Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fiction: In the Hands of Anubis by Ann Eriksson

Despite an epic canvas and a delicate touch that sears the heart, there’s something sweetly naive about In the Hands of Anubis (Brindle & Glass) a novel that looks at love and unhappiness in entirely new ways.

Trevor Wallace is a tractor salesman from Calgary on his way to Africa on business. In a German airport he has a chance encounter with a woman in her 70s, and they end up traveling together to Cairo. Constance is traveling the world with the ashes of her three husbands in plastic containers -- their names carefully lettered on the lids -- in her suitcase.

The pair end up stuck in Cairo, just long enough to tour the pyramids. Trevor returns home to Calgary not long after, but she’s touched him somehow -- or those ancient structures have -- emotionally, spiritually: it’s all the same. Only his world, his life are different.

In the Hands of Anubis is a lovely little book. It seems at times to touch on all the humor, the sadness, the joy of the human spirit.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Reading Could Save Your Life

Stretched to the point of breaking by financial worries, your job or trouble on the home front? Wish you knew a sure-fire way to combat unnecessary stress? Well, worry about de-stressing no more: the answer is right here. The secret is simple: Read a book. It’s good for you. From The Telegraph:
[Reading] works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea, research found.

Psychologists believe this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.
So go on: who needs more permission than that? Run down to your favorite bookstore or the library and grab a book. For your own good. The Telegraph piece is here.

New this Month: The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

Considering how the last year or so has gone, Jacqueline Novogratz left her job in the financial sector just in the nick of time. That wasn’t what it was about. From the front flap of The Blue Sweater (Rodale): “Jacqueline Novogratz left a career in international banking to spend her life on a quest to understand global poverty and find powerful new ways of tackling it.”

The result was a journey that would have far-reaching results. For Novogratz herself, obviously, but also for the people whose lives she touched and who touched her and now, with The Blue Sweater, she touches ours, as well because, as empowered as she is and as powerful she has, in a way, become, Novogratz can also write. In The Blue Sweater she brings us along on her personal journey of transformation.

Part of the power in The Blue Sweater comes from Novogratz’s own urgency. “Today, I believe more strongly than I did as a young woman that we can end poverty,” she writes at one point. “Never before in history have we had the skills, resources, technologies, and imagination to solve poverty that we do now.”

Novogratz is the piper. The stories she tells here are her music. And it’s difficult to even want to do anything other than follow along.

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Google’s “Data-Entry Slaves”

While the debate and discussion about Google’s book search settlement agreement continues to rage on, Lynn Chu offers a clear-sighted -- but hardly unbiased -- view of the situation while also managing to break what it alls means down into simple -- if scary -- terms:
To get through the 385 pages of mind-numbing legalese of the Google settlement, it might be better to be Nino Scalia, Bob Bork or David Boies. Preferably all three at once. Absent brain enhancement surgery, understanding this monstrosity by May 5, 2009, is going to be rough.

That’s the date by which every author and publisher in America is supposed to decide whether to “opt in,” “opt out,” or simply “ignore” a vast compulsory licensing scheme for the benefit of Google. Most, about 88%, are expected to “ignore.” That's because they know their online display rights have value, and the last thing they want is to be herded like sheep into a giant contract commitment.
Chu gets at least one thing wrong, though: it isn’t every author and publisher in America Google would have sign up and sign on, but every author and publisher in the world. The depth of what Google is asking for here boggles the mind.

Chu’s Wall Street Journal piece is excellent and it’s here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

New This Month: The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

One of the things you hear from new writers is how they’d have X number of novels inside them, if only they could find the time. But time is one of those funny things. Sometimes, the more you squeeze it, the more seems to pop out. At least, so it seems, because there are an awful lot of extraordinary time-squeezing stories in the publishing world.

The latest of these belongs to Peter V. Brett, long-time rider of the F train from Brooklyn to Times Square. It was on this daily commute that Brett wrote 90 per cent of The Warded Man (Del Rey), the first novel in a series so vast, so sweeping, it’s difficult to comprehend that it was composed mostly on the subway, a realm as far from that as inhabited by the legendary demon-fighter, the Warded Man, as can be imagined. Oh: and I did not mention, Brett accomplished this amazing feat while thumb-typing. That’s right: The Warded Man was composed on a Blackberry. The mind reels.

These are the things you think about as you begin The Warded Man. You don’t stay there long, though. While the Publishers Weekly review was a little simplistic, it did point at one of the things I really like about The Warded Man. While it’s not strictly true that “Brett’s gritty tale will appeal to those who tire of sympathetic villains and long for old-school orc massacres” it’s true enough to get to the heart of the matter. This is old-school storytelling, plain and simple. Brett’s characters grapple with issues of morality, with black and white, right and wrong. In the process, a lot of evil stuff gets dispatched. Quite often, there is blood involved.

This is hearty, muscular fare. There is no formula here and little to remind you of other writers. Brett has found his own way to his own world, on the F train. We’re glad to be along for the ride.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Spider-Man the Musical

What we want to know is this: What is Stan Lee saying about the whole thing? (Other than “Put the check right over there. Carefully.”) And since he already has a relationship with Spidey, will President Obama be inivted to opening night?

According to Gothamist, director Julie Taymor (The Lion King, Grendel) wants people to stop calling it a musical. We say: get over it, Julie. Even if Spider-Man himself is “not going to sing and dance in tights,” it’s still going to be “a circus rock-‘n’-roll drama.”

And there will be singing: to a score that’s being struck by Bono and The Edge of U2, no less. So you can see where some people might get the wrong idea. A play with music and singing? What would you call it?

At a presentation for ticket brokers yesterday, Gothamist says that “Actors sang six songs from the show, which has the irritatingly nonsensical title Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Tickets will go on sale this coming June for a soft opening in January and the opening itself February 18th.

The Gothamist piece is here. The official Web site for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is here.

Children’s Books: You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter, illustrated by André Carrilho

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? (Schwartz & Wade Books) is a book of astonishing beauty. I think it may be the most gorgeous book for children I’ve ever seen; it’s certainly in the top ten.

Though parents whose children are sports-minded will put this one high on their list, I’m guessing that a good part of the first edition will end up in the hands of book collectors.

This is the first picture book for illustrator André Carrilho, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Harper’s and others. But I predict massive success for this book, leading to other picture books in Carrilho’s future. Or is that merely wishful thinking?

Fortunately, the text lives up to the great expectations resulting from those terrific illustrations. This is the story of baseball great Sandy Koufax, “a guy who finally relaxed enough to let his body do the one thing it was put on this earth to do. And what a thing of beauty that was.”

Author Jonah Winter is becoming the sports writer for the under 11 set. The author of books on Muhammad Ali, Roberto Clemente and two other books about baseball, Winter is also the author of books about the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His most recent book, published fall, is called, simply Barak. I’ll let you guess the topic.

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? is a fantastic book. Interesting and well-shared text, wonderful illustrations and really great design: this is the whole package. It will certainly be among my picks for best of the year.

Garrison Says “Happy Birthday!”

Who knew, or could ever imagine, that Budd Schulberg, Quentin Tarantino, Julia Alvarez, Henrik Ibsen, and the Roman poet Ovid could share the same birthday? Well, Garrison Keillor, of course, at his wonderful Writer’s Almanac.

Here’s the link.


