Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New this Month: Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey

If you don’t believe that the words “epic,” “masterwork” and “Canadian” have any business in the same sentence, think again. In this intense, sprawling and almost insanely detailed novel, Kenneth J. Harvey (Inside, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe) delivers over 800 pages of fictional Maritime memories, all linked around the title character “named in anger.”

Before you even crack the cover, Blackstrap Hawco (Random House Canada) daunts with its sheer physical presence. It’s a big book, first of all. But it’s also in some ways a complicated one. Complicated, that is, the way life itself can be complicated: with twists here and dips there and unexpected turnabouts where you never expected to see them. Here’s a taste: on what is often considered to be a novel’s dedication page, Harvey has offered us something to think about:
This is a transcomposite narrative,
Not an historical document,
Nor a work of invention.
Blackstrap Hawco
’s subtitle deepens the mystery: Said to Be About a Newfoundland Family. Yet it is a novel, it is a work of invention. At least, I’m almost certain that it is. And if it’s not? Well, I suspect it does not matter. Wherever the bare bone facts were pulled from, wherever they happened to have their birth, it is Harvey’s skill that brings them together in a way that will resonate with me, perhaps for always.

The book has been longlisted for the Giller Award. It will be a serious contender.


Review: Zen and Now by Mark Richardson

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Mark Richardson. Says Leach:
The best possible way to read Richardson’s book is to first re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If you are between 40 and 60, chances are you still have a battered paperback copy around -- perhaps the edition with the blue cover (the one my parents had), the orange cover (mine), or Richardson’s pink one. If you are like many of us, you read the book well over 20 years ago, with intermittent comprehension. If at all possible, go back and reread. You will be amazed at how relevant Pirsig’s book remains. You may even be pleased at how much more you understand about his inquiry into Quality. Broken into layman’s terms, Pirsig felt anything worth doing merited one’s full attention; that even the dullest tasks, when carefully attended to, might well elicit better methods. In Pirsig’s pre-computer, pre-Internet, pre-mobile phone world, technology was already demonized. Pirsig argued that technology itself was not to blame for degraded values. Rather, our use of it -- rather, misuse -- lay at the root of societal disintegration.
In other words, hang up and drive.
The full review is here.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Celebrating Banned Books

It still strikes us that the best way to celebrate Banned Books Week -- which began September 27th and will run until October 4th -- is to find a contested book and read it. Think about it: what would happen if we all did that? How would it make those who challenged books feel if they knew that the most their attentions accomplished was to make more people read the books they would ban?

To that end, here’s the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of 2007. As you’ll see, there’s something here for everyone:

1) And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

2) The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Violence

3) Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
Reasons: Sexually Explicit and Offensive Language

4) The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
Reasons: Religious Viewpoint

5) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Reasons: Racism

6) The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language,

7) TTYL, by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

8) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
Reasons: Sexually Explicit

9) It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
Reasons: Sex Education, Sexually Explicit

10) The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

And while we’re at it, here’s the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged authors of 2007:
1) Robert Cormier
2) Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
3) Mark Twain
4) Toni Morrison
5) Philip Pullman
6) Kevin Henkes
7) Lois Lowry
8) Chris Crutcher
9) Lauren Myracle
10) Joann Sfar
The ALA’s Banned Books Week Web site is here. And please ignore the Los Angeles Times’ cooler-than-thou arms akimbo posturing here. Because talking about reading is good. And actually reading is even better. And anything that gets us thinking about and talking about reading is good. Period. So there.

Now go read a banned book.


Newman Passes

We have lost one of the greatest actors of our time. Paul Newman “died Friday after a long battle with cancer at his farmhouse near Westport,” according to the Associated Press. He was 83 years old.

Newman’s presence on the screen was magnetic, whether he was performing in Exodus (1960), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973), The Verdict (1982), Road to Perdition (2002), or ... well, the list could go on and on. As Britain’s The Guardian notes, “He appeared in about 60 films over a period of 50 years.” In two of those, Newman played Ross Macdonald’s fictional private eye, Lew Archer (renamed Lew Harper for Hollywood): Harper (1966, adapted from 1949’s The Moving Target) and The Drowning Pool (1975). And in a third film, the 1998 noir thriller Twilight, he played another ex-cop turned private detective, Harry Ross, who could have been Archer/Harper at an older age. (That film, by the way, also featured James Garner, whose creds in the fictional P.I. field are equally strong.)

In addition to his screen work, the handsome, blue-eyed Newman was famous for his charitable contributions and his political activism. A strong and determined liberal, he wound up on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” supported Ned Lamont’s candidacy in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic Primary race against turncoat Senator Joe Lieberman, contributed infrequently to The Nation, and would no doubt have loved to be around to see an end to George W. Bush’s presidency and the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. (Fingers crossed.)

READ MORE:Paul Newman, 83, Magnetic Hollywood Titan, Dies,” by Aljean Harmetz (The New York Times); “More Than Just a Pretty Face,” by Stephanie Zacharek (Salon); “Paul Newman, 1925-2008,” compiled by Dana Cook (Salon); “Remembering Paul Newman, the Philanthropist,” by Saturday Night at the Movies,” by Taylor Marsh; “Actor Paul Newman Dies at 83,” by Lynn Smith (Los Angeles Times); “The Bluest Eyes: The Pleasures of Watching Paul Newman,” by Dana Stevens (Slate).


Friday, September 26, 2008

Interview: Susan Reinhardt

January Magazine contributing editor Mary Ward Menke chats with “Southern-fried Erma Bombeck” Susan Reinhardt, author of Dishing With the Kitchen Virgin, about the where the belle laughs now, the realities of Southern humor and the Pullitzer that nearly was. Says Menke:
Susan Reinhardt has been called “the Southern Belle’s answer to David Sedaris” and “a modern-day, Southern-fried Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry.”

An award-winning syndicated humor columnist and author of three books --
Not Tonight, Honey: Wait ‘til I’m a Size 6 (2005); Don’t Sleep With a Bubba Unless Your Eggs are in Wheelchairs (2007); and Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin (2008) -- Reinhardt says there’s no chance such praise will go to her head because, while she appreciates it, she doesn’t fully believe it.

She really should, though. Born and raised in the South, the author and journalist lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She has a knack for telling stories that make readers laugh out loud, both at her own antics -- and there are plenty from which to choose -- and those of the myriad colorful characters she writes about.
The full interview is here.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dance, Psycho, Dance!

There aren’t a lot of big laughs in the only mildly funny The Tall Guy (1989) starring Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson. Some of the biggest ones come when the film spoofs what was then a new trend of turning unlikely books and plays and ideas into musical productions. In The Tall Guy, we’re faced with what at the time seemed an unlikely concept: Elephant Man: The Musical. It was so ridiculous, it could almost not be thought about.

We have, of course, come a long way in 18 years. So far, in fact, that we can read an announcement that Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho is slated for musical treatment and regard it with only widened eyes, not open-mouthed shock. From The New York Times:
He sings, he dances, he commits horrific acts of torture, murder and cannibalism: Patrick Bateman, the disturbed protagonist of “American Psycho,” is slated to slice his way onto Broadway in a musical adaptation of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel, Variety reported. Rights for a musical version of “American Psycho,” about a 1980s-era investment banker turned serial killer with an abiding affection for the music of Phil Collins, were acquired by the Johnson-Roessler Company; the Collective, a management and production firm; and XYZ Films.
The book has, of course, already been reimagined for visual media. You’ll recall a very good-though-disturbing film in 2000 starring Christian “Bat-Dude” Bale. Though the film version was notably devoid of singing.

