Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Author Snapshot: Barbara Fister

Anyone who knows Barbara Fister even slightly is not in the least surprised to discover that her novels are smart, sophisticated and deeply concerned with the larger world. In many ways, all of those words -- smart, sophisticated, concerned -- describe the Madison-born and Minnesota-based author perfectly.

An academic librarian at a liberal arts college, on her own Web site, Fister says her “research interests are wide, not to say idiosyncratic, but they all have to do, one way or another, with how various media shape our understanding of the world.”

These interests -- and even passions – inform Fister’s work. “I’m particularly interested [in] the role of anxiety in the formation of social issues,” says Fister, “in life and in fiction.”

In her second novel, Fister says she is exploring “how anxiety becomes a device for the suppression of dissent in In the Wind.” The book draws parallels between the contemporary insouciance regarding civil liberties and the counterintelligence practices of the era around the Vietnam War. Fister herself tells us that she would “like to think I’m contributing my small part toward carrying on the feminist contribution to the PI genre.” And, sure: there’s that. But there’s so much more here, as well.

A Snapshot of Barbara Fister...

Born: Madison, Wisconsin
Resides: Rural Minnesota, US
Birthday: I’m 53. I’m not big on birthdays.
Web site:

Please tell us about In the Wind.

The book draws on the resonance between the present state of our civil liberties and the excesses of law enforcement during the Vietnam War era.

A woman who has been working quietly in a church on Chicago’s West Side goes on the lam, accused of having killed an FBI agent in 1972, when she was a member of a radical offshoot of the American Indian Movement. The narrator of the story, Anni Koskinen, has recently resigned from the Chicago PD after getting on the wrong side of her fellow cops, and is not quite sure what to do with herself; her only job so far as newly licensed PI has been tracking down a teenage girl with bipolar disorder. By happenstance, Anni helps the fugitive escape, then gets involved in her defense -- which is tricky because her closest friend is not only an FBI agent himself, but the son of the murdered man. But even he is unhappy with the way the FBI is handling the case, and is troubled by the direction the bureau has been heading. Her investigation leads down some mean streets, up to the White Earth Reservation, into the past -- and, of course, into a whole lot of trouble. Which, when all’s said and done, is her business.

I had to reach for the smelling salts when Kris Nelscott, whose Smokey Dalton series is one I’ve long admired, read the book and said I was “Sara Paretsky’s heir apparent.” I’m sure Paretsky is too busy writing to think about heirs, but I like to think I’m contributing my small part toward carrying on the feminist contribution to the PI genre.

What’s on your nightstand?
A lovely big pile of books, including Minette Walter’s The Chameleon’s Shadow and Andrew Pyper’s Wildfire Season.

What inspires you?
I get my dander up about a lot of things, and writing is a good outlet. In the Wind was a therapeutic way to deal with my negative feelings about George Bush. It was strange, as I did research for the story, to read about counterintelligence practices exposed after Watergate; they’re identical to what’s going on today. When Chris Dodd read from the 1976 Church Committee hearings this past December on the floor of the Senate as he filibustered a bill sanctioning warrantless wiretapping, it sent chills up my spine. We’re in a weird time warp; the only thing missing is the outrage and the tear gas. That said, though my book has political themes, I try to play fair with the issues. Anything less would belittle the very real issues at stake, and straw men don’t make for very compelling characters in fiction.

What are you working on now?
My next book deals with the immigration debate and the aftermath of an exoneration. A black man who has spent 20 years in prison, convicted in a highly-publicized rape case, is released after his conviction is overturned. The woman who is raped wants to know who was really responsible -- especially once she discovers that several women have been attacked since in similar circumstances. Anni Koskinen starts to investigate just as another highly-charged crime is stirring passions in Chicago, when an undocumented alien is arrested for the murder of a young woman who had been missing for months. As with In the Wind, what really interests me is the way in which general social anxiety shapes the way people respond to crime, and how that anxiety is manipulated for various ends. While it sounds as if I’m on a soapbox, I’m not: I just think this stuff makes for compelling stories.

Tell us about your process.
I’m what someone at Crimespace evocatively called a “fog walker.” I can’t map out a story in advance, I have to discover it as I go groping along. I’m sure it would be more efficient to work from an outline, but I just can’t do it. If I can see two or three scenes ahead, I’m doing well. Thank god for word processors.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
There’s a cat trying to climb into my lap. He’s jealous of all the time my laptop spends there.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was in fifth grade I wrote a story about a horse that was a whole eight pages long. I was very impressed with myself.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I would be reading them. (Which I do, anyway.) I have a job I like quite a bit -- as an academic librarian and college teacher. I enjoy writing fiction, but I fit it in when I can. I feel a little guilty saying this, because I know how many people’s fondest desires are caught up in the identity “writer.” For me, it’s something I love to do, but it’s not who I am.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
That’s a very interesting question, actually. You’d think it would be when my agent closed the deal on my first book, in a preempt the day after he put it on the market. But that was both unreal and fraught with anxiety. I hate having my hands shake every time the phone rings. It may sound corny, but my happiest moments are when I write a scene that really works. There’s no anxiety involved, no regrets, no ambition to be someone other than who I am; just pure satisfaction.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being a writer?
Hmm, I’m beginning to visualize Gabriel Byrne sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the room asking me these questions as he tents his hands in front of him. “Being a writer” is a phrase that makes me oddly nervous. I guess I’m only comfortable with it as a verb: to write, not as a descriptive noun: a writer. I write. That’s easy.

What’s the most difficult? Avoiding the hype and hysteria about how to market yourself. I see so much unhappiness among people who act like stage mothers to their inner child. That’s no way to treat a kid.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
I don’t get many questions about it; not that many people know I write mysteries.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?

Read any good books lately?

What question would you like never to be asked again?
What do you think of my book trailer? (Or any other marketing topic.) Look, Doc, I’ll level with you: I think capitalism, which celebrates greed as a virtue and separates us all into winners and losers, like some cosmic American Idol show, appeals to our worst nature and fosters intolerance and inequality. Too much bad energy is generated around books as product and authors as brands, and none of it actually benefits readers. It’s gotten so bad that writers go on discussion lists to chide people for checking books out of libraries. It would be much more beneficial to think about developing a healthy book culture than to focus so much on selling ourselves. I think my inner librarian is coming out.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
Well, quite a few people know this, since I wrote about it in an article that got picked up at Slashdot (“News for Nerds”), but I’m a self-disclosed anarchist librarian -- which is not an oxymoron. In reality, libraries are a model of anarchist philosophy. They are full of ideas that coexist side by side, even though they disagree with one another. You may think we’re creating order, but actually we put all those books together so they can have a good brawl. No single authority gets to decide which answers are the right ones. Anyone who comes in the door gets to make up his or her own mind. When it comes to crime fiction, two of Ranganathan’s laws of library science, first laid out in 1931, provide a model of tolerance: every reader his book, every book, its reader. Forget the bestseller lists and the hype -- just be open-minded, look for the unusual voices that speak to you, find the right match, and all will be well.

Is our time up already? I must say, I feel much better. This therapy seems to be working.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Stone Angel to Open at a Theater Kinda Near You

Though it opened at both the Vancouver and Toronto Film Festivals last year, I’m still stoked about the May 9th Alliance Films limited release of Kari Skogland’s film adaptation of The Stone Angel by Canadian author Margaret Laurence (1926-1987). From the Alliance Web site:
Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel is the story of feisty firecracker Hagar Shipley (Christine Horne, Oscar Winner Ellen Burstyn). Her passionate heart has always ruled her head and her choices have put her at odds with family and friends. With her life nearly behind her, she sets out in search of a way to reconcile herself to her turbulent past. Through her reflections we come to know a passionate and rebellious young bride, her love for her two sons, the freedoms she claimed, and the joys she denied herself.
Alliance’s PR-speak sounds as though the film might be a lamed-up version of Laurence’s powerful novel. (I mean “feisty firecracker”? WTF?) You can tell Alliance figures the movie is destined for the arthouse circuit because the Web site tells us The Stone Angel will be “in cinemas” on May 9th.