New This Month: Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

If you were to somehow meld the stylish dysfunctional humor of Lisa Lutz and the arms akimbo stylings of Miriam Toews, it would likely look something like Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise (Knopf Canada). When I say this, keep in mind that -- as different as they are -- I love the work of both Lutz and Toews. I love Come, Thou Tortoise, as well. And the three are not at all alike. But they are, in a way, equally quirky, equally funny and equally deep, and in a darkly sneaky way.

As Come, Thou Tortoise opens, Audrey Flowers is boarding a plane. She’s deathly afraid of flying (“I remain vigilant and concentrate on having a future. On a plane if you don’t concentrate on having a future, you won’t have one.”) but she must leave Oregon and return to Newfoundland because her father is in a coma. She’s been forced to leave her pet, Winnifred (mentioned in the title), in not very dependable hands. But she must return to the Maritimes to discover who her father actually is.

Grant uses lists, diagrams and a charming, staccato voice to tell Audrey’s story. One suspects a deeply serious skill -- and perhaps a talent deeper still -- beneath Audrey’s naive and weirdly charming voice.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Annual Book Show Picks the Best

We’re sorry not to have been able to get to the 23rd New York Book Show last Monday, the 24th of March. Nearly 600 publishers, writers, book production personnel, book manufacturers and guests descended on the Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street. The stars of the show were the 170 winning books, jackets and covers. With so many winners, we won’t list them all, but you can see them on the Show’s Web site.

The New York Book Show is sponsored annually by the Bookbinders’ Guild of New York. While the Book Show is the highlight of the organization’s year, they are an active group with interests in both literacy and the art of the book. You can learn more about the Guild, including how to apply for membership, here.

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Apple Censors Electronic Book

Is Apple aiming at being this decade’s Wal-Mart? From CNET:
An e-book submitted to Apple’s App Store has been approved after the author removed language that apparently offended Apple.

CNET’s David Carnoy wrote a book called Knife Music last year, and attempted to submit it to the App Store as an e-book. Apple rejected his application for containing “objectionable content,” which appeared to be a couple of uses of that four-letter word that starts with F.
I’m a little less proud of being a Mac user today.

The story is here.


Marlowe at the Movies

The incomparable Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) died 50 years ago today. To celebrate the great novelist’s memory, J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet has put together a really special tribute:Italic
In commemoration of this being the 50th anniversary of the death of oil company exec-turned-crime novelist Raymond Chandler, I’ve put together a collection of trailers from the various 20th-century film adaptations of his private eye Philip Marlowe novels.

After some experience penning screenplays for Hollywood, Chandler came to despise the movie-making business; yet producers were willing to pay big bucks for Chandler’s stories, and he was no less willing to take their checks and cash them. Under those terms, most of the seven Marlowe books were brought to the silver screen, several of them more than once, though the results weren’t always sympathetic to their source material.
That article -- with trailers -- is here.

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Anthony Hopkins May Play Papa

The Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Business Blog says it’s possible Anthony Hopkins will play Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway & Fuentes, an upcoming indie film to be directed and co-written by Andy Garcia.
Garcia, who also will produce via his CineSon Entertainment banner, is co-penning the script with Hilary Hemingway, a screenwriter and author and the niece of Ernest Hemingway. The movie will revolve around the relationship between Hemingway and his longtime fishing-boat captain Gregorio Fuentes.

Annette Bening also could come aboard the project, Garcia said, in the role of Hemingway's wife and widow Mary Welsh.

Instead of functioning as a biopic, “Hemingway & Fuentes” will take the form of a historical drama, centering on the final, troubled chapter in Hemingway's dramatic life.
The Risky Business piece is here.


John Hope Franklin Dies at 94

Pioneering historian John Hope Franklin died yesterday. He was 94.

Among his many accomplishments, Franklin was Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. He is best known as the author of From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. The book was first published by Knopf in 1947 and has never been out of print. It is currently in its eighth edition and has sold over three million copies.

Duke University has prepared an online memorial to Dr. Franklin:
“John Hope Franklin lived for nearly a century and helped define that century,” said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. “A towering historian, he led the recognition that African-American history and American history are one. With his grasp of the past, he spent a lifetime building a future of inclusiveness, fairness and equality. Duke has lost a great citizen and a great friend.”
The same Web page says that there will be “a celebration of his life and of his late wife Aurelia Franklin at 11 a.m. June 11 in Duke Chapel in honor of their 69th wedding anniversary.”

That memorial is here.


Passages: James Purdy

James Purdy (Malcolm, The Nephew) died a few weeks ago. He was 94. His age only came to light after his death on March 13th. Purdy was born in 1914 but, according to The Telegraph, he “habitually cited 1923.” From The New York Times:
James Purdy, whose dark, often savagely comic fiction evoked a psychic American landscape of deluded innocence, sexual obsession, violence and isolation, died Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 94 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.

His death was confirmed by John Uecker, a friend and assistant. Wayward and unclassifiable, Mr. Purdy, the author of the novels “Malcolm” and “The Nephew,” labored at the margins of the literary mainstream, inspiring veneration or disdain. His nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories and plays either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world, his distinctive blend of plain speech with ornate, florid locutions, and the hallucinatory quality of his often degraded scenes.
Tip of the hat to The Book Depository, who brought Purdy’s passing to our attention.


Children’s Books: The Gimlet Eye by James Roy

In this third installment of the spin-off of the popular Quentaris shared-world series, a character from the original series is actually killed off, something that doesn’t usually happen in shared universes. As it happens in the prologue, it’s no secret.

The Archon, ruler of Quentaris, is dying. His horrible nephew Florian is persuaded to finish him off rather than wait for his inevitable death. Florian’s “friend” Janus (as in the two-faced god?) reminds him of the prophecy that declares that anyone who kills the previous ruler will rule properly himself. Janus, of course, has his own agenda.

Meanwhile, the adult magicians have been banished to a very nasty part of the city (well, they can’t be exiled elsewhere, short of being thrown overboard, since Quentaris has been travelling from one vortex to another). The younger ones, such as Tab Vidler, former Dung Brigader and recently an apprentice magician, and her friend Amelia, have been spared the dungeons, but left to their own devices. Tab is back to shovelling dung, though on a farm rather than the streets, while Amelia is working at a pub. Torby, the boy rescued in the first novel, The Spell of Undoing, is lying in hospital in a catatonic state. Nobody knows how this happened, except, of course, the reader.

That conceited ac-tor, Fontagu Wizroth the Third, has been ordered to do a command performance of a play called The Gimlet Eye for the new Emperor’s birthday, and he’s thrilled. Tab, Amelia and their friend, the former pirate Verris, can’t persuade Fontagu that there’s something fishy going on...

In my opinion, this one is the best so far in the new series. We learn more about the characters and their feelings. The adventure is exciting but straightforward enough for the young readers for whom this is an introduction to fantasy. At the same time, there’s a murder in the first chapter; there’s no tiptoeing around the issue. What happens to the adult magicians is also scary. But there’s still plenty of humor, maybe more than there’s been since the original series. In the end, Fontagu is shown in a more positive light than before.

The only thing is, while you can probably get something out of this book without having read the others, you really do need to have read them to understand properly what’s going on. The series is no longer a lot of related but individual titles.

Recommended for children from mid-primary to early secondary school.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are Now

The film version of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, will fill a screen near you this fall.

