant’s manuscript was turned in, the powers that be decided the book was, according to The Times, “too British in sensibility.” You hafta laff, right? I mean, why would anyone think that the GWtW sequel written by the London born daughter of the second Baron Glenconner and Elizabeth Lady Glenconner, who was educated at St Paul’s Girls school and whose best work reinvigorated several British classics, why would this writer create a book that was, ummm, kinda British in tone?

Anyway, there’s more of this sort of thing in Rich’s piece. (Actually, a fair amount more.) And The Times covers it all, blow by blow, leading up to the current pick, Donald McCaig, “a former advertising copywriter turned Virginia sheep farmer who has written well-reviewed novels about the Civil War.”

But Rhett Butler’s People isn’t actually any kind of sequel. It is, rather, a kind of extended retelling of Mitchell’s original story. This time, however, from the viewpoint of Rhett Butler. Says The Times:
The book, at a little over 400 pages, will be a slip of a novel compared with the original, which ran more than a thousand pages. “Rhett Butler’s People” covers the period from 1843 to 1874, nearly two decades more than are chronicled in “Gone With the Wind.” Readers will learn more about Rhett Butler’s childhood on a rice plantation; his relationship with Belle Watling, the brothel madam; and his experiences as a blockade runner in Charleston, S.C.
St. Martin’s Press will publish Rhett Butler’s People in November and, frankly my dears, we actually do give a damn.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

“Public Intellectual” Honored

Author, historian and publisher Alan Twigg has been awarded the 2007 Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship for the Humanities. As a result, Twigg is currently organizing a conference focusing on British Columbia’s book culture. It will be held at Simon Fraser University in September.

“I’m organizing Reckoning 07 as a way to put our literary wagons in a circle,” Twigg said recently. “We’ll be celebrating what we’ve collectively achieved in British Columbia, but also looking at some of the sobering aspects of our future as a community that includes booksellers, librarians and media personnel.”

Twigg has been a big part of that achievement. “Twigg works at the interface between literature and publishing,” says John Pierce, SFU’s dean or arts. “He is very much a public intellectual.”

As owner and publisher of BC Bookworld -- “Canadas largest circulation publication about books” -- Twigg has been at the center of the province’s vital and growing publishing industry for several decades. As well, Twigg is the author of 13 books, including Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide.

Twigg’s newest book, Full-time: A Private Investigation of Soccer, will be published next month.

Lethem Revives the Unknown Hero

The Associated Press tells us that Jonathan Lethem (You Don’t Love Me Yet, Motherless Brooklyn) was disappointed when comic-book hero Omega the Unknown disappeared without a trace. Now, some 30 years later and with a little help from Marvel Comics, Lethem is giving his old hero a hand back from oblivion. Says AP:
Lethem joins a growing list of novelists such as Stephen King and Michael Chabon, who have shifted to work on comic books as the medium gains critical and academic respect and becomes more mainstream.
I would venture that AP overstates itself here. With a talent and a track record like Lethem’s, I hardly think he’s “shifted to” comics as much as he’s embraced the idea of writing for the medium in addition to working on his books. (I hope so, anyway. I’m a huge fan.) In any case, Lethem found creating for the comics medium to be quite different from the type of writing he usually does:
“It was an interesting challenge,” Lethem said. “One of the things I concluded very quickly was that it’s not a written form. My primary task was to provide amazing things for artists to draw.”
And just in case you missed meeting Omega on his first pass in the mid-1970s, here’s a rundown on the character:
Omega’s not your average swashbuckling superhero. He’s mute, for starters, and has a sort of psychic connection with a 12-year-old named James-Michael Starling, who moved to New York City with his family from “the mountains” to improve socialization skills after years of home-schooling. Trouble ensues, of course, and he meets Omega, the last surviving member of an unnamed alien race.
The AP piece is here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Review: The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen examines The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee. Says Thiessen:
Happiness and dreams are not part of life’s plan for this immigrant family, and that’s part of the problem. If one looks continually backward when in a new place, how can she see where she is? The End of East should naturally become the beginning of West, but in the Chan family, this is never allowed to happen.