I love, also, how everyone keeps talking about “Laurence’s best-selling novel.” (They break it up like that too: “best-selling.”) But, check it: the book was published in 1964. Was it a bestseller? Maybe so, but whatever gauges they used to count such things are long gone. The Stone Angel is beyond bestselling. It is important, beloved and, when it isn’t being contested, it is taught in schools.

Kari Skogland is one of Canada’s hottest young directors and was named one of The Hollywood Reporter’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2001. Since then she’s put in a lot of miles, including writer/director on 2002’s Liberty Stands Still with Wesley Snipes, Linda Fiorentino and Oliver Platt; director on 2005’s Chicks With Sticks and she is currently in post-production on Fifty Dead Men Walking with Jim Sturgess, Rose McGowan and Ben Kingsley.

But for our purposes, The Stone Angel is the one that matters. Back in October, Variety summed the film up thusly:
A tastefully reverent, fundamentally sincere treatment of Margaret Laurence's 1964 Manitoba-based novel, a staple for Canada’s 12th graders, “The Stone Angel” plays precisely as expected from a incident-laden, multigenerational and metaphorical book crammed into a conventional running time. Local auds may thrill at this visual embodiment of literary treasure, but the story won't resonate elsewhere beyond fests and some ancillary.
But, hell: it’s Laurence, right? It’s Skogland. Someone just tell me where to sign; where to stand.

Meanwhile, check my fangirl stats: here's a review I did of an anniversary republication of The Stone Angel back in 1998. You read that right: a decade ago. Fortunately, the book has changed not at all. That’s the beauty of reviewing classics.

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Jack London Honored in Geneva

The 22nd annual salon du livre gets underway in Geneva on Wednesday. This year 120,000 visitors are expected during the five day event. Highlights will include celebrations of Egypt, the canton of St. Gallen, Italy’s Aoste Valley and 19th century American author Jack London.

According to 24 Heures: the 2008 fair “has set aside 100 square meters to exhibit documents and photographs of London (1876-1916), reputed to be the most read author in the world, widely translated in multiple languages, including French. Famous for such books as the Call of the Wild, the California native was a self-taught writer who absorbed knowledge equally from the Oakland Public Library and the rough-and-tumble world of miner’s camps in the Klondike and coastal fish boats in the Pacific Ocean.”

24 Heures reports that the Salon international du livre is a culturally important stop on the European tradeshow circuit:
The 22nd Salon international du livre et de la presse bills itself as the biggest cultural gathering of its kind in Switzerland. Targeted primarily at a French- and German-language audience, it features displays by publishers and book stores, as well as magazines and newspapers, such as the Tribune de Genève.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Review: Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff. Says Leach:
Reading Our Story Begins was often painful, reminding me as it did Wolff’s fellow travelers, Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, those masters of domestic disaster. Our Story was especially reminiscent of Carver, who mined a similar geographic landscape and counted Wolff as a friend. Not to say that Wolff copies either man; rather, that the three make their business the pain and bewilderment arising between ordinary people, often families. Wolff’s people, like Dubus’ and Carver’s, lead largely unhappy lives of struggle and fear. Some are strapped for cash, while others are plain in over their heads. The stories investigate what they hide in life’s interstices, and what happens when things snap.

The full review is here.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Review: Diego’s Pride by Deborah Ellis

Today in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Diego’s Pride by Deborah Ellis. Says Bursztynski:
Deborah Ellis specializes in novels about children in the world’s trouble spots. For example, one of her early novels, Parvana, was about a girl trying to cope with life in Afghanistan just after the Taliban takeover. It was successful and the first of a trilogy.

Diego’s Pride, set in Bolivia in the early 2000s, is also part of a series, the sequel to Diego, Run! I haven’t read the first book, but had no problem following this one. It begins with a “story so far” and then just gets on with the current tale. Quite often, there is a reference to what happened in the previous book, but you don’t have to have read that one to understand the action. There is a handy glossary at the end of the Diego’s Pride, but you can generally work out roughly what the words mean.
The full review is here.

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Cookbooks: Grill Every Day and Patio Daddy-O at the Grill

For the busy household with no extra time for fussing in the kitchen, the importance of grilling food can not be overstated. Though it’s possible to spend a lot of time preparing the food that will end up on your grill, as Diane Morgan shows us in Grill Every Day (Chronicle Books), quite often the very best foods are the simplest to prepare.

Take, for example, Lemongrass-Grilled Lamb Loin Chops. Basically, you get the grill hot, massage the chops with pre-prepared lemongrass paste, grill four minutes per side for medium-rare and -- voila -- a meat course for four.

But wait: man (and woman) does not live by meat course alone. There are loads of great vegetable and starch recipes for the grill here, as well. Some of them just as simple. Asparagus Spears would be a natural with those lamb chops. The book has us grab 28 spears, prep as instructed, toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper, grill and -- voila again! -- dinner is served.

Grill Every Day is a great book. Subtitled 125 Fast-Track Recipes for Weeknights at the Grill, the recipes here range from super easy to super, duper impressive and accommodate every taste and food restriction. I’ve seen a lot of grilling books in my time. Grill Every Day ranks with the best of them.

The same can not be said for Patio Daddy-O at the Grill (Chronicle Books) by Gideon Bosker, Karen Brooks and Tanya Supina. A sequel to a seminal food and lifestyle book published in the mid-1990s, Patio Daddy-O at the Grill offers up the same self-conscious cool that the original Patio Daddy-O brought to the table, only now it feels like more of the same: only with fire.

Lines like, “At heart, every guy is a pyromaniac, and the outdoor pit is where you get away with it,” seemed funny in 1996. Now it just seems tired. “Don’t get hung up on designer grills. A grill is just a grill.” Yeah, yeah. You see what I mean?

Ditto the art, which is sharp, well done, yet seems not to have evolved very far from the original. Most painful, I think, is that there has been a cookbook revolution over the last dozen years but you can’t tell from Patio Daddy-O at the Grill. Recipes seem overly wordy and even simple things are much more complicated then they need to be.

If you can work your way through all of that, a few of these recipes are absolutely top-notch. I really love the Tropical Fruit Salsa Tuna Sticks: and they’re not as difficult to prepare as would first appear to be the case. And the Emergency Grilled Pound Cake Extravaganza is very good… you can just call it something else.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Exhibition Celebrates Beauty and History of the Book

Even while modern tech types scramble trying to scan every book in the world, in Australia, an exciting exhibition celebrates the beauty and usefulness of the book in its most traditional forms. The Australian reports:
Unlike the stone tablets and papyrus scrolls that preceded it, the book in its bound form was highly ambitious in the amount of information it could carry. Books could be handed down through generations and passed across borders. Scholars could study them, and missionaries travel with them through barbarian lands to show -- as well as tell -- the word of God.

“As a way of ordering knowledge, understanding knowledge and communicating knowledge, the book is really an extraordinary invention,” says Shane Carmody, director of collections and access at the State Library of Victoria.

In recent months Carmody has been immersed in the world of medieval manuscripts. He is co-curator of the library’s fascinating new exhibition, the Medieval Imagination: Illuminated Manuscripts from Cambridge, Australia and New Zealand. The exhibition, co-curated by eminent art historian Margaret Manion, features more than 90 manuscripts from the 8th to 16th centuries.
The Australian’s piece is here.

Catalog of Digitized Books Grows

Scanning all the books in the world is going to take some time. According to AP:
In a dimly lit back room on the second level of the University of Michigan library’s book-shelving department, Courtney Mitchel helped a giant desktop machine digest a rare, centuries-old Bible.