Let’s think about this, if we dare: Can a warbling Dexter or honestly operatic Hannibal really be so very far behind?

Tip of the hat to GalleyCat.


Children’s Books: The OK Team 2: Better Than OK

In The OK Team, we met Hazy Retina, a boy who discovered that his tendency to fall apart -- literally! -- when he panicked or was embarrassed made him a member of the super-hero community. Hazy formed a team of other young heroes with their own gifts. Despite their klutziness, they somehow managed to combine and use their talents to help save the world -- or anyway, to save the heroes who could save the world.

Some months later, in The OK Team 2: Better Than OK (Allen & Unwin), the team has become more comfortable with its talents, although some members have left. Liarbird, who couldn’t tell the truth, has gone overseas. Switchy, who can turn into anything from an impressive superhero-type to a helicopter, has been promoted and moved on to special training. One replacement is Logi Gal (“Logic Girl!” she keeps protesting) is the team version of Mr Spock. She knows a lot and makes the team think rationally before yielding to impulse. At one point, she doubts her usefulness in a physical fight, but proves vital in other respects. The other new team member, Gamer, lives life like a video game -- and reaps the benefits, picking up skills and rewards that help the team.

But the villains have discovered a new, performance-enhancing drug. S.T.O.M.P. (Serum That Overly Maginfies Powers), which means that even low-level villains can beat heroes who are following the rules. And in the course of an encounter, Hazy has rashly agreed to something stupid. Worse still, one of Australia’s top heroes, Southern Cross, has started to weaken. The hero community suspects why, but Hazy’s mistake means they can’t fix it- - unless Hazy gives up his hero status, or dies.

Another fun book, filled with such delicious silliness as the elephant-headed boy who keeps shooting lemons at Hazy after failing to make it into the OK Team and hero cafés on top of Melbourne landmarks. And it has its say about performance-enhancing drugs, not only through S.T.O.M.P. but through the mouth of Hazy’s father, a competitive cyclist, who points out that those who cheat will never know how good they really are, or if they could have done it without cheating.

There was a hint that there might be more, when Hazy’s parents fight offstage, but there’s no follow-up within this novel. I think one final book in this series might be enough. The first book introduced the joke and it was wonderful to see this bunch of klutzy kids somehow manage to unite and do something important. In this book, their talents are starting to improve. If it ever gets to the point where the team really is “better than okay,” it will be enough to complete the original theme. For the moment, though, it’s readable and fun and children should enjoy it.

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Book Banning and Witch Hunting and Wannabe Veeps, Oh My

Over at the Huffington Post, screenwriter and director Ronald F. Maxwell goes in way deep on a number of issues. Some of them are even related, but all are deeply interesting.
Who would have thought, mere weeks ago, that Americans would need to be concerned with book banning and witch hunting in this day and age? By his precipitous choice of a running mate, Senator John McCain has inadvertently riled some murky Alaskan back-waters. And this is a good thing, because neither book banning nor witch hunting should go unnoticed or unexposed.
But Maxwell’s erudite screed doesn’t just concern itself with Alaskan governor-turned-veep hopeful Sarah Palin. Rather, it touches on a long list of tenuously connected subjects: poet John Milton’s 1644 comments on book burning; witch hunting through the ages and other things. But the core issue here -- the one on which Maxwell hangs all the others -- is Palin’s attempt to ban a book or books unknown at the Wasilla, Alaska, library while Palin was a resident in the town, as well as its mayor:
Perhaps we should be more concerned with the imploding economy or questions of war and peace. Perhaps the banning of books or the hunting of witches are just side issues, whacky anachronisms meant to distract us from what's really important. And after all, in fairness, following the tempest in Wasilla’s teapot no book was actually banned by the then Mayor Palin. It’s an annoyance to have to deal with what we consider to be settled issues. The cancer is in remission we tell ourselves. It's really not a problem. So better to just ignore it. Let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill.
This is an elegant piece of writing and brings up several important issues. Being reminded of Milton’s words were, for me, alone worth the price of admission. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature,” Milton wrote, “God’s image, but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”

Maxwell’s Huffington Post piece is here.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Today: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

The author of Mystic River and Shutter Island pushes still further from his crime fiction roots with The Given Day (William Morrow), an epic look at the politics and morality of America after the First World War through the lens of the events leading to the Boston police strike of 1919. If that sounds like a departure for Dennis Lehane, think again: this is an author whose impressive career thus far has been built on stark departures.

That career also seems to be being built on ever more ambitious projects. Lehane began with a series of well-loved mysteries that started with 1994’s A Drink Before the War and featuring private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Lehane’s first novel outside of that series, Mystic River, was initially met with some boos from his die-hardest fans who missed his series characters. However, if they complained for long, we couldn’t hear them: kudos for Mystic River came fast and furious and followed the book right to the silver screen where it earned all concerned wide acclaim.

The Given Day would seem to fit with the pattern Lehane is establishing: always better books. Bigger. More nuanced. More challenging -- for him and for us. The Given Day left this reader gasping… and wondering: what on earth could Lehane be planning for us next?


Monday, September 22, 2008

New This Month: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway’s debut novel gets one wanting to talk about apples and how they don’t fall far from the tree. And yet...

Harkaway’s father, master thriller writer John le Carré, is a well-loved author. Based on Harkaway’s brilliant first outing, it seems junior is just as likely to earn a wide following, though with a deeply different sort of book.

The Gone-Away World (Knopf) leaves the reader gasping for both adjectives and description. It’s a powerful and accomplished first novel that weaves elements of romance, mystery, SF/F and -- yes -- thriller together in a way that leaves no doubt that the master storyteller gene really is something that can be passed along. Like many media outlets, Culture Vulture struggled valiantly for comparisons in a preamble to an interview with the young author:
Hailed variously as the heir to the Kurt Vonnegut legacy, a Joseph Heller for the 21st century, and a Thomas Pynchon for the post-nuclear era, Nick Harkaway has garnered enough accolades since his recent authorial debut to turn a creative-writing MFA grad green with envy (if they weren’t already, thanks to his legacy: He’s the son of author John Le Carre). Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, is a gripping, satirical, postapocalyptic war epic populated with mimes, ninjas, bureaucrats, chimera, and gun-toting nerds.
And even CV’s first question -- and Harkaway’s first answer -- show this grappling for comparison:
Gone-Away World has been compared to everything from Dickens to Rushdie to Terry Pratchett. Have you heard any parallels that you feel are really off the mark?

The Observer said it was “Thackeray on acid,” and that caught me off balance. But the Vonnegut comparison makes me extremely happy.
So, OK: having read the book, I’ll play: For me, Harkaway’s style puts me a bit in mind of the very best of Douglas Adams for the pure skittering, off-the-wall humor and of Douglas Coupland’s keen eye for cultural detail and well-developed sense of the ridiculous.