The screenplay was written by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, with Jonze directing Forest Whitaker, Katherine Keener, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini.

Viewers who just can’t wait for the film to open can get a real solid tease from the film’s trailer, released today.

Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963 and won the Caldecott Medal in 1964. According to Wikipedia, adaptations of the book have been numerous and have taken many forms, including an animated adaptation in 1973, a children’s opera, a failed Disney CGI project in 1983, a ballet and a stage musical.

Sendak, who will be 81 in June, is also the writer/illustrator of In the Night Kitchen, often listed among the most frequently banned books of the 20th century. At the time of his birthday last year, The New York Times’ Patricia Cohen offered up a dark portrait of Sendak:
That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways.

He is not, as children’s book writers are often supposed, an everyman’s grandpapa. His hatreds are fierce and grand, as if produced by Cecil B. DeMille. He hates his uncle (who made a cruel comment about him when he was a boy); he hates anything to do with God or religion, and Judaism in particular (“We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?”); he hates Salman Rushdie (for writing an excoriating review of one of his books); he hates syrupy animation, which is why he is thrilled with Mr. Jonze’s coming film of his book “Where the Wild Things Are,” despite rumors of studio discontent.

“I hate people,” he said at one point, extolling the superior company of dogs, like his sweet-tempered German shepherd, Herman (after Melville).

He is, at heart, a curmudgeon, but a delightful one, with a vast range of knowledge, a wicked sense of humor and a talent for storytelling and mimicry.
The New York Times
piece is here.

Jonez’ film will open October 16th.

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Why Thrillers Thrill

In a far-ranging profile of bestselling author David Baldacci (Absolute Power, First Family) in the March 30th edition of Newsweek, writer Louisa Thomas muses on what makes thrillers so darn... thrilling:
What makes a thriller work is a million-dollar question, but why they matter is more than an economic concern. Baldacci’s prose might be clumsy (a typical Baldacci line: “As with scissors, one should avoid running with a loaded gun while the safety was off”), but if anyone could do it, more people would. On the most basic level, a thriller works if it can persuade the reader to turn the pages as fast as possible. The easiest way to get someone to keep reading is to withhold information expertly, but a blockbuster has to offer more than just suspense.
What Baldacci offers, Thomas suggests, is the whole package:
Like other thriller writers, Baldacci depends on a mixture of inventive plotting, appealing characters, luck and consistency. Unlike others, his books rely more on characters’ relationships than whiz-bang technology or procedural twists. Baldacci is more likely to set a scene in the Washington suburbs than a submarine (though any thriller worth its name has a decent armory), and the courtroom is rarely the site for drama (though, as a former lawyer, Baldacci usually includes a little law and order). What he offers is in some ways more unusual.
Though the article covers a lot of personal and professional ground, I really like this image of Baldacci at home:
Baldacci clearly has an ambivalent relationship to his wealth. His house is huge and his Reston office is well appointed -- the enormous wooden conference table is polished to a shine; the library furniture is soft and deep. (“I always wanted a room like this,” he says as he looks around the library, his tone more surprised than satisfied.)
Online, Thomas’ piece can be found here. One of the things Baldacci talks about with Thomas is his literacy foundation he established with his wife, Michelle. Information on the Wish You Well Foundation is here.


Less Equal Than You’d Think

Are women writers underrepresented in our literary landscape? Elaine Showalter, Princeton University Professor Emerita and author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Knopf) certainly thinks so. On a recent On Public Radio International broadcast, Showalter explained her thoughts:
Women write a lot of fiction, and are massively read, and if you look at the best-seller list at any point… they will be represented in great numbers, and women are also reading fiction by men; but the opposite is not the case. I mean, men don’t read as much fiction by women; but more important than that, in our schools and in our histories of American literature, and in our sense of a national literary tradition, women don't play the role that they’ve earned.
A partial transcript of the broadcast is here, as is a link to listen to the interview in full.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New in Paperback: Farewell, My Subaru by Doug Fine

One of the things that’s struck me about the green movement: it can be a little dour. And, actually, I get it. Really, I do. There’s a lot of serious stuff going on, after all. Climates changing. Polar icecaps melting. Food supplies dwindling. It’s all enough to put you in a really bad mood. As a result, a lot of Earth save-related stuff is strident. Unsmiling. You get the feeling you better put up or shut up: the planet is not going to save itself. If you’re not going to do something about it, you’d better stand aside or get trampled in the angry green parade.

Farewell, My Subaru (Villard) isn’t like that. The first hint, of course, is that title. A perfect title, when you think about it. A little bit romantic. A little bit evocative (the whole fossil fuel thing). Certainly a little bit fun. The title hints at all the things this book is and means and accomplishes. But it’s not an idle reference either. In fact, you meet the late, lamented Subaru at the very beginning of the book. The car is dying. And it’s not dying well. And author Fine watches it happen while wondering how much he actually cares. The opening lines of Farewell, My Subaru:
As I watched my Subaru Legacy slide backward toward my new ranch’s studio outbuilding, the thought crossed my mind that if it kept going -- and I didn’t see why it wouldn’t -- at least I would be using less gasoline.
NPR contributor Fine’s print work has appeared in The Washington Post, Wired and Salon. His voice is gentle, his humor sharp, his message clear. Farewell, My Subaru is an easy, enjoyable read. And that’s a good thing, because this is a book that everyone needs to read.

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Potentially Toxic Children’s Books Stir Controversy

While a story in The Washington Post adds little new to the ongoing discussion about the lead content of pre-1985 children’s books, it offers a very good overview of where the matter stands now as well as how concerned parties are feeling.

In case you’ve missed the story thus far, here are the bare bones:
Legislation passed by Congress last August in response to fears of lead-tainted toys imported from China went into effect last month. Consumer groups and safety advocates have praised it for its far-reaching protections. But libraries and book resellers such as Goodwill are worried about one small part of the law: a ban on distributing children's books printed before 1985.
Boiled down: the legislation represents a disaster for book resellers and especially for libraries for whom it means replacing a significant portion of their children’s collections. At a time when budgets are already being slashed to ridiculous levels, the news just couldn’t be worse.

Part of the controversy, though, stems from the very core of the matter. Realistically, no one wants to poison kids and no amount of money saving is worth that. On the other hand, just how poisonous are the books in question? Is the risk significant enough to register. Some experts don’t think so:
“On the scale of concerns to have about lead, this is very clearly not a high priority,” said Ellen Silbergeld, a MacArthur scholar and professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University who is considered one of the leading experts on lead poisoning.

“It doesn't take a tremendous amount of intelligence to figure out what the highest-risk sources of lead are,” Silbergeld said. “This is a way of distracting attention from their failure to protect children from the clear and present dangers of lead. I think this is just absurd, and I think it's disingenuous.” She said that toys, poorly made jewelry and other trinkets were cause for much more alarm.
The Washington Post piece is lengthy and it’s here. January Magazine’s earlier coverage of this story is here.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Spielberg and Jackson Tag Tintin

Eighty years on, an iconic Belgian character is getting ready for his close up. The Los Angeles Times’ Henry Chu reports:
He turns 80 this year but still looks 18, with the same fair-haired quiff. Like Madonna and Sting, two other famous blonds, he goes by one name. Mention him and a European is likely to cheer, while an American is more apt to go, “Huh?” But that’s destined to change now that Steven Spielberg is making a movie based on his life.