Mitchel is among hundreds of librarians from Minnesota to England making digital versions of the most fragile of the books to be included in Google Inc.’s Book Search, a portal that will eventually lead users to all the estimated 50 million to 100 million books in the world.
The full piece is here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Author Snapshot: Sandra Ruttan

Titian hair. A deceptively sweet smile. Arms akimbo. Mystery writer and journalist Sandra Ruttan manages these disparate things easily, seemingly without contradiction.

I say this about Sandra Ruttan the author, but it could all be easily translated to what works about her fiction: Sandra Ruttan looks at things from a connected distance. She assesses dispassionately, beautifully, and with a frighteningly delicate care. And then she brings us along.

With her second novel, What Burns Within (Dorchester), just a few days from publication, the editor of Spinetingler magazine and the heft behind At Central Booking contemplates the path that led her to this place... just remember, please, not to call her Susan.

Crimespree Magazine said this author is “talented in the way that a natural musician is talented, making all the notes seem effortless.” We agree, and hold our breath to see what’s next.

A Snapshot of Sandra Ruttan...

Please tell us about your new novel, What Burns Within.
When I was a baby, my mother was walking in Toronto, with my two-year-old sister by the hand and me in her arms. She lost her grip on my sister, and they got separated. A stranger picked my sister up and took her to a police station. Things like that make you realize it’s down to luck. Anyone could have found my sister, but the person who did was a responsible citizen.

The opening scene for What Burns Within came from there. The book was inspired by a real moment in my life, when I realized that anyone could know I was home alone, but saying more would be a bit of a spoiler. That feeling of vulnerability was the seed, and I started to think about how so many people are at risk, every day, without even realizing it, just like that situation with my sister.

When I worked in education it was my responsibility to anticipate danger and protect the children when we did field trips, and once you start writing crime fiction it isn’t hard to imagine the many ways a person can harm another. It made me think about what could have happened all those years ago.

My ex-husband is also a firefighter, so the three main crimes in What Burns Within -- rape, child abductions and arson -- all came out of personal experience. In the book, three RCMP officers who have a history end up working together when their investigations collide and their personal history may get in the way, with devastating consequences.

What’s on your nightstand?
I’m in the midst of moving and packing, so I don't have a nightstand at the moment. But the books I’m keeping in my suitcase are Paying For It by Tony Black and Russell D. McLean’s The Good son.

What inspires you?
News stories, bits of conversation, personal experiences... everything, in other words.

I was on a plane recently, flying from Dallas to Baltimore, and I ended up sitting beside a woman who does national educational testing in the US. By the end of the flight I had her contact information, a resource Web site link and a new book idea. I do keep an ideas file, but it’s more about technical research and contact information, because I find news stories are sometimes taken down or blocked after a certain period of time. I don’t usually look at anything in the file, unless I need to do research, or get in touch with someone. I just wait to see if the idea takes root and starts growing.

What are you working on now?
A stand-alone book I don't want to say too much about, but it isn’t a police procedural. Although a criminal investigation is a part of the book, the focus is on relationships and the things that happen to a person that shape their life and their choices, and how it leaves their life in ruins.

I am also working on the third book in the Nolan, Hart and Tain series... and in that book readers will finally get the full scoop on the investigation the three were working when they met. It’s a story with intersecting timelines when the past finally catches up with the present.

Tell us about your process.
I usually write in the morning, and in the afternoon, and evening. When I’m working on a book I work seven days a week. I don’t pre-plot, so I keep paper and a pen beside my bed and often write illegible notes in the middle of the night, in the dark. I’m obsessive. That said, I do most of my work on the computer, and it’s almost always entirely freeform, minimal pre-plotting. With What Burns Within, the only thing I knew for sure was the last scene of the book.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
Right this moment, an air hockey table, a plastic child-sized chair, a Hogwarts-designed playroom, my nephew Athaniel talking on the phone to his friend, my two-year-old nephew Dashiell grooving to Tom Waits...

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
As a child, from the time I read The Call of the Wild and The Chronicles of Narnia... I guess around the age of seven.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Working with children with speech delays, or other special needs.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
There are three moments tied for this spot. One was when I got my Publishers Weekly review and they said, “The child abduction and sex crime aspects of the story are handled without exploitation or kid gloves.” Although I’m dealing with heavy subjects, I don’t just do that to manipulate the reader, and I was pleased the reviewer sensed that I wasn’t trying to exploit the crimes in the book for shock value.

The second moment was when Sean Chercover phoned me after reading The Frailty of the Flesh, the second Nolan, Hart and Tain book [coming November 2008 from Dorchester]. Sean told me he had tears running down his face. I knew then that the book had the strong emotional impact for others that it had for me.

The third was when my boyfriend made a remark about Craig Nolan. It was an off-hand thing, but Brian completely understood the character and sensed where I was ultimately going with him. Since we’d never discussed the character or my long-range plans, it was a great moment. It’s very rewarding when someone gets what you’re trying to do with your work, though it probably speaks to what a close reader Brian is more than anything.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
The evolution of ideas. I have so many ideas it would take me ten years to write them all if I started on them right now, and I’d be scared to think of how many new ideas I’d develop before I finished the current list.

What’s the most difficult?
The politics, all the expectations people start putting on you, what you can and can’t blog about, can and can’t say in an interview, review, etc. Some seem to think you should stop being a person and just be a product. If I wanted that, wouldn’t I have set my sights on Hollywood? The pay is better. It seems the best way to survive is to be nothing but a smile, have no strong opinion about anything, never take a stand. And that runs counter to my nature. I don’t do wishy-washy.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Where my ideas come from, I guess, but I don’t mind. Usually something interesting sparked them, and that’s why I wrote the story.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received.

What question would you like never to be asked again?
I appreciate any interest in my work and will answer pretty much any question, but I guess if there’s one question that drives me mental it’s one I get asked in life regularly, not in interviews. For the record I am not related to Susan Ruttan. I don’t know her, I was not on L.A. Law and I don’t find it funny when people call me Susan.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I’m sure a few people know that as a child, I had recurring nightmares about Hamburglar.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Cookbooks: Postcards from Portugal by Tessa Kiros

If I were going to dream up a an author of rich and gorgeous cookbooks with international flair, her background would look just like this: I’d have her born in London, for the flavors you can find there. (So many. And from everywhere.) I’d stick needles in a globe and say her mother should be from Finland and her father? Let’s make him a Greek-Cypriot. Then, when she was just a little kid, I’d have the whole family pack and move to… let’s say South Africa, just to blend still more flavors into the mix.

Tessa Kiros is, of course, the author described. She is at an early point in her career. Three previous books have been well received and widely acclaimed: Twelve, Falling Cloudberries and Apples for Jam. But Postcards from Portugal (Whitecap) is showstopping and though we’re only in the four month of 2008, I can’t imagine that it won’t be one of my picks for best of the year.

This is the whole package: a literary visit to a country via wonderful photos, a talented author’s carefully crafted musings and -- most important in a cookbook -- well considered recipes across the full table spectrum -- from essential basics of the cuisine to appetizers to dessert after a wonderful meal -- brilliantly photographed and shared with us in a way that is clear and easy to follow.

Highlights for me: the Coffee Steak is so simple, anyone could prepare it. But the balance of flavors make for a memorable meal, especially with Batatas A Murro (squashed potatoes) on the side. I adored the Gratineed Mussels and think they may well become one of my cocktail party standards. (Elegant, relatively easy and inexpensive, even for a crowd.) And the Tuna or Sardine Pate, which I initially thought fairly bizarre, but now can’t get enough of.

In all ways, Tessa Kiros’ Postcards from Portugal meets my criteria for a truly successful cookbook.

