Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cookbook: Memphis Blues Barbecue House by George Siu and Park Heffelfinger

When you think of Vancouver, just about the last thing that comes to mind is classic Southern barbecue. And vice versa. Two things that, quite rightly, have no business being mentioned together. Maybe that’s exactly why the barbecue cookbook by the proprietors of what is probably Canada’s most successful barbecue restaurant is really quite good: the great barbecue they make at their award-winning restaurant was hard won. They have no family memories of this type of cuisine, no recipes from Aunt Delia to fall back on. On a trip to Memphis, they tried barbecue, fell in love then decided to import their new passion to Vancouver.

I’ve been to their restaurants on several occasions and though, strictly speaking, it’s not my kind of food, I still managed to choke a fair bit of it down. It’s wonderful. And it transports. Vancouver is stuffed with restaurants doing all sorts of Pan Asian and West Coast natural and Mediterranean types of food. But barbecue -- real barbecue? Not so much.

In bringing barbecue to Vancouver George Siu and Park Heffelfinger had to learn everything about the cuisine from the ground up. This translates to their book, Memphis Blues Barbecue House: Bringin’ Southern BBQ Home (Whitecap Books) as well. Everything here is clear and lucid and amazingly easy to follow. The type is large, the writing clear, the ingredients lists mostly surprisingly short. They break down cuts of meat, types of barbecue and even discuss “home barbecue rigs,” an important section if you’re going to try this at home. Not feeling brave enough to give up your gas barbecue? There’s still lots here for you: sauces and sides, salads and cornbread and even dessert. Vegetarians might want to give the book -- and the restaurant -- a pass, though. If Southern barbecue is anything, it’s a celebration of meat: even when administered by Canadians on a mission.


Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

We tend to think of the writing gift as something that can wear out. Even if we’re not conscious of thinking about it, it seems that one of the things we value most highly in an author is youth, and then we lower our expectations as authors age, force deadlines, disappoint us.

I wasn’t even really aware of any of these feelings until I was reading Lavinia (Harcourt), and was transported by the vibrance of the story as well as that of the voice that tells it. Le Guin, bless her, has been around a long, long time. And, for perspective, she was born in 1929 and thus is even older than John McCain. For some reason -- perhaps nothing more than Le Guin’s name -- Lavinia keeps getting shelved (and sometimes dismissed) as SF/F. It’s not. In certain significant ways, this is a historical novel of the highest order or, as Le Guin herself puts it in an afterword, Lavinia is “a meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character in [Vergil’s] story -- the unfolding of a hint.”

Essentially, Le Guin lends her voice to the character Lavinia, Vergil’s creation from Aeneid. Lavinia is a dreamy, contemplative work. I am tempted to call it Le Guin’s best, but considering the consistently remarkable qualities of Le Guin’s writing, that might be an overstatement. After all, over the years Le Guin has been awarded the Hugo and the Nebula Awards -- actually, five of each. She’s been given the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And the National Book Award. That’s a lot of celebration for a single career. But Lavinia is wonderful. I’m betting that the next award lands not far from this remarkable book.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

BEA Report: Sore Feet and Screaming Shoulders

It may have been guilt from the volley I launched at him earlier but, if so, I’ll take it. January Magazine contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum sends us his first report -- as well as a few more pictures -- from Book Expo America, currently underway at Staple Center in Los Angeles until June 1st.

Buchsbaum is filing his stories from his iPhone, which means he’s getting killer good at texting. Here’s what he had to say:
Dateline -- Los Angeles -- Thousands of book-hungry souls. Tens of thousands of copies of hopeful bestsellers. And thousands who work in an industry created to get you to read. Add a dash of madness -- as well as many a mad dash for the galley-of-the-moment, and that’s BookExpo, three days of heaven for anyone into books. If it’s between two covers, it’s here.

Picture hundreds of titles, mostly due out this fall, each looking for a mind to enter. Picture publishing people working to get people like me interested. With so many people choking the aisles, there’s no stopping to consider whether a book is worth taking. You just take them be hope it’ll be good. You really do have to judge each book by its cover; there’s no time for anything else. By day’s end, you’ve got a few dozen contenders for “a good read,” so there’s work to do.

Feet ready to fall off. Shoulders screaming. Mind reeling. And best of all, there are still two days to go. -- Tony Buchsbaum, reporting from BookExpo America 2008

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Book Expo… or Crack?

Tony Buchsbaum, January’s man in is the aisles at BookExpo America, is so overwhelmed with joy at books, books, everywhere he hasn’t been sending many words. Yet. But he’s filed some great photos from his iPhone.

First up, at left, the entrance hall to Staples Center in Los Angeles, where BookExpo America will run until June 1st.

At right is the photo Tony filed as “Heaven, or crack?”

And the last one, at left below: “Definitely crack.”

OK, clearly we’re going to have to get tough with Buchsbaum and tell him to quit partying and quit drooling over books and send us a story.

For instance, he has instructions to file something on the weird-sounding smell-a-vision type books being published by the Big Imagination Group that include “Press-2-Smell technology.” (I’m not making this up.) They’re in booth 5431. (Hurry up, Tony: I hear they’re giving out scratch n’ sniff t-shirts or bookmarks or something.)

Stories are managing to come out of BookExpo… just not from us. And a lot of them are filled with either doom and gloom for the industry (the death of the book thing we’ve been hearing about every few years for the last couple of decades) or triumph against all odds.

First some doom and gloom. This ran in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times under the headline “Troubled book world is going for novel ideas” (Wocka, wocka, wocka):
As Book Expo America, the nation's largest annual book convention, opens today in Los Angeles, innovation -- some would say desperation -- will be the main order of business. More than 2,000 exhibitors from every facet of the publishing world, nearly 1,000 authors and more than 25,000 people will be gathering at the L.A. Convention Center this weekend to discuss the state of an industry that's at a critical crossroads.
Meanwhile, Gayle Feldman, blogging from BEA for The Bookseller wonders if all the empty seats at the panels might mean the convention won’t be back to LA any time soon.
This year, in any event, there is the sense that given the economy, the distance from New York, and the calendar closeness to LIBF, a lot of East coast people and Europeans stayed home. On the other hand, for those from Asia, LA couldn’t be more convenient, and it looks like the Chinese will be here in force.
And nearly a year after the publication of the final Harry Potter book, The New York Times asks if there can be life in the industry after Harry. The answer: not so much. (OK: that doesn’t seem so much like a BEA story, but wait for it: it’s there.)

And another piece from The Los Angeles Times tells us something our man Tony knows for sure: you may think it’s about books, but really? It’s all about the parties.

Go Tony!


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Around the World in 80 Dinners by Cheryl and Bill Jamison

Today in January Magazine’s biography section, Diane Leach reviews Around the World in 80 Dinners by Cheryl and Bill Jamison. Says Leach:
Cheryl and Bill Jamison are best known for their numerous cookbooks, many focused on grilling and outdoor cookery. As an urban dweller lacking a barbeque, I’d never read much of their work, and looked forward to their travelogue, a jaunt from Bali to Brazil celebrating their 20th anniversary.

I was sorely disappointed. What could be an informative, amusing journey though oft-neglected spots -- been to New Caledonia lately? -- is instead a slog through miserably bad writing interspersed with flat attempts at humor and a more than few trumpetings of the Jamison horn.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

New in Paperback: The Pleasures of Slow Food by Corby Kummer

When The Pleasures of Slow Food (Chronicle Books) was first published back in 2002, elements that now, in 2008, have become a torrent were just a teensy little trickle. That is to say that Atlantic Monthly senior editor Corby Kummer’s celebration of the slow food movement will make more sense to more people now than it ever could have even six years ago.

If you’ve missed the Slow Food movement so far, you won’t for long: it’s coming at us fast and picking up steam, and dovetailing into other somewhat connected changes in the way we, as a culture, think about food.