He is Tintin, intrepid cub reporter and nemesis of evildoers, whose long career in numerous cartoon strips and comic books, with faithful dog Snowy at his side, has made him one of Belgium’s most celebrated exports (up there with chocolate and waffles).
With everything factored in, this looks to be huge. Look, for example, at the theatrical muscle behind the production:
And amplifying all the buzz -- the Tintin-nabulation, you might say -- is a big-budget 3-D adaptation (using a high-tech motion-capture process) from Spielberg, who bought the movie rights to Tintin's adventures more than 25 years ago. Joining Spielberg on the project, envisioned as a trilogy of films, is director Peter Jackson of “Lord of the Rings” fame. The first part of filming just wrapped in L.A.
The Los Angeles Times
piece is here. MTV weighs in here. Previous January Tintin reportage is here.


Prayer Didn’t Help Christian Book Expo

Is religion a luxury? A couple of years ago, I would have thought that, for better or worse, lots of people would turn up at a Christian Book Expo. But the disastrous turnout at the first ever Christian Book Expo last weekend makes me wonder if this is a trend: if the recently lucrative Christian publishing segment will be hit even harder than other parts of the industry. At a time when people are focusing on keeping their houses and their jobs, is the investment in a book that will help them purify their souls one of the luxuries that can be cut back on? Publishers Weekly reports on the event:
Stacks of unsold books and glum publishers stood for three days inside the cavernous Dallas Convention Center this past weekend at the Christian Book Expo, a first-of-its-kind event designed to connect publishers and authors directly with readers in the evangelical Christian market. Only problem was there were few readers to connect with, despite the show’s location in Dallas, the buckle of the Bible Belt and a top market for Christian publishers. The show, sponsored by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, attracted 1,500 consumer attendees; it had hoped for 15,000-20,000.
The PW story is here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Children’s Books: Dandelion Fire by N.D. Wilson

It seems entirely possible to me that N.D. Wilson could be The Next Big Thing in children’s literature. Now, keep in mind that we’re talking about a position that has never been more coveted, but certainly Wilson’s 100 Cupboards saga -- of which Dandelion Fire (Random House) is book two -- holds up with the best of Rowling, Pullman and company in that it offers transformation of both spirit and fictional reality. That is to say, there is magic in the world Wilson has created. But Wilson’s prose is pretty magic, as well. By way of example, here are the lines that open Dandelion Fire:
Kansas is not easily impressed. It has seen houses fly and cattle soar. When funnel clouds walk through the wheat, big hail falls behind. As the biggest stones melt, turtles and mice and fish and even men can be seen frozen inside. And Kansas is not surprised.
These simple words manage to convey both the magic and the depth of story that Wilson has waiting for us. And the magic is of the most exciting kind: on a visit to his aunt and uncle’s Kansas farm, while poking around in the attic, Henry York found 100 cupboard doors behind a sheet of plaster in the attic wall. The cupboards prove to be portals to another world. Hijinks ensue.

Avid readers aged eight to 12 who like a good, meaty read with lots of surprises, well-made characters and beautifully crafted prose should not be able to put Dandelion Fire down.

Children’s Books: Loose Leashes by Amy and Ron Schmidt

The art in Loose Leashes (Random House) is all photo-based. The kind of charming, carefully set up and almost painfully clear photographs of dogs very popular in the 1990s. The big difference here is that each photo is paired with a little poem -- one that rhymes -- that turns the photo into a story.
Can you feel my eyes upon you, melting you with my stare?
I know we’re very different. We’d make an awkward pair.
This next to a photo of a very small champagne-colored dog -- perhaps a French bulldog? -- and a Great Dane of the same color, but 20 times larger.

Ron Schmidt is a photographer who once-upon-a-time focused on models and celebrities but who now specializes in “taking photos of man’s best friend.” Amy Schmidt, Ron’s wife, was responsible for the poems and her bio informs us that, as a couple, they advocate for “animal welfare and literacy.” Which means they’re hitting on all cylinders with Loose Leashes. And it really is a thoroughly charming book. Little readers aged three to eight should enjoy the wonderful photos and the happy prose.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Book as Art

The artist part of me appreciates the creativity of these sculptures. The author and booklover feels a little queasy.

Personal reaction is never a bad thing in art and, in some ways, there can be no wrong reaction. How does this art make you feel?

Hat tip to Design Related.

Author Hits the Dirt

Novelist and memoirist Merilyn Simonds (The Holding, The Convict Lover) has announced a new gardening-dedicated blog, Frugalista Gardener.

To be honest, yet another author starting yet another blog wouldn’t be such big news… except not only is the writing luminous (of course), Frugalista Gardener genuinely adds to the panoply of gardening blogs. Put another way, if you love beautiful writing or if you love gardening, you will likely find something worthwhile here. If you love both, you’ll be bookmarking in haste.

Meanwhile, a taste:
What is it, this urge to dig, to peel back the earth’s skin and sink my fingers into moist soil, to manipulate what grows there of its own accord?

It is not a simple thing.

We arrived at The Leaf in the spring of the Millenium. Fifteen acres of woods with a strip of mown meadow around the house, along the road. From the kitchen, looking west to the two-hundred-year-old boundary fence of split rails, there was only grass, a bank of cedars dividing the space roughly in half, an apple tree off-centre in the nearer distance.

I saw a room. A banquette of flowers around the apple trunk. A shrubbery to wall off the road; a rise of perennials on the other side. At the far end, a border of Rosa rugosa broken by two soaring limes, a pillared portal to the allée that led over and up into the woods.
Frugalista Gardener is here. January Magazine’s 1999 interview with Simonds is here.

When Television Inspires Reading

It’s most common to think about television as the starting point for a lot of our intellectual evils. It’s a position we’ve gotten used to; are comfortable with. The LA Times Jacket Copy blog argues for the opposite position and, with it, the smartening up of American television:
Critics habitually lambaste TV for dumbing down American society: And though some may find that point hard to refute, a handful of noteworthy shows present evidence to the contrary, as literary classics, carefully placed in episodes, have created positive outcomes.

Excellence in Bookselling Rewarded

Even if we didn’t think this was an astonishingly good idea, what book industry professional wouldn’t love the award itself? (Shown at left.)

The Nibbie is gorgeous, and awarded for a brilliant reason: to showcase the talent involved in the publishing and bookselling industries in the United Kingdom.

The nomination process in most categories closed just a few days ago. However, the shortlist for the 2009 Independent Bookshop of the Year award has already been announced.

According to the British Book Industry Awards, who administer the program, children’s bookshops put in a “particularly strong showing, taking five out of the thirty places on this year’s regional shortlists. From this list five regional winners will be chosen to make up the shortlist for the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award to be presented at the British Book Industry Awards being held at the Wellcome Trust Campus near Cambridge on Monday 1st June.”

The complete shortlist is here. Information about the program is here.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

New this Month: Advice for Italian Boys by Anne Giardini

Sometimes the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree, as The Reader recently pointed out when they listed several proud literary parents and their bookish offspring.

One of the connections they mentioned was the one between former National Post columnist and fairly new novelist Anne Giardini and her famous author mom, the late Carol Shields.