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And Then There Was the Time We Ran Out of Toothpaste…

Topping the list of book deals you shouldn’t ought to care about, 15-year-old country popper and famous daughter Mylie Cyrus has inked a deal to write something that sounds very like a memoir. According to The SF Gate:
The “Hannah Montana” star has reportedly signed a seven-figure deal with the Disney Book Group, and will write all about her upbringing in Tennessee and her rise to international stardom.
Collecting the recollections of your lifetime in book form when you’re 15 is just sad. In the first place, well… who cares? And in the second, at 15, even if you’ve done a lot -- really -- what have you done? And, worse, what do you follow it up with? At 21, are you completely washed up and looking over your shoulder at your bat mitzvah going, “Now those were the days!”

Literature might hit even higher heights next year: Amy Winehouse, the performer ANI is calling a “rehab singer,” has reportedly been offered close to two million dollars to talk about her marriage with “imprisoned husband” Blake Fielder-Civil. According to The Boston Herald, Winehouse “is still in talks with Penguin Publishers while Blake, 26, who is incarcerated with little else to do, has already agreed.” (Of course, he’s also reportedly selling topless photos of his bride to support his drug habit, so maybe he does have something else to do, after all.)


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Norris Gets Patriotism in Print

Washington, DC’s Regnery Publishing has announced that they will be publishing a book by actor and martial arts expert, Chuck Norris. The actor and some time writer raised eyebrows earlier this year by touring with Mike Huckabee who was, at the time, a Republican presidential hopeful.

Regnery tells us the book, tentatively to be called Black Belt Patriotism “offers more than a cultural critique -- it’s a no-holds-barred assessment of American culture, from family values to national security. Black Belt Patriotism offers a unique perspective on the steps we must take to kick the problems plaguing America, straight from a true American icon.”

Can you say, “Yikes!” (I knew you could.)

According to Regnery, “Norris is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, a philanthropist, martial arts expert, and TV and film actor. Best known for his TV series Walker, Texas Ranger -- Norris toured Iraq in 2006 & 2007, shaking hands & taking pictures with more than 38,000 troops.”

The book will be published this summer.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Author Snapshot: Shanna Swendson

We join the Texas-based author previously known as Samantha Carter at a beautiful moment in her career: Don’t Hex With Texas (Ballantine Books), the fourth novel in her widely acclaimed Enchanted, Inc. series is appearing in bookstores right now and the reviews that have been heralding the way have been sunny and enthusiastic. Last fall, the first book in the series, Enchanted, Inc., has been optioned for film by Universal's Strike Entertainment.

The Enchanted, Inc. books are… well… enchanting. And certainly charming. A small town Texas girl pulls up stakes and moves to the big smoke where she gets a job with a mysterious company called MSI, Inc. Magical high-jinx follow. In a review of Don’t Hex With Texas, Booklist said the Enchanted, Inc. books comprised “one of the best romantic-fantasy series being written today.”

A Snap
shot of... Shanna Swendson

Born: Fort Sill, Oklahoma
Reside: Irving, Texas
Birthday: August 7
Web site:

Please tell us about your most recent book.
Don’t Hex With Texas is the fourth book in my Enchanted, Inc. series about an entirely unmagical woman who works for a magical corporation.

In this one, the action moves to Katie Chandler’s home town, which means that for a change, she’s not the fish out of water. I had a lot of fun making odd magical stuff happen in a small Texas town.

What’s on your nightstand?
A towering pile of partially read books that I’ll get back to someday and read, books that need to be reshelved that’s someday going to topple and kill me, a telephone, alarm clock, earplugs (I have noisy neighbors) and a flashlight (it’s thunderstorm season).

But if you mean what am I reading now, well, I just started reading Pyramids by Terry Pratchett, but it’s on the floor by my bed instead of on my nightstand because the nightstand is where books go to die (or wait to be re-shelved).

What inspires you?
Just about everything inspires me. I like playing games of what-if, taking things too literally, fixing things that I feel were done wrong in another story, trying to see what I can get away with. Most of my story ideas seem to come from me being a brat.

What are you working on now?
I just started playing with a new idea, and I’m way too early in the process to have the slightest idea of whether or not it will go anywhere, so I’m a little hesitant to talk about it.

Tell us about your process.
My process seems to change with each book. Each one has its own rhythm. I write on a computer (because if I wrote by hand, I’d never be able to read it), and usually in the late afternoon or at night. I seem to have the worst of both worlds between plotting or writing free-form -- I can’t get very far without plotting everything out, but then I don’t really seem to know what the book is about until I’ve written it, and then I have to do a lot of revising. I usually write enough to get a feel for it -- as little as five pages, as many as 60 -- then do some brainstorming, plotting, character development, that sort of thing. Then I write a very, very rough, fast draft. And then I take it all apart and put it back together again. My first draft usually takes about a month, and then revisions can take up to six months.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

If I look straight ahead, I look out the glass doors onto a balcony that overlooks a little lawn area, the major street beyond that, and then the buildings across the street. The signal lights at the intersection are blinking red thanks to a storm last night, so the traffic flow is fairly entertaining as people unexpectedly encounter a four-way stop and aren’t sure what to do. If I look any other direction, I see a terribly messy office that I really do plan to clean someday.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think my very first inkling that writing was fun came in fourth grade when we were supposed to write a paragraph describing a picture and I found myself writing a whole short story. I first started really thinking about writing as a career when I was about 12. I figured out then that if I wrote down the stories I made up in my head, I’d have a book, and it was around that age that I looked up “publishers” in the phone book. But as I didn’t live in New York, I didn’t find any.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I have no idea. I keep thinking of things I could do as a fallback career, and none of them hold much appeal for me -- or else they somehow come back to writing. I suppose if I got truly desperate I could go back to doing marketing and public relations work, which was my career before I started writing full-time, but I dread the thought of that. I’m fascinated by psychology and have thought that might be something to pursue, but then I’d still probably end up writing psychology books. I guess if I can’t make this writing thing work, I’m doomed.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
A few days before the release of the first book in my series, I got a copy of the review Charles deLint wrote in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in which he raved about the book and about how original my concept was. He was one of the writers I’d looked to as an example in writing contemporary fantasy, and I love his work, so seeing one of my role models praising my work and really getting what I was trying to say was overwhelming. I burst into tears when I read it and spent the rest of the day shaking.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Coming up with story ideas is probably the easiest thing. Just about everything I see or do gives me some fragment of idea. I doubt I’ll ever run out of things to write because I have a huge backlog of ideas.

What’s the most difficult?
The most difficult thing is releasing my baby over to other people and realizing that once I’ve written the book, I have very little control over it. I may get to make suggestions, but ultimately, I can’t control where the books are shelved, how they’re distributed and how people can find out about them.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?

When’s the next book coming out?

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
Can we please pay you large sums of money to write something for us?

What question would like never to be asked again?
For frequency and futility: Why aren’t your books shelved as fantasy? (Not that I don’t think that’s a brilliant idea. I’ve been politely suggesting it for a while now, but questions about where/how my books can be found are best directed to the publisher or bookseller since I have no control over that.)

For making me deeply uncomfortable: Can you read my manuscript and critique it/recommend it to your editor or agent/give me an endorsement blurb? (I’m not a very good critiquer, I have a reading backlog so you might get a faster response just submitting your work to agents or publishers without my recommendation, and I only take blurb requests that come through editors or agents because I only give blurbs for books when I enthusiastically recommend them, and I’m a huge weenie so I never want to have to tell someone directly that I didn’t like her book enough to give it a blurb. It’s hard enough telling an agent or editor that it’s not for me. I guess the weenie thing also applies to critiques or giving referrals. I don’t want to have to tell anyone I don’t like it.)

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I’m not sure there is anything that no one knows that I’m willing to share. That’s a hazard of blogging regularly for years. If I wanted to tell it, I already have. My readers already know about my crippling shyness in the presence of people I admire, my huge crush on a local TV anchorman, my telephone phobia, my aversion to bananas and my extreme levels of geekiness. What more could I tell?