Actually, scratch that. As the son of one of the top-selling authors in the world, one can imagine Harkaway has had it to here with comparisons. And, truly, The Gone-Away World demonstrates a clear voice and sharp vision. And, whatever else, with everyone scratching about for all these wonderful comparisons (Pynchon, Vonnegut, Rushdie and Dickens, for crying out loud!) it’s clear, boyfriend can write. North American readers just have to fight their way beyond the irritating shocking pink of the cover (the design of the UK edition -- published this past June -- is much more sedate). But, truly: with all this author has to offer, it won’t be a problem for long.

Children’s Books: Teen, Inc. by Stefan Petrucha

If Teen, Inc. isn’t turned into a movie, I’ll be very surprised. It reads like a number of films I have seen over the years, though it doesn’t end like them.

Jaiden Beale has been brought up by a corporation. His bedroom is a converted office. He eats in the cafeteria. A committee named him. Another committee oversees everything from his education to his social life. He even has to sit through a Powerpoint presentation on his dating options! He has lived this way since just after birth because a faulty piece of equipmment produced by the corporation killed his parents and the company sees it as the best way to avoid a lawsuit.

Jaiden wants to live a normal life. He has been allowed, recently, to attend a public school, where nobody knows who he is. He’s made a friend and he’s hoping to get a girlfriend, Jenny -- not one of those on the corporation’s list of possibles. But Jenny’s environmentalist father has uncovered something nasty for which the company may be responsible. What happens when the girl Jaiden cares about is part of a movement against the only family he has ever known?

I would have expected that the kids would have made the discovery in their science project rather than just having the father do it, but never mind. Stefan Petrucha’s Teen, Inc. is funny, gentle and charming and it at least avoids the kind of clichéd ending of the movies it resembles. Recommended for mid-teens.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

New This Week: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My mother once said to me that no one is just one thing. A Mafia hit man can also be a loving father. Your best friend in the world can also sleep with your spouse. The president of the United States can be, well, anything but presidential. That’s sort of the story with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Knopf), which is being billed as a crime story; the thing is, it’s not just a crime story. It’s also a multi-generational family saga and a really different, really cool kind of love story.

Its author, Stieg Larsson, said to be one of Sweden’s top investigative reporters, wrote a trilogy that starts with this book. They became significant bestsellers throughout Europe, and Alfred A. Knopf will publish all three here at home. The thing is, you won’t see any interviews with Larsson, no signings in bookshops, no reading select passages -- because he’s dead. He died after delivering the manuscripts, and there is, you might say, some question as to whether his death was by natural causes or the work of any number of the anti-democratic, extremist, or Nazi organizations he investigated and wrote about. Clearly, Larsson’s own story could make a pretty great crime novel.

And so. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What a terrific read this is. Involving, even absorbing, characters. A family bound together by secrets and business as much by blood. Betrayals. Resentments. Screwed-up relationships. The intricacies of business. The dark corners that are part and parcel of investigative journalism. Sex. Pretty great stuff. Populating this world are Mikael Blomkvist, magazine editor, who gets pulled into the tale in its first few pages, and Lisbeth Salander, a 20-something snooper who’s very tattooed of body, very inquisitive of mind, and very prickly of personality.

These two are not just the engine of the book--their relationship, in all its fascinating facets, is the glue that holds it together as well as the thing that keeps you turning its pages. Blomkvist needs Salander to help him uncover the mystery of a missing girl named Harriet -- an event many decades old. It’s steeped in family history and cloaked in secrets that few people want to see revealed. Blomkvist’s boss, Helmut Vanger, is one of those few -- and nothing, it seems, will stop him ... or convince him to stop Blomkvist.

Larsson writes with verve and a knowing sense of fun. He has a great time weaving his yarn, adding color on top of texture on top of flavor. He paints the various Swedish locations with style, even down to the aroma of the meatballs. The pace he sets isn’t quite breakneck, but so many things happen that it feels miraculous that someone was able to keep track of all the details. Most impressive is how smart a thriller this is, and how insightful a love story. Read it, and you’ll find yourself looking forward to the next two ... and mourning the author’s much-too-early demise.

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New This Month: Tycoon’s War by Stephen Dando-Collins

I wanted to love historian Stephen Dando-Collins’ account of conflict and economic turmoil in the middle part of the 19th century, I really did. Even the subtitle sounded killer exciting: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded A Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer. Seriously: that’s dead exciting stuff!

While I came away from Tycoon’s War (DaCapo) feeling as though I had a much better understanding of both Vanderbilt and the times in which he lived, somehow Dando-Collins never manages to lift the story off the page. At least not for me. At it’s very best, I found Tycoon’s War to be a bit of a slog. That seemed a shame. As I said, this is plenty exciting stuff.

The book points out that, despite the fact that when he died, Vanderbilt had more money than the U.S. Treasury, the would-be mogul nearly lost it all when genuis fellow-tycoon William Walker tried to conquer Central America, even though that attempt severely compromised Vanderbilt’s most lucrative business. And the war of the tycoons mentioned in the title is underway.

It’s an interesting story, well told and extensively researched. If the prose never sings perhaps Dando-Collins can be forgiven since he has here delivered a story that’s never before been told.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

New This Week: The Song of Jonah: A Novel by Gene Guerin

Published to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, which began September 15th, The Song of Jonah (University of New Mexico Press) is the second novel for Denver author Gene Guerin. Guerin’s debut effort, Cottonwood Saints, won the 2006 Premio Aztlan Award for first-time Hispanic writers.

The Song of Jonah is a gentle retelling of the Jonah story against the backdrop of the contemporary Catholic church, where suspicion and accusation are frequent bedfellows.

A young priest finds himself in the middle of a mild sex scandal. In the aftermath, he is reassigned to a remote New Mexico village in a parish with a reputation for being hard on priests. But The Song of Jonah is a story of hope, of course. And redemption. And Guerin brings us there with a heady mix of magic realism, regional folklore and a good working knowledge of the political machinations of the Catholic church.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Review: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Mary Ward Menke reviews My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Says Menke:
Imagine being a 37-year-old woman, an accomplished professional, well-respected among your peers. You’re healthy, your future is bright, and then suddenly, your whole world collapses. The very thing you’ve devoted your life to studying -- the brain -- has betrayed you. A blood vessel has burst inside your head and you’ve suffered a massive stroke.

That’s what happened to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist -- brain scientist -- on the morning of December 10, 1996. In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor describes the event and her subsequent lengthy recovery from a clinical and very personal point of view.

The full review is here.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

James Crumley Passes

Montana crime novelist James Crumley has died. According to The Missoulian, he passed away at age 68 after “many years of health complications.
When he died, Crumley was surrounded by family and friends, including his wife, Martha Elizabeth, and Missoula author and county emergency services director Bob Reid.“We were friends in the fullest sense,” Reid said. “I admired him for many things. He always kind of had this off-kilter way of looking at things--different than what you would imagine. He had a real hard-nosed exterior, yet at the same time he was patient and understanding of many different things and many different people.”