Lee is a sketch artist. ... I was frustrated because, without the details, I could never see the picture. It’s a measure of this young writer’s skill, however, that I wanted to. Because the mood and sense of place in this work are so strong, you feel the tragedy strongly.
The full review is here.

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The Man Who Dreamed the Curtain

The father of Oz, L. Frank Baum, was born on this day in 1856. His book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900 and illustrated by W. W. Denslow, has been one of the most enduring stories for children ever written. Though Baum wrote many (many, many!) other books, the first Oz book is the one that bought him immortality. Over the years, there have been hints--and sometimes more than hints--that there was a darker subtext to his best known work than might at first appear. From The Writer’s Almanac:
Baum was a socialist, and the Emerald City of Oz was his socialist utopia. He wrote, “There were no poor people in the land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler. Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use, which is as much as anyone may reasonably desire. Every one worked half the time and played half the time, and the people enjoyed the work as much as they did the play, because it is good to be occupied and to have something to do.”

Frank Baum wrote, “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

Baum died when he was 62, on May 6, 1919.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Review: Keep It Real by Bill Bryan

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor James R. Winter looks at Keep It Real by Bill Bryan. Says Winter:
Keep It Real is a scathing satire of the world of reality TV, thinly disguised as a crime novel. Every turn in this tale provides one more excuse to rip away at the façade of today's hottest programming genre. And no, author Bryan doesn't care if this offends The Donald. But if Roger Dominus is anything to judge by, Trump probably wants to buy the rights to, and then retitle the book Trump: The Parody.
Winter’s review is here.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Potter 7, Bookstores 0

Pottermania is returning. Call me a grumpy old man, but I can’t wait to see the back of this pesky and annoying schoolboy. So hope is at hand with Potter 7, the final installment of these odd and irritating books.

I have taken cursory glances at the Harry Potter books, and found J. K. Rowling’s work not to my taste. I also find the sight of adults reading these works on packed commuter trains bemusing, worrying and, contrary to popular opinion, I feel these books do more harm than good for the book trade. My opinion is shared by many in the world of publishing as The Sunday Telegraph explains:
It will be the biggest publishing event of the millennium so far. At midnight on July 20, pandemonium will engulf bookshops the length and breadth of Britain as cape-wearing kids with owls on their shoulders and scars on their foreheads fight to get their hands on the new Harry Potter book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of J.K. Rowling’s monstrously successful franchise about the boy wizard and his inquisitive chums, is on track to be the biggest pre-ordered book of all time. It is also expected to become the fastest selling book in history, smashing the record set by Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which sold 6.9m copies within 24 hours of being launched in 2005. With two and a half months to go, alone has received more than 1m pre-orders.
Potter 7, as Deathly Hallows is known in the trade, should provide a huge boost to book stores. After all, fat sales should equal fat profits. But Hogwarts is not the gold mine it might seem. Indeed, for all the hype and bluster, the book might as well be retitled Harry Potter and the Damp Squib as far as retailers’ profits are concerned. Due to rampant discounting, few shops selling the book, from Waterstone's to Tesco and Amazon down to small independents, will make any money. Most will break even and many will make a loss.
The only party that stands to make any money from Harry’s escapades is Bloomsbury, the books’ publisher, which is expected to make £7m of profit from the book this year.
I have never understood the mass hysteria of Pottermania, and find it very annoying. At the same time, I’m confused as to the appeal of Potter and company to adults.

My feeling is that many of these adult Potter readers probably only read these books, and rarely explore outside the letter ‘R’ in their bookstore shelves. The idea that the Pottermania creates a “footfall” of non-readers entering bookstores to me sounds like the hollow voice of desperation of an industry besieged by competition from DVD, Playstation, Internet and the pressures of modern life.

The Telegraph seems to agree:
Book insiders say that retailers persist at selling Potter so cheaply because it creates the perception that they are good value. They are also “obsessed” with gaining market share. Some booksellers have cast doubt on claims that the Potter "halo" leads to an increase in overall book sales. One even argues that the opposite is the case: Potter sales lead to a reduction in kids’ book sales as they cannibalise sales of other titles. “If you strip Harry Potter sales out of a so-called Harry Potter year, then the kids’ book market actually shows a decline in sales,” says one executive.

