Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, senior editor J. Kingston Pierce reviews Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes. Says Pierce:
In her entertaining new history, Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count, Baltimore author Jill Jonnes (Conquering Gotham, Empires of Light) recounts the myriad indignities leveled against Eiffel and his Tour en Fer. That criticism obviously didn’t doom the engineer’s campaign to make a bold and, at the time, very modern statement on Paris’ skyline. However, it did create obstacles that delayed work and made it difficult to complete the project in time for the fair’s opening.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fiction: The New Valley by Josh Weil

In his new collection of novellas, The New Valley (Grove Press), Josh Weil uses beautiful, stunning words to define men who don't have the first idea how to define themselves. Each tale unfolds in what appears to be the remotest areas of Virginia and West Virginia, and the geographical remoteness serves as a rich, telling metaphor for the remoteness of the men themselves.

How many collections like this have we read? How many authors use collections like this to establish their own distinct voice? Here, in his first collection, Weil seems to be sprinting in the opposite direction, doing all he can to avoid creating a distinct voice. He doesn’t seem interested in his own voice. Rather, all he seems to care about is crafting a voice for each story. The result is three pieces of work that live between hardcovers and rustic hills, but otherwise live on their own. It’s quite an achievement.

In sentence after sentence, on page after page, Weil hammers out these men on nothing less than an anvil of language. You can almost feel the searing heat as the tales are pounded into shape. So much seems to have been stripped back, the superfluous peeled away until almost the bare skeleton of story and character remain. Yet he leaves us telling details too -- and they sing. In high contrast to the hard edges of these stories, the author sprinkles in gentle, striking images. The language around them makes them all the more tasty, of course. “The moon was gone,” reads one, “but the stars still pinned up the night sky.” We’ve seen this image countless times before -- but when was the last time it was written in a way that took your breath away? It’s clear Josh Weil adores the power of words.

The New Valley is stark. The stories are sharp-edged, as I’ve said, but they’re much more than that. There’s an enviable depth to these characters, a layering of ideas that brings them to life in ways that might very well surprise even them. The tales walk up to you with confidence and look you square in the eye, unflinching. I am here, they say. Take me or leave me. The novellas aren’t like the men they portray; it feels more like they are the men they portray. In langauge that’s sure, quick, and almost magical in its ability conjure dimension from flat paper, Josh Weil has created portraits of hard lives that will stand the test of time.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

History of Violence Director Will Make Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, History of Violence) will adapt Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis, for the big screen. Paulo Branco’s Alfama Films will co-produce with Cronenberg’s Toronto-based Antenna. From CBC Arts:
Cosmopolis, which received mixed reviews for DeLillo upon its release in 2003, tracks an unconventional day in the life of a 28-year-old multimillionaire named Eric Packer.

The story follows Packer, a financial wizard, as he attempts to cross the city in his stretch limo which -- for reasons that include a presidential visit, a public protest and a celebrity funeral -- gets stuck in Manhattan traffic, and forces him to conduct his business and personal affairs from the vehicle.
CBC also reports that Cronenberg may write and direct an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle, which would star Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise.


Biography: Rich Brother, Rich Sister by Emi & Robert Kiyosaki

Money can’t buy happiness, that’s what everyone always says. And there are certainly things more important than gold and the path demanded to line your pockets with the stuff. Of course, the other part of the message is this: money can’t buy everything... but it really does not hurt.

All of this is severely underlined in Rich Brother, Rich Sister (Vanguard Press), a self-helpishly toned memoir from big bucks guru Robert Kiyosaki and his sister, Emi who, on her way to becoming the Venerable Tenzin Kacho, ordained by the Dalai Lama, clearly took a different path.

Kiyosaki is the author of 14 “Rich Dad” books, with titles like Rich Dad, Poor Dad; Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant; Rich Dad’s Prophecy and Rich Dad’s Escape From the the Rat Race. In all, nearly 26 million copies of Kiyosaki’s motivational books are in print.

Though the title is similar and the tone not overwhelmingly different form his previous books, the content of Rich Brother, Rich Sister is not the same in that it introduces a new co-author: Robert’s sister Emi, a Buddhist nun. At one point in Rich Brother, Rich Sister, Emi writes: “Robert and I share our adventure with you because it is not just a physical journey, but a spiritual one, too. Our lives have been ones of searching for an outward life that would reflect and mesh with our inner journeys, our quests of the heart.”