Missoula author Neil McMahon said of Crumley: “A huge man in terms of his heart and soul. He influenced me greatly and many others. He has a tremendous fan base and admirers all over the world.”Crumley has published 11 novels, taught at universities across the country and worked in Hollywood for several years. Famous for his hard-boiled mysteries, his works include “One Count to Cadence,” “The Last Good Kiss,” “The Wrong Case,” “The Mexican Tree Duck,” “Bordersnakes,” “The Final Country,” and most recently, “The Right Madness.”
One of the earliest detective novels I remember reading--more than once--was Crumley’s The Wrong Case (1975), which introduced alcoholic, sometime private eye Milo Milodragovitch. Had Crumley never written another detective novel in his life, I’d still remember him for that Chandleresque one. But then a few years later, I picked up The Last Good Kiss (1978) and was hooked again by the first short paragraph, a paragraph that has become an inspirational touchstone for later crime novelists:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
That latter book introduced a second Montana gumshoe, C.W. Sughrue, who was really the flip side of the same coin. (If memory serves, The Last Good Kiss was originally supposed to feature Milo, but some arcane publishing deal compelled Crumley to rename--if not modify significantly--his protagonist.) Over time, however, the two men showed some of their dissimilarities: Milo was a Korean War vet, Sughrue did his service during the Vietnam War and was court-martialed for killing an entire Vietnamese family (the crime was unintentional, of course); Milo was the kinder and smarter of the two, Sughrue the more violent and mean. Crumley once said that “Milo is my good side, Sughrue’s the bad.” But the characters got along well enough that in 1996’s Bordersnakes, they teamed up to go gallivanting around the West and into Mexico in search of an embezzling banker and a hit man. There was always lots of road travel in Crumley’s books, leading critics to conclude (not too brilliantly) that he’d been influenced by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

As Crumley got older, I thought his skills dropped off a bit and his stories became confusing at times. I was saddened by the mess of 2005’s The Right Madness, a Sughrue novel, but in reviewing that book for Amazon.com, I wrote: “Crumley’s detective stories have always been stronger on character development, high-caliber action, literary wit, and lyrical exposition than on meticulous plot construction.” He could put more punch into his storytelling than five other guys, and he had a poetic edge to his prose that wasn’t lost at all on careful readers.

There are plenty of tributes to Crumley appearing in the blogosphere today, including a fine and personal one from Duane Swierczynski. Laura Lippman has posted the transcript of an interview she conducted with Crumley for Crimespree Magazine. Two older pieces to look for are John Williams’ interview from his 1991 book Into the Badlands and an interview journalist-author Craig McDonald conducted with Crumley for Hardluck Stories. (McDonald follows that up today with a newspaper obituary that incorporates much of that same exchange.)

I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet James Crumley, except through the pages of his books, which I think is always the best way to get to know an author, anyway.

Wherever you are now, Mr. Crumley, I hope the camaraderie is generous and the beer is cold.

(Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)


Sequel City

What’s worse, asks EW’s PopWatch blog, a new chapter for Sex in the City’s seminal saga? Or another two cents added to the late Douglas AdamsHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series? “Both sound pretty appalling to me,” offers PopWatch, sounding relieved that “At least Candace Bushnell herself is writing the SATC book (working title: The Carrie Diaries).”

To be honest, and if they must be compared, though both projects are being approached from innovative angles, the new Hitchhiker’s installment sounds the most exciting. After all -- and in the first place -- Adams can be forgiven for not having a hand in this particular sequel: his excuse is rock solid. Also, the new book is being penned by Eoin Colfer, dismissed by EW as “a well-known children’s book author,” though he’s certainly much more than that. Colfer is also capable of bringing his own spectacular vision, voice and humor to the project.

Colfer told The Guardian that being offered the opportunity to pen the sixth installment to the Hitchhikers series was “like suddenly being offered the superpower of your choice.” Penguin UK will publish the book in October 2009.

Meanwhile, HarperCollins will publish the new Bushnell books beginning in 2010. They will be prequels to the book-that-spawned-a-media-empire and will be aimed a young adult readers and will feature Carrie Bradshaw’s high school years. The MTV Newsroom has more on that here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Author Snapshot: Larry Beinhart

Salvation Boulevard (Nation Books), Larry Beinhart’s sixth novel, is stunning. It manages to be what most -- all? -- novels aim at and very few ever achieve. It is an important book: it deals with topics that are important -- questions of faith and freedom and systems of belief -- yet the book never fails to entertain.

None of this is surprising. Beinhart is hardly a neophyte and he’s written bestselling and important books in the past. The best known of his novels is probably 1993’s American Hero, later republished under the name Wag the Dog, after the hit film version was released in 1997. Like Salvation Boulevard, Wag the Dog dealt with an important subject: in that case, war as performance for home viewership.

The mystery in Salvation Boulevard, Beinhart reports, “is God. Belief, religion, tithing and all the trappings.” The authors says that his goal for the book was a lofty one. He wanted to “unravel those mysteries. That may have been pretentious of me. But I found it a whole lot more interesting than another serial killer or the super CSI-ers that don’t exist in real life.”

A Snapshot of Larry Beinhart...
Most recent book: Salvation Boulevard
Born: NYC
Reside: Woodstock, New York
Birthday: 6/8/47
Web site: larrybeinhart.com

What’s your favorite city?
Oxford. Part of what you have to understand about England is that it is a very secretive place. Not secretive in the totalitarian sense that they won’t tell you things out of fear or out of national security concerns. They will tell you. If you ask.
But you have to know to ask, and if you know to ask, you probably already know the answer.

I went there as the Raymond Chandler/Fulbright fellow. When you go to an American university, an American institution of any kind, for that matter, you get an orientation brochure. Nay, more than a brochure, a whole kit. With facilities, the institution’s history and philosophy and standards. A directory. A map. Bios of it’s members, both great and small. The rules and regulations. A table of contents and an index.

My college, Wadham, one of the 39 colleges that make up Oxford University, sent me a single document before my departure, and nothing more after my arrival. The wine list.
Wadham, which is a medium large, but fairly well -- though not lavishly -- endowed, had four cellars with 50,000 bottles. Or maybe it was five cellars with 40,000 bottles. People who have gone to Oxford or Cambridge will understand. Those who haven’t may not. But it is a key to something.

Up here, in Woodstock, it’s always 1968. In Oxford, it’s always 1668.

When we first arrived and walked into the quad, my then six year old daughter tugged at my hand. She had a question. I leaned down toward her. She said, “Daddy, is the king of this castle dead?”

The gate was guarded by the porter. Shakespearean plays that involve castles always have a porter. They don’t actually porter things, like a railroad porter. They’re the gate-keepers.
A porter at an Oxford college will immediately size you up and determine who you are -- that is to say, what your class is: tradesman, student, tourist, fellow.

A fellow is often a teacher or professor, but not necessarily, as one can be a research fellow or visiting fellow. In any case, that’s top of the class system. There are, of course, many degrees of class distinction among fellows, but as an American and rather a faux fellow, at that, I was oblivious to them.

The people who work at the college, including the porters, are called college servants. During the contract negotiations with the staff, I once heard the head of senior common room, which is the fellowship of fellows, who sort of run the college, but sort of don’t, say to the man who dealt directly with the college servants, the domestic bursar, Captain Michael Sauvage, recently of Her Majesty Royal Navy (and you have to imagine this in a thin-lipped upper class British accent), “Michael, what’s the mood below stairs?”