Giardini’s second novel (after 2005’s The Sad Truth About Happiness), Advice for Italian Boys (HarperCollins Canada) is breathtaking. Inspired by the author’s own relationship with her mother-in-law -- the “Giardini” comes through marriage -- Advice for Italian Boys introduces us to Nicolo Pavone and his Italian-Canadian family -- and especially his grandmother -- bent on bringing him safely through to manhood on the strength of their hard-won experience:
Nonna referred to her store of lozenge-shaped adages as proverbi, but Nicolo, the quietest of her three grandsons, understands them to be the old timers’ way of administering advice, like a poultice applied in advance against trouble.
Advice for Italian Boys is richly layered, with a cast of deeply textured and enjoyable characters. This second outing for Giardini is quietly stunning.


Longlist Day in the Litrasphere

Who decided that just a few days after the Ides of March would be the best time to announce the most important longlists on the international book scene? (That’s a rhetorical question, but if there’s an answer, it would be cool to share.)

The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize was announced today. To keep us on our toes, the prize differs from the regular vanilla Man Booker Prize for fiction in that it is only awarded every other year. However, the longlist for the Man Booker Foreign Fiction Prize was announced February 27th. The Man Booker Prize longlist will be announced in September. (Dude: those Man Booker folks are busy!)

Also announced today: the longlist for the Orange Prize for fiction, “awarded to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English.”

The Guardian does a brilliant job with the Orange longlist, including write-ups and UK cover images from all 20 titles that made the cut. Meanwhile Bloomberg does an even job covering the Man Booker International longlist.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Kindle May Be Headed for Court

The outfit that powers Discovery Channel has slapped a patent infringement suit against Amazon. They say the Kindle device violates a patent they registered in 1999. Arts Technica has the story:
Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader was introduced to the world back in November 2007. Most people would be forgiven, however, for thinking that the device’s legal problems only started with the 2.0 version of the device, which has gotten Amazon in hot water with the Authors Guild, and prompted the company to lash out at those who attempted to put unsanctioned content onto its hardware.

But, as it turns out, Amazon’s biggest legal worries may have begun in the very month that the device was first introduced. That's when a patent that anticipates most of the Kindle’s major features was granted to someone else. That someone else, Discovery Communications, has now filed suit against Amazon for patent infringement.
John Timmer’s take for Arts Technica is here.


Jane Mayhall Dead at 90

The wonderful American poet Jane Mayhall passed away yesterday.

Mayhall was born on May 10, 1918, in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the years, her work had appeared in The Yale Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and other publications. Her most recent collection, Sleeping Late on Judgement Day, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2004.

Knopf’s Nicholas Latimer sent along the news of Mayhill’s passing as well as the poem “Never Apologize, Never Explain,” which appears in her last collection. Here’s a stanza from that poem:
On the contrary, always apologize and explain,
in the terror-white veracity, down to the essence bone,
tenaciously follow the long road. Be
capable and Voltairean, discreet of form and substance, tell it
like it is, don't gloss over
in silent splendor.


Non-Fiction: Twitter Power by Joel Comm

I’ve been successfully avoiding Twitter since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. I’ve been busy with my blog and my Facebook and my life, I really didn’t think I needed to add yet another thing. My single encounter with Twitter confirmed this early assessment. I’m a journalist and a novelist: I have a track record for going long. Being scintillating in 140 characters or less just didn’t appeal. I mean, it’s one thing to be concise: I’m all for that. But then there’s silly. And that’s where in my mind I stuffed Twitter.

And then 2009 happened and it seemed that suddenly even old men who shouldn’t know how to program their mobile phones are using their crackberries to tweet. So I start telling myself: OK. I’ll play with this. Get it working for me. But, you know the drill, life just keeps getting in the way.

After a couple of very productive weeks of procrastinating in the Twitter department, I caught a break: not one but two review copies of Twitter Power (Wiley) showed up in the January offices. And multiple review copies from various sources is a sign: it’s one of the ways we can tell if a book is getting some push. And, clearly, Twitter Power was one of those.

To be honest, most often, a book like this? I would have assigned it. But considering my Twitterless state and the fact that it was something I’d been thinking about, I started on the book myself and, within 24 hours of beginning to read, I’d set up two Twitter accounts -- one for myself and one for January -- and had additionally and quite easily done some fairly complicated footwork.

I love it when life conspires. Had Twitter Power been published a year ago, it would have been a useful book and probably held its own in sales, but that’s about it. But because this is the Twitter moment and Joel Comm chose this one to show up with this blazingly lucid book, he’s a star. The book is a bestseller and Comm is leaving a path of new tweeters in his wake.

Luckily, there’s more than timing at play here: Twitter Power is a good book. Comm (can that possibly be his real name?) is a social networking master, but he also has the depth of knowledge and the spiritual calm to explain all this stuff in a rational, logical way. And, of course, the book is published by Wiley, who have been producing excellent geek books for just about as long as there have been geek books to produce.

Now, honestly? I personally still do not love Twitter. I had an instant affinity for Facebook when I joined a couple of years ago, but Twitter still strikes me as a bit empty. The “micro” part of “microblogging” still leaves me a little cold. And “thumbtyping” is never going to be any fun for me. Maybe these are conditions I’ll grow out of. Meanwhile, I’m there and doing it and Twitter Power brought me there effortlessly. It’s a well thought out, friendly and entirely easy to follow book and it sounds considerably more sensible than the upcoming Twitter Wit, “a book of Twitter’s wittiest messages, edited by Nick Douglas and coming out Fall 2009 from HarperCollins.” As John McCain surely knows by now, you don’t have to be witty to tweet.

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Updike Remembered

John Updike (Rabbit, Run, The Terrorist), who died earlier this year, would have turned 77 today. The Writer’s Almanac remembers him in a lengthy essay:
His father lost his job during the Great Depression, and the family moved into a farm house 11 miles out of town. So Updike spent much of his childhood alone, reading or living in a dream world. He read The New Yorker magazine every week, and while he was still in high school, he began sending his cartoons, poems, and stories to The New Yorker. Even though everything was rejected, he kept submitting to them. He won a scholarship to Harvard, and when he was a senior, The New Yorker finally accepted his work, and after he graduated the magazine offered him a job.
Writer’s Almanac tells us Updike shares the day with George Plimpton (Out of My League, Paper Lion) and the poet Michael Harper (Dear John, Dear Coltrane).


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sales of Female Force Comic Brisk

It used to be you knew you’d arrived when someone crafted an action figure in your likeness. These days it seems you’re more likely to end up fighting foes in comic book form.

Prior to the U.S. presidential inauguration last January, Marvel Comics made history when then-President-Elect Obama helped sell out the edition of Spider-Man in which he appeared.

Now Washington State-based Bluewater Productions reports that the Sarah Palin version of their Female Force comics series has sold out and sales of the version starring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are not far behind. From CNN:
The first two issues in Female Force, already released, feature Clinton and Palin. The next two will feature Caroline Kennedy and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The Michelle Obama comic is expected to be released in April, and has pre-sold 28,000 copies.

The next set will feature other “strong, independent women” such as Princess Diana, [Bluewater executive vice-president] Schultz said.
Though the idea of famously bulimic and insecure late Princess Diana as a “strong, independent women” seems a little bit disingenuous, one could see where, in a market where comics featuring women are doing well, one based on her life should bring interest.

Again from CNN:
“I think it just says, like, that women are important,” one comic book fan told CNN.
The full piece is here.