To get an oversimplified picture of just what Slow Food is about, think about everything you know about the fast food industry… then imagine the opposite. That’s Slow Food. In Kummer’s words, “Slow Food is anything that uses ingredients carefully raised and tended and that tastes of where it’s from. Most important, it bears the stamp of the hands and the kitchen that made it.” In a way, even that is an oversimplification, but Kummer’s book covers it all in detail: the where, the when, the how and why. It’s lucid, well charted and even more than all of that implies.

It would have been enough to tell us about Slow Food: to explain it to us and let us know what’s good about it and why -- and if -- we should incorporate Slow Food into our own lives. But Kummer goes one better, incorporating a really useful and well-rounded recipe section that most serious home chefs will find of interest. In fact, more than half of The Pleasures of Slow Food is devoted to actually cooking. And though, clearly, you don’t need to follow Slow Food directives to make Baked Cheese with Winter Herbs or Soft Shell Crab Bisque or even Risotto Wrapped in Cabbage Leaves, the sprit of Slow Food envelopes all of these recipes and instructs us, in a way, better than even well-crafted words ever could.


100 Years of Ian Fleming

The blogosphere is abuzz with it today and, of course, J. Kingston Pierce has got our back on the topic at The Rap Sheet.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, James Bond creator Ian Fleming would have been 100 today. (Of course, there was no chance that was going to happen: all that booze. All those smokes. He was a lot younger than 100 when he died of a heart attack on August 12, 1964.

Not coincidentally, today also marks the publication date of Devil May Care (Doubleday), a new Bond novel by “Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming.” Obviously, The Rap Sheet has that covered as well.


New This Month: How to be Useful by Megan Hustad

The trouble with saying that a book is “unerringly hip” is that the people you most want to attract with that phrase are likely to be put off by it. In a way, that’s the subtext of this “… handbook for a new -- and slightly cynical -- generation” in former editor Megan Hustad’s not very cynical debut, How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work (Houghton Mifflin).

All of the things that make this book silly have nothing to do with the book itself. Stripped of all the marketing gewgaws, How to Be Useful is pretty terrific: a good idea well-executed.

Hustad has gone through all the self-help classics (“success literature”) with a fine-toothed 21st century comb. She looked at various versions of Emily Post through Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People to less well known tomes like Napoleon Hill’s How to Raise Your Own Salary and even seemingly irrelevant, reasonably recent bestsellers like Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

She went through them and distilled them and essentially pulled out the stuff that made them great in the first place -- what truths they unveiled, what zeitgeists they touched upon -- and translated them for a generation that gets “spoon-fed cranked-up sardonic posturing every time you turn on the television.”

In her own words, Hustad took the most compelling American success books of the last 100 years “and turned them upside down and shaken out every last bit of wisdom that might be useful to those low on the office totem pole today.”


Children’s Books: The World of Grrym: Allira’s Gift by Paul Collins and Danny Willis

When their grandfather, Fergus, disappears, Allira Hart and her brother Steven are taken to his Victorian country home by their father. Gerald Hart hasn’t seen much of his father for years and is angry with the old man for having wasted the family fortune on his crazy ideas. Like the castle. Niangula isn’t just a folly -- it’s a full-scale fortress which can be defended from the ravening hordes and it’s right in the middle of the Australian bush!

Of course, it turns out that there’s a good reason for having a fortress in the middle of the bush. Niangula is the gateway between two worlds and there are beings in the other world who would like to use it to invade.

Allira has strange powers. She has always known when something awful was going to happen -- and she has been hearing her grandfather’s voice in her head. He was, in fact, kidnapped by a bunch of troll mercenaries, who somehow managed to get past the defenses into our world and take him back into the world of Grrym, where he is the king. They did it on the orders of goblin Queen Morgassa, who had been overthrown by her subjects, with Fergus’ help, because of her tyranny.

The goblins loyal to Fergus want his granddaughter to take over and save them, since she is the only one in the family, after Fergus, to have the Sight. She is their Princess, as far as they are concerned, and has her own elite guard, even if they are so short that she has to sit down on the ground to talk to them properly. Of course, she protests that she wants to be an ordinary kid and anyway, she has to go to school, but comes good when needed.

The second half of the novel features a lot of fighting and sieges by the enemy armies as the action moves to Grrym, while at Niangula Steven is trying to find out what’s going on, family retainer Gardunk is having a hard time keeping control of Allira’s “g’loom,” a temporary illusion conjured up to replace her if Gerald returns from town, where he’s making arrangements for the children to go to school locally.

Who wouldn’t dream about being a Prince/Princess/Chosen One in another world, even if your subjects are a bunch of short, colorful pointy-eared beings? Children do. It has formed the basis of a lot of popular fiction and movies, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. As in the other stories of this genre, of course, the heroine protests that she doesn’t want to be royalty, she just wants to be an ordinary kid, but comes through when needed.

There’s enough action and humor in The World of Grrym (Five Mile Press) to keep young readers highly entertained, though the sequel had better come out quickly as the novel ends on a cliffhanger! The book is beautifully illustrated by co-author Danny Willis, whose pencil-drawn critters are reminiscent of Brian Froud in style. Despite all the goblins, trolls and giants taking part in the battles, the authors don’t forget that the story is centered around Australia. The scent of eucalyptus trees is strong, Australian animals wander about, the displaced Aboriginal spirit makes an appearance (hopefully to play a larger role in the next novel) and the bunyip plays his part in defending his home from otherworldly invaders.

This book should appeal to mid to late-primary school and early secondary students.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New This Month: We Are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek

It seems possible that We Are Now Beginning Our Descent would have been a much better book if its übbertalented author, James Meek, had just hung on for a decade or so before telling this story. As things are, sometimes it all just seems a little to close, a little too raw.

Like Meek himself, Adam Kellas, the protagonist of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is a British reporter in Afghanistan. According to the author’s bio, after 9/11, The Guardian sent Meek to Afghanistan to report on the war. In 2004, Meek’s reportage from Iraq and about Guantanamo Bay saw him named Foreign Correspondent and Amnesty Journalist of the Year.

Now, clearly, Meek knows about what the world looks like to a British reporter in the Middle East. And, just as clearly, based on his Man Booker-longlisted novel, the internationally bestselling The People’s Act of Love, Meek knows how to tell a story. But somehow, despite a violently shifting canvas that leaps over three continents and through the minds and hearts of a well-drawn and compelling cast of characters, elements of We Are Now Beginning Our Descent never quite gel.

The writing here is beautiful. “The stew smelled rich and fertile, like somebody’s happy ending.” And, “The two, shame and pride, nestled together, mirroring in adjacent chambers of his heart.” Yet somehow the compelling characters, the beautiful writing never lift off the page to become a living, breathing story; to create a memorable book. And, somehow again, that’s OK. It seems possible that what we are witnessing in We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, at least occasionally, is the exorcism of some personal demons. That can, in itself, be a pleasurable process to be part of.

Meek is a young enough writer that we can anticipate more stories from him. Meanwhile, we have this one and while it never transcends, neither is it a waste of time. Somehow, that’s enough.

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New This Week: Ex-Cottagers in Love by J.M. Kearns

He writes with a compelling slouch. You can hear his arms akimbo, demanding understanding of things that can not be understood.

Though the title is weirdly off-putting, once you’re past that obstacle, Ex-Cottagers in Love (Key Porter Books) is irresistible. The type of post-modern LadLit that is seldom celebrated as sharply as it should me. Never mind: this is not exclusionist literature. If you read it you will probably like it, it’s as simple as that.

Though Ex-Cottagers in Love is songwriter and philosophy Ph.D. Kearns’ debut novel, it is not his first book. That honor goes to Why Mr. Right Can’t Find You (Wiley), a work of non-fiction that is pretty much what it sounds like. Though Kearns is not yet well known outside of Canada and the U.K., we should expect that to happen in short order: this is an author with talent and good ideas. He’s the real deal.