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Monday, April 21, 2008

New Last Week: Secrets of the Wee Free Men and Discworld by Carrie Pyykkonen and Linda Washington

People who have read more than a single Terry Pratchett novel are not just readers; they are fans. That’s just how it works with this author. And Pratchett fans are more than just fans. They’re passionate fans, prepared to discuss the minutiae of the “Multiverse” Pratchett created with barely any provocation.

A Pratchett quote on the very first page of Secrets of the Wee-Free Men and Discworld: The Myths and Legends of Terry Pratchett’s Multiverse (St. Martin’s Griffin), explains part of the fascination. “You’d have to be a very strange person to get all of the jokes. But I hope you’ll get between 80 and 90 percent, and the ones you don’t get, you won’t actually notice are there!” These joke-getting readers, then, are the ones that will not only want this unauthorized companion, they probably won’t rest until it’s in their hands.

Meanwhile Pratchett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s earlier this year, recently announced he was donating half a million pounds -- about one million dollars -- to be used for Alzheimer’s research. A grassroots fund raising program has been surging through the author’s fanbase. You can read more about that here.

Over the years, January has interviewed the Discworld creator on a couple of occasions. You can see those interviews here and here.

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Celebrating Earth Day: Go Green by Nancy H. Taylor

Before you even pick the book up, Nancy H. Taylor’s Go Green: How to Build an Earth-Friendly Community (Gibbs Smith) scores points for staying on target; on task. No glossy stock here, no nasty poison inks or sketchy varnishes. The slender paperback is all soft edges and recycled stock so, going in, it’s reassuring to see an author who encourages us to change the world by starting with “easy things like changing our lightbulbs, recycling and driving less” actually walking that walk in her own book.

Taylor’s book deals with all the issues central to recreating your life in a more conscious way. Remodeling your home with green as your guide; choosing greener vehicles, buying local and organic food; conserving water and getting to a place of awareness with your personal carbon footprint.

At its core, Go Green is a primer. If you’re already ankle-deep or more in the environmental movement, there’s probably not a great deal for you to learn here: most of this has been said before, albeit in more complicated ways. But if you, like millions of others, want to know where to begin and how you can start to help, you won’t go wrong with Go Green.


Review: Airman by Eoin Colfer

Today in January Magazine’s children’s book section, contributing editor Sue Bursztynski reviews Airman by Eoin Colfer. Says Bursztynski:

Eoin Colfer is best known for the Artemis Fowl series, those novels centered around a young Irish genius who burst on the scene by kidnapping a fairy for ransom and who has had several adventures since then.

In Airman, he ventures into Jules Verne territory, with some touches of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a breathless, non-stop adventure.

Conor Broekhart was born in a balloon as it was shot down at the Paris World Fair in 1878. This is only the start of his love for flying. He lives with his parents in the miniature kingdom of the Saltee Islands, somewhere between Britain, Ireland and France. The Islands were given to an ambitious knight, Raymond Trudeau, by British King Henry II, to keep his mind off his own kingdom. The place had no natural resources, until diamonds were discovered on the smaller island of the Saltees. The mines have kept the place going for centuries and provided a place to send convicts.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

New this Month: Looking for Anne by Irene Gammel

If it seems like you’re suddenly hearing more about Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, it’s because the first book in which Anne appeared, Anne of Green Gables, was published around this time one hundred years ago.

Earlier this year, we saw the publication of a brand new Anne book by Budge Wilson, Before Green Gables (Penguin Canada). Now noted biographer Irene Gammel brings us Looking for Anne (Key Porter Books) a brilliantly researched, in-depth and charming biography on both Lucy Maud Montgomery and her Titian-haired creation and brings us more than a few surprises. For example, we discover that Anne Shirley was as much a product of the zeitgeist as she was of innocent inspiration.

Author Gammel, who holds the research chair in modern literature and culture at Ryerson, tells us she was intrigued by the mystery that had surrounded Montgomery’s most famous literary creation. The book, Gammel writes, “was sparked by a paradox and a mystery.”
With over fifty million copies of the novel sold, a multi-million-dollar tourist industry, and countless adaptations of the novel and its sequels in musicals, movies, cartoons, dolls, and figurines, millions of fans know Anne Shirley intimately, but they know surprisingly little about how she came about. How can a work be so famous and yet its history so little known? We know more about other literary texts whose creation is shrouded in mystery, such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Erye, than we know about Anne of Green Gables.
Gammel never manages to lift all the secrets, but she makes some pretty strong inroads. Fans and scholars of this enduring book will leave it knowing -- or suspecting -- much that had been in the dark before.


Further Adventures in Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal

In this gorgeously produced and surprisingly thick book, Blumenthal looks at the preparation of exactly eight dishes: hamburger; fish pie; chicken tikka masala; risotto; peking duck; chilli con carne; baked alaska and trifle. However, he looks at the them so closely, there are times that they probably want to squirm. Blumenthal’s risotto, for example, takes only about 35 minutes to prepare... once you’ve dealt with the 10 hours of prep time required to make it in his way. While it’s likely that very (very, very) few people will make risotto in exactly the way Blumenthal recommends, on the way to the recipes, you’ll learn an awful lot about rice and starch and many other things you’ve probably never considered deeply until now.

Picking off where he left off in 2006’s In Search of Perfection, Further Adventures in Search of Perfection (Bloomsbury), Blumenthal goes to excessive (some would be say crazy ass) lengths to deconstruct a handful of favorites. “Ultimately,” writes Blumenthal, “that’s what this book is about the excitement and enjoyment of discovering new routes to the cooking of old favorites.”

The routes are extreme, to say the very, very least. For example, in order to determine if marinades actually do tenderize meat, at one point Blumenthal sticks chicken breasts into an MRI (this on the road to finding the perfect chicken tikka masala). If you’ve seen him on television, you know that some of the effort he goes through in his endless search for the perfection is… well… a little silly. Same here. But, at the same time, it’s a deeply interesting tour through a surprising number of ingredients and techniques by a man whose internationally acclaimed restaurant -- Fat Duck -- and OBE attest to the passion he brings to his quest.

“Increasingly,” Blumenthal writes, “I’ve realised that culinary perfection means not only mastery of technique, but also consideration of the sensory and psychological aspects of a dish.” If that’s a line that hits you where you live, you will love Further Adventures in Search of Perfection.

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Don’t Fight the Power

On the promotional trail for her latest book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (Penguin), Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for 2002’s A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide) Samantha Power touches down in Toronto for a heart-to-heart with The Globe and Mail’s Martin Levin, who writes:
Harassed by the media, resigned from the Barack Obama campaign over her “Hillary Clinton is a monster” remark, jetting around the continent promoting her new book on Sergio Vieira de Mello, it's no wonder Samantha Power looks tired.

But she's not slumping on the restaurant table. Rather, she is energized into her usual preternatural articulateness when talking of the man who is for her a hero, a UN internationalist peacemaker killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq in 2003.
At one point, Levin asks if what the Irish-American author and academic thought about de Mello going in was altered by the research she did for the book. Power says: “He came across publicly as a bon vivant: gorgeous, sophisticated, brilliant, charismatic. But there was a lot of loneliness there, a lot of guilt over so much time away from his family. And he was very discreet. I knew him for nine years and never knew he had two PhDs in philosophy.”

The Globe and Mail piece is here. Last week, Conor Foley at The Guardian was lovin’ this book all over the place. “If you only read one book about the United Nations,” Foley wrote, “make sure that it is Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello.” Foley’s review is carefully considered, lengthy and it’s here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

New Next Week: Someday When My Cat Can Talk by Caroline Lazo

Someday When My Cat Can Talk (Schwartz & Wade) is one of those children’s books that are so beautiful, they make a lasting impression. This is due in no small part to the award-winning duo who wrote and illustrated the book. Caroline Lazo’s books for children have included F. Scott Fitzgerald: Voice of the Jazz Age which was a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book. Illustrator Kyrsten Brooker’s many books have won armloads of awards including an ALA Notable Book (for Precious and the Boo Hag), a School Library Journal of the Year Award (for Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street) and many others.