In related news (well, it’s comics) the first Superman comic book recently sold for $317,200 in an Internet auction. That story is here.


Taking Hammett to the Streets

This week marks the publication of The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook, written by longtime San Francisco literary tour guide Don Herron and brought back into print as part of Vince Emery Productions’ Ace Performer Collection. First published back in 1979 (but out of print for most of the last two decades), Herron’s book leads Bay Area visitors to the sites of greatest significance in Hammett’s life and in his San Francisco-based fiction (especially The Maltese Falcon). It also provides ample background on the author himself, with an introduction written by his surviving daughter.

To celebrate this volume’s handsome resurrection between hard covers, Bay Area detective novelist Mark Coggins (Runoff) takes a look at Herron’s work for The Rap Sheet, noting some of the additions that have been made to it and a few of the anecdotes this new edition includes.

“If you are a Hammett fan,” Coggins writes, “this work belongs on your bookshelf, even if you have a previous edition. If you’ve not read Hammett, then you should pick up a copy of The Maltese Falcon and Don Herron’s book and follow along. The Dashiell Hammett Tour is the treasure map to Sam Spade’s adventure with the black bird.”

You can find all of Coggins’ comments here.

SF/F: Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

The story goes that Daniel Fox traveled to Taiwan and became obsessed, to the point of learning the language and writing about it every chance he got. He was, in essence, filled with the place.

When he was sufficiently filled, what ultimately flowed back out was Dragon in Chains (DelRey) a compelling and epic tale set in some alternate mediaeval China where the youthful emperor must flee to an island -- a lightly disguised Taiwan -- where, with his richly varied court, he repairs to get ready for his own destiny.

Fox recently described what was in his heart when he wrote Dragon in Chains:
Partly it was that classic image of the tiny island bristling at the vast mainland, bristling with weapons; partly it was the experience of the native Taiwanese, invaded by a vast northern army and living under military dictatorship. Marry those two together, and there’s a novel. But I’m a fantasist, I have small interest in mimetic fiction. I wanted to recast the story into feudal China first - an emperor in flight, the dynasty at hazard -- and then into imagination, put magic in jade and a dragon in the strait.
Dragon in Chains is the first in what is meant to be an epic saga. If another book were never to follow in this series, this one would be enough. As much as I want to discover what comes next in Fox’s carefully created world, Dragon in Chains stands alone. Fox is not only a wonderful storyteller, he has a poet’s heart and ear. Dragon in Chains is a beautiful book.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Seattle Metro Daily Stops the Presses

Effective St. Patrick’s Day, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will become the latest newspaper to try to find a different path in this brave new world. As reported by The New York Times:
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper will produce its last printed edition on Tuesday and become an Internet-only news source, the Hearst Corporation said on Monday, making it by far the largest American newspaper to take that leap.
The P-I has cut its reporting staff from 165 to 20, though it has added some stringers and columnists to help out those staffers who are being kept on.

The move comes after the Hearst-owned broadsheet lost $14 million in 2008. In an industry plagued by loss of advertising revenue due in part to loss of readership, the P-I’s grand experiment will be closely watched:
[Hearst] recently instructed all of its newspapers to look for ways to charge for digital content -- on mobile devices, if not online.

“We clearly believe we are in a period of innovation and experimentation, and that’s what this new SeattlePI.com represents,” said Steven R. Swartz, president of Hearst’s newspaper division. “We think we’ll learn a lot, and we think the Seattle market, being so digitally focused, is a great place to try this.”
The New York Times piece is here.

Can S&S Touch This?

Simon & Schuster would like to claw back the $61,000 advance they gave to old school rapper MC Hammer back in 2002. From EURWeb News:
MC Hammer was sued by publishing house Simon & Schuster earlier this month over claims that he never finished an inspirational book for which he received advance money to write.
The 46-year-old Hammer, born Stanley Kirk Burrell, reached the zenith of his fame back in the late 1980s when he was best known for his rhymes and his pants.

The full story is here.


Every Tweet of My Heart

January Magazine is now on Twitter. Not quite sure yet what we’re going to accomplish by this move, but we’re there. If you are too, come have a peek and let us know if we’re doing it right.

Review: Will Marry for Food, Sex, and Laundry by Simon Oaks

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews Will Marry for Food, Sex, and Laundry by Simon Oaks. Says Leach:
I have no idea what possessed Mr. Oaks to pen his self-help ode to marital bliss. He is not a psychologist, MSW, or therapist of any sort. He is an ex-race car driver, and though he alludes to work many times in his deeply silly book, he never specifies precisely what he does. Perhaps he feels his nine -- nearly ten -- years of marriage qualify him to pen such a manual. Perhaps I feel my 16 years of marriage qualify me to say unkind things. Never mind. Down to specifics.
The full review is here.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

New This Month: Shut Up, You’re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children by Andrew Hudgins

Hush now -- don’t cry, my wayward son.
You couldn’t see you were becoming
someone who’d study “Manual Arts” --
rough carpentry, not even plumbing.

Mother smelled, and Father too,
the cigarettes you’ve been bumming.
We searched beneath your bed and found
the dirty books you’ve been thumbing.
The first two stanzas of “Had it Coming,” the first poem in Shut Up, You’re Fine (Overlook Press) do a pretty good job of illustrating the very specific taste required to enjoy this compelling and hilariously offensive little book.

Illustrated by the distinguished artist Barry Moser, Shut Up, You’re Fine is mostly comprised of degenerate nursery rhymes crafted by the talented hands of a writer who has been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

This is not a book that everyone will enjoy and it would not surprise me if some readers were deeply offended. Put it this way: if you think South Park is the height of humor, you’ll like Shut Up, You’re Fine... and you’ll think again.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cancelled Jericho Will See New Life as Comic

Are you still sad about the cancellation of Jericho, the nuclear disaster-themed nighttime soap? If so, help is definitely on the way. You might have already heard about the feature film version that is planned but there’s even better news yet: your favorite characters are headed for a comic book near you. From the MTV Movies blog:
Nothing can keep the folks of “Jericho” down. Not a nuclear holocaust. Not living in a violent police state. Not even being canceled — twice. In the spirit of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series (which continues at Dark Horse Comics), the CBS television series “Jericho” will relocate to comics, courtesy of Devil’s Due Publishing.
Apparently, a good portion of the original creative team will have a hand in the creation of the comic version. The full story is here.

Nothing about the movie version of Jericho has been finalized yet, though around the middle of January, series executive producer Jon Turteltaub told iFMagazine he was working on putting a film deal together:
“We’re developing a feature for JERICHO,” says Turteltaub. “It would not require you to have seen the TV show, but it [would] get into life after an event like this on a national scale. It would be the bigger, full on American version of what’s going on beyond the town in Jericho.”
That story is here.

And, of course, for those who need their Jericho fix right now, the entire series is available on DVD.

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It’s a Phone, It’s a Camera, It’s a ... Book?

The editors at MacWorld seem reasonably excited about the fact that Amazon has released an application that will let Apple iPhone users read Kindle-formatted books on their mobile phones.
The arrival of Amazon.com’s Kindle for iPhone app certainly raises the profile of Apple’s handheld wonder as an e-book platform. Of the many fine things the iPhone is already -- planner, organizer, Internet and e-mail portal, MP3 player… and, oh yeah, a phone -- add reading tool to the list.
When one looks at what the success of the iPod has done to the music industry -- turned it upside down -- I’m a little cautious about this move by Amazon, a company known for not doing much of anything that isn’t both cagey and well thought out.