Making Hay

It’s physically impossible for everyone to attend the 21st annual Hay Festival, one of the top festivals of the written word in the world. The Hay Festival takes place at Hay-on-Wye, on the Welsh side of the Welsh/English border and runs from May 22nd to June 1st. However, the festival’s tie-in to The Guardian -- plus its inherently photogenic nature -- means there’s been a lot of coverage so far. The Guardian’s book blog has been almost all Hay stories all the time for the last several days. Also, residents of the United Kingdom have been enjoying skyARTS’ terrific television coverage.

If you manage to get to the festival -- and even if you don’t -- look for the Hay Festival 21. These are authors Festival staff have chosen to be the least likely ones you’ve heard of:
For our 21st birthday, we’d like to propose 21 writers appearing at Hay who may not be so familiar, but who we think are remarkable. Some are first time writers, some are huge stars in other languages. They’re all cracking reads.
It’s an interesting list, one that includes Yan Lianke; Simon Lewis; Juan Gabriel Vasquez; Tom Rob Smith (is there any party he’s not getting asked to this year?); Jhumpa Lahiri; Michelle de Kretser; Steve Toltz and others.

The Hay 21 responds directly to what the festival their visitors have enjoyed most over the years:
Whenever we survey the audience, one of the things that is always most strongly registered is how much Haygoers value discovering new voices.
A great festival with a lot of super stars. The main Web site is here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Excerpt: A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz takes us through America’s first contact:
Plymouth, it turned out, wasn’t even the first English colony in New England. That distinction belonged to Fort St. George, in Popham, Maine -- a place I’d never heard of. Nor were Pilgrims the first to settle Massachusetts. In 1602, a band of English built a fort on the island of Cuttyhunk. They came, not for religious freedom, but to get rich from digging sassafras, a commodity prized in Europe as a cure for the clap.

History isn’t sport, where coming first means everything. The outposts at P
opham and Cuttyhunk were quickly abandoned, as were most of the early French and Spanish settlements. Plymouth endured, the English prevailed in the contest for the continent, and Anglo-American Protestants -- New Englanders, in particular -- molded the new nation's memory. And so a creation myth arose, of Pilgrim Fathers seeding a new land with their piety and work ethic. The winners wrote the history.
The full excerpt is here.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Author Snapshot: Jim Krusoe

You could spend some time trying to get a handle on Jim Krusoe: trying to pin him down firmly enough to be able to write about him in a way that those unfamiliar with his work would find illuminating.

Sure, you can cover the basics. Cleveland born, Krusoe has lived for many years in Los Angeles where he teaches creative writing, specifically at Antioch University and Santa Monica College.

Krusoe founded The Santa Monica Review in 1988. It’s a well respected literary journal published by Santa Monica College. He is the author of five books of poetry, a collection of short stories called Blood Lake and two novels: Iceland and the newly published Girl Factory (Tin House Books). He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund.

None of this really explains who Krusoe is: what drives him, what moves him and what -- forgive me -- makes him tick. It can’t, in a way. The closer you get, it seems, the more he manages to obscure himself. You see passion. You see talent. Beyond that, I’d wager he wants you to see his words.

A Snapshot of Jim Krusoe...
Born: Cleveland, Ohio
Resides: Los Angeles, USA

Please tell us about your most recent book.
Girl Factory is about a guy who discovers six young women suspended in acidophilus in the basement of the yogurt store where he works. He’s trying to find a way to bring them back to life. In this process one of the questions I asked myself was: what does it mean to try to help someone? I’m afraid the results are mixed, at best.

What’s on your nightstand?
My nightstand has only a lamp, the base of which was cracked when one of the cats knocked it over one morning about three, and where I tried to fix it there’s a thick unsightly ooze of hardened white glue. In the drawer beneath it, however, is a Yugioh card my son left about a year ago, a flashlight, a sock, three paperclips, a tape measure, a screwdriver, a kid’s Halloween mask, several pens, a salt shaker, a twig, two screws, a book of chess openings, several of my wife’s elastic hair-ties, a few sheets of lined notebook paper, and a small stone. Missing are the toenail clippers I’ve trying to find for a week.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about a son who gets a postcard from his dead mother in Cleveland. She says she needs him to visit her right away.

Tell us about your process.
I love to use fountain pens because they slow me down. My process is as follows: I start with an image or something (in the case of Girl Factory it was yogurt) that won’t go away, because something about it bothers me. Then I accumulate as much material as possible around that image. When I have a couple hundred pages, I try to figure out what I don’t need and what’s missing.

I like to describe the writing process as follows: You have been put into a room with lots and lots of boxes, and are told that some, but not all, are the parts to a machine you need to assemble. No one tells you what kind of a machine it is or what its supposed to do. So you work for a long, long time, and eventually it looks as if you may be on the right track. Then there’s a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway is a UPS guy standing next to a stack of about 50 more boxes. “They forgot to give you these,” he says. “Do you want to sign for them?”

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
I’m on the couch in the front room with a dog lying on either side of me. The big one is sighing at something outside the window, and the terrier is just asleep on her back, feet stuck straight out. Cars pass in the street. It’s mid-day, and my daughter is home from school, sick, but not too sick to work on her computer a room away. Every so often she yells out some fact she’s discovered about the report she’s writing for school. It’s about multiple intelligences, something we both are in favor of.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

In first grade, when they tested us for color-blindness, all the other kids could read the number six inside the dots, and I couldn’t.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
Books or no books aren’t important, but I can’t imagine myself not writing.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
I don’t think about a career. I write to make sense out of the world, and that’s that.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

What’s the most difficult?
Writing well.

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

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
How many drafts to you do? (The answer is about 40, and the reason I like to tell is to let others know the process is a long one. When I began to write I imagined a novel would be finished after about three drafts, and I worry too many other writers may set an artificial limit on when they decide a book is finished. For me, and much to my surprise, the process of revision is as pleasurable, or maybe more so, than the actual imagining.)

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

I don’t watch television, except for slow-speed police chases which, I’m beginning to think, are the metaphor for my life.

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The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall

It is not difficult to work out why Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks have made such a strong impression on all who have encountered them. At a time when books for children can be incredibly complicated and sophisticated and packed full of moral and mental heavy lifting, it really seems as though Birdsall has just set out to tell a story in classic, old school-style. Kids everywhere seem relieved.

Birdsall’s debut novel, The Penderwicks, was published in 2005 to wide acclaim that would eventually include the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Fans of that book will be happy to see that the sequel, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (Knopf), possesses all the charm of the original.

The Penderwicks are now back from vacation and Mr. Penderwicks’ sister -- Skye, Batty, Jane and Rosaline’s Aunt Claire -- has come for a visit and not without an agenda: she declares that its time for their father to start dating again. The girls don’t agree, and wholesome high-jinx ensues.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Microsoft to Stop Scanning Books

Microsoft is getting out of the digital content building business. From The New York Times:
Microsoft appears to have decided that it doesn’t want to be in the business of creating digital content, instead hoping that others will take on that task. The company will give its scanning equipment to its library and digitization partners and encourage them to continue to scan books. “Based on our experience, we foresee that the best way for a search engine to make book content available will be by crawling content repositories created by book publishers and libraries,” Nadella wrote.

Microsoft has scanned 750,000 books and indexed 80 million journal articles during the life of the projects, he said. That material will still be available in Live search results, but not through separate indexes.
The NYT piece is here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Last Week: A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo

She captures it all beautifully, carefully, elegantly. With skill and verve, she recreates a time that has been attributed with almost mythical properties. And, in the telling, she places herself at the feet of one of the gods of the time, handmaiden to his growing godhead, the man who, as she herself describes it, finally becomes the elephant in the room of her life.