It was like walking into an episode of Masterpiece Theater. And I, as a fellow, was a “Sir.” There was also, a real and deep fellowship among fellows. A sense of community I had experienced nowhere else in my life. American universities are organized strictly along departmental lines. Achievement by one is a threat to all the others, as they claw their way up the narrow ladders of advancement. But colleges tend to have only one or two members (a senior and a junior) from each field (who are members of departments in the University structure, outside the college structure), so that the success of one is a benefit to all. There was a sense of -- dare I say it -- collegiality.

Perhaps the fifth most wonderful moment of my life -- after, in chronological order, getting published, falling in love with my second wife, the birth of my first child, then my second -- the fifth took place after a winter break when I’d left Wadham to go lecture and then ski in Switzerland.

Upon return to Wadham, coming in out of the February chill, I walked into the porter’s hall. The Porter, upon seeing me, virtually tipped his hat, and said, “Welcome home, sir.” I about wept.

I also loved living in New York, where I grew up, Miami (though in those days I felt that you had to get on airplane before you could have an interesting conversation), Rome where we lived three months, and Woodstock where I live now. I’ve always felt like I’ve lived in paradise and have been very lucky and privileged.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Oxford? Dine at high table. See which of my old friends are still around. The aforesaid Captain Sauvage. Jeff Hackeny, the law don. Reza Sheikholeslami, though he’s probably in one of the emirates. Bruce Mortimer, the joiner (the college carpenter). Visit the book stores, stroll through town to Port Meadow.

What food do you love?
Food of the place and the season.

What inspires you?
The need to make money.

What’s clear and obvious that no else apparently notices.

The mysteries of common assumptions. The inside out of conventional deception. The realities of unrealized hypocrisies.

What are you working on now?
Promoting this book.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
That’s tough. I’m basically unemployable. I might try to make a go of it as a ski instructor, but the money is really insufficient. To even try you have to be a gung ho member of a team! Which is probably beyond my capacity.

I could, I suppose, be entrepreneurial again. I once co-owned a film production company. We did quite well. But the talent you need as a producer is to be a salesman, which I’m not that good at. You also have to be detail oriented, keep accounts, keep track of nickels, also not my forte. I was a director as well as a producer. But I know people, like my wife, who are much better at that than I am.

Perhaps, in desperation, I might try to found a new religion, or a new non-religion religion. That can be exceptionally lucrative. But it may require being more intuitively exploitive than I naturally am. I don’t know and wouldn’t find out until I tried it.

But, now that you’ve asked, I will give serious consideration to it.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Publication of my first book. I felt like my ticket to park in the parking lot of life had finally been stamped.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Did I get to meet Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro [during the making of Wag the Dog.] The answer is no.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
I’ve got a ski house up in the Canadian Rockies, and a extra plane ticket in my pocket, wanna come?

Please tell us about Salvation Boulevard.
I would like to think that Salvation Boulevard does all the things you want in mystery/thriller and does them well. It has tension, excitement, people to root for, people to root against, some titillating erotic moments, some scary moments, it never gets boring, it surprises and entertains.
But the mystery, the real mystery, is God. Belief, religion, tithing and all the trappings.

My goal was to unravel those mysteries. That may have been pretentious of me. But I found it a whole lot more interesting than another serial killer or the super CSI-ers that don’t exist in real life.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I’m sure there are a thousand insignificant things about me that no one knows, but they would hardly be worth mentioning. If there are significant things that I’ve managed to keep secret, I’d probably best continue to do so.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Children’s Books: Shadows in the Twilight by Henning Mankell

Swedish-born author Henning Mankell is best known for his Kurt Wallander mystery series. These are books that dominate bestseller charts all over Europe and are beginning to make inroads in the United States, as well. Mankell’s fans know he’s a wonderful storyteller -- a great wordsmith with a lot to say. However, many who are new to his work don’t know that, in his own country, Mankell is also esteemed as a teller of children’s tales. Even the first few lines of Shadows in the Twilight (Delacorte) tells one why:
I have another story to tell.

The story of what happened next, when summer was over. When the mosquitoes had stopped singing and the nights turned cold.

Autumn set in, and Joel Gustafson had other things to think about. He hardly ever went to his rock by the river, to gaze up at the sky.

It was as if the dog that had headed for its star no longer existed.
Though Shadows in the Twilight follows up an earlier book, A Bridge to the Stars, young readers who are coming to Mankell for the first time won’t feel as though they’ve missed anything. Mankell is a skillfull writer and each work stands alone. This time out, Joel is dealing with shades of truth and coming to understand that sometimes a few words make all the difference in the world.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Graphic Classic: Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs

First published in England in 1980, there are those who feel Raymond Briggs’ Gentleman Jim was seminal, releasing the dogs on a new generation of storytelling.

Gentleman Jim is Jim Bloggs, a toilet cleaner who yearns for the wider world only to discover -- as we all must -- to be careful what you wish for.

This new Drawn & Quarterly edition is, if anything, an enhancement over the original. For one thing, the garage band sensibility of the first edition is banished by the natural elegance of hard cover. Briggs’ beautiful illustrations have never looked so luminous. A foreword by graphic novel expert Seth completes the package. “I’m glad to see this edition of Gentleman Jim back in print,” writes Seth. “Raymond Briggs is a great cartoonist.”

If you’ve never before encountered Gentleman Jim, make a point of doing so. I’m sure you’ll agree.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Author Snapshot: Shannon Burke

When Black Flies (Soft Skull Press), Shannon Burke’s second novel, was published this past May, the New York Times gave the book a rave and reviewer Liesl Schullinger referred to Burke’s two “searing and morally resonant novels.” Considering the tough path Burke took to publication, the Times review would have been a moment to cherish.

In today’s January Magazine Author Snapshot, Burke candidly discusses the dozen years the author spent on his road to publication; a road that was studded with disappointment and near misses.

“It took me a really long time to sell the first book and it was a huge relief when it happened.” Burke says that part of his personal challenge was the fact that he was self-taught: it meant he had to find his own road.

“I didn’t go to writing school or anything,” says Burke, “so for a long time I was just wandering around in a fog, trying to figure out how to do it on my own.” A growing fan-base is happy Burke made his own path.

The author of two novels, Safelight and Black Flies, he has also written for the screen, including work on the screenplay for the film Syriana.

Burke was born in Illinois but currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with his wife, Amy Billone, and their two sons.

A snapshot of… Shannon Burke
Most recent book: Black Flies
Born: Wilmette, Illinois
Reside: Knoxville, Tennessee
Birthday: September 11, 1966
Web site: shannonburkewebsite.com

What’s on your nightstand?
I don’t really have a nightstand, but the bed is between wall-to-wall bookshelves. On my right, the closest bookshelf is sort of the on-deck circle for my books. Looking over, I see the Paris Review Interviews Vol. 1, Goodbye to Berlin, Oscar and Lucinda, La Fiesta del Chivo, Diary of a Bad Year, Tom Brown’s School Days, La Vie Mode d’Emploi, Selected Writings of Emerson and Ravelstein.

What inspires you?
Travel. When I was first trying to write I moved around a lot. For four or five years I moved every six months. I had jobs washing dishes or in the Pizza Hut or selling T-shirts or driving a cab.