If, on the other hand, you’re among the millions of iPhone users our there, this will be big news for you, indeed. In that case, MacWorld is certainly the place to get the skinny. They’ve recently run related pieces here and here.


Biography: Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

To talk about Poe: A Life Cut Short (Doubleday/Nan. A. Talese) is to talk about Peter Ackroyd’s “Brief Lives” bite-sized biographies, because this latest entry falls into that series. But even that description -- “bite-sized” -- trivializes something that, though small, is actually quite grand.

Poe: A Life Cut Short is no Coles Notes biography: no abbreviation of a richer story. Rather it is an eloquently told biography in its own right, created by an author who knows his way around this world, having written internationally acclaimed biographies of William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and others. To demonstrate, I offer up the beginning of Chapter Two, where Ackroyd’s subject is offered up in sketch form:
Edgar Allan Poe has become the image of the poète maudit, the blasted soul, the wanderer. His fate was heavy, his life all but unsupportable. A rain of blows descended on him from the time of his birth. He once said that to “revolutionise, at one effort, the universal world of human thought” it was necessary only “to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple -- a few plain words -- ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But -- this little book must be true to its title.” Poe never wrote such a book, but his life deserved one.
Obviously, I pull that quote now because Ackroyd here might be seen to be attempting to live Poe’s advice. Does Ackroyd add to the knowledge of this tragic, talented writer? I’m no Poe specialist, but I do not believe there is actual new material here. However, he slices Poe’s life with expert precision and the insight of one who is accustomed to looking at distant facts and having them line up in a sensical way.

Poe: A Life Cut Short is an enjoyable and surprisingly detailed biography. Published in the United Kingdom in 2008, the book saw light in North America in January of this year, just in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth.

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Non-Fiction: Life in Color: Visual Therapy’s Guide to the Perfect Palette by Jesse Garza and Joe Lupo

Maybe it’s just me, but something about Oprah stylists Jesse Garza and Joe Lupo’s second book just struck me as perfectly 2007. It’s not that the book is dated, exactly. It’s just something about the enthusiastic and unapologetic hedonism in Life in Color: Visual Therapy’s Guide to the Perfect Palette (Chronicle Books) that puts one in mind of a time -- not that long ago in months and years, but perhaps long ago in spirit -- when the most important thing on all of our minds might reasonably have been to discover if our styletype was classic or whimsical or if your colortype was earth, sun, moon or star.

One of the first lines in the introduction sums my feelings up pretty well:
As you make your grand entrance, you can bet people notice the way that drop-dead red dress brings out the rosins in your cheeks -- or, conversely, the way that dreary mustard yellow sweater makes you look drawn and worn.
Here’s what else can make you look drawn and worn: losing your job. Losing your house. Politically losing your way.

I’m not saying Life in Color is a bad book. It probably isn’t. It’s me, really it is. Or it’s the world. I think I would have liked this book a lot a year ago. But times have changed. So many banks have failed. Heads of state have shifted. 401ks have gotten smaller, the endangered list has gotten longer. And those granite countertops I thought I wouldn’t be able to live without? I’m sort of thinking that I can. Realistically, I’m just not in the mood for a “two-man style SWAT team” right now. I’m wondering if anyone really is.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Author Snapshot: Lisa Lutz

Comparisons seem inevitable, at least in part because no one seems exactly sure what kind of books she writes. Some have argued that they’re not mysteries simply because, well, they’re not all that mysterious. Yet the action takes place entirely around a fully dysfunctional family of private investigators who do PI work on each other just as a matter of natural course.

The family, of course, are the Spellmans and the comparisons all leave much to be desired. They do, however, instruct in one regard: if an author is repeatedly compared to Carl Hiassen and Janet Evanovich, you understand that the books in question are funny. And Lisa Lutz’ Spellman books are certainly that.

Lutz’ humor is darker than Hiassen’s, though. More subtle than Evanovich’s and more sophisticated than either of those authors. In some ways, these are the books Meg Cabot’s grown up readers have been waiting for. The gentle subversiveness that Cabot displayed in her earliest books for young adults is here, but overrun and run amok without the constraints that might be put on an author concerned with offending an audience… or their parents.

Lutz has said she wrote The Spellman Files, her first novel, after a movie script she’d worked on for a decade was made into a dreadful film. It’s a story she told engagingly in Salon in 2005.

After that experience, she vowed (though I can almost see the laughter in her eyes when she reads that “vowed”) to turn her writing to projects over which she would have full control. Clearly the results of that experiment have paid off... for all of us.

The third Spellman book, Revenge of the Spellmans (Simon & Schuster), is published today. A fourth is in progress and all of that is good news because a lot of us just can’t get enough of those crazy Spellmans.

A Snapshot of Lisa Lutz...
Most recent book: Revenge of the Spellmans
Born: As far as I know
Reside: San Francisco (for now)
Birthday: March 13th
Web site: lisalutz.com

What’s your favorite city?
I think it’s Edinburgh, Scotland.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
I don’t know. I’ve never been there.

What food do you love?

What food have you vowed never to touch again?

What’s on your nightstand?

NyQuil, aspirin, dust, an alarm clock, a lamp, some books.

What inspires you?
Coffee and fear of having a real job.

What are you working on now?
I’m “working” on the fourth book in the Spellman saga -- The Spellmans Strike Again.

Tell us about your process.
I’m a total computer girl -- can barely use a pen anymore. I’m the most lucid first thing in the morning and then I go downhill after that. I write until I feel my mind slipping and then I call it quits. I don’t outline in detail, but I keep a giant bulletin board and I feed it with index cards that can include anything from a joke to a major plot point. When I begin a novel, I just have a vague arc which I add to as I write. I use a daily word quota to keep me on point, as well as some mental threats. Sometimes I nap and hope that inspiration will hit me. I use booze only when necessary.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
A giant cement pillar, a computer, and a box of SpongeBob Band-Aids.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I realized that any other job I could get sucked.

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

Temping, most likely. Or motivational speaker.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
The day I got my first book deal.

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

Work attire. I’ve always wanted a job where you can wear pajamas all day.

What’s the most difficult?
Touring. More specifically, the travelling/sleep deprivation part of book tours and the not-wearing-pajamas part.

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

Are your novels autobiographical? (My mom likes to ask that question whenever she’s at a reading.)

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
“Can I buy you a drink?”

What question would like never to be asked again?

“Do you have your license and proof of insurance?”

Please tell us about Revenge of the Spellmans.
It’s the third installment of the Spellman series. My main character finds herself involved in therapy, blackmail, an SAT cheating scandal, and, well, revenge.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I refuse to answer that question.

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Children’s Books: How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

If you’ve only read this writer’s wonderful but grim “Magic Or Madness” trilogy, in which the heroine could choose to die young or go insane, you’re in for a surprise from the very, very funny How to Ditch Your Fairy.

Magic is here again, but there are no penalties for using it and no actual magic users anyway.

Imagine a world in which everyone is born with their own personal fairy. You don’t see or hear it, you just see its effects. It might be an always-on-time fairy or one which ensures that cats like you or that you have good hair. You don’t, unfortunately, get to choose. There are ways of exchanging fairies with a co-operative friend, but they’re not easy or pleasant.