Suze Rotolo was 17 when she met Bob Dylan, himself then a raw 20-year-old. “Bob was my first significant relationship,” Rotolo tells us in A Freewheelin’ Time (Broadway Books). “During our time together things became very complicated because so much happened to him so fast. We had a good time, but also a hard time, as a young couple in love.”

Rotolo is artful in A Freewheelin’ Time. Her tone and the anecdotes she chooses to share evoke a significant moment in American history. And, yes: her relationship with Bob Dylan plays a part here. And, yes: that is Rotolo walking arm-in-arm with Dylan on the cover of Dylan’s album The Freewheelin’, the same image that covers this book and, not coincidentally, the title that lends itself here, again.

Though -- clearly -- Dylan’s presence is felt throughout, there is more to A Freewheelin’ Time as well. Much more. In a way, what we feel here is young American womanhood in the early 1960s, on the brink of something beyond imagining.

“Common sense is a wicked, hideous, backbiting enemy in cahoots with instinct to beat the daylights out of white-hot sentiment. No contest. Everything is obliterated.”

Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time is a wonderful journey. I’d take it again.


New in Paperback: NASA: The Complete Illustrated History by Michael Gorn

Every time there’s a presidential race, it brings NASA to my mind. Maybe it’s because of the “space race,” but it’s also at least partly due to wondering why we haven’t gotten farther, achieved more. Shouldn’t we be able to buy timeshares on Mars by now? Shouldn’t we have colonies on the Moon? I don’t think I’m alone in these connections. Every time an election draws near, it seems as though we get treated to a new spate of books about space stuff. And here we are.

NASA: The Complete Illustrated History (Merrell Books) is the first paperback edition of a striking hardcover first published in 2005. As the subtitle tells us, it is a complete history on NASA which -- perhaps not so coincidentally -- turns 50 in 2008.

You don’t need an anniversary to enjoy the book, though. Author Gorn is an award winning historian with several other related books to his credit and the foreword was written by former astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

NASA: The Complete Illustrated History is clearly a must for space geeks, but many will enjoy this book that would reach for the stars.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The iPod Effect

Over just a very few years, Apple’s iPod has changed the music industry practically beyond recognition. Today The Telegraph suggests that the latest generation of e-book readers might well be on their way to doing that for the book industry:
Electronic book readers -- also known as e-readers -- are the book equivalent of the iPod. Just as your MP3 player allows you to store thousands of songs and CDs on the device, so e-readers enable you to cram thousands of books into a slimline, lightweight gadget that’s less than the size of a paperback.

And while e-readers have been around for a while, it’s only in the last year or two that the technology has got to a point where they are a viable alternative to a real, dog-eared book. One of the biggest challenges was developing screens and fonts that would be easy on the eye - after all, no one wants to feel as though they are staring at a computer monitor while reading a novel. The introduction of “eInk” technology and the creation of low-glare screens has made electronic type more readable.
The piece includes reviews of Amazon’s Kindle, the iRex iLiad, Sony’s PRS-505, the Ectato JetBook and the Netronix EB-210 and it’s here.


Review: Out of the Frying Pan by Gillian Clark

Today in January Magazine’s biography section, Diane Leach reviews Out of the Frying Pan by Gillian Clark. Says Leach:
Clark, chef/owner of Washington D.C.’s Colorado Kitchen, had an immensely interesting book in her. Unfortunately for us, she didn’t write it, opting instead for a candy-floss memoir comparing the challenges of single parenthood to the brutalities of professional cooking.

Don’t get me wrong. Clark is a highly intelligent, educated woman who left a career in marketing to pursue her love of cooking, putting herself through culinary school in her early 30s. Anybody with the guts to do that deserves kudos. When that somebody has two small daughters and a hard-drinking husband soon off the scene, more power to her. But instead of digging deeply into the experience of being a female chef -- challenge enough in the masculine world of professional cooking -- she focuses on what readers of cookery memoirs will recognize as the usual suspects: shady investors, drug-addled cooks, sous chefs who honed their knife skills in prison.
The full review is here.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Exactly the Same. Only Different

Book publishing is a crazy game. Anyone who indulges should get their head examined.

Let me tell you what’s led me down this path today: there are two books in front of me. They are equal. In fact, if they had been published in different years, I would have thought one had inspired the other. But they were published within a few months of each other. There was no time for cross-pollination.

I’m currently reading one of them. There’s been a lot of buzz about Child 44 and it’s everything it’s been cracked up to be. And it’s been cracked up to be a lot. Everyone is taking about Tom Rob Smith’s first novel and they’re right: it’s a great book. Set in Russia during the early part of the Cold War, this is a view we’ve not seen often and with a tone and attitude we’ve arguably not seen at all.

I read the other book earlier this year and commented on it briefly in this space. Pavel & I is a debut novel by a fairly young author, Dan Vyleta. It is set in Berlin during the earliest part of the Cold War and, just about anything you want to say about Child 44 can be said about Pavel & I. The book is nuanced and practiced and intelligent and brave. It’s a thriller and it thrills. If anything, Pavel & I is a little more edgy than Child 44, a little more stylish, slightly more raw, but that might just be a matter of taste. The point is, these books have more in common than not. Both authors are youngish. Both went to Cambridge -- Smith graduating in 2001, Vyleta in 2002, but with a PhD. And, most importantly, both Vyleta and Smith have created complete and beautifully rendered fictions with their debut works.

Why then, with all these things being equal, have you probably heard of Child 44 and have probably not heard of Pavel & I? And that’s where the nuttiness of this business comes in. See, both books are well published -- in the United States, Child 44 is published by Grand Central, Pavel & I by Bloomsbury. Both are great houses with loads of cred, respect and other top authors in their stables. Rights for both books were sold internationally right out of the gate. And yet…

There is no moral to this story. No happy ending. Not even a solid question. I’ve chosen these two books for my example today -- Pavel & I and Child 44 -- because they’re right here and they’re what brought this to mind. However, it would not take much for me to dig back over the last five years and come up with example after example of very similar stories. Two equal books, one with a starkly different result than the other.

And both of these really are terrific books. But you don’t have to choose one over the other: read them both. If you liked Child 44, you will definitely love Pavel & I. Midway through 2008, and it’s still the best thing I’ve read all year.

Americans Won’t Touch “Book of Negroes”

Today on The Guardian Books blog, Award winner Lawrence Hill writes about why the title of his book wouldn’t fly in the United States. It’s a deeply interesting, thought-provoking piece:
It isn’t unusual for British or Canadian books to change titles when entering the American market. It happened to JK Rowling -- Harry Potter has no “philosopher’s” stone in the USA; and to Alice Munro, whose fabulous collection of short stories went from Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada to The Beggar Maid in the USA.

But I didn’t think it would happen to me. When my novel, The Book of Negroes, came out last year with HarperCollins Canada, I was assured by my American publisher that the original title would be fine by them. However, several months later, I got a nervous email from my editor in New York.
Of all the interesting things Hill shares with us here, this is the line that startled me the most:
When I began touring with the novel in some of the major US cities, literary African-Americans kept approaching me and telling me it was a good thing indeed that the title had changed, because they would never have touched the book with its Canadian title.
Since the title derives from a historical document of the same name (one I’d heard of BTW, and I can’t be the only one) this just astonishes me. And it also makes me wonder: how can it be that, at a time when many people claim that reading is at an all time low, language seems to have more power than ever before?

If you’re looking for Hill’s The Book of Negroes in the U.S., it’s published by W.W. Norton under the completely inoffensive and innocuous moniker of Someone Knows My Name.

