Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Runoff by Mark Coggins

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Stephen Miller reviews Runoff by Mark Coggins. Says Miller:
Runoff, Mark Coggins’ fourth novel to feature Bay Area private eye August Riordan, opens with one of the most original action sequences I’ve read. Waiting in his Galaxie 500 on a self-appointed stakeout, Riordan searches for the person or persons responsible for ripping off automated teller machines in downtown San Francisco. By that, I don’t mean they hack into the computer system by punching an obscure code and then wait for the money to flow out like a river. No, this thief is physically removing ATM machines. And not long after Riordan settles in with his copy of Downbeat, the culprit pulls into view behind the controls of a John Deere backhoe in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Michael Mann film.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jane Rule Gone at 76

Celebrated adopted Canadian writer Jane Rule died last night of complications due to liver cancer. She was 76.

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1931, Rule had lived in British Columbia since the 1950s. Rule was inducted into the Order of Canada last summer, Canada’s highest civilian honor. According to Arsenal Pulp Press, the current publisher of Rule’s 1977 novel, The Young in One Another’s Arms, in January of 2007, Rule was awarded the Alice B. Toklas Medal “for her long and storied career as a lesbian novelist.”

Writing in The Globe and Mail today, Sandra Martin described Rule as, “Writer, teacher, cultural nationalist and lesbian role model,” in a lengthy and affectionate obituary:
The author of a dozen books, including the novels Desert of the Heart, This is not for You and Memory Board, and the non-fiction essays Lesbian Images, Ms. Rule brought the idea of women loving women into the quotidian world both in her personal life, which was lived openly for nearly 50 years with her partner Helen Sonthoff, and in her writing.

She explored the conflict between desire and convention and the constriction that fear can extol on intimacy, joyfulness and freedom. Her fiction falls into the category of social realism, but it was always driven by character rather than polemics. Typically an ensemble of homosexual and heterosexual characters interact, often communally, to represent the position of the artist in society or to confront bureaucratic oppression of difference.

The Globe piece is here. CBC Arts doesn’t add much here. Smith College professor Marilyn Schuster says a beautiful good-bye in XTra here.


Review: An Uncertain Inheritance edited by Nell Casey

Today, in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family edited by Nell Casey. Says Leach:
Editor Nell Casey set herself an unpleasant task: that of collecting war stories, a few from the victims, but most from their parents and children and spouses. In light of the ageing population, giving rise to the expression “sandwich generation,” and an appalling war with an even more appalling number of casualties who will need caregiving for the rest of their lives, this book could not be more timely. That doesn’t make it any easier to read. An Uncertain Inheritance is not the sort of book one gives as a stocking stuffer. Instead, you give it to the friend who is caring for her demented parent. She doesn’t have time to read it now, but she will, someday. The book may not make her feel better -- nothing will -- but it will make her feel less alone. You can feel less alone and not feel better. Trust me on this.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More on the Death of the Book

I don’t want to hear another word about the death of the book. I’m not suggesting that electronic options won’t do well in the market. If they’re well priced and well designed, they very well might. But that won’t kill the book as we know it, the book that we love.

Did satellite kill television? Ultimately it altered it. But that’s nothing like death. Both things are still around. They co-exist. If anything, satellite options forced commercial television to be better, smarter. Competition that integrates into existing technology has a way of doing that.

A healthy, well accepted electronic book reader will enhance the print market. It will alter it, but it will make it better. People will talk about books more easily, they will even talk more about them electronically. For some people, it will make books easier to interact with, easier to purchase. Easier to read.

And will it change things? Of course it will change things. Is change necessarily bad? I don’t think so. But what do I know? I used to be the fastest paste up artist in the production department. I could have curled up in a ball in the corner and cried about the changes in my world. I did not. By the time those changes could have touched my life, I had already moved on.


I Invented the Friggin’ iPod

Understand: this is not meant to be a review of Options: the Secret Life of Steve Jobs published last month by Da Capo and written by (ahem) “fake Steve Jobs.” The whole premise of the book is so 1999-with-blogging, I’m tired of it almost before I think it through. A decade ago, I would have been falling off my chair reading this book. Now? Not so much.

Options is a parody-memoir (read that: fiction) about trouble in the paradise of Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs. It’s based on a popular blog written by Fake Steve Jobs (recently joined by Fake Bono, as if the real Bono wasn’t quite enough) and apparently “required reading among coders and cube dwellers from Boston to Bangalore,” according to AP. Who apparently know about these things.

Fake Steve Jobs is actually Forbes reporter Daniel Lyons, even though it doesn’t say so on (the extremely shiny) cover of the book. Back in 1996 (which is, hmmmmm, just a little more than that chair-falling-off moment a decade ago), Lyons was named one of Granta magazine’s Fabulous 52 in the 1996 Best Young American Novelists Competition. (To put things in perspective, Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore, Ann Patchett and Edwidge Danticat were part of the same field.)

There’s nothing wrong with the writing here. In fact, some of Options is funny -- as in funny-clever, not necessarily funny ha-ha. But, hey, Danticat it’s not. Me? I’m looking forward to Lyons sucking it up and writing another real book.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Review: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J Grant

Today, in January Magazine’s SF/F section, contributing editor Andi Shechter reviews The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J Grant. Says Shechter:
There’s creepy horror and quiet horror, silly fantasy and dark fantasy. There’s poetry -- most of which didn’t do it for me but no harm. Paul di Filippo’s “Femaville 29” uses the aftermath of fictional tsunami that leaves hundreds of thousands of people homeless and helpless to create a wonderful tale of children coping in ways far different than usual. There are ghosts and sometimes maybe there are ghosts. There are stories that are clear fantasy, clear horror and some that are a combination of both.