There are other Harry-related factors that could lead to headaches for book retailers this summer.
In keeping with previous practice, Bloomsbury will cap the amount of returns that it will accept from retailers at 10 per cent of their original order. This means that if greedy chains have ordered too many Potters, they are stuck with them. A knock on effect, and one that occurred in 2005, is that other publishers’ titles will be shunted aside as the retailers shift excess Potter stock.

So Potter 7 is being treated with a mixture of excitement and anxiety among book retailers. Excitement because the book will bring people flooding into their stores. But anxiety because retailers fear that the days of no-profit blockbusters could be here to stay.
Among small retailers, this anxiety is exacerbated by potential looming consolidation in the wholesale sector. However Trevor Bish-Jones, Woolworths’ chief executive and the man who wants to bring this consolidation about, is at pains to reassure booksellers that this is not the case. He says that far from raising prices to independent booksellers, he would like to reduce them if the deal goes through. “I want to offer indies the same price that we can offer supermarkets,” he says.

Such a move would level a very bumpy playing field. Whether that happens remains to be seen. One thing is clear though: for most retailers, Harry Potter is a decidedly mixed blessing.
The Telegraph piece is here.

Crazy for Coelho

Look for a very good interview with Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paul Coelho (The Witch of Portobello) in a newspaper near you this weekend, thanks to a piece by Angela Doland for the AP:
“My life is extremes, I am totally connected and totally disconnected, there are these moments of retreat, and that means to be really disconnected, with nothing, just silence,” he said, sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor in front of his couch....

Coelho, 59, came to novel-writing after many twists and turns. When he was 18, his parents put him in a psychiatric hospital for shock treatments. “I was not the typical good student who wants to follow his father’s career, so they thought I was crazy,” he said. He has forgiven them, saying they were only trying to help him.
You can read Doland’s interview with Coelho here. Coelho authors a dynamic and deeply interesting blog. You can catch up with it here.

A Saga Without End

J.K. Rowling has been saying all along that the Harry Potter saga she imagined and executed would conclude with the book we now know will be called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when it’s published on July 21st of this year. People have always wondered what would come next. And now they know.

Scotland on Sunday
reports today that rumors of a sequel or spin-off to the Harry Potter books are overstated. “Instead of a new novel, the writer is apparently considering compiling an encyclopaedia of magic.”

While said reference sounds cool in its own right and will likely cause a furor when published, it will not extend the Harry Potter saga as it exists at the end of the seventh book beyond extending our knowledge of backstory.

The Scotland on Sunday piece is here. You can see three English language covers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows here.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gifts in Short Packages

At long last, National Public Radio has introduced Selected Shorts as a podcast, available for free download.

Selected Shorts
is weekly broadcast on most public radio stations and features some of America’s finest stage actors (with the occasional movie star thrown in) reading both classic and contemporary short fiction, along with a smattering of non-fiction. The broadcast is taped in front of a live audience at New York’s Symphony Space, providing excitement and a sense of anticipation.

The Selected Shorts radio schedule is here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Review: Night of the Fifth Moon by Anna Ciddor

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski looks at Night of the Fifth Moon by Anna Ciddor. Says Bursztynski:
As in the Viking Magic series, [in Night of the Fifth Moon] magic is a part of everyday life. It is taken for granted that Druids can control the weather and find out who is lying in a legal case. When the hero brings some ancient warriors from their tomb to stop a battle, the reaction to what he has done from those about to fight is irritation rather than terror.
The full review is here.

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Look Out, Harriet!

Just about everyone knows that Harriet Klausner, “Amazon's #1 reviewer,” reads a lot of books. But if Kamae Coffey keeps up the pace she’s set for herself, Klausner might be eating her dust in a couple of years.

Coffey has read about 2700 books in the last three years, sometimes reading three books a night and four on weekends. Oh and -- by the way? -- Kamae Coffey is in grade three.