When I finally settled in New York and started to work as a paramedic and had to stay there 10 or 11 months of the year, I’d get really restless, and in my free time I’d take off to Guatemala, or Pakistan, or Cameroon. Just random places where I’d hike around for a month. Now that I have kids I still take off for the mountains at least once a week and we still travel quite a bit. We live in Knoxville. We spend summers in Chicago. We go to New York, California, wherever.

Tell us about your process.
I tend to work on several things at once. The first stage is I get an idea and I start to read about it and research. For example, if I’m writing about New York and I haven’t been there for a while, I’ll go back. I’ll start talking to people from New York, reading everything I can find on the subject. Bits of dialogue will start coming to me, descriptions of the places I’m going to write about, descriptions of people, anything at all that seems relevant, all of it sort of comes to the surface bit by bit and goes into a document.

Pretty quickly, while I’m doing this, the document starts to form itself into scenes and those scenes begin to form themselves into a rough plot. Characters are being shifted around at this point, combined, split apart, added, thrown out, but all along the thing is taking shape and a general plot is being put together and the screws tightened until all the character and all the plot points and all the scenes are at least sketched out. This process can go on for a year. Sometimes longer. I’m usually working on something else but I’m thinking of this other thing in the back of my mind. Eventually, the outline starts getting really long. A 50,000 word novel might have a 30,000 word outline.

At some point I’ll just feel like I’m ready to write. Then I’ll put the outline to the side, not look at it very much, and just write the book.

I’ll write between two and three thousand words a day. So, you can do the math. A 50,000 word novel will take 25 days. Now, understand, this is just a draft. And it will be added to and cut down and bent every which way. But I have this belief that to maintain stylistic and tonal consistency, it’s better to write the original draft as quickly as possible. Everything else can take time, but I think the book tends to work better if I prepare for a long time, then write the initial draft quickly. After that there is line editing and the adding and subtracting of scenes.

I keep thinking there will come a day where I don’t have to massively edit a book, but it hasn’t happened yet. The editing goes on until I feel it’s in a lean form and finally, one day, I’m so sick of it and everyone around me is so sick of it that I finally hand it in. So, for better or for worse, that’s my method.

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

Well, I’m in my bedroom. I always write in bed or on the floor. For all that time when I was learning how to write I was moving around a lot and living in all kinds of random places, the worst places you can imagine. One boarding house had homeless people sleeping in the bathroom at night. Another place had a wasp’s nest behind plastic packing tape. During the day you could see the silhouette of the wasps on the other side of the tape and you could hear the buzz at all times. It was pretty unnerving.

Anyway, I never had a desk to work on, so I learned to write in bed, or sitting on the floor with my back against a wall, or even outside, leaning against a tree or a rock. But never at a desk. And so I got used to that. And now I still work in bed, lying almost completely flat, with the computer on a wooden bed desk. The bed desk has one of those flaps of wood that can be propped up. It’s at about a 30 degree angle. There are nails pounded into the base of the bed desk to keep the computer from sliding off. So, I’m lying flat in bed and I see my computer propped up at an angle. On either side of the bed are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with many many tattered and water-stained paperbacks stacked up and piled on top of the shelves. I like having all the books right there.

Behind me is a long window, maybe five feet wide and six feet high that has a view over a small ravine with trees and leaves, very still now, against the gray blue sky at dusk. It’s a pretty nice room. I spend most of my time here.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It probably wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 that I really knew that’s what I would try to do. As a kid I was always writing plays and little poems, and I really, really liked music in high school and college. I used to write song lyrics. But, if you don’t play an instrument and you don’t write music, then song lyrics are poems. And gradually I just stopped pretending they were lyrics and started writing poems. This happened slowly when I was 16, 17 and 18 years old.

I started reading a lot of poetry. I read fiction as well, but indiscriminately. I’d read First Blood or Dean Koontz or Stephen King or whatever happened to be lying around. I wasn’t selective at all. And then, maybe I was 19 or so -- really late, I think, for a writer -- it was summer, and I read The Honorable Schoolboy by John LeCarre, and the next book I read was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. I had some trouble with both those books. I mean, they were a little advanced for me. And I’d never really read books like that before, except maybe a few times in school. It was like I was just beginning to understand something and it took me a while to sort through it.

That was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. And then, that fall, someone gave me The Sun Also Rises and The Stranger and it was like my mind exploded. It seemed the most important thing in the world.

I loved those two books. I read them over and over. And then I started to read all the great authors: Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Bellow, Twain, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Fielding, Flaubert, Dumas, Zola, George Sand, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov. And I understood that’s what I wanted to at least try to do.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a doctor. I was a paramedic for five years and I really liked it. I liked treating patients. I liked the daily mystery of diagnosing patients. And I liked the feeling that we were doing something worthwhile. There’s a French philosopher who said the only certain good one can do is to aid in the immediate relief of human suffering. And every once in a while as a paramedic we’d do some little thing in the right way and... yeah, you felt pretty good after that. There was no question about whether it was worthwhile. I like that about medicine.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
It was probably the sale of my first book. It took me a really long time to sell the first book and it was a huge relief when it happened. I didn’t go to writing school or anything, so for a long time I was just wandering around in a fog, trying to figure out how to do it on my own. And it was years before I could even write a readable scene and it was some ridiculous amount of time before I sold my first book. It was 12 years or something like that. When I think back on it now it’s hard to believe. Twelve years!

That apprenticeship went on for so long that I really started to feel like there was something wrong with me. I knew I was putting in the work. I mean, I’m very diligent. I couldn’t understand what my problem was. I wrote three books that were terrible and didn’t show to anyone. Then, I got to that fourth book and I thought it was a little better. But what I hadn’t thought of was the market. The novel, Safelight, was a very spare, initially severe story about a disaffected paramedic who falls for a patient with HIV. The story does not immediately invite the reader in and requires a little patience, which, given today’s climate for literary fiction, is not the best way to attract attention.

Anyway, after those 12 years, despite the slow beginning, I thought I’d finally written a decent book. So, I decided to try to sell it. I got an agent and we sent the book out to, I don’t know, 15 or 20 publishing houses. And there was real interest from Viking and from Penguin, but in both cases it was from young editors who were shot down by the marketing department. Dan Menaker, the editor-in-chief at Doubleday also liked it, and he made a tentative offer, but then he was dissuaded by the head of marketing, same as the other two editors, and after much internal struggle at Doubleday, Dan was forced to withdraw his offer, too. There weren’t any other offers, and so the book was dead. And, I felt terrible. It would have been one thing if I just hadn’t sold it. But there was the initial offer that fell through. It was a big disappointment. I felt I was cursed.

I am a creature of habit, and in general I’m pretty resilient, so I was going on, writing every day as usual, but there was definitely a feeling of desolation and just of resignation. I’d been writing for over 12 years. I didn’t know what more I could do.

A few months passed, I’d started a new book, and then one morning, really early, my agent, David McCormick, called and said, “Did you read The New York Times today?”

I was on the West Coast so he called at like six in the morning, thinking I was on the East Coast. I said, “No, I just woke up two minutes ago.”