Of course there are familiar names like Gene Wolfe and Joyce Carol Oates, Delia Sherman and M. Rickert, but there are many new names too -- new at least to me. The editors worked hard to create a very representative volume of the field as it exists. Writers from several countries are represented, all points of view, lots of information about where to find these and more are offered. They’ve done a really great job with this anthology.

Shechter also has a single story that is far and away her favorite of the collection, but we’ll leave that for the full review.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Riding Along With Vlad

From the very first line of the first chapter of The Dead Travel Fast (Thomas Dunne Books, 242 pages), pop culture commentator Eric Nuzum tells us what kind of ride this is going to be: “Watching my own blood drip down the bathroom mirror, there’s only one thought running through my head: In a lifetime of questionable decision making, this is not one of my finer moments.”

This is not your usual coffeetable-style peek at something offbeat. Nuzum immerses himself in this topic, walking the walk so completely, sometimes you just want to shut your eyes.

Nuzum heads out on the trail of the vampire myth and comes up with some surprises. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a vampire hunting journey if at some point he didn’t head for Transylvania. He does this a group of 25 “vampire enthusiasts on a Dracula-themed tour.” The tour even boasts a celebrity host: Butch Patrick, whose fans will remember him as Eddie Munster.

The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula is often funny, sometimes frightening and occasionally even sweet. Nuzum has the knack for finding both humor and humanity in the most unlikely places. Nuzum could develop into the Paul Theroux or the Bill Bryson of his era. Though he is an accomplished writer and a Murrow Award-winning reporter, The Dead Travel Fast is only Eric Nuzum’s second book (after 2001’s Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America). But you get to understand very quickly that this is a writer of merit. I suspect he has many stories still to tell and many journeys to make. I’ll buckle up and tag along: this is a writer you want to follow anywhere.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Bandying Semantics

There was a big, acrimonious (and, OK, kinda silly) debate going on at January HQ today. It involved the title of cable television personality Lou Dobbs’ new book: Independents Day. (“Ah-ha,” I can hear you saying.)

There are factions, here in the office, that say the title is incorrect and, in that, somewhat appalling: that, even though it’s a play on words, it can’t appear in that form without a possessive on the “Independents.”

Other January factions argue that, hey: the book is published by Viking. They’re no slouches in the editing department. And Dobbs himself was a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times in the olden days. Wouldn’t he know if he got it wrong?

Unfortunately, both of the voices that January counts on to know everything in these matters are incommunicado: likely recovering from Tryptophan overdoses or standing in a line at an airport somewhere. Or both. It seems likely that, when they return from their respective family fiestas, the final word will come down. (At which point I may even get laughed or yelled at for posting this in public where people can see. OK, not yelled at. We’re not so big in the yelling department around here.)

In the meantime, we’ve been too busy arguing about the book to actually read it. Copyediting concerns aside, it looks interesting, enough. Though it was a little perplexing to go looking for reviews and not find any. There are, however, lots of opportunities to hear “advocacy journalist” and “independent populist” Dobbs blabbing about various of his passions all over the airwaves and the ‘Net.

The publisher says that “Independents Day is an independent populist’s view of the critical issues and challenges that confront the presidential candidates and American voters as we approach the 2008 election.”

So there.

I’ll let you know if we come up with anything conclusive on this matter.


A Dangerous Year for Authors

On The Guardian’s books blog, the incomparable Sarah Weinman looks back at what was a dangerous year for authors. More to the point, she wonders how long we’ll care:
No doubt people say this every year, but I can’t remember a 12-month period in which America has lost so many of its best-known writers. Potboiler king Sidney Sheldon crossed over to the other side of midnight on January 30. The world mourned the loss of Kurt Vonnegut and his unique brand of satire on April 11. Lloyd Alexander, author of the marvellous Chronicles of Prydain books, passed away on May 17, while New Jersey native Marc Behm died in his adopted home of France on July 12. September 16 saw the passing of Robert Jordan, the bestselling author of fantasy epic Wheel of Time, which will remain in suspended animation at volume 11 unless someone else decides to finish it up. And earlier this month, Norman Mailer and Ira Levin died within two days of each other.

The full piece is well thought out, deeply entertaining and just a touch sad. And it’s here.


Not Your Grandpa’s Dinosaurs

As a culture, we are fascinated by dinosaurs and, as a result, books on the topic are anything but scarce. Even so, Dinosaurs (Random House, 432 pages) by Thomas R. Holtz Jr. fits in a niche not as well padded out as some of the others because, while there are lots of dinosaur-related books for new readers and young children and many for adults, young adults have less of choice.

And the needs of these readers are different: they require more meat than younger children. They need more detail and scientific information. At the same time, it should be less sophisticated than the information a book for adults might include. Sure: we want young adults to have all of the information available, but it should be delivered in a way that is highly understandable and won’t deter them from their course of discovery.

Thomas R. Holtz’ Dinosaurs delivers on all of these demands, and more. The book has been written specifically for young adult readers, but from the perspective of a palaeontologist. The information is shared in a gentle and lucid manner and while the writing is crystal clear, he never, ever speaks down to his young readers.