What those books have and have not done doesn’t matter: Someday When My Cat Can Talk stands alone. This is one of those children’s picture books where you know all elements are working as soon as you touch it. Dig in a bit further and there’s just no looking back.

By itself, the story is engaging. A little girl’s cat has a secret life no one else knows about or can hope to understand. He travels the world, enjoying everything that a globe-trotting kitty might expect to enjoy, then comes home and doesn’t tell his young mistress about his adventures because -- of course -- cats can’t talk.

It’s a sweet and charming story, told in enchanting rhyme. The book even includes a brief but sharp section called “Facts Behind the Story” for readers intrigued by the fun locations who want to learn just a little bit more. Brooker’s skillfully whimsical paintings with strong elements of collage steal the spotlight, though.

Someday When My Cat Can Talk is a lovely book, sure to delight young children, as well as collectors of this type of work.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Saving the Book Business from Itself

At Library Journal, librarian and author Barbara Fister asks: “What if you ran your bookstore like a library?” Then seems to startle herself with some of the answers.
Ironically, these days it’s the book business that has an aura of crisis and gloom, while visits to libraries are surging. Over two billion items are checked out annually, and nearly all libraries offer free Internet access along with many of the amenities of a bookstore.

Truth be told, the book business has always had an aura of crisis and gloom. It’s the Eeyore of industries. But lately, it’s become clear that the book industry really does need to be saved: from itself.
Though she has a full understanding of some of the problems currently facing aspects of the publishing industry, she’s the first to admit she’s not sure where all of the answers will come from:
My solutions are a bit fantastical. I’m sure there are things I don’t understand about the large and complex distribution system that underlies bookselling, and we’d have to persuade publishers that libraries are partners rather than semilegitimate piracy schemes. No doubt it’s all more complicated than I imagine, and it wouldn’t happen quickly; the publishing industry adapts to change with all the alacrity of a glacier.
Still, she’s asking the right questions and she sums up the feelings many book lovers have very succinctly:
Still, as a writer I am dismayed when I hear authors scold readers when they do what comes naturally -- share books. As a librarian, I want book publishing to recognize the virtues of our values. As a reader, I want books. Lots of them. Right now.
Fister’s Library Journal piece is here. Earlier this year, I very much enjoyed an essay by this author in Inside Higher Ed on the ethics of social networking. That piece is here. Her newest book, In the Wind (St. Martin’s Minotaur) will be published at the end of this month. Around that time, look for a January Magazine Author Snapshot with Fister right here.


Understanding Mommy’s Brazilian Butt Lift

This is not a book we’ve seen (and, please: that’s not a hint. We don’t want it) but today in the LA Times blog, trendspotter Monica Corcoran writes about My Beautiful Mommy (Big Tent Books), a book intended to help kids deal with their mother’s plastic surgery:
Now, there's a book called My Beautiful Mommy written by plastic surgeon, Dr. Michael Salzhauer. It's aimed at helping confused kids understand why Mommy got a new nose and higher cheekbones and a smaller butt and a bigger chest and...

Already, the book is being skewered and it looks pretty horrific from the cover.
And I guess having it be mommy specific might have been a business decision. Could My Dashing Daddy be very far behind?

Corcoran has another idea for a sequel, though: “Maybe the next book should be titled: Mommy Spent My College Money on Lipo.”

Corcoran’s full piece is here.


The Truth? It’s Out There.

This has nothing at all to do with books… except for maybe a mitt full of tie-ins published at the height of X-Files mania in the mid-to-late 1990s. Still, word that the second X-Files film now has a name seemed worthy of note:
The second big-screen spinoff of the paranormal TV adventure will be called “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” Chris Carter, the series’ creator and the movie’s director and co-writer, told The Associated Press.

Distributor 20th Century Fox signed off on the title Wednesday.

The title is a familiar phrase for fans of the series that starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents chasing after aliens and supernatural happenings. “I Want to Believe” was the slogan on a poster Duchovny’s UFO-obsessed agent Fox Mulder had hanging in the cluttered basement office where he and Anderson’s Dana Scully worked.
The AP story is here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Author Snapshot: Daniel Kalla

When you meet him he is quiet, articulate, soft-spoken. An emergency physician, he is certainly hard-working: though that just goes with the territory. And then, beginning with his debut novel, 2005’s Pandemic, you read his work and discover unplumbed depths of the type that fuel that very best high tech thrillers. And the type that cause the more gentle souls among us to lose sleep.

Though perhaps it is no longer fair to call these depths “unplumbed.” Kalla has been plumbing just fine, thank you penning a novel a year and sometimes more since Pandemic, each bringing still more readers to the talented doctor’s fanbase. The latest -- the fifth -- is Cold Plague, reuniting us again with Pandemic’s Dr. Noah Haldane, and introducing a plot that feels like Al Gore meets Michael Crichton: planet saving pathos gone somehow desperately wrong.

A Snapshot of ... Daniel Kalla

Born: Vancouver, Canada
Resides: Vancouver, Canada
Birthday: May 4th, 1966
Web site:

Please tell us about Cold Plague, your most recent book.
Pristine water -- millions of years old and untouched by pollution -- is discovered miles under the Antarctic ice. Meanwhile, a cluster of new cases of mad cow disease explode in a rural France. Dr. Noah Haldane -- the hero of Pandemic -- and his team are urgently summoned. Noah recognizes the deadliness of the protein responsible for mad cow disease and its human equivalent. It is the prion that kills with the ferocity of a virus, but he suspects factors other than nature have ignited its spread among people and animals of France.

Facing a spate of disappearances and unexplained deaths, he uncovers a conspiracy that stretches from Moscow to Beverly Hills, and from the North to the South Pole. And he recognizes that the scientific find of the century: a body of water the size of Lake Michigan buried under Antarctic ice might hold the key to a microscopic Jurassic Park.

What’s on your nightstand?
Lamb by Christopher Moore and A Short History Of Almost Everything by Bill Bryson.

What inspires you?
My family. My work. My work-outs. Reading. Writing. Walking. The world in general. Essentially, anyone and anything can inspire me, but inspiration is a fickle and elusive state. I don’t do well at all when I’m actively looking for it.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a “big” book. I use the term because it has a large cast and covers over a hundred years from the turn of the 20th century to the present. It’s my first non-thriller. I’m trying to capture a bit of an “epic” feel. Hospital tells story of a fictional West Coast Mayo Clinic, the Alfredson, which is careening toward a major crisis along with the characters who live and work inside it. The story centers around two families -- the Alfredsons who funded and still control the place, and the McGraths who have always been its medical leaders -- and their often-times adversarial and destructive relationship.

Tell us about your process.
I work on a computer. I have world-class bad penmanship, even for a doctor, which says a lot! Once I have an idea, I write from a very loose two to 10 page outline, which I never consult once I start writing the manuscript. If I have something to say, I can write anywhere and anytime I’m near a computer. And if I don’t, it’s just a complete and utter waste of time... but I never seem to learn that lesson!

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
Chaos. I’m in my office. Pictures, discs, papers, magazines, books, wires, computer equipments, three or four boxes that might possibly contain body parts. I really ought to clean this place up!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was six years old and taking my first violin lesson.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

Not playing violin (see above)!

I have the luxury of a day job working as an emergency room physician, which I still enjoy, especially since I work at a teaching hospital and I have the pleasure of mentoring medical students and residents. I suppose I would be doing more of the same, and possibly some work in medical administration. Come to think of it, I better keep writing!