Toddlers Gone Wild by Rebecca Eckler

Even if Rebecca Eckler did not knock us over with her trenchant prose or her bang-on observations about life in this particular fast lane, we’d still have to love the mat she’s gone to get to these titles. It does not say anywhere that with the publication of Toddlers Gone Wild! (Key Porter Books) journalist mommy Eckler has created a triptych but, based on the titles of her previous two books, we know this. More: we understand.

It all began back in 2004 with the pregnancy memoir Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother to Be. And it really was; it really was. A sort of Sex in the City meets the diaper genie. But you don’t end a story with a book called Knocked Up: you begin. So then, fast forward to book two: Wiped! Life with a Pint-Size Dictator which only leads us right to where we are now with Toddlers Gone Wild!: Rants from a Mommy Brain.

The book is charming in a totally au courant, post-modern way. This ain’t your Erma Bombeck-style memoir. It isn’t Ann Landers or even Annie Hall. Eckler’s writing is smart, funny and totally right now. If, because of all the baby talk, you’re looking for something sweet and floral, keep on looking because it’s not here.

On the other hand, if Eckler’s style has you begging for more, you won’t have long to wait, Doubleday Canada will publish her first novel, Rotten Apple, in October.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Waxing Poetic About Kindle

In Monday’s Wall Street Journal “Information Age” column, Journal big cheese L. Gordon Crovitz gets excited about Amazon’s Kindle… of all things.
To an info-snacker of many years, the prospect of a gourmet meal sounds pretty good. Perhaps a new digital device like the Kindle can help us regain the attention spans earlier devices helped us lose. If so, this could become a great era for books, or more accurately for the future of words that for centuries could be delivered only in book form.
Intellectually, I’m not sure a lot of his arguments hold water. From a purely artistic standpoint, almost no one writes this kind of stuff better than Crovitz. I’ll tell you what I mean. At one point, he says:
Much is at stake. As Mr. Gomez concluded, “what’s really important is the culture of ideas and innovation” books represent. But “to expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.”
See? Lovely stuff. Except, even what he describes here is already happening, as shops like this begin to spring up and the very stuffing of envelopes and licking of stamps that Crovitz scoffs at actually are beginning to make a sort of sweetly kitschy return.

Upshot? The jury is still out. As regular readers of this space know, I’ve never been particularly nuts about the Kindle (starting with that extra-goofy name) but the electronic book as a fixture is not a question, merely a reality that has yet to come to pass.


Beck Signs Scratchy Book Deal

Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck has signed a two-book deal, reports Publishers Weekly.
The first book, and Beck’s first novel, will be The Christmas Sweater, and will be published in hardcover in fall 2008. It will form the basis for Glenn Beck’s 2008 Christmas Show, which will see Beck on a cross-country tour in December telling the story and promoting the book to his fans nationwide. S&S v-p and senior editor Mitchell Ivers, who collaborated with Beck on his previous two books, will edit The Christmas Sweater. The second book, a return to nonfiction, will be published in 2009.
TV Newser reports that the deal is worth $3 million.

Sounds like it’ll be Glen Beck all the time for a while later this year, beginning with the publication of The Christmas Sweater. We’re scratching already.

Review: Unknown Means by Elizabeth Becka

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Jim Winter reviews Unknown Means by Elizabeth Becka. Says Winter:
Over the years, many writers have set their stories in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Les Roberts is perhaps the best known among them, with his private eye Milan Jacovich series. More recently, Michael Koryta (Sorrow’s Anthem, A Welcome Grave) has taken over with his increasingly strong Lincoln Perry novels. Then of course some hack from Cincinnati put out a small-press novel in 2005 called … Northcoast … um… Oh, never mind.

Lately, however, the North Coast has been getting the CSI treatment. Elizabeth Becka, a former forensics expert for Cuyahoga County, brings her old job front-and-center through the fictional character of Evelyn James. James, a trace evidence specialist and single mom, debuted in Becka’s well-received first novel, Trace Evidence (2005). She returns in Unknown Means.
The full review is here.

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Skater and Singer Settle in to Write Deeply Meaningful Tomes

This just in from the It-Happened-So-Long-Ago-Why-Do-We-Even-Care-Anymore department:
Former U.S. skating champion-turned-reality TV star Tonya Harding has penned a tell-all book in a bid to show the public she doesn’t deserve her “bad girl” tag.
And this in a world where there are authors with exquisite novels languishing in a drawer. It makes one sad.

Harding explains, “I just wanted people to know me for me and not make judgments against me, like, how you see me on TV.”

Yeah. That oughta be a swell book.

And this is less odious, but still…

Kelly Rowland is working on a book for children.
The 27-year-old former Destiny’s Child singer revealed that she is looking into other ventures besides singing, and writing a children’s book is one of them.

“I’m getting into different ventures. I’m in the process of writing a children’s book," People quoted her, as saying.

The book is still under works and has not been given a title as yet, as she has just started working on it.


Book of Negroes Wins International Literary Award

Canadian Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins Canada) was awarded top honors and a £10,000 for 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Overall Best Book Award.

According to a press release, other cool perks are involved with the award:
As well as winning the £10,000 prize, Overall Best Book winner Lawrence Hill will travel to London for an audience with the Head of the Commonwealth, HM Queen Elizabeth II, at Buckingham Palace, accompanied by Commonwealth Foundation Director, Dr Mark Collins. He will also meet with Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma at the Commonwealth’s Marlborough House headquarters, and give a public reading from his winning book at Foyles' flagship London bookstore.
According to Bloomberg:
Hill’s “The Book of Negroes'” is written in the voice of an 18th-century West African named Aminata Diallo who is abducted from her village as an 11-year-old girl, becomes a slave in South Carolina, wins her freedom during the American Revolutionary War and finds her way back to Sierra Leone. The book has been published in the U.S. under the title “Someone Knows My Name.”
Bloomberg’s full piece is here. A full list of winners can be found here. CanWest News Service sums it all up here.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cookbooks: Betty’s Best by Betty Rohde

In the steam-ahead 1990s, Betty Rohde gained her reputation writing low fat cookbooks for body conscious home chefs. Now, as the turbulent first decade of the 21st century head towards its close, Rohde delivers a book that is in some ways exactly opposite those low fat books, but that capture the cookbook zeitgeist just as precisely.

The back cover of Betty’s Best: Simple Comfort Food from Grandma’s Kitchen (Gibbs Smith) sums it up so finely, there is no mistaking the direction we’re being led: “Bake, fry, and roast your way to childhood dinners spent around the table with family.”

The subtext seems clear: Yes, there is a war on. Yes, we’ve never paid so much for gasoline. And, yes, people are losing their homes even while politicos prepare themselves for the ultimate dance. But look: Ham and Cheese Breakfast Casserole. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Chicken and Dumplings. Meatloaf. Pot Roast. Mock Apple Pie.

If you’re going to call it anything, call it what it is: American food that would be recognizable as such by almost anyone you served it to, anywhere in the world.

It seems to me that Betty’s Best is not without a message, quite beyond all the simple and easy-to-prepare food: the world may be going to hell in a hand basket, but comfort can be had right here.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

H.I.V.E.: The Overlord Protocol by Mark Walden

In the first novel in this series, 13-year-old Otto Malpense found himself whisked off to the Higher Institute of Villainous Education after a major achievement in crime. H.I.V.E. was a sort of Hogwarts for young criminal geniuses, established to channel their abilities into skills that would let them become the sort of super-villains who sit surrounded by henchmen while stroking a white cat with a jeweled collar. Actually, at H.I.V.E. the cat with the jeweled collar is one of the teaching staff, a woman who got stuck in her cat’s body after an experiment intended to give her the grace and stalking abilities of a cat. The collar is to help her speak.