It’s not possible to discuss this book without mentioning the illustrations. Luis V. Rey is one of the most respected illustrator of dinosaurs in the world today. Nor are these your grandfather’s dinosaurs: all monochromatic and covered by identically colored rubbery looking skin. Rey’s dinosaurs come in every hue of the rainbow. More. And they are covered in feathers and scales and tufts of strange fur.

Dinosaurs is a wonderful book. It’s encyclopaedic in scope and exceeds all expectations. A superior book the young dinosaur lover in your life will cherish.

Labels: ,

Review: Effigy by Alissa York

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen reviews Effigy by Alissa York. Says Thiessen:
Effigy was born when York read a newspaper article about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and one of their infamous Canadian communities in Bountiful, B.C. “I was shocked to read that the ‘plural wives’ of Bountiful are often little more than children when they are given in marriage,” she recently explained in an interview.

“What would it be like to share your husband? To share my husband. There was a buzz around the question -- the kind of sensation I get when there’s a story to be found in something. This was a really big buzz-from the beginning it felt like a book.”

The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reading for Pleasure. And Not.

It’s funny -- and perhaps not ha-ha -- that this brace of books should have been released in the same season. One seems almost to cancel the other out.

On the one hand, Pierre Bayard’s brilliant but at least slightly silly How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read (Raincoast/Bloomsbury) suggests that all the reading we expect ourselves to do in our lifetimes is a big ol’ waste of time. At one point Bayard tells us that “all literature ends up providing us only a fragile and temporary knowledge.” And, that being the case, what really is the point of reading -- really reading -- at all?

Considering that Bayard is a professor of literature -- albeit a French one -- as well as the author of a rich bouquet of scholarly yet entertaining, internationally acclaimed books, I’m fairly confident that How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is something of a spoof, though not an especially funny one.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read starts out slightly interesting, from a philosophical point of view but, before the concluding chapter, it has devolved into something snide and closed: an inside joke at the expense of the reader and -- considering the advice here -- there doesn’t seem to be any burning reason to rush out and buy this particular book. After all, should you actually read the book, you are likely to be an object of ridicule and scorn. French ridicule and scorn, even. Merde. What could be worse?

If the title had your hopes up, though, there is a way to talk about books you haven’t read: at least some of them. In Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt) Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic, Michael Dirda, gives us breezy and elegant introductions to some of the most important literature and authors from history. Publishers Weekly described the book as casually brilliant and this fits perfectly. Classics for Pleasure is just what the title promises: pleasurable. It’s like sitting down with a good but incredibly erudite and well read friend and talking about work by Edward Gorey and Bram Stoker and Isak Dinesen and Willa Cather and Dashiell Hammett and Eudora Welty and... well, you get the idea: close to 90 of the most important and entertaining literary works of all time.

“What, precisely,” Dirda asks in the introduction, “is gained by skipping right by so many of the world’s established masterpieces? A great deal, I think.”

Which just about hits the nail on the head.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Review: The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor David Abrams reviews The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates. Says Abrams:
The “tales of mystery and suspense” in Joyce Carol Oates’ The Museum of Dr. Moses are sneaky little things. The horror comes in on cat's paws, barely noticeable.

The full impact doesn't hit until a few hours or days or even weeks after you have set the book aside and gone on to cheerier things: whistling happy Broadway show tunes, picking daisies in a sun-drenched field, or eating a heavenly slice of lemon-meringue pie. Then, as your mind drifts back to the stories and you start to think about the sub-surface tension or picture some of those indelible images, then and only then does it smack you. BAM! You might even drop your fork as the lemon pie goes sour on your tongue.

As she has done in earlier collections like
The Female of the Species, Oates builds the tension slowly, carefully, then turns everything on its head in one sharp Moment of Startle. Think of it as a dull knife pressing into your forearm, pressing, pressing, pressing, until finally the skin succumbs, breaks with a pop! and you are sprayed with arterial blood -- something you knew was there but never expected to see. That's how Joyce Carol Oates leaps out at you: you suspected she was crouched behind the corner, but when it happens -- that turn of the story -- you still jump and give a little hiccup of a scream.

The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 19, 2007

Revoltech vs. Kindle

“Forget Kindle,” says Gizmodo, “this is much more awesome.”

We have to agree.

Meanwhile, Forbes posits that the Apple iPhone made the Kindle obsolete before it left the shop. And PC Magazine wonders if the Kindle will, in fact, kindle e-book sales. (Groan.) We still think it looks goofy and has a funny name.

Meanwhile, in the unlikely event you feel the burning need to rush out and get your very own Kindle, the Amazon product page is here.


Quidditch for Muggles

Let’s say you want to play Quidditch, the high-paced, high-flying game featured in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Let’s say you wanted to play, but were hampered by the fact that -- oh... I don’t know -- you have zero magical powers and you lack the ability to fly. Take heart: it turns out these shortcomings might not be the deal breaker they first seem.

According to Sarah Hinckley of the Rutland Herald, the sport of quidditch is growing like magic (ahem) on campuses in eastern United States:
As the setting sun spun red light, similar to the streak of a flying bludger ball, onto the Middlebury College campus, the Mollywobbles celebrated victory and geared up to capture a championship cup. “We played really well out there today,” said team captain Charlie Hoffman. “We went out there and surprised a lot of teams. Hit ‘em low and hit ‘em hard.”
On November 15th, the first Intercollegiate Quidditch World Cup Fall Festival took place at Middlebury College in Vermont. Though thus far only Middlebury and Vassar have Quidditch teams, though Green Mountain College is currently putting one together. Others will no doubt follow.