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
It’s a tie between: 1) Hearing from my agent that an editor at Tor-Forge in New York wanted to publish my novel, and 2) receiving a letter of endorsement (with quotable praise for two of my novels) from one of my literary childhood heroes, Nelson DeMille.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Don’t know about easiest, but my favorite part is hitting what I call “the point of engagement” in a story. By that I mean the point in a new manuscript when I know most of the main characters and have a rough idea of what has to happen next. Generally, the writing flows much faster for me after that. It’s always fun from that point because I never know how it’s going to end. And it’s fun to find out.

What’s the most difficult?
Reviewing the final proofs. I have a desperately short attention span and, besides, I’m a terrible proof reader. Inevitably, when those final pages come back to me to review before the book is moved into its final draft phase, I have trouble reading the novel again as I’m usually immersed in a new manuscript. It’s an important step, but one I can never get excited about.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Being a practicing physician, father of two girls, and writer, I get asked by everyone -- and I mean everyone -- “Where do you find the time to write?”

What question would like never to be asked again?
Being a practicing physician, father of two girls, and writer, I get asked by everyone -- and I mean everyone -- “Where do you find the time to write?”

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
With so little time on your hands, how do you manage to write such engaging stories? (Hey, a guy can dream!)

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I don’t like rabbits. Never have. Never will.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Happy Anniversary: The Big Lebowski

It blows my mind -- that is to say, it is mind-blowing -- that The Big Lebowski turns 10 this year. I mean, what did we even say when we didn’t call each other “dude”? The Coen Brothers’ modern classic, released in 1998, plunked this term into its current context into the modern lexicon. And so much -- so much! -- more. This from the introduction to BFI Film Classics The Big Lebowski by J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters:
Since every last scrap of dialogue from the film is now somebody’s inside joke -- oat sodas! what-have-you! -- The Big Lebowski is now basically a slacker’s bible, to be quoted more or less religiously.
Like the film itself, the book is slender and appears light, yet it is surprisingly powerful, offering up assessments of the movie and its place in modern film -- and cult film -- history, as well as the impact The Big Lebowski has had on the wider world (more than you probably think). It even offers brief comment on other Coen Brothers movies and finds the place where Lebowski fits in the context of the work of these talented and off-beat siblings.

Is it an important book? The depends. Do you think The Big Lebowski is an important film? If the answer is an unhesitating “yes,” run, don’t walk.

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New This Month: The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

Padma Viswasathan’s debut novel is deceptively quiet and quietly brilliant. It pads in on little cat feet and rips you along. You don’t realize you’re on an epic journey in the midst of a generational saga until you’re well along and it’s far, far too late to turn back. Not that you’d want to. Not that you even could.

Inspired by the author’s own family history, we join Sivakami in a village in India in 1892, the year of her marriage to the healer, Hanumarathnam. She is ten.
She is neither tall nor short for her age, but she will not grow much more. Her shoulders are narrow but appear solid, as though the blades are fused to protect her heart from the back. She carries herself with attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps born with a yoke within her.
Sivakami is of the Brahmin caste as, of course, is her husband. And so when, as the astrologers forecast, her husband is dead by the time she is 18, leaving her with two young children to care for, she must take up the life of a widow, secluding herself most of the time, shaving her head and leaving the affluent and attractive young widow with a wardrobe of only two plain white saris and a future that will be seen mostly from within her own home. It’s the course her upbringing has set out for her and she doesn’t balk. She faces it squarely and begins to forge her way through the rest of her life.

Were you to only read these few lines, it would be possible to believe that this is the story of a woman’s oppression, but The Toss of A Lemon (Random House) is hardly that; never that. And is, in fact, so, so much more.

What astonishes here is Viswasathan’s virtuosity. In The Toss of A Lemon, we join India at a time of great social and political upheaval. Nevertheless, we experience this only at a distance. The way, in fact, Sivakami might experience it. Our concerns are more immediate, more domestic, though never more mundane. The marriage of a daughter, a granddaughter. The obedience of a son-in-law. The disturbingly progressive thoughts of a son. These concern Sivakami exclusively and, with her as our proxy, they are all that concern us, as well.

The Toss of A Lemon is astonishing. Brilliant. Beautiful. I learned a great deal about 20th century India that I did not know before. That’s secondary, of course. Like the very best novels, at its core, The Toss of A Lemon teaches us about ourselves.

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“Wholesale Theft,” Charges Rowling

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was in court in New York yesterday, hot on the heels of a Michigan-based company that is trying to publish an encyclopedia based on the magical world Rowling has created. According to The New York Times:
Ms. Rowling and Warner Brothers Entertainment, which produces the Harry Potter films, are suing RDR Books, a small Michigan publisher, to stop the publication of Steven Vander Ark’s “Harry Potter Lexicon,” an encyclopedia based on Mr. Vander Ark’s popular Web site of the same name.

Ms. Rowling argued on Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan that the proposed encyclopedia -- she has read the manuscript -- is a copyright infringement and is little more than an alphabetical form of plagiarism.
RDR Books, of course, has a different take on the matter:
What she denounced as plagiarism and a waste of money, the publisher defended as literary scholarship and an invaluable tool for Harry Potter readers, similar to a Shakespeare concordance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the dictionary and other reference books. Ms. Rowling said the manuscript was “sloppy, lazy,” riddled with errors and motivated by the publisher’s and author’s realization that it could bring “a fast buck.”
Though aspects of the proceedings are quite serious, some fictional silliness was bound to sneak in here and there:
Everyone except Ms. Rowling seemed to be competing for the wittiest Harry Potter references.

When her lawyer, Dale Cendali, spoke Lord Voldemort’s name -- known to everyone who has ever read a Potter book as “he who must not be named” -- she quickly said, “Forgive me for speaking the name.”

And Mr. Falzone, the defense lawyer, suggested in his opening statement that Ms. Rowling was trying to exert a bit of the dark arts herself, by testing whether she “has the power to make the Lexicon disappear from our world.”
The case, which is likely to run all week, is being heard by U.S. District Court Judge Robert P. Patterson without a jury.

The New York Times piece is here. Hecklerspray gets a bit fun and silly here, while The Scotsman offers up just the facts here.


Review: The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu. Says Leach:
The Corpse Walker is comprised of 27 stories of Chinese life told by those living “on the bottom rung.” The notion of a “bottom rung” is anathema to Communist Chinese, who insist everyone lives prosperously thanks to the Party. Liao, who collected these tales orally over several years, demonstrates this is far from the case. We hear from 27 people, including a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a public restroom attendant, a composer, a teacher and a retired party official. Their stories are a near-identical recitation of horrors: starvation, arrests, beatings, denunciations by neighbors, friends, and relatives at the endless “speak bitterness” meetings held by party officials. We hear about the famine that left people killing their youngest daughters and eating them, correctly observing that the children would have starved anyway. We hear from the mortuary worker who prepared many bodies for cremation, bodies missing chunks of flesh consumed by villagers so crazed with hunger they were willing eat of deceased neighbors. We hear from the retired party official, who witnessed peasants eating white clay, falling ill, and ingesting tung oil as a curative. We read of wholesale destruction of temples and ancient religious statuary.

Liao intends to inform as well as sicken us. He succeeds, but at a cost, for the book ultimately collapses beneath the weight of its message.
The full review is here.

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Talking TV

Tune in tonight to hear my colleague J. Kingston Pierce, editor of The Rap Sheet, on Talking Television with Dave White.
And should you feel like tuning in for [the] broadcast of Talking Television with Dave White (or listening to the show later via the KSAV archives), please forgive me for my inevitable blunders and random asides. It’s not every day, after all, that I appear on the same program with Brandon Cruz.
You can see Pierce’s full post on this here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Eyes on Rushdie

Salman Rushdie speaks with Anirudh Bhattacharyya of CNN-IBN about his new book, The Enchantress of Florence (Random House).

Though Bhattacharyya keeps things tightly focused throughout the interview, the reporter couldn’t resist asking the question that’s been most on a lot of people’s minds since Rushdie split with wife Padma Lakshmi earlier this year:
Anirudh Bhattacharyya: A personal question and a more serious one. You were separated recently, how difficult was that and what brought about?