“Well, read the paper. You’re in it,” he said. Apparently Ann Godoff, the editor of Random House, had been fired, and it was announced that day that Dan Menaker would take her place as editor-in-chief at Random House. In the article about the new editor of the world’s largest publishing house, Dan announced that the first thing he would do as editor would be “to publish a first novel, Safelight, by Shannon Burke.” After 12 years of working relentlessly with no encouragement, to suddenly have my book sale announced in The New York Times... Well, it was great. Aside from the birth of my kids and getting married it’s probably the happiest moment of my life.

Recently I had the cover review in the Sunday Times. It was a great review and that was really nice, too, but I think that first realization that I’d sold my book, that was my happiest moment in publishing.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
It’s what I’d do whether I got paid for it or not. So, to actually make a living doing this thing that I’d do anyway, well, that’s nice.

What’s the most difficult?
Keeping things lively. Writing is a lonely business. I tend to sink pretty deeply into the stories. I have to make sure to get out into the world.

There’s a push and pull to this. You need to be at some remove to write and to think about things and you need long hours of unbroken solitude and silence to get things right. But if you go too far into solitude you lose touch with the world, and that’s not good either. So, it’s finding that balance. It’s difficult sometimes.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
Did that really happen? People ask that all the time.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
Uhm, what books do you like? I’m not that comfortable talking about my own books, but I love to talk about other books.

Please tell us about Black Flies.
It’s about a rookie medic’s first year in Harlem. I was a medic in Harlem, so, yeah, I knew what I was writing about.

I had all these crazy stories built up from that time. I wrote a lot of them out in that first year I was working on the ambulance. I thought it would be simple to turn them into a novel. And it was easy to copy out what had happened. Writing the stories took a few months. It took ten years to see the larger story and to understand the implications of what had happened.

The book is about the psychological changes that came about when you confront and are continually surrounded by death, and also, of the possibilities for ordinary people, in bad circumstances, to act horribly.

It’s about going to the dark side of human behavior and then trying to return to the ordinary world. And all of it taking place in the world of a few ambulance crews working out of Station 18 in Harlem.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

International Literacy Day

Today, September 8th, is International Literacy Day, a date that’s being marked in different ways by different groups but -- in all cases -- it is a celebration as well as a lament.

For some, it is an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come on the road to literacy, while realizing how far there still is to go. From the United Nations’ site:
Literacy is a cause for celebration since there are now close to four billion literate people in the world. However, literacy for all -- children, youth and adults -- is still an unaccomplished goal and an ever moving target. A combination of ambitious goals, insufficient and parallel efforts, inadequate resources and strategies, and continued underestimation of the magnitude and complexity of the task accounts for this unmet goal. Lessons learnt over recent decades show that meeting the goal of universal literacy calls not only for more effective efforts but also for renewed political will and for doing things differently at all levels - locally, nationally and internationally.
Or, as the International Reading Association points out:
International Literacy Day, observed annually on September 8, focuses attention on worldwide literacy needs. More than 780 million of the world’s adults (nearly two-thirds of whom are women) do not know how to read or write, and between 94 and 115 million children lack access to education.
For others it is a celebration of books and reading and a reminder to keep both close to our hearts and in our lives.

In Indianapolis, for example, the powers that would read have used the day as a touchstone for a local grassroots campaign to help raise reading awareness. The Take Five to Read campaign urges reading right now:
Take Five To Read: wherever you are, whatever you are doing, stop and read a book (or a magazine, or a letter, or a work related report, or a newspaper …) for five minutes at noon on Monday, September 8 th to celebrate “International Literacy Day.”

• Take Five To Read to a child.
• Take Five To Read to yourself.
• Take Five To Read to celebrate that you are NOT one of the “one in five adults in Indianapolis who can’t read.”
• And when people ask why you’re reading, tell them to go visit “100percentliterate.org” to help “Make Indianapolis 100% Literate!”
More about the program here.


Review: The Turnaround by George Pelecanos

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Jim Winter reviews The Turnaround by George Pelecanos. Says Winter:
It’s 1972, and Alex Pappas doesn’t want any trouble. He just wants to go to college and become a writer. He’s not even interested in taking over his father’s coffee shop, much as his father wants him to do. Hoping to stay clear of trouble, as well, is James Monroe, who wants to become a mechanic like his own father. But when Alex and two friends make a beer-fueled run into Washington, D.C.’s Heathrow Heights, an isolated black neighborhood, their worlds are irrevocably ruined. A shouted racial epithet turns into a fight that leaves one boy dead, Alex maimed and James headed for prison.

Dead is Billy Cachoris, who drove the car into Heathrow Heights with Alex and another boy, Peter Whitten. One of those boys throws a cherry pie at someone and yells “Nigger!” That sets off Heathrow Heights kid Raymond Monroe, James’ younger brother, and sparks a fight between the boys in Cachoris’ car and the neighborhood boys. Egging on the Monroe brothers is a thug-in-training named Charles Barker. The fight, which costs Billy Cachoris his life, sends both Peter Whitten and an injured Alex Pappas running.
The full review is here.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

New Today: Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright

You can say what you like about the Man Booker Award, but winning one certainly means that an author’s very next book is going to draw attention and careful consideration. Expect that to be the case for Anne Enright’s new collection, Yesterday’s Weather (McLelland & Stewart). Winning the Man Booker in 2007 for the wonderful The Gathering, even the Irish writer’s fans might be slightly put off by Yesterday’s Weather, which collects the writers stories from the last two decades. In the book, the stories com to us “in reverse chronological order,” Enright tells us in her introduction, “partly, it has to be said, for the cosmic effect.”

If there is levity in Enright’s introduction, there is little in the book itself. “Working on the stories,” she writes, “I was surprised by the pity I felt for my younger self -- so assured and so miserable at the same time.” Later she writes that, “What I seem to be saying -- a little to my own surprise -- is that the person may change, but the writer endures.”


Get Ready to Read A Banned Book

This year Banned Books Week runs from September 27th to October 4th.

From the Banned Books Week Web site:
Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities. People challenge books that they say are too sexual or too violent. They object to profanity and slang, and protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups -- or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore the latest problems to classic and beloved works of American literature.
And just in case you think things are getting better, think again: the American Library Association reports that over 400 books were challenged just last year.

So get ready now. We’ll remind you closer to the day but, meanwhile, make plans to read a banned book. Or three.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Review: Books by Larry McMurtry

Today in January Magazine’s biography section, contributing editor Stephen Miller reviews Books by Larry McMurtry. Says Miller:
Larry McMurtry’s literary street cred needs no boost from anyone. The author of, most famously, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment has been pounding the keys of his typewriter for well over 40 years. Along the way, he’s stumbled into Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for his screenplay of E. Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain”. What is perhaps less well-known is that during all of this time, McMurtry has also been a book scout, rare and antiquarian book dealer, and proprietor of Booked Up, a sprawling complex of used bookstores managed in a highly personalized and somewhat defiant style (meaning no sales via the Internet and only two catalogs in 35 years). Transplanted from the tony environs of Washington D.C.’s Georgetown to McMurtry’s long-time residence of Archer City, Texas, it’s the American version of the Welsh book destination Hay-on-Wye, quite an achievement for a boy who grew up in a town with no books. In Books, McMurtry offers the third mini-memoir following Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and Roads.
The full review is here.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Cookbooks: Everyday Raw by Matthew Kenney

Though a cookbook for raw foods might sound like an oxymoron -- or more -- the need for books with this particular bent are undeniable. Over the last decade, interest in raw food diets has increased a great deal. Proponents argue for a more pure, healthy lifestyle. That’s an argument we’re not going to get into: it’s outside the mandate of a review. However, clearly, if you are interested in a raw food diet and you don’t want to restrict yourself to a future filled with nothing but undressed salad greens, you’d better have a look around for a book by someone with some experience in preparing raw food diets and delivering them in a presentable and delectable way. Enter Matthew Kenney.