Quidditch as played by American muggles was created by Middlebury junior Xander Manshel when he was a freshman. Manshel told the Addison County Independent that he “designed some rules that would work without magical forces, without an ability to fly.”


Sunday, November 18, 2007

But Did They Have to Give It Such a Stupid Name?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will unveil the company’s new e-book reader tomorrow. Kindle will be introduced at a media event in New York on Monday. No: you read that right. Kindle. That’s gotta be a dealbreaker, right?

“Hey mom: pass me my Kindle.”

I don’t think so.

CNET says that “the device will retail for $399 and receive automatic downloads from major newspapers, magazines and other publications. The source also said that Kindle features e-mail.” Hey, cool! Amazon has invented to the laptop.

More from CNET:
Amazon is banking a lot on the e-reader. The retailer held up the release for more than a year in an attempt to deliver a superior product than predecessors, a source told CNET Previous attempts to convince the public to switch to digital books have largely failed.
Seriously: you want success? Think of a better name than “Kindle.” Sheesh.

More on this as the story develops. Unless it doesn’t seem worth repeating.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Child Left Unplugged

I saw Nicholas Negroponte on CNN today blabbing about the XO laptop computer while he waved one around like so much cotton candy. I knew instantly that I wanted one. And that really isn’t the point.

Here’s the point:
One learning child. One connected child. One laptop at a time.

The mission of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is to empower the children of developing countries to learn by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child. In order to accomplish our goal, we need people who believe in what we’re doing and want to help make education for the world’s children a priority, not a privilege.
So Negroponte gathered together his not inconsequential posse and they all put their heads together to come up with the ultimate inexpensive, rugged easy to operate computing device. It was not always an easy road. That story is here.

But, in the end and after many, many years, the XO was born. And I’ve seen it -- albeit at a televised distance -- and it is beautiful. The rugged little body is a silly, cheery green and it incorporates a rubberized keyboard and trackpad, a built-in camera and networking so revolutionary, you have to read about it for yourself. Another cool feature: because the computers are meant to end up in places where electricity is spotty or non-existent, the XO incorporates a handcrank (!) that offers up 10 minutes of battery life for one minute of cranking. (This is a feature we should be incorporating into all computing devices for children. Think about it: Johnny would totally have to get off the couch if he had to hop up to crank his XBox 360.)

While all of this would be interesting any time at all, right now OLPC has a bit of a call to action: until November 26th if you donate $399, “one XO laptop will be sent to empower a child in a developing nation and one will be sent to the child in your life in recognition of your contribution.” To sweeten things still further, $200 of your donation is tax-deductible.

More information on the XO laptop is here. The “give one, get one” program is here.

Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Wisdom by Thom Hartmann

Before he even gets going, syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann sets the tone in a note to readers that falls between the copyright information and the table of contents of Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Wisdom (Berrett-Koehler, November 2007). “This book is written in a new language,” says Hartmann. “Every word means precisely what it says.”

Cracking the Code somehow manages to marry a good ol’ Dale Carnegie-ish (How to Win Friends and Influence People) approach to human communication and interaction with a frankly Democratic worldview. The resulting book is eye-opening, deeply interesting... and only slightly schizophrenic. This last comes from the fact that Cracking the Code packages itself as a self-help book and in many ways, it really is. However, most of this help would not be required if there weren’t a contemporary Republican culture.

Hartmann’s fans know that this author always provides value and, even if you disagree with him (and there will be a lot who will) you’ll come away from Cracking the Code with more than you had going in. Hartmann is the author of too many books to list in this space -- 19 in all -- including 2006’s Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle Class and What We Can Do About It.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Oprah Focuses on Follett

Like a lot of people, I read Oprah’s latest pick: sure I did. Back in the late 1980s when it was first published. And, yeah: it’s a rockin’ book. But like pretty much all of the books Oprah has chosen since Jonathan Franzen was mean to her back in 2001 when she chose his then new and exciting novel, The Corrections, Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is a safe choice.

Like most of of the classics, semi-classics and quasi-classics Oprah has been naming as picks since Franzen, no one is going to give her much talkback about Pillars. It’s solid, respected and has been around for a while. In short, it’s safe. (Even though it is also mind-numbingly coincidental that Orpah should choose The Pillars of the Earth a month after its sequel, World Without End, finally makes its way to bookstores. But that might be another story.)

Around the turn of the century when Oprah’s book club was at its peak, the influential entertainer was choosing books that mattered, both to her and other people. It was exciting to watch while she launched and cemented career after career with skill and influence. Back in those days nothing -- and I mean nothing -- could make the masses stand up and take notice than the nod from the queen of daytime TV.

She made some awesome choices back then, too. Choices that have made a difference: certainly to the authors she chose, but also to popular literature at large. Some of her selections were wonderful books by little known authors. Others from that time period were from authors who were well known and respected, but mostly only by the literati and the cognoscenti. Oprah brought these books to a wider audience, and we were all richer for it.

I would like that excitement back, please. And if some of those picks could be women, that would be OK, too.

Oprah’s book club archive is here.

And the Winners Are...

The winners of the National Book Awards were announced last night in a ceremony in New York. Though there has already been much written about the event, it seemed to me that Sarah Weinman boiled it down most touchingly:
Like this year and last, I had a good time at the Book Awards. Why? Because even though the dress-up quotient was high and the speeches were long, I always feel a palpable love of literature in the room, even if it's not necessarily correlated to the nominated books.
Meanwhile, Edward Champion did a blow-by-blow throughout the evening.