Salman Rushdie: It is not that recently but it has been more than a year now. It was awful. It was a very sad event that I did not generate, I did not want it to happen. I tried very hard to prevent it from happening but in the end if people want to go their own way then that’s what they have to do. I am still very sad about.

It was a terrible year for me and I think that in many ways this book saved my life. The thing that I wasn’t able to do I did do and that was to plunge into my work and seek in the works some of the happiness that was available outside. I do think that oddly it is kind of a joyful book.

It is strange to me to read it and find that quality of passion and joy in the book, which was the opposite of how I was feeling though I wasn’t writing a book. As to why it happened I think that is a private thing.

Meanwhile, The Daily Mail reports that Rushdie has been escorting his own “Heather Mills (but this one has principles AND talent).”
Working the room at a Manhattan party, they made a surprising couple. At 32 and 5ft 9in, Aimee Mullins is 28 years younger and at least 2in taller than her companion, the portly author Sir Salman Rushdie.

Nevertheless, guests at the Soho Grand Hotel bash earlier this month were left in little doubt that, following the end of his fourth marriage to the sultry Padma Lakshmi, Rushdie now has a new, even younger, woman in his life.
The CNN-IBN interview is here. The Daily Mail piece is here. January Magazine’s 2002 interview with Rushdie is here.

Travel Writer Lied

Thomas Kohnstamm, who has seen several books with his name on it published by Lonely Planet, told The Sunday Telegraph that a lot of the travel books he wrote or contributed to weren’t exactly as represented. As reported by Reuters:
He said in one case he had not even visited the country he wrote about.
“They didn't pay me enough to go to Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating -- an intern at the Colombian consulate,” the newspaper quoted Kohnstamm as saying.
Kohnstamm is currently flogging a new book called Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? (Three Rivers Press). It’s an idiotic premise. A “writer” with dodgy morals signs a contract to deliver a book, then cuts corners and compromises himself in every imaginable way, then has the temerity to blame his publisher. What (ahem) planet are we on anyway? At what point in history did it become okay for someone to take on an assignment and then do a bad job because he didn’t like the terms he agreed to in the first place?

The Telegraph reported that Kohnstamm has earned the support of his fellow writers. “You know you are not paying enough money to authors to do the work you expect.” One Lonely Planet author told The Telegraph: “You are begging authors to cut corners … or to help finance the book out of their own pocket.”

Here’s an idea and here’s what grown-up writers do: if you really feel you’re not being offered enough money, don’t agree to do the book, don’t sign the contract. It really is that simple. And if everyone does that…

The Telegraph piece is here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Review: New Orleans 1867 by Gary A. Van Zante

Today in January Magazine’s art & culture section, contributing editor Aaron Blanton reviews New Orleans 1867 by Gary A. Van Zante. Says Blanton:
In 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War, New Orleans photographer Theodore Lilienthal (1829-1894) was given an important assignment. Under orders from the city’s politicians and top business people, and with a desire for boosterism and image-building during the time of Reconstruction -- the German-born Lilienthal was paid 2000 dollars -- an enormous sum in post-war New Orleans -- to undertake a 12 week photographic project. The final portfolio was known as La Nouvelle Orléans et ses environs and included 150 photographs and 50 stereoscopic views of the city, which Lilienthal showed in late May of that year in his Poydras Street studio.

Lilienthal’s portfolio of New Orleans images became the first municipally sponsored photographic survey of an American city. In New Orleans 1867, Gary A. Van Zante, MIT curator of architecture and design, collects the 126 surviving images from the portfolio, studies them and places them within the various historical contexts of the Civil War, civic planning and this important -- often beleaguered -- city itself.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

New in Paper: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

In case you missed all the hoopla when Horan’s debut novel was released in hardcover last year -- and there was a lot of it -- Ballantine dropped the paperback a couple of days ago. I feel a little odd offering up additional buzz about Loving Frank, a book that’s had swarms written about it, but it really is wonderful: still worth talking about, but now easier to bring to the beach or hide at work.

What we have here is a skillfully fictionalized retelling of the relationship between mega-architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the woman who was probably the love of the arrogant architect’s life, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Horan’s treatment is elegant enough that those of us without an intimate knowledge of the relationship will have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. It doesn’t matter. Here’s what does: Loving Frank transports.


What Reading Crisis?

When confronted with so many books on my review and reading pile I sometimes wonder exactly who is reading these books? Then I see many bookstores closing, supermarket chains pumping out discounted bestsellers, and I worry about literacy. I recently spoke with bestselling author Lee Child, a confirmed bibliophile, about the reading crisis, but he has a much more positive spin on things:
I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna, but I have a vague feeling that reading is going to come back big-time. The thing that took people away from reading is pretty much saturated now--games, the Internet, DVDs, etc. Reading is like a virus that sleeps gently in the soil, undisturbed, and it will come back in a big way, probably with the younger generation using these new reading devices like the Kindle.
This week Business Wire issued a report that seems in part to support Child’s viewpoint based on a Harris Poll they commissioned:
For years, people have been crying about the death of the book. While reading books may be declining, Americans are reading. Just one in ten (9%) say they typically read no books in an average year. About one-quarter (23%) read between 1 and 3 books, while one in five (19%) read between 4 and 6 books and 13 percent typically read between 7 and 10 books. And, over one-third (37%) of Americans say they read more then ten books in an average year.

There are certain groups who are more likely to read more than ten books in an average year. Looking at the generations, almost half (47%) of Matures (those aged 63 and older) say they read more than ten books compared to just one-third (33%) of Baby Boomers (those aged 44-62). Women are also more likely to read more than men – 44 percent of women read more than ten books a year compared to three in ten (29%) men. Candidates may not want to try books to reach their partisans, but they may be a good way to reach out to Independents. Just one-third of Republicans (33%) and Democrats (35%) say they read more than ten books in a year compared to 44 percent of Independents.
However it’s not all good news. The report indicates that readers are buying fewer books, and many cite lack of time in today’s world as the major reason for lack of reading. Even so, the boom and crime and mystery fiction continues:
In looking at the different types of books people read, non-fiction and fiction are almost even (82% and 80% respectively). The largest single genre is mystery, thriller and crime (48% read) followed by history (35%), biographies (31%), religious and spirituality (28%) and literature (27%). Men and women have different tastes in the type of books they read. Women are more likely to read mysteries (57% versus 38%), religious books (32% versus 24%), and, perhaps not a surprise, romance novels (38% versus 3%). Men, on the other hand, are more likely to read history (44% versus 27%), science fiction (34% versus 18%) and political (22% versus 9%).

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Review: Keeper and Kid by Edward Hardy

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Tony Buchsbaum reviews Keeper and Kid by Edward Hardy. Says Buchsbaum:
Keeper is Jim Keeper, divorced, mid-30s and now wonderfully enmeshed in a fruitful relationship with Leah and a career path that leaves a bit to be desired. His life is just perfect right about now. His divorce was bad enough that he knows that he’ll never marry again, just to avoid having to divorce again (maybe). But Leah, a workaholic on the fast track, seems fine with that. Everything’s just ducky, in fact, until Keeper’s ex, Cynthia, dies. Leaving him their dog. Who turns out to be dead, too.

Which is when Keeper learns he has a three-year-old son. With no mother, the kid -- Leo -- is moving into Daddy’s house. Except Daddy didn’t ever expect to be a parent ... and it isn’t even his house.

Now, before you call me a spoiler, the jacket tells you all this (well, pretty much). And anyway, it’s from here that Keeper and Kid finds itself, its characters, its voice and its undeniable beauty. See, this is a book that seems to be about transformation, but is really about revelation. Leo, the monkey wrench, is tossed into the motor of Keeper’s life -- and seems to foul everything up. His relationships, his work, his home, his bank account...
The full review is here.

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