According to the Journal-Gazette Times Courier:
The Carl Sandburg Elementary School student has easily set a record while participating in the “Reading Counts” program that has been in place at the school for about 20 years. The students earn points for answering questions about the books they read, and Kamae’s total of more than 5,700 points during her three years at the school easily tops the previous record of about 3,000.
The Charleston, Illinois, grade school student reports that she’s been reading since before she hit kindergarten and though she’s read everything on the Reading Counts list, mysteries are her favorite. “I just like the suspense,” she told the J-G T-C. “It’s so intense.”

You can read more about Coffey here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Review: The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, Karen Schechner reviews The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery. Schechner wonders why more has not been said about this beautiful book. Says Schechner:
This artful debut novel from Ellis Avery, a Columbia University creative writing teacher who studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years, tells the epic story of a 19th-century Japan in flux, just as it's opening to the West. It’s an intricately imagined world of shifting politics and power, changing class and gender roles, with a lush backdrop of shoji-screened tea houses, geishas draped in 12-layered kimonos, and lacquered palanquins bearing members of the emperor’s family.
The full review is here.

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No Boring, Back-Patting, Soft-Pedaling or Personally Compromised Contributors Need Apply

Sam Sacks, fiction editor of Open Letters Monthly, writes to let us know that the May issue -- the third for the publication -- is now online. The new edition features a critique of John Stubbs’ John Donne: The Reformed Soul; a review of poetry by Bill Knott and John Yau; and an in-depth overview of “Shakespeare redactions over the years,” says Sacks.

We like the publication’s mission statement as well as the hard run they’re taking at their goals:
Open Letters is dedicated to the proposition that no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised. We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled -- one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.
You can find the fledgling publication here.

QBP Announces Winners

The Quality Paperback Book Club has announced the winners of its New Voices and New Visions Awards.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a novel by Marisha Pessl, has received the New Voices award for an outstanding work of fiction by a debut author. The New Visions Award has gone to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

The New Voices Award was launched in 1984, while the New Visions Award was first given in 1990. Each award brings their authors a $5000 prize but, according to Gary Jansen, QPC’s executive editor, the award program’s role in supporting and highlighting the authors they work with is just as important. “We realize that the vitality of the Club is dependent on nurturing new authors as well as vigorously supporting the achievements of those authors with established careers,” says Jansen. “These awards are QPB’s way of celebrating outstanding literary achievements that have deeply affected both our editors and our readers.”


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Enjoying Mainstream Dick

When I first bumped into Paul Johnston many years ago, I mentioned that Body Politic, his CWA Dagger-awarded debut, was a remarkable blend of science fiction and crime. I noticed that he blinked at my mention of science fiction, as that term can still conjure up images of rayguns and pimply faced youths discussing dilithium crystals. This is sad, as I am a reader who casts his net far and wide, often seeing it land on the shores of space.

I met up with Johnston recently as his latest novel is a mainstream, yet highly literate journey into serial killer territory: The Death List. During our chat and subsequent e-mail exchange, Johnston and I have been discussing science fiction, as he has started reading heavily in that area, which makes me feel that he may actually embark writing in this -- at times vilified -- genre. It seems that Johnston has been reading some of Philip K. Dick’s work. This may be, at least in part, because -- as I wrote a few months ago -- more than two decades after his death, Dick’s work is finally entering into the literary mainstream.