The winners are as follows:

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Also nominated:
Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown & Company)
Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard (Alfred A. Knopf)

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner (Doubleday)
Also nominated:
Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat (Alfred A. Knopf)
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA)
Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, by Woody Holton (Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf)
Time and Materials, by Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Also nominated:
Magnetic North, by Linda Gregerson (Houghton Mifflin Company)
The House on Boulevard St., by David Kirby (Louisiana State University Press)
Old Heart, by Stanley Plumly (W.W. Norton & Company)
Messenger, by Ellen Bryant Voigt (W.W. Norton & Company)
Young People’s Literature:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown & Company)
Also nominated:
Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One, by Kathleen Duey (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
Touching Snow
, by M. Sindy Felin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
, by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press)
Story of a Girl
, by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown & Company)


The Sky Is Falling or How to Prepare for the Death of the Book

“In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends imprisoned by an enchanter in paper and leathern boxes.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

January Magazine is participating today with the Love of Reading Online Book Fair. (The Fair itself is here. We provided a little background on it a few days ago here.)

Book fairs -- electronic and otherwise -- are delicious because they get us thinking about books and their place in our lives. Or, maybe more accurately, the place where books fit into our lives. It’s a spot that’s been changing over the last decade. Or has it?

Since the dawn of the electronic age, people have been talking about the death of the book. After all the book was designed centuries ago. It is a musty idea. Archaic. How is it possible it’s lasted even this long? Here we have electronic options. Hyperlinked hypertext accessible in hyperspace. Smooth, streamlined, you feel au courant just thinking about it. How can a musty old book compete with any of that?

And yet, here we are, fully 25 years beyond the point where I first heard someone forecast the death of the book. The book in traditional form survives -- nay thrives -- because it works. It’s a good design. It’s practical. (You start at the beginning, work your way to the end. Unless you don’t want to. In which case you can read it any ol’ way you like.) The book is mobile. (Take it camping. Take it in the car. Take it to the Moon.) Books don’t need much power. (The power of your brain. The power of your heart. No batteries required.) Best of all, books are unlimited in potential and in scope. (Limited only by imagination.)

This is not to say that electronic books have no place. They will. They do. But they have become part of the conversation about books. It’s a conversation that grows louder, stronger and more vibrant every day.

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.” -- John Milton, Areopagitica (1644).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Review: Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

Today, in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. Says Leach:
The adage of making silk purses from sow’s ears has lost its oomph for a generation of foodies raised on Fergus Henderson. Instead we might say a crispy pig ear salad cannot be got from the frozen foods section. So it is with Jenni Ferrari-Adler’s anthology, which borrows both concept and title from the late, great Laurie Colwin’s essay, which you can find in the magnificent Home Cooking. If you haven’t read Home Cooking, or its sequel, More Home Cooking, I suggest you drive to your nearest independent bookseller and purchase both books immediately. Now. This minute.

The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Levin Passes

Novelist and playwright Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, Stepford Wives) passed away at his home in Manhattan on Monday. He was 78.

The New York Times reports that no cause of death has been named, “but Mr. Levin appeared to have died of natural causes, his son Nicholas said yesterday.”

Mr. Levin’s output was modest -- just seven novels in four decades -- but his work was firmly ensconced in the popular imagination. Together, his novels sold tens of millions of copies, his literary agent, Phyllis Westberg, said yesterday. Nearly all of his books were made into Hollywood movies, some more than once. Mr. Levin also wrote the long-running Broadway play “Deathtrap,” a comic thriller.

Levin is sent off here, here, here and here.


Review: A Memoir of Friendship edited by Blanche and Allison Howard

Today, in January Magazine’s biography section, contributing editor Cherie Thiessen reviews A Memoir of Friendship: The Letters Between Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. Says Thiessen:
The two women met at a university women’s club meeting hosted by Shields when both were beginning their writing. Shields was 35 and Blanche, 47.

It was to the older woman that Shields would turn when she needed advice on childrearing, wanted an expert eye to critique her writing, or someone with whom to share books, reflections, experiences and memories. They had much in common: enquiring and critical minds, children, long and successful marriages, a love of travel and a foothold in the Canadian literary scene. They knew many of the same people, had the same literary affiliations, had published books and devoured literature.

The evolution of the correspondence the Howards share with us is an interesting one. It takes us from rambling letters and occasional phone calls in the days when long distance calls were a rare luxury, to the formality of word processing, still sent by snail mail, but slightly differing in tone from the handwritten missive, and eventually to e-mail, with its more casual, emotive intimacy, and to regular phone calls as the rates became cheaper and the friends became wealthier.

The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Online Book Fair Begins Wednesday

For as long as booklovers have been pacing the padded halls of cyberspace, we’ve been wanting to know how to pack the semi-euphoric, paper cutting world of the book fair into the tightly defined restrictions of a Web site.

While some might think it isn’t possible, others are taking stabs at it, putting their heads together to cook up some online facsimile of the sort of intellectual exchange that occurs when you put a lot of book lovers together in the same place and mix them up.

Online literary publicists FSB Associates are taking a run at it this week with their second annual Love of Reading Online Book Fair. The event, which runs from November 14th through the 16th, will offer up ongoing podcasts, author readings, guest bloggers and reviewers, roundtable discussions, contests and a good deal more.