In some ways, that statement sums the book perfectly. A brace of siblings, two very different journeys and yet the smiles the peer out at us from the cover image are similar as, in the end, is the message that comes through. And what is that? Well, you knew all along, didn’t you? Wealth can be quantified in many ways. And what ways matter? Why, the ones that are important to you.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, Diane Leach looks at A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias. Says Leach:
Yglesias’s unabashedly autobiographical novel is an homage to his wife, artist Margaret Joskow, who died of bladder cancer in 2004. By turns heartbreaking, amusing, depressing, and joyous, A Happy Marriage is the evocation not only of the couple’s 27 years together, but of Margaret herself, a vibrant, imperfect, loving woman.

The book shifts between the couple’s first three weeks together, with their amusing if agonizing attempts to negotiate dating’s formalities, and their final three weeks of married life, when Margaret, decimated by cancer, is saying her final goodbyes. The contrast of the healthy, beautiful young Margaret and the bald, shivering shadow enduring horrible suffering is a shattering one, made more poignant by Yglesias’s painful attention to detail.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Non-Fiction: Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition by Alan J. Stein, Paula Becker and the HistoryLink Staff

Although even many Seattleites seem oblivious to the fact, this summer marks the 100th anniversary of their city’s first world’s fair. It was on June 1, 1909, that the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P) opened its gates and concessions on what is now the campus of the University of Washington, north of downtown. Around 80,000 people trooped through the fair on opening day, and by the time it finally shut down in mid-October of that year, more than 3.7 million tourists had passed through its turnstiles. Although the exposition wasn’t the immediate boon to local development and statewide population growth that its organizers had envisioned, it did showcase Washington’s resources and reinforced close connections between Seattle, the aborning business markets of Asia and what was then known as the District of Alaska. As the city’s present-day mayor, Greg Nickels, maintains in his foreword to the new Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Washington’s First World’s Fair: A Timeline History, the A-Y-P “put Seattle on the national map when most of the country still considered the Pacific Northwest frontier country.”

It was inevitable that a book commemorating this centennial should be published. What’s fortunate is that this project was undertaken by the folks at HistoryLink, an ever-growing, 11-year-old Internet database of stories from Seattle’s and Washington state’s past. Alan J. Stein and Paula Becker are both historians associated with that site. They had at their fingertips a wealth of research already accumulated about events, characters and esoterica associated with the fair and the Emerald City as it existed in the early 20th century. Drawing as well from the photographic resources at the UW Libraries Special Collections, the Washington State Historical Society, and other such organizations, they have put together an image-rich and graphically elegant work that offers the reader a sense of how the A-Y-P came into being, a taste of what visitors to that extravaganza would have seen and perspective on how the 1909 exposition led Seattle to host its better-known second world’s fair in 1962.

The text recounts some of Seattle’s history before the A-Y-P, including the financial bust provoked by the Panic of 1893 and the boom that resulted from the city’s involvement in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1899. It tells about the various sites considered for the expo (including what’s now Woodland Park, on Green Lake, where the city’s zoo currently stands) and the compromise that organizers had to make in order to situate the A-Y-P on the then-underdeveloped UW grounds. “One potential financial issue with the selected site,” the authors explain, “was that the sale of liquor, a big money-maker at other exhibitions, was forbidden by law within two miles of the University of Washington campus. Thus, the A-Y-P Exposition would become the only dry world’s fair in history.” And of course this book talks about all of the promotions, fund-raising, and planning that went into creating the fair, which its supporters promised would outshine Portland, Oregon’s Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905.

One thing I had forgotten was that the Olmsted Brothers, the famous Massachusetts landscapers charged with beautifying the north Seattle exhibition grounds, had originally proposed filling them with “fair buildings modeled after traditional Russian architecture, a nod to Alaska’s settlement by Russians.” Fortunately, San Francisco architect John Galen Howard, who was hired to supervise the construction of pavilions and exhibit halls on the property, favored the more classical, “City Beautiful” look popularized by Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. So there was no proliferation of onion domes, but there were plenty of elaborate friezes, cascading waterfalls and grand colonnades--including that on the Forestry Building, which promoted the Northwest’s timber industry and was fronted dramatically by 124 unpeeled fir-log columns four-and-a-half feet in diameter and 37 feet high. Less ostentatious and more brazenly bizarre edifices decorated the Pay Streak midway, where could be found “re-enactments of real events (the Monitor and the Merrimac, the Battle of Gettysburg), representatives of seemingly exotic primitive people who were actively marketed as uncivilized (the Inuit/Eskimos, the Philippine Igorrote Tribe), premature babies who passively demonstrated the efficacy of as yet unconventional technology (the Baby Incubator Exhibit), entertainers with various degrees of subtlety, amusement rides, games of skill and chance, and all manner of carnival flimflam.”