This week, The New York Times features an excellent look at the work of this late, great writer. All by itself, being featured in the NYT illustrates that Dick really has become a fixture of the mainstream.
All his life the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick yearned for what he called the mainstream. He wanted to be a serious literary writer, not a sci-fi hack whose audience consisted, he once said, of “trolls and wackos.” But Mr. Dick, who popped as many as 1,000 amphetamine pills a week, was also more than a little paranoid. In the early ’70s, when he had finally achieved some standing among academic critics and literary theorists — most notably the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem — he narced on them all, writing a letter to the F.B.I. in which he claimed they were K.G.B. agents trying to take over American science fiction.
The article is an excellent look back at Dick’s influence on mainstream culture, as well as Hollywood’s continued interest in his work.
So it’s hard to know what Mr. Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, would have made of the fact that this month he has arrived at the pinnacle of literary respectability. Four of his novels from the 1960s -- “The Man in the High Castle,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “Ubik” — are being reissued by the Library of America in that now-classic Hall of Fame format: full cloth binding, tasseled bookmark, acid-free, Bible-thin paper. He might be pleased, or he might demand to know why his 40-odd other books weren’t so honored. And what about the “Exegesis,” an 8,000-page journal that derived a sort of Gnostic theology from a series of religious visions he experienced during a couple of months in 1974? A wary, hard-core Dickian might argue that the Library of America volume is just a diversion, an attempt to turn a deeply subversive writer into another canonical brand name.
Another thing that would probably amuse and annoy Mr. Dick in about equal measure are the exceptional number of movies that have been made from his work, starting with “Blade Runner” (adapted from “Do Androids Dream”), 25 years old this year and available in the fall on a special “final cut” DVD. The newest, “Next,” taken from a short story, “The Golden Man,” starring Nicolas Cage as a magician able to see into the future and Julianne Moore as an F.B.I. agent eager to enlist his help, opened just last month. In the works is a biopic starring Paul Giamatti, who bears more than a passing physical resemblance to the author, who by the end of his life had the doughy look of a guy who didn’t spend a lot of time in the daylight.
For many years when I spoke to people about Philip K. Dick, they would look puzzled, until I mention the 1982 film Blade Runner. But now when I make mention of Dick’s work, it does not leave general readers with glazed eyes and confusion, so perhaps Dick has finally escaped the SF ghetto and is a firm part of our mainstream culture. Or perhaps reality has played a trick on me? One can never tell when it appears more and more, that perhaps our reality is being transformed into the worlds Philip K. Dick created.

The New York Times piece is here.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Review: Julia Child by Laura Shapiro

Today, in January Magazine’s biography section, Diane Leach reviews Penguin Lives: Julia Child by Laura Shapiro. Says Leach:
Almost all foodies know some of the story ... Child’s love affair with French food, and by extension, French life. Her training at Cordon Bleu, her pivotal friendships with Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck (Simca), relationships culminating in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes that rescued American foodways from a wasteland of frozen stringbean casseroles.
The full review is here.

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The Dangerous World of Book Reviewing

Book reviews -- or rather the increasing lack of them -- has been provoking debate. As a book reviewer myself, I enjoyed reading a piece by novelist and Telegraph chief fiction critic Lionel Shriver on the dangers in reviewing books from the perspective of a writer. In the aptly titled “From the Glass House” in The Telegraph, she begins:
Tossing off reviews of other people’s novels when I’m poised to receive reviews of my own feels like throwing knives in a rubber room. Since in this trade one is often appraised by fellow novelists, my last lacerating one-liner might bounce right back and stab me between the eyes.
Were I to believe in karma -- or in the equivalent Western aphorism that what goes around comes around -- in preparation for my own UK book release this month I’d have been filing only fawning review copy for the past year.
Instead, I recently slashed two novels to ribbons. Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest was one of the “worst books I have ever read.” And the first paragraph of my review of Graham Swift’s Tomorrow left no room for ambiguity: “I hate it.” (A shame, since I am such an admirer of his other work.) Any sussed literary insider would chide: “You’re an idiot.”
I am an idiot. Given that publishing honest and thus sometimes unfavourable assessments of the work of colleagues is violently at odds with a writer’s self-interest, it’s surprising that literary editors can cajole any author into reviewing. But then, plenty of writers like me don’t know what's good for them, and some writers plain need the money.
The same can be said for reviewing generally. Recently I wrote enthusiastically about my admiration for the audacity and brilliance of a debut novel entitled The Accident Man by Tom Cain, due out in the UK this June. Later in the week, I bumped into a colleague and respected reviewer and critic at a literary dinner in London. He had read my piece -- and the follow-up -- at The Rap Sheet. He was amused and held the exact opposite opinion, being much less impressed by this debut, but he applauded my enthusiasm.