Kenney is a restaurateur and cookbook author whose burgeoning interest in the raw food diet has brought him an equal portion of growing fame. He’s appeared on the Today Show, on the Food Network and he has been nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Award. And though he hasn’t always cooked and written about raw food, it is in this area that he’s brewing up the largest part of his reputation.

Though I have an interest in alternative food lifestyles, I am not myself a raw food vegetarian, nor does the choice interest me greatly. (So much food, is what I’m more likely to say. So little time!) That said, if you were contemplating taking even part of your diet raw, Everyday Raw (Gibbs Smith) would not be an option: it would be a necessity. Kenney has gone to great lengths to develop raw food recipes that look and taste like “real” food. A cashew and lemon-based “sour cream” for instance, and a “feta cheese” made out of macadamia nuts. Those already embarked on their raw food journey will rejoice in Kenney’s creative desserts and starters.

A good book, filled with creative and well presented recipes. Everyday Raw is a must-have book for anyone interested in the raw foods vegetarian lifestyle.

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Review: Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick

Today in January Magazine’s SF/F section, Andi Shechter reviews Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick. Says Shechter:
One of the moments I dread at parties is when I’m trapped with a bunch of people and someone says something punny. In my crowd, this means that for the next 15 minutes, everyone will try and one up the punster, and there will be no getting out alive. I head for the exit as soon as it starts. I mean, I’ve got amazingly clever and intelligent friends, but this form of humor bores me after about, well, two minutes. Or less.

Mike Resnick’s Stalking the Vampire is like that. A sequel to Stalking the Unicorn, a book published close to 20 years ago and reissued here in trade paperback by Pyr along with this new book. Resnick’s book is funny for a while and then you get it. And you get it and you get it.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

New this Week: The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez

In one of those odd coincidences of collective unconscious, 2008 saw the publication of two important books on mid-20th century art forger Han van Meergeren. Back in June we got The Forger’s Spell (Harper) by Edward Dolnick, a beautifully researched and illustrated look at the man most often thought to be one of the most successful art forgers of all time. Nor is Dolnick a neophyte to the shores of art crime. A previous work, 2006’s brilliant The Rescue Artist, won the Edgar award for Best Non-Fiction while ArtNews said there had never been “a better book on art crime.”

One would think that, in a year that an author this good had produced a book this terrific, another on the topic would be overkill. But Jonathan Lopez’s newly published The Man Who Made Vermeers (Harcourt) stacks up very well to Dolnick’s book, in fact the New York Sun says Lopez bests Dolnick. Personally, I think it would take an expert on the topic to pick a winner -- both books are terrific and engaging. Perhaps Dolnick’s prose is a little warmer, while Lopez’s seems a bit more in-depth, but I could be clutching at differences here. The color plates in The Forger’s Spell are fantastic and add their own depth to the story, while the many historic black and white photos in The Man Who Made Vermeers enrich the already terrific text.

If you must pick one over the other, do it at your favorite booksellers. Hold the books side by side, read a snippet from here and perhaps from there and then choose the one that seems to speak directly to you. If you choose one and enjoy it, one won’t ever be enough. Fate has made a set of these books, that’s what I think. And what’s to stop you going back and getting the other once your appetite has been properly whet?

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Art & Culture: Ary Stillman: from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism

If you spend any time at all studying his work, you wonder at how completely absent his name is from the lists of important artists of his era. Certainly in his own time, Russian/American artist Ary Stillman was considered influential. These days, if his name comes up at all -- which it seldom does -- he is most often compared to Jackson Pollock, something I’ve never understood. Compare him to Mark Rothko. Compare him -- if comparisons must be made -- to Picasso, who worked in a similar era and whose work over time shows similar seismic upheavals of change, but Pollock? No, not that.

Whatever your impressions of Ary Stillman (1891-1967) a new book from Merrell offers an appropriate overview of the life and work of this remarkable artist. Merrell’s books are always well thought out and beautifully executed and Ary Stillman: from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism is no exception. Essays by seven important experts on Stillman’s work offer a written view that, accompanied as they are by reproductions of the artist’s work, offer a full color glimpse into the life of an artist whose work you probably don’t know enough about.

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New this Month: Untamed by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

With Stephanie Meyer’s supernaturally driven series continuing to dominate the teen bestseller charts, it’s unsurprising to find leagues of similarly constructed books nipping at the well-conceived heels of Meyer’s success. There’s nothing new in this. The extreme success of The Da Vinci Code earlier in the decade saw the publication of literally hundreds of books featuring thrilling religious themes -- with varying amounts of success. Likewise, we’ve not yet seen the end of magical boys attending magical schools and learning about magic. Some of these have been terrific. Others terrible. Readers take their chances; that’s just how it goes.

Meyer’s success with the Twilight series has been so huge and so fast, we’ve not yet had time to find ourselves completely enveloped in tales of supernatural teenage angst. But we will. One can almost hear the presses humming. However, young readers with a thirst for books with that sort of bent are ferreting out existing series whose themes run a similar course to those favored by Meyers and her characters.

Among the best of these is the House of Night series being written by P.C. and Kristin Cast. Later in September we’ll see the publication of the fourth paperback original in the series, Untamed (St. Martin’s Press). The success of this series is not difficult to understand. P.C. Cast is a successful veteran author of romantic fantasy and paranormal literature. This is a world she understands. Pushing her over the top are contributions from her daughter, Kristin, who attends Northeastern State University. Clearly, the teenage mindset is something she understands. Together the mother-daughter team are creating a strong brew with the House of Night books, a series that has been hitting bestseller lists hard pretty much since the publication of the first book, Marked, back in 2007.

The protagonist of the House of Night series is Zoey Redbird, a vampyre fledged to train at the House of Night, the school she must attend in order to become an adult vampyre. And thus you have a set up that feels a bit like X-Men meets Harry Potter meets Interview with the Vampire all told in a voice as engaging and spirited as anything recounted by Meg Cabot. And that means good stuff for young adult readers who like a bit of strangeness with their brew.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Review: The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Tony Buchsbaum reviews The Little Book by Selden Edwards. Says Buchsbaum:
It all started with Hitler. Or maybe Kafka. Or maybe both. Though not at the same time.

It was 1975, and young Selden Edwards was in graduate school. He had an idea about a contemporary guy -- a rock and roll star and a former baseball hero -- who wakes up one morning in Vienna. No explanations, he just wakes up there. In 1897. And the guy realizes early on that at this time, Hitler’s just a kid -- so if he can bring himself to kill the kid, the history of the world will change. Lives will be saved. Everyone will be saved.

Well, not everyone. What about the kids who would never be born -- kids whose parents would meet because there was a war? Because there was a Hitler?

And suddenly, Edwards had a central conflict -- and the core of a novel.
The full review is here.

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