Charlie, who attends New Avalon Sports High, is stuck with a parking fairy, which helps find the perfect parking spot. The trouble is, Charlie doesn’t even like cars and is only 14 anyway. Why, she complains, couldn’t she have been born with a shopping fairy like her friend Rochelle, who can always find wonderful clothes at great prices? Or an “every-boy-will-like-you” fairy like that awful girl Fiorenze, who has a constant train of boys following her, including the cute new boy Steffi, who looked like boyfriend material when Charlie first met him?

She just has to get rid of that fairy! Fiorenze, whose parents are fairy experts, is surprisingly willing to trade, and the girls find a way to do it quickly. But Charlie soon finds that you need to be careful what you wish for, as does Fiorenze. Time to find another way to ditch their respective fairies and hope that their places will be filled with more congenial ones. It’s a more dangerous way, but hey, they’re desperate!

This novel is hilarious. It’s a perfectly good young adult novel of the sort teen girls enjoy, but goes where the average teen girl novel doesn’t. One element makes all the difference.

Highly recommended for girls from 14 upwards.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Review: Cape Disappointment by Earl Emerson

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Jim Winter reviews Cape Disappointment by Earl Emerson. Says Winter:
If reading and reviewing books over the past couple of months has shown me anything, it’s that we’re ready for change. Three out of the last four books I have reviewed had an undercurrent of anger toward the American government as run by George W. Bush. Thomas Lakeman’s Broken Wing barely disguises the author’s rage at military contractors such as Blackwater. Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist does no favors for the CIA. And then there’s Earl Emerson’s first private eye Thomas Black novel in 10 years, Cape Disappointment.

Emerson starts this novel off with a bang. Literally. Black, a Seattle sleuth (last seen in 1998’s Catfish Café), recounts his too-close-for-comfort experience with a bomb explosion inside a school gymnasium, where a political candidate had been speaking. Since he was smacked against the wall and impaled, Black’s description is naturally surreal, disjointed and horrifyingly graphic. The story lurches and halts between the recent past, where Black recalls talking to his wife on the phone as he watched her plane suddenly crash, and the present, while he’s trying to recover in a hospital bed. Black’s tale becomes coherent when he’s able to focus on the beginning of his latest adventure.
The full review is here.

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Canada Reads The Book of Negroes

Lawrence Hill’s bestselling 2007 novel, The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins Canada) has won the 2009 Canada Reads. From the Quill & Quire blog:
Hill’s book, the saga of a slave in the 1700s, was named the winner of the annual CBC Radio competition Friday morning, beating out the runner-up, Brian Francis’s debut novel Fruit (ECW Press). A Canada Reads win typically represents a major a sales boost, possibly tens of thousands of copies.

The Book of Negroes has already been a top seller over the past two years; HarperCollins vice-president and publisher Iris Tupholme says around 200,000 copies are in print, with another reprint in the works. “The book’s had a very strange flight path,” says Hill. “It started modestly and it just sort of grew and grew and grew.… Usually, when a book comes out, if it’s not knocking people’s socks off in the first few months, bookstores start sending it back.” Asked about how many likely buyers are still out there in the Canadian market, Tupholme is bold: “We’re not even halfway there.”
Q&Q has put together quite a bit more on this story and it’s here.

In the United States, the book was published as Someone Knows My Name (Norton). Last year, we talked about why the publishers felt the name change was necessary. That piece is here.

You can read more about CBC’s Canada Reads program -- and see how crazy passionate Canadians get about their books! -- right here.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Children’s Books: The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan

You can’t think what a relief it is. After wading through stacks of the sort of blood-soaked stories currently in vogue, it was delicious to settle in and enjoy Victoria McKernan’s latest historical adventure, The Devil’s Paintbox (Alfred A. Knopf). Surely kids are ready from a respite from all that unreality? I know I certainly was.

The Devil’s Paintbox is set in 1865. Orphaned brother and sister, Maddy and Aiden Lynch, must struggle through a 2000 mile journey along the Oregon Trail. McKernan captures the danger and beauty of the American West with time-traveling accuracy. Older children will enjoy this new adventure from the author of the award-winning Shackleton’s Stowaway.

The Devil’s Paintbox is a wonderfully crafted story rich in historical detail: you can almost smell the saddle leather; feel the pangs of hunger and the sharp bites of fear. And not a fang or a wand in sight.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Oscar and Pulitzer-Winning Writer Dies at 92

Horton Foote, the celebrated writer for stage and screen, died Wednesday afternoon at his daughter’s home in Hartford, Connecticut. Though Foote maintained homes in California and Texas, he had been living with his daughter while adapting his nine-play Orphans’ Home Cycle into a three-part production to be staged next fall.

According to The New York Times’ Art Beat blog, Broadway will honor Foote this evening:
The marquees of Broadway theaters will be dimmed on Thursday for one minute at 8:00pm in tribute to Horton Foote, who died on Wednesday. Mr. Foote’s most recent Broadway play was “Dividing the Estate,” the dysfunctional family portrait that ran at the Booth Theater from Nov. 20 through Jan 4.
The Theater section of the Times offered up an affectionate appraisal of Foote’s life by Ben Brantley, the paper’s chief theater critic:
Throughout his seven decades as a writer -- during which he received two Academy Awards for screenplays (for “Tender Mercies” and his adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”) and a Pulitzer Prize (for his 1995 drama “The Young Man From Atlanta”) -- Mr. Foote was treated with condescension by some critics, who saw him as a sweet little miniaturist, a comforting chronicler of small lives. Such assessments are absurdly off base, but they are indicative of the paradoxical (and, I would argue, singular) nature of Mr. Foote’s work.
In Foote’s Times obituary, Wilborn Hampton pulled a great quote from Foote:
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing,” he said in a 1999 interview. “I write almost every day. I’d write plays even if they were never done again. You’re at the mercy of whatever talent you have.”


Reading Between the Lies

Some people lie about what they have read and, according to Stephen Adams at The Telegraph, it’s more than just a few:
Under the cover of an anonymous questionnaire, two-thirds of people admitted to fibbing about having read a book.

Surprisingly, given its brevity and pace, 1984 heads the top 10 list of books we falsely claim to have read.

The rest of the list is largely predictable, stuffed full of weighty volumes most have seen dramatised on television but not read line by endless line.

Besides War and Peace and Ulysses -- which can both exceed 1,000 pages depending on edition -- other unread works include the Bible, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and A Brief History of Time, by Professor Stephen Hawking.

Many also bluffed about reading classics by the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters.
And why did all those people lie? In some cases, it was to make themselves appear hotter:
He concluded it all boiled down to sex.

He said: “Research that we have done suggests that the reason people lied was to make themselves appear more sexually attractive.”
Meanwhile, over at The Guardian we see that celebrities are not exempt from attempting to amp their sex appeal by (ahem) enhancing their intellectual profile.

Pop star Jarvis Cocker lied about having read Tess of the D'Urbervilles in his Oxford University admissions interivew. (It didn’t help.) Filmmaker Stephen Frears says he doesn’t think he “read Ulysses to the end, but I can’t remember if I actually lied about that one.” The poet Benjamin Zephaniah denies lying about what he’s read. “If I’m asked about a book I don’t just want to say yes or no, I want to discuss it so to me there’s no point in lying.”

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