It was explained to the students that while they could commit crime by simple methods, the idea of this training was to help them do it with style. Otto made some friends: Wing Fanchu, whose parents had worked for the organization sponsoring the school, sweet Laura whose computer genius had been used to hack into the computers of the local American military base (she was only trying to find out what other girls at school were saying about her) and American girl Shelby who, at only 13, had already been an international jewel thief. There was a sort of Neville Longbottom character whose brilliance with plants nearly destroyed the school when a plant mutated and went on the rampage.

In H.I.V.E.: The Overlord Protocol, Wing is told his father has died and is allowed to go to Tokyo for the funeral, accompanied by Otto. This is, of course, only the beginning of a non-stop adventure in which something that Wing’s parents did in the past impacts on the present day. The benign school computer which had gone offline in the previous book, has been brought back, but with a new program that makes it completely unemotional. The school’s principal, Max Nero, remembers what happened the last time a computer had emotions -- the Overlord of the title.

The first book was mostly a romp, with plenty of humor and silliness. I mean, a school for villains, honestly -- including a henchman program! And a giant mutated plant stalking the school. However, despite the silly premise, in Overlord Protocol the H.I.V.E. world is starting to look a lot more grim.

The organization running H.I.V.E., known as Global League of Villainous Enterprises -- G.L.O.V.E. -- is split. Some of the members actually want to do evil take-over-the-world sort of stuff. In which case, why have an organization at all? But you don’t let down Number One, leader of the group, if you want a long life. It is at this point that we discover that Max Nero is starting to look oddly like Dumbledore. He loves his school and his students and quite frankly, he thinks the whole point of having G.L.O.V.E is to make sure that crime doesn’t get into take-over-the-world mode. He was there the day Overlord came online and was defeated by Number One. The trouble is, there are villains and villains in this novel’s world and some of them start to look like good guys. The entire story is centered around the lives and adventures of the villain community, with not a single outsider. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next book, now that Nero and his supporters are more or less good guys, while still thinking of themselves as villains!

H.I.V.E.: The Overlord Protocol is full of technology, gadgets and action. There are helicopters, martial arts and ninja robots. And in the end, Otto and his friends couldn’t save the day if they thought like good guys. But as villains go, they’re not likely to be sitting on thrones with cats to stroke either. You have to wonder how the author will manage this problem as the series goes on.

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The Changing Face of History

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my father used to bring me all sorts of treasures of knowledge, from weekly magazines that built up into a multi-volume library (“Buy your binder today and get a free index!”) to gorgeous single-volume encyclopedias with paintings of planets and cavemen and dinosaurs striding through tropical jungles. Children have always liked true stories when interestingly presented, whether it’s books about dinosaurs or the Guinness Book of Records. That doesn’t change.

Opening History: The Definitive Visual Guide from the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day (Dorling Kindersley Books) took me right back to my childhood, except that in those days there were far more paintings than photos. Unlike the books that excited me so much, this one is about human history; there’s no artist’s impression of the Big Bang, say, or of dinosaurs and mostly, cavemen are represented by photos of skulls, tools and fires, with the beautiful cave art of Lascaux to demonstrate communication.

The book is laid out in a combination of themes, including “Rulers and Hierarchies,” “Warriors, Travelers and Inventors” and “Population and Power.” There are timelines, both in the course of the book and at the end, which is a set of national histories, from North and Central America to Oceania.

History includes all the usual stuff: ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, mediaeval Europe, the Industrial Revolution, France and the World Wars. It also offers information about mediaeval Korea, Polynesian expansion, the ancient African states and 17th century Japan, among other things. It extends from the first creatures that might be considered human ancestors to the present problems of climate change and world health.

The world has changed since those books of my childhood were published; the contents of this book show that. History recognizes that the world is a much bigger place than Western publishers and teachers were admitting back then: an irony, in these days of globalization.

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Fly on the Wall by Jason Brink

Privy to the details of all your secret moments, all your misdeeds, private conversations, and indulgences, the fly on the wall is neutral. It doesn’t care that you cheat on your income tax, it won’t stop you from jumping, and it won’t call the police when you eliminate the neighbor’s cat. But it was there.
That’s the opening paragraph of Fly on the Wall (ECW Press) by Jason Brink and illustrated by Jim Westergard. And it’s also at the core of the premise: the fly on the wall is privy to all those things. And more.

In some circles, this collection would be called flash fiction. In others, postcard stories. In still others, they would be punch fiction. ECW has chosen here to call them micro fiction, but you get the idea: some of the stories here are so short and sharp it would be more accurate to call them vignettes. For a sense of this, in Fly on the Wall’s 220 pages, there are 53 stories, each one beautifully illustrated by Westergard’s poignant pen.

Both author and illustrator live in Red Deer, Alberta, which should focus local attention on Fly on the Wall quite sharply. And rightly, too. In its own strange way, Fly on the Wall is an important and memorable book.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Women’s Murder Club Coming to A Computer Near You

If you just can’t get enough of Women’s Murder Club, the inane television series starring Angie Harmon and based on a book by James Patterson, the evil Microsoft might just have the answer.

Microsoft and I-play today released “Women’s Murder Club: Death in Scarlet” which they’re touting as “the first interactive game based on a story and characters by best-selling author James Patterson.” (Of course it’s the first. Would there need to be more?) It will be available exclusively on MSN Games until May 29th. (Not being a gamer, I don’t get why that’s a good thing but, hey: I don’t make this stuff up.)

While none of sounds terribly fun to me, the Microsoft publicists have other ideas and you can tell how excited they are from all the en-dashes:
The game, which features the characters from the “WMC” books and an all-new, never-before-seen storyline, is a thrilling seek-and-find adventure designed by award-winning game designer Jane Jensen in collaboration with Patterson. Its storyline lets fans experience the suspense of James Patterson’s stories interactively for the first time as they solve a chilling series of murders in San Francisco.

“The opportunity for casual games built around intriguing stories and compelling characters is largely untapped, and who better to lead the way than America’s No. 1 storyteller, James Patterson?” said Kevin Unangst, senior global director of Games for Windows in the Entertainment and Devices Division at Microsoft. “We’re thrilled to partner with James Patterson and I-play to debut a game of this caliber on MSN Games.”
Dude, do you know how many books Patterson sells? Why wouldn’t you be thrilled? The i-Play people are also understandably thrilled:
“MSN Games is a great place to debut a high-profile casual game with a powerful brand like James Patterson, based on the strength of their audience and the scope and reach of the MSN and Microsoft networks,” said Don Ryan, head of I-play. “We’re excited to work with them and are looking forward to an incredible debut for the first ‘Women’s Murder Club’ game.”
It probably won’t hurt Patterson’s book sales either. However, it seems it will be too little, too late to help the show: earlier this week, ABC announced that the series had been canceled.

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MAD Artist Willie Elder Passes at 86

So sad to read about this morning’s passing of 86-year-old Willie Elder, the cartoonist and illustrator whose work was most strongly identified with MAD Magazine. Elder was born Wolf William Eisenberg in the Bronx, September 22, 1921, but changed his name on his return from WWII.

Elder was one of of Harvey Kurtzman’s first hires at MAD in 1952. MAD editor John Ficarra has fond memories. “Willie Elder was one of the funniest artists to ever work for MAD,” Ficarra said today in a press release. “He created visual feasts with dozens of background gags layered into every MAD story he illustrated. He called these gags ‘chicken fat.’ Willie’s ‘anything goes’ art style set the tone for the entire magazine and created a look that endures to this day.”

MAD art director Sam Viviano added that everyone “who has attempted to draw a funny picture over the course of the last fifty or sixty years owes an enormous debt to Willie, who taught us all how to do it -- and no one has ever done it better than he did.”


New Last Week: Women in Hats by Judy Sheehan

Fans of Tony and Tina’s Wedding will want to make note of the publication of Women in Hats (Ballantine), a new book by the co-creator and former star of the long-running play.