Shriver suggests that conflicting opinions, once printed, can cause problems in a field that has so much inherent subjectivity, especially when carving out opinions for the world to read. She concludes her excellent article with these poignant words:
Why is writing criticism self-destructive? Because reviews are deeply personal. The average book represents years of hard work. Most novelists will have invested heart and soul into their text, imbuing characters with a measure of themselves. Although a necessary conceit, the line between the writer and his book is a smudge. The experience of having your book rubbished is of having your character rubbished -- for all the world to read. The adversaries you bring into being by writing negative appraisals are like diamonds: forever.
In avoidance of the bandwagon effect, I shield myself from other critics’ reviews until I have filed mine. I try neither to be cowed by big names, nor to succumb to the pathetic illusion that by trouncing accomplished writers I make myself superior to them. I always read the entire book. And my naiveté -- my refusal to think twice about alienating a colleague who down the line might help or hurt me -- may make me a fool, but it also makes me fairer.
I like to stay current. I may not always be right, of course, but I think I’m right. Because I know what it’s like to get a rotten review, I try to be as selective about writing one as I would like others to be in relation to me. Perhaps most of all, I relish discovering a novel that I adore, and commending marvellous, perhaps as yet uncelebrated books to other people. That’s doing a favour for the author and the reading public both. If this does not sound too pompous, I cherish being able, once in a while, to do good in the world.
I respect my colleague’s opinion. It will appear shortly. At least he didn’t join my band-wagon, though I still remain violently opposed to his viewpoint. That’s what makes reviewing so much fun.

You can read Shriver’s article -- including some of the more amusing excerpts from her own reviewing -- here.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Review: A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor David Abrams reviews A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown. Abrams is sad, but impressed with the late author’s posthumously published novel:
A Miracle of Catfish is not just Brown’s last book, it’s his best. Yes, it’s raw and incomplete, but it’s filled with so much pathos and longing and downright beautiful writing that you just know Brown was pouring everything he had into these pages.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

There’s No Substitute for Quality

Until now--and mostly due to time constraints--I’ve stayed out of the debate over declining books coverage in American newspapers. Concerns about this have been building progressively over the last couple of years, but were thrown into high gear by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recent decision to eliminate its book editor position (despite the fact that the Georgia capital is No. 15 on the list of the most literate U.S. cities). Since the AJC’s staff-cutting, money-saving decision, the National Book Critics Circle has launched a Campaign to Save Book Reviewing that has provoked protests and petition drives (see here and here), and drawn support from such literary heavyweights as Richard Ford and Michael Connelly.

It’s true that while newspapers in other countries (notably Spain) are enhancing their coverage of books, U.S. dailies (and weekly papers, too) have been de-emphasizing or out-and-out eliminating their reporting on, and criticism of newly published works. The New York Times earlier this week noted that
The decision in Atlanta--in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage--comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year the San Francisco Chronicle’s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.
Illogically, this is happening at the same time as the number of books published in the States has exploded beyond the ability of even conscientious critics to keep up.

The basic problem seems to be that, in a nation where profit is championed over public service, book reviews simply don’t make their newspaper hosts enough advertising dollars to justify their existence. Independent bookstores, trying to save themselves from the encroachment of behemoth chains such as Barnes & Noble and online giants like Amazon--which are able to discount their products so heavily that they drive autonomous competitors out of business--simply can’t afford to buy display space in daily papers that are, themselves, in financial decline. And big book retailers don’t spend enough on advertising to justify, on their own, newspaper coverage of new releases. At the same time, neither large book publishers nor small ones spend a great deal on promoting their products through newspapers or any other media, much to the consternation of authors. The result of all this, is that newspaper owners don’t see book reviews as revenue producers. So why shell out the bucks for them--especially when you can pick up syndicated reviews for considerably less dough?

Edgar Award winner Connelly (Echo Park, The Overlook), opining recently in the Los Angeles Times, chided newspapers for cutting back on book reviews, which can help otherwise unpublicized books reach an audience. But he also warned that immediate cost savings could ultimately prove detrimental to the papers:
The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down--and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

I hope that will not be the case here. I am not a businessman or a newspaper executive, but I believe that the symbiosis between newspapers and books could still work and hold true. I see it happening in my own home. My 10-year-old daughter’s love of reading books is slowly leading her toward the newspaper sections that are spread every morning across the breakfast table.
Publishers defend themselves against charges that they’re denying readers books coverage, by saying that there’s now a superfluity of literary blogs available for people who really care about the written word. So why duplicate efforts in the daily broadsheet?