“The purpose of the fair is really a celebration of the online books
community,” says FSB publicity director, Jeffery Anderson. “The collection of Web sites, eZines and blogs about books that we work with throughout the year make up a community of great people who provide a lot of powerful commentary about books for readers.” Part of FSB’s goal here, says Anderson, is to give back to the community. And another is to try and help create a very real sense of excitement around books and reading.

Though last year’s numbers were modest, Anderson feels they were also a great start. “Last year we had around 25,000 unique visitors to the fair over the three days. It was a pretty good number for the first fair. It is even more impressive when we think about the fact that we only launched the Web site a few days before the fair started. The support we got from our sponsor sites made it a big success.”

The Love of Reading online book fair takes place here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Review: Who Is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor David Thayer reviews Who Is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall. Says Thayer:
Who Is Conrad Hirst? is the third Kevin Wignall novel released in the United States, following People Die and For the Dogs, two books I enjoyed and admired for their stark directness and elegant storytelling. Now that I’ve confessed to being a Kevin Wignall fan, and I am, we come to the question of the latest novel and its somewhat vexing structure.

Who Is Conrad Hirst? tells the back-story of the hired assassin from the earlier books. Letters to Anneke, a dead girlfriend, frame Conrad’s bleak present along with the genesis of his career, an ill-fated decision to fight in the Balkans during the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tough Guys Don’t Live Forever

Controversial American author Norman Mailer died this morning at age 84. He rose to international fame in 1948 with the publication of The Naked and the Dead, a novel based on his experiences during World War II. He went on to co-create a genre of writing known as “creative non-fiction” and help found The Village Voice; win the Pulitzer Price twice (for Armies of the Night and The Executioner’s Song) and the National Book Award once (also for Armies); protest the Vietnam War, oppose women’s liberation, and run for the New York City mayor’s office; marry six times and have nine children; and become famous for his feuds with fellow wordsmiths Gore Vidal, William Styron, and Truman Capote. However, Mailer never lost sight of the fact that he was, first and foremost and always, a writer. And like all determined writers, he was a willing slave to his work, unable to imagine himself doing anything else except continuing to turn out words on the page that either sang or sank, but that he thought worth writing, and that he would write--no matter the skepticism voiced by critics.

“I am the only major writer in America who has had more bad reviews than good reviews in the course of his writing life,” Mailer once told an interviewer. “So that gives me a certain pride, you know. I feel they keep taking their best shot, and they’re ... not going to stop me, ya know.”

There are many fine remembrances being either published or broadcast today of Norman Mailer, the runty New Jersey kid who grew up to be a giant of his craft, and there will no doubt be considerably more to come in the next week. (One of the best so far is Lynn Neary’s segment this morning on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday.) Yet the greatest tribute to Mailer is the endurance of his literary efforts. His writing will outlive him by a longshot, which is just what every author wants for his or her own work.

READ MORE:Norman Mailer: Death of an Icon” (Guardian Unlimited); “Remembering Norman Mailer Through His Books,” by A.O. Scott (Salon); “Norman Mailer, Towering Writer With Matching Ego, Is Dead,” by Charles McGrath (The New York Times); “Mailer Made America His Subject,” by Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times); “Remembrances: Norman Mailer 1923-2007,” compiled by Dana Cook (Salon); “Stormin’ Norman,” by Gregory Kirschling (Entertainment Weekly).


Friday, November 09, 2007

Review: Cold Skin by Steven Herrick

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Cold Skin by Steven Herrick. Says Bursztynski:
Verse novels are good, at school level, for encouraging reluctant readers. Each “chapter” need only take a page or two and a lot of meaning can be conveyed in a few words. You can tell the story from the viewpoint of several different characters in a way that just wouldn’t work in prose, and get into the minds of each of them with the minimum of description and detail.

You have to be good at it, though; if you aren’t capable of telling a story with some depth, you might as well not bother trying a book in verse. Margaret Wild, best-known in Australia as the author of a number of very good picture books, has, in recent years, written some first-rate young adult verse novels, probably helped by her skill in telling the maximum story in the minimum of words.

The most prolific author in the field, though, is Steven Herrick. Herrick has been telling stories in verse for young readers, from children to young adults, for many years, in between visiting schools as a performance poet.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Review: No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Ali Karim reviews No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay. Says Karim:
No Time for Goodbye has a great premise, and a cast of real people trapped in a terrifying and totally extraordinary situation. Fourteen-year-old Cynthia Bigge is a troublesome young girl, caught out late one night with her boyfriend Vince Fleming -- a bad boy from a family of criminals, whom Cynthia’s parents dislike. While fooling around in the back end of a car with a case of booze, this pair are spotted by her father, Clayton, who immediately hauls Cynthia back home. Following a huge family row, fueled by the booze she had shared with Fleming, the girl storms off to her bedroom, locks the door, and falls into an all-consuming slumber. Come morning, Cynthia -- full of remorse, and with her head throbbing from the drink -- struggles downstairs, only to find that her mother, Patricia, her father and her elder brother, Todd, have all vanished. There’s no note of explanation, no signs of life, and no clues as to their whereabouts.

It’s understandable that Cynthia would be worried -- and she has good reason, because even 25 years later, her family’s disappearance remains a complete mystery.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Elizabeth Hay Wins Giller

Elizabeth Hay has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest literary award. Here’s what Reuters reported that she said:
“I feel very lucky, so lucky in fact that I will probably be hit by a truck tomorrow so it is important that I say my thank-you’s now,” said Hay, who was previously nominated for the prize in 2000 for A Student of Weather.
Meanwhile, Ed Rants reports that Margaret Atwood and her husband, Graeme Gibson, “brought their own dinner in a box to the Giller Prize reception to protest a Four Seasons development that threatens the endangered Grenada dove. They said they could not accept food and drink from the Four Seasons, although they seemed to have no problem occupying the premises.”