Though the main character’s name is a little disturbing -- “Leigh Majors” fer cryin’ out loud -- Women in Hats is good, solid femlit.

Theater director Leigh is the daughter of an aging Hollywood actress. Leigh is proud of her accomplishments and more than a little chagrined when her famous mom turns up in New York and invades her daughter’s carefully created avant garde world. An uncomfortable mother-daughter dance ensues.

We need some great weather: Women in Hats would be a terrific beach book.


Cult Watches by Michael Balfour

If you think you know about watches, think again. Internationally respected watch geek Michael Balfour here brings us the watch book to end all watch books. And though the spirit is all things watch-related, the focus is quite different: Balfour takes intimate, elegant, stylish looks at 30 “cult” watches and though he never quite gets around to explaining how the 30 he chose managed to make this particular cut, we can extrapolate -- by what he says about them and by which ones he chose -- that, for his purposes, “cult” is somewhere outside of the mass market. Something special, in many cases handmade and in all cases, highly collectible. And thus we get up close and personal with the Cartier Tank; the Bulova Acutron; the Hamilton Electric; the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona; the Vacheron Constantin Toledo; the Swatch and 24 others.

The chosen 30 get their tea leaves read, in a sense. Balfour profiles each of them in great detail, bringing us history where appropriate, engineering background where called for and throughout provides visual information above and beyond the call.

Cult Watches (Merrell) is beautiful, memorable and deeply interesting. Students of design and those with an interest in modern history will be fascinated. Those who share Balfour’s passion for watches and who love and collect them might just be moved to tears.

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Right Book, Right Time by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

For many years, before her retirement, the name of Agnes Nieuwenhuizen was synonymous with with children’s and YA literature in Australia. Nobody else did so much to promote writing for young people. She arranged traveling writers’ gigs, “Booktalker” sessions aimed at teenagers during the day and interested adults in the evening. In these, writers and illustrators talked about their work and answered questions and new books were promoted. All of these continue after her retirement, through the Melbourne-based Centre for Youth Literature, as do the biennial Reading Matters conferences, which are writers’ festivals centered around books for children and young adults.

What Agnes Nieuwenhuizen doesn’t know about books for young people is probably not worth knowing and some years ago she produced a good books guide to the field. Now, she has produced a new guide, Right Book, Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers (Allen & Unwin) which includes books in many different genres and has a handy index at the end if you want to look up something specific.

Not all of Right Book, Right Time was written by Agnes Nieuwenhuizen. The section on translation is by her husband, John, who has himself translated several books from the Dutch. Allen and Unwin publisher Erica Wagner wrote the section on graphic novels. Other sections are written by specialists in the particular genre and one each were written by Lili Wilkinson and Mike Shuttleworth, who have continued the program at the Centre for Youth Literature.

This is not a book to read from cover to cover, but good to browse if you love books for young people, to see which of your favorites is represented. It’s also a handy selection tool if you work in a school or local library; I found quite a few books I hadn’t encountered and this will be going on my workroom shelf.

To be honest, not all the books included are ones I would have chosen and there were some choices with which I disagreed, but each to their own, and it’s a good spread. Whether you’re a parent looking for ideas, a teacher-librarian or just someone who likes kids’ books, this one is well worth having.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New This Week: Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey

The whole James Frey… er… fray was so stupid, pointless and messy, I stood aside. People felt slighted, betrayed. Me? I honestly didn’t care. I wasn’t interested before he was outed as having embroidered/manufactured/fabricated parts of his “memoir,” I was less interested when I knew that he had. I remember wondering what all the fuss was about. It’s a book, right? No one dies. And it’s not as though we hadn’t been down this road before, many, many, many times. As The Washington Post’s Steven Moore says:
I couldn't be bothered with the legal and moral issues because the history of this lawless genre is filled with such dodges. In the 2nd century, a fantastic fiction by the Greek satirist Lucian was cheekily titled a “True History.” Both “Robinson Crusoe” and “Gulliver’s Travels” were first marketed as nonfiction accounts, and even included prefaces by their publishers swearing to their veracity. More recently, we’ve had autobiographical novels, the nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer and some historical novels with more documentation than you find in scholarly tomes. There’s always been a blurry line between fiction and nonfiction, and Frey isn't the first or last writer to conga on that line.
Still, a lot of people cared -- and continue to care -- very much about the disgraced author that The Smoking Gun outed overfictionalizing his creative non-fiction early in 2006. They care so much that the publication of Frey’s first novel, Bright Shiny Morning (Harper), has set off choruses of reviews and reminiscences as loud as… well… anything in my recollection. It’s a donnybrook, is what I’m saying. And they love him and they hate him but they just can’t stop talking about him. Take, for instance, USA Today:
Give the bloodied but clearly unbowed James Frey points for unbridled ambition.

His truth-challenged memoir A Million Little Pieces may have put Oprah’s knickers in a televised twist, but Frey’s new novel, Bright Shiny Morning, reveals a massive literary ego in full, flourishing bloom.
USA Today
’s review of Bright Shiny Morning is actually fairly middle of the road. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have taken a firmer tone: they love it or they hate it, but no one seems ambivalent. Take, for instance, The Los Angeles TimesDavid L. Ulin who -- dare I say it? -- loathed the book.
“Bright Shiny Morning” is a terrible book. One of the worst I’ve ever read.
And just in case we’re unsure of Ulin’s feelings, he comes back in a while for another volley:
Ultimately, though, it is still what’s on the page that matters, and “Bright Shiny Morning” is an execrable novel, a literary train wreck without even the good grace to be entertaining.
I love Craig Seligman’s review for Bloomberg:
By page 100 I was telling myself, “I love this book!” By page 300 I was restless. By the end I pretty much hated it.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times does her whole review in Freyesque, which is a little weird but, upshot: she likes the book:
The million little pieces guy was called James Frey. He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park. No more lying, no more melodrama, still run-on sentences still funny punctuation but so what. He became a furiously good storyteller this time.


Business Books Get Doomsday Spin

The recent economic downturn is finding expression in business books. According to Bloomberg’s Susan Antilla, “doomsday books have become publishing's spring fashion.”
Pop a couple of Prozacs and sit back for a roundup of the scariest financial books on the market. It’s gloom-and-doom season for purveyors of financial books, so pull out a can of beans from your ammo case in the bomb shelter and warm it up. You’re going to need some nourishment.

Book titles are getting scarier than an auction-rate security, with titles such as “Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism'” trumping Dale Carnegie and Suze Orman on the Amazon Top 100 list of business books.

Other cheerful titles to get you stuffing your money in the mattress: “The Great Bu$t Ahead: The Greatest Depression in American & UK History Is Just Several Short Years Away” and “The Second Great Depression: Starting 2007, Ending 2020.”
Yikes! The rest of Antilla’s piece is even scarier and it’s here.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Review: Another Thing to Fall by Laura Lippman

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, M. Wayne Cunningham reviews Another Thing to Fall by Laura Lippman. Says Cunningham:
Like the nine previous novels in her private eye Tess Monaghan series, Laura Lippman’s newest installment, Another Thing to Fall, is set in her hometown of Baltimore. And like the others, it’s a sure-fire read for its plot, characterization, dialogue and authentic Charm City settings. But this time we find Baltimore, “in its full autumnal glory,” as the focal point for feature films, past and present.

In fact, hardly a page of this novel goes by without some mention of a movie title or actor, or at least a cluster of movie set jargon. Characters chat about The Diner, Tin Men, The Wire and ... And Justice for All. They refer to Henry Fonda, Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola and Baltimorean John Waters. They spout off about call sheets, honey wagons, bangers, eps and sides. And in between the cinema-related stuff there are reminders of this Maryland city’s former glory…
The full review is here.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

It cracks me up that the shiny new paperback edition of Nora Ephron’s screamingly funny 2006 book is being pitched towards Mother’s Day. There’s an irony there somewhere, even if I'm not quite sure what it is.