To that point, I have a few responses.

First off, let me say that there are some splendid book news and review sites out there. In many respects, blogs and other Web sites--unrestrained by column inches of newsprint--have been better about reporting on genre fiction than have newspapers, which were trimming coverage of crime fiction, science fiction, and the rest well before they started cutting back on reviewing as a whole. On top of Bookslut, The Elegant Variation, and Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant, all of which The New York Times mentioned, I have to commend and recommend Bookgasm, Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader, James Marcus’ House of Mirth, C. Max Magee’s The Millions, January Magazine, and former Dallas Morning News books columnist Jerome Weeks’ Book/Daddy. Then there are the sites devoted specifically to crime fiction, such as Euro Crime, Independent Crime, International Noir Fiction, Material Witness, Reviewing the Evidence, and Shots. And let us not forget Salon and Slate, neither of which is exclusively devoted to books, but which do excellent jobs of incorporating books coverage into their broader mix.

In addition to those, however, there are many sites that demonstrate the Web’s immaturity, yet generate both traffic and attention--and take away from the comparative excellence of their competitors. What distinguishes the more exclusive former category of sites from the latter, in most cases, is that they are masterminded by people who have written for print publications, and recognize the value of both editing and correct spelling. Not to mention accurate punctuation. It’s a conceit of this uniquely democratic system known as the World Wide Web that conventional rules ought not apply, that blog authors who are lazy with their grammar and satisfied to print press releases as “news,” are somehow on equal footing with people who have been well trained in journalism or writing of some sort, or can at least boast significant experience in working for publications that enforce exacting editorial standards.

Which is why I don’t buy the argument that it’s OK for U.S. newspapers to dump their original books coverage because there’s still ample writing about books on what George W. Bush mistakenly calls “the Internets.” Yes, there is plenty of stuff ... but that’s like saying that you can cure starvation in Africa by sending over thousands of tons of Doritos. Quantity in both cases is not the same as quality. A good deal of what passes for “reviewing” on the Web would never pass muster with a trained newspaper or magazine editor. It is simply not good enough, usually because it is done by amateurs who want to see their opinions in print, but don’t really have anything interesting to say, or who don’t know how to say it in an interesting manner. They’ve often failed to get their work published in existing print vehicles, so they turn to blogging and then turn up their noses at the alleged stodginess or exclusivity of book review sections. Don’t even try to defend equivalency between the majority of book blogs and the majority of newspaper books pages: It can’t be done without defying reason and provoking guffaws.

Newspaper books pages are not all stellar commodities; there are some that exist only because of tradition. But many are worth the paper they’re printed on, and they deserve to be financed and defended as important. Especially with the tremendous number of books being produced and sold in the United States these days, readers need arbiters of quality--or perhaps the truer description would be “first defenders against crap.” Furthermore, they need reviews that are not only competent, but credible--not penned by some neophyte who simply wants to call him- or herself a critic, or who wishes to curry favor with an author or publishing house. (Hey, we can get free books if we say nice things about so-and-so!) Newspaper editors can be arbitrary and stupid, just like the rest of us; but they can also serve a valuable function in weeding out either vacuous or self-serving criticism.

Don’t get me wrong: you needn’t have been published regularly in a newspaper or magazine to become a decent books critic on the Web. But there ought to be someone, somewhere in the publishing process who can ensure that the rules of English are obeyed, and sloppy thinking or point-deflating errors are expunged. Salon and Slate, which have adapted a print-media model for Web publication, offer just such gatekeepers. Many other blogs are written by folks with strong editorial credentials. Sadly, though, others are not, and have nobody on hand to ask for better work from their contributors. Until blogs strive for at least a similar level of excellence in prose and seriousness of purpose that print-media editors are paid to guarantee, bean counters cannot in all honesty contend that readers who are denied their newspaper books pages can get the very same sort of material from the Web.

READ MORE:Curtain Rods of the Book World,” by Colleen Mondor (Chasing Ray).