(And it's a good thing Ed did mention it, because the article he pointed to at The Toronto Star has since vanished.)

Also nominated:
  • Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje (McClelland & Stewart)
  • A Secret Between Us, by Daniel Poliquin, translated by Donald Winkler (Douglas & McIntyre)
  • The Assassin’s Song, by M.G. Vassanji (Doubleday Canada)
  • Effigy, by Alissa York (Random House Canada)
January Magazine’s 2000 interview with Hay is here.


Shirley MacLaine’s Book A Close Encounter

Actress, writer, spiritualist and famous sibling, Shirley MacLaine, is working hard flogging her new book, Sage-ing While Age-ing (Atria). At the Publisher’s Weekly blog, Karen Holt offers entertaining and intelligent assessments of both the book and MacLaine’s Tuesday night launch at the New York Palace Hotel.

Holt boils Sage-ing While Age-ing down:
Her new book is an eclectic mix of insights: A banana makes a more nutritious snack than a candy bar; people in Hollywood are too materialistic; being abducted and impregnated by an extraterrestrial can be a surprisingly positive experience, though it does tend to strain a marriage.
And when MacLaine leaves the shindig early, Holt doesn’t pounce on the things about the guest of honor that might have made us giggle in the past. Opting instead for a self-deprecating tone and a cheerful poke:
Also, standing around drinking wine and flagging down the guy with the hors de ouvres tray may be a fine evening for some of us, but it probably seems a little tame for a woman who used to hang with Sinatra and, in a former life, had a hot affair with the Emperor Charlemagne.

Many media outlets have been less respectful, especially since this is the book in which MacLaine outs presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich as the survivor of a reasonably close encounter. From Sage-ing While Age-ing:
Dennis found his encounter extremely moving. The smell of roses drew him out to my balcony where, when he looked up, he saw a gigantic triangular craft, silent, and observing him.

It hovered, soundless, for 10 minutes or so, and sped away with a speed he couldn’t comprehend. He said he felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind.

Kucinich has confirmed MacLaine’s claim. And the press has been partying.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hollywood Strike Might Produce Great Novels

Repercussions from the writer’s strike currently clogging up the Hollywood film-making arteries will felt far beyond the film industry, according to Josh Getlin in the Los Angeles Times:
If the writers strike continues for a long period, some book agents fear that many option deals will be nixed, causing major disruptions in the business. Others worry that the market for new literary materials will dry up altogether, as the major studios dig in for the long haul.

The article suggests that, though agents and studios will continue to find ways to put together deals for the theatrical rights of major literary works, books by less well known authors will be neglected for the duration of the strike.
Some observers already see signs that the books-to-film pipeline has been affected: “I don’t think there are going to be any major negotiations concluded, maybe not even any offers tendered, while the strike is on,” said Richard Curtis, a New York literary agent.

Simon Lipskar, another NYC literary agent, offered a more positive spin, suggesting that, in the long run, the strike might have a positive side. “Writers are writers, after all,” he told the Times, “and there’s nothing stopping them from dusting off that novel they’ve meant to get back to when they had time. Obviously, they now have the time.”

The Times piece is here.

Review: ... and His Lovely Wife by Connie Schultz

Today, in January Magazine’s biography section, contributing editor Mary Ward Menke reviews ... and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man. by Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz. Says Ward Menke:
Connie Schultz and Sherrod Brown, middle-aged and divorced with two children each, married in 2004. A year later, the Democratic Congressman from Ohio decided to give up his Congressional seat to run against Mike DeWine, a two-term Republican Senator, in a state where no Democrat had won office for 12 years. In ... and his Lovely Wife, Schultz writes candidly about the challenges facing her as an outspoken journalist, feminist and the wife of a political candidate: her newspaper’s decision not to endorse Brown; friendly co-workers who suddenly became adversaries and the growing consensus that a leave-of-absence from her job was in order; politicians’ wives who “saw themselves ... through the lens of their husbands’ lives” instead of as the talented individuals she knew them to be (“Honey, my husband is my career,” a senator’s wife told her); and the unexpected death of her adored father who had become an important part of the campaign. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The full review is here.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 05, 2007

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Today, in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor David Abrams reviews Junot Diaz’ long-awaited first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Says Abrams:
Meet Oscar de Leon, dubbed “Oscar Wao” by bullies who liken him to the foppish Oscar Wilde. Our Oscar is a fat, virginal Dominican-American teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunchbox to school, spends hours painting his Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, and who knows “more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee.” If Nerd was a country, Oscar would be its undisputed king. Oscar is the kind of kid we would avoid on the subway -- sweaty, mumbles to himself, inevitably invades personal space, probably has bad breath.

In Junot Diaz’ debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, Oscar is the flame and we are the moths. An earnestly open-hearted protagonist, he draws us to him until we incinerate in the intensity of his character. He's a pitiful-but-hopeful loser we can all relate to, even the Prom Kings and Queens among us (who might just be the loneliest kids in school).
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Plimpton Bashing Can Begin... Now

Whatever happened to not speaking ill of the dead? Quill & Quire’s blog points out that, four years after his death at age 76, people have started unashamedly bashing the formerly (apparently) revered author-slash-actor-slash-editor, George Plimpton.