I Feel Bad About My Neck (Vintage) is Ephron’s song -- lament? -- for women of a certain age. It is also a memoir, because the view we see here, for better or worse, is all Ephron’s. And while it is funny, a central core of melancholia touches the essays included in the book. Though that shouldn’t be surprising either.

Best known for her film work -- When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail among them -- she is also the author of Crazy Salad, Scribble Scribble, Wallflower at the Orgy and Heartburn. In short, she has done much in her life to celebrate and, as much as I laughed while I real I Feel Bad About My Neck, there was a part of me that just wanted to cry.

“Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for at the age of forty-five,” Ephron tells us in “What I Wish I’d Known,” and later she writes that the “sad truth is that it’s sad to be over sixty.”

I’m imagining a different ending; one that is still to be written. I’m imagining “I Feel Bad About My Hip,” the joyous -- and funny -- rebuttal she will write in another 15 years.


Friday, May 09, 2008

New Last Week: Right Is Wrong by Arianna Huffington

Considering everything that’s been going on for the last eight years, we’re pretty confident in suggesting that Arianna Huffington is not the only card carrying Republican who has gone renegade. However, she’s certainly among the most visible.

In case there was ever any doubt, Huffington’s new book -- her 12th -- Right Is Wrong (Knopf), makes it clear what side of the party line she’s sitting on these days. It also has what I’m almost positive is the longest subtitle. Ever.
How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution and Made Us All Less Safe.
Ah, sorry, Arianna, could you possibly make your feelings a little more clear? There might be someone, somewhere who doesn’t get it.

If you can’t wait to get your hands on the book and you want a dose of Ms. Huffington right this second, her popular Web site, The Huffington Post, is here.


Fleming’s Pornography

Expect Bondmania to move to fever pitch between now and May 28, when James Bond creator Ian Fleming -- who died in 1964 -- would have turned 100 years old.

Crap Towns author Sam Jordison recently got into the action at The Guardian book blog:
As the 100th anniversary of his birth approaches, it’s tempting to characterise Ian Fleming as The Man With the Golden Pen, as a calculatingly commercial author of absurd misogynistic fantasies. Even his own wife Ann icily described him as “hammering out pornography” when he spent his disciplined three hours a day writing the books in their Jamaican home.
Later in the piece, though, Jordison loses me--and possibly you--when he says that “just like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett before him, Fleming is slowly being adopted into the literary fold.”

The Bond books were often fun, the storytelling competent, and a few really good films have been based on those tales. But let’s face it, folks, as a writer Fleming was never in the same league as Chandler and Hammett.

The Guardian blog piece is here.


Interview: Gail Jones

Today in January Magazine, contributing editor Summer Block interviews Gail Jones, author of 2004’s Sixty Lights and, more recently, Sorry, which opens with the murder of a white anthropologist in Australia.

“The attack is witnessed by a white girl and her Aboriginal friend,” writes Block. “The Aboriginal girl takes the blame, while the white girl forgets the traumatic event, an allegory for Australia’s own troubled past concerning “the stolen generations” of Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their homes by the Australian government between 1910 and 1970.” Says Block:
The author of four novels that combine elements of photography, cinema and painting, Australian Gail Jones could well be considered a multimedia artist. Her literary work is highly visual, a carefully constructed montage of visceral images whose pacing owes much to her love of film.
The interview is here.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

New this Week: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Though authors are frequently reluctant to talk about where they get their ideas, (“A post office box in Schenectady.”) when discussing his 11th novel, Skeletons at the Feast (Shaye Areheart Books), Chris Bohjalian (The Double Bind, Midwives) has been very forthcoming.

About a decade ago, a friend asked him to read his German grandmother’s newly translated diary. “Usually,” writes Bohjalian, “this sort of request is a novelist’s worst nightmare. Most family histories are dull as toast and badly written.”

But it was a good friend and, in any case, Bohjalian discovered much of the diary to be fascinating reading, including “passages that chronicled 1945 and Eva’s family’s arduous trek west ahead of the Soviet Army -- a journey that was always grueling and often terrifying.” But it didn’t move him to take up the pen.

Eight years later, however, “I read Max Hastings’s history of the last year of the war in Germany, Armageddon, and I was struck by how often the anecdotes in Hasting’s nonfiction account mirrored moments in that diary.” He asked to read that diary again and it was then “that I began to imagine a novel and started to research the period.”

Bohjalian is careful to let us know that Skeletons at the Feast is a fully fictionalized and wholly imagined work. Still it’s lovely hearing about the lightbulb moment for this novel that we’ll be hearing a lot about over the next couple of weeks.


Excerpt: Lust in Translation by Pamela Druckerman

Today in January Magazine, an excerpt of Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by former journalist Pamela Druckerman:

The morning after François Mitterrand's funeral, a photo showed the late president's mistress and illegitimate daughter standing by his grave alongside his wife and sons. That tableau has become famous internationally as proof that the French are uniquely tolerant of extramarital affairs.

In fact, although French presidents seem to have an infidelity record approaching 100 per cent, ordinary Frenchmen claim to be quite faithful. In a 2004 national survey, just 3.8 per cent of married men and 2 per cent of women said they had had more than one sex partner in the past year (the best approximation of infidelity) -- fewer than in similar surveys in the U.S. and the U.K.

If France isn't the world capital of adultery, which country is? I set off around the world to find out.

See the full excerpt of Pamela Druckerman’s Lust in Translation here.

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M Is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

Even if you’ve never read any of Neil Gaiman’s delightful fiction, you might have seen the film adaptation of Stardust, which did justice to the novel and has been compared to The Princess Bride.

M Is for Magic (HarperCollins) is a collection of mostly previously published short stories aimed at younger readers -- teenagers, really, rather than children, as the style of most of them is closer to adult than child. Four of the stories were published in the anthology Smoke and Mirrors. Others were also previously published. One of them is a chapter from a forthcoming novel.

In an introduction, the author explains the title as having been inspired by Ray Bradbury’s younger-reader anthologies, which had such names as R Is For Rocket and S Is For Space. This is appropriate because a number of the stories have a definite flavour of Bradbury. One of them, “October in the Chair,” is actually dedicated to Bradbury, but “The Witch’s Headstone,” which is the chapter from Gaiman’s forthcoming novel, The Graveyard Book, has the feel of Bradbury’s stories about the Family. In it, a young boy has been brought up and taught in a graveyard by ghosts and even a vampire. The stories range from the scary, such as “The Price,” in which the family cat has been fighting the Devil to protect his owners, to the deliciously silly, such as “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” in which two inexperienced teenage boys turn up at the wrong party only to find out that all the girls there actually do come from another planet. There’s “Chivalry,” from Smoke and Mirrors, in which an old lady finds the Holy Grail in a second-hand shop. A young knight comes to ask for its return, but it looks so nice on the mantelpiece…

If you want an introduction to the short fiction of Neil Gaiman, this is a good place to start, and teens or children who are good readers should find it enjoyable.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Review: Dark Wraith of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Today in January Magazine’s SF/F section, contributing editor Lincoln Cho reviews Dark Wraith of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Says Cho:

Terry Brooks, the “godfather of American fantasy” has referred to Dark Wraith of Shannara as “the grand experiment.” It’s not difficult to see why. It’s a brand new story set in the distant future world of Shannara that tells the multi-generational story of the Ohmsford family. Though Brooks has set work outside of Shannara, it is these for which he is best known, as well as being what famed publisher Lester del Rey scooped out of the slush pile in the form of The Sword of Shannara, published in 1977. That was about 21 million copies of American-published Terry Brooks novels ago.

Thirty years later, it’s exciting to see this grand master of the genre trying his hand at something that is, for him, entirely new with a graphic novel.
The full review is here.

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