And because into all this meanness, a little sun must fall, this Web site takes the opposite stance: it’s like a valentine to the writer who is gone but clearly not forgotten. (And also one of the most elegant uses of new media this writer has seen. Evah. Aside, maybe from that of the design company that created it.)

At least part of this Plimpton brouhaha has erupted from Philip Roth’s inclusion of Nathan Zuckerman’s thoughts about Plimpton in Roth’s latest novel (and Zuckerman’s last) Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin). As Timothy Noah whines in Slate:
What’s with Nathan Zuckerman’s crush on George Plimpton? Readers of Exit Ghost will recognize that I’m referring to the extended critical reassessment of the late sportswriter and fireworks enthusiast that Philip Roth weaves into the climax of his novel....

Plimpton, with his antique upper-class accent and his penchant for name-dropping, might have made an ideal goyische target for Roth had he been the pompous sort, which apparently he wasn't. But neither was Plimpton anybody’s beau ideal of a writer of nonfiction. If one were to compile a list of the 20th century's finest journalists, it's doubtful he'd make the top 50.
Personally, we think it’s a bit dorky, not to mention ill-mannered and sad to start trashing on Plimpton at this late date. Plimpton was, during his lifetime, known as an honest sportsman, talented in many arenas. And now, in case you haven’t noticed, he’s quite, quite dead and unable to spit back. Though we are talking about Plimpton. It seems unlikely he would actually have spit.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Review: Heart of Gold by Michael Pryor

Today, in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Heart of Gold by Michael Pryor. Says Bursztynski:
In the first novel in the Laws of Magic series, Blaze of Glory, we met Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of an aristocratic family in the land of Albion, an alternative universe version of Edwardian England. In this world, magic is a science, totally unconnected with superstition or the summoning of demons, ouija boards or midnight rituals. Well, admittedly it’s done best in such ancient languages as Chaldean.

The laws of magic of the series title are a lot like the laws of physics -- “ye cannae change them, Captain” -- although you can mix and match and adapt them if you know what you’re doing. Unlike the magic of the Harry Potter universe, it isn’t genetically-based, but something you can learn at school and then practice as a career.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Don’t Hold Breath for New Book by J.K Rowling

Headlines today that J.K. Rowling has finished her first work since the completion of her Harry Potter saga are overstating the point. The Tales of Beedle the Bard are mentioned in the final Harry Potter book and actually play an important role. But don’t get too excited: Rowling has only created seven copies. Rowling has said that working on the book had been therapeutic for her According to The Times Online:
“The Tales of Beedle the Bard is really a distillation of the themes found in the Harry Potter books, and writing it has been the most wonderful way to say goodbye to a world I have loved and lived in for 17 years,” she said.
Handwritten and illustrated by Rowling herself, “the seven copies have been bound in brown morocco leather and mounted with silver and semi-precious stones,” The Times reported.

A single copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard will be available for purchase: but don’t get your hopes up:
The volume will be auctioned at Sotheby’s on December 13 with a starting price of £30,000. Proceeds will go to The Children’s Voice, a charity that helps vulnerable children across Europe.
The other six copies, Rowling says, will be given away as gifts.

Meanwhile, GalleyCat reports that Rowling is nixing companion Harry Potter-related books and Web sites wherever her powers will allow. “Why?” GalleyCat asks a little facetiously, I thought. “Because Rowling believes she can squeeze at least one more book out of the franchise, a ‘definitive’ encyclopedia with ‘new material’ that wasn’t in the books, which no doubt means more of her personal interpretations of the storyline like last month’s revelation that she knew Dumbledore was gay, even if you didn’t.”

Except that, since the entire Harry Potter world is Rowling’s “interpretation,” she gets to play that card. And we’ll stand in line to listen.


Review: Die with Me by Elena Forbes

Today, in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Stephen Miller reviews Die with Me by Elena Forbes. Says Miller:
Forbes, a former investment banker, develops her story in much the same manner as the late Ed McBain did his 87th Precinct books....

First-time novelist Forbes propels this story forward expertly and deftly shifts her narrative to follow Tartaglia, Donovan, Steele and even, from time to time, the killer. It’s a bravura juggling act, difficult for experienced writers to pull off with aplomb, and Forbes is able to keep everything churning almost without a misstep.
The full review is here.

Labels: ,

Hopper Art Mystery Debuts

More than 1,000 children and their parents will enjoy the premiere of Who’s in the Hopper? An Art Mystery Adventure, by Mary Hall Surface. Preview dress rehearsals take place in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery of Art and are part of a celebration of the work of American master artist Edward Hopper that opened at the National Gallery on September 17 and runs until January 21, 2008. According to the gallery:
This is the first comprehensive survey of Edward Hopper’s career to be seen in American museums outside New York in more than 25 years. Focusing on the period of the artist’s great achievements--from about 1925 to mid-century--the exhibition will feature such iconic paintings as Automat (1927), Drug Store (1927), Early Sunday Morning (1930), New York Movie (1939), and Nighthawks (1942).
Who’s in the Hopper? An Art Mystery Adventure was written and will be directed by Surface, a playwright best known for her work with works aimed at young audiences. Performances will take place on November 14, 15, and 16 at 10:30 a.m. Following the play, school groups will tour the Edward Hopper exhibition independently, using student activity booklets “designed to encourage closer looking.”