Chock-a-block with intriguing sidebars (about woman suffrage of the time and the growing use of hand-held cameras, for instance), souvenir artwork (admission tickets, buttons commemorating special days during the fair’s run, etc.), and a wonderful section devoted to profiles of every exhibition building, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, is as much a banquet for the eyes as it is satisfying to those of us hungry for substantive history-telling.

You can take a “cybertour” of the old A-Y-P fairgrounds, and see what has become of the site, by clicking here.

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Taking the Stock Market to the Beach

Personally? I think The Wall Street Journal’s Dave Kansas is barking up the wrong tree: I’d feel like a real loser heading to the beach with almost anything on his woefully late summer reading list. And why? What’s wrong with Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy by Barry Ritholtz? Or When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein? Well, nothing. Really. Except doesn’t it seem like a whole lot of rushing to close the barn door after the horses have already left to party? I honestly don’t see how sacrificing my precious beach reading time to Kate Kelly’s Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street is going to make my summer any brighter. In fact, this seems like material designed to cast a cloud. From the WSJ:
Heading into August, beaches and books beckon. While it’s nice to curl up with a page-turning, mind-free thriller, this summer of our great recessionary discontent might be a good time to bone up on things finance and investing.

There’s certainly been plenty of news in the past several months, and many books have come out to chronicle all that has gone awry with the economy and the markets.
Based on Kansas’ comments, he hasn’t done a lot of thriller reading lately. Certainly, I’ve not seen many in the last few years that would be called “mind-free.” (And what’s “mind-free” reading, anyway? Isn’t that also called “television”?)

Still, if you want Kansas’ guide to beach reading that might also curl your hair, his WSJ piece is here.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Time Traveler's Wife Leaps to the Big Screen

The film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife will hit a big screen near you on August 14th. Audrey Niffenegger’s novel was beloved by fans and reviewers alike when it was first published in 2003. At that time, January Magazine contributing editor David Abrams wrote:
Every so often, a novel lands in my hands as if it fell from the sky -- a happy surprise of literary delights, a book which transports and transfixes me, an original story which creates its own world with what seems like effortless artistry.

Audrey Niffenegger’s remarkable debut,
The Time Traveler’s Wife, is just such a novel.
The full review of the book is here.

The film version is directed by Robert Schwentke (Tattoo, Flightplan) and stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

So Much for the Gumshoes

I was extremely proud in 2005 when January Magazine’s crime-fiction department--of which I was (and still am) the editor--won the Gumshoe Award for Best Web Site. That was the fourth year in which the Gumshoes were dispensed by the Web site Mystery Ink and its editor, David J. Montgomery. Since 2002, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Henning Mankell, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Robert Crais, and Sarah Weinman have all picked up Gumshoe Awards.

But, after realizing yesterday that there had not yet been an announcement of Gumshoe nominees for 2009, I wrote Montgomery to ask when that might come. His response:
No Gumshoe Awards this year. Given the glut of mystery/thriller awards that now exists, we probably won’t be doing them anymore.
This is too bad. Although there are certainly abundant commendations given out these days to people laboring in the mystery/crime fiction/thriller field, tastes and reading experiences always differ among judges. Reducing the number of prizes will consequently limit the range of books and authors being applauded--and thus promoted to readers. I’d hate to see a day when all of the smaller awards programs disappear, and only the big-name writers receive recognition.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

File This Under “Books You’re Never Going
to See Reviewed Here”

Remember Carrie Prejean, the slender 22-year-old blond model who got a boob job, was named Miss California USA, placed first runner-up in this year’s Miss USA pageant, and then was stripped of her title after speaking out against gay marriage at the televised pageant and seeing racy photos of herself ... er, exposed on the Internet? Well, it seems this woman, who for a time was all over conservative talk shows touting her Christian credentials, has now been signed by right-wing Regnery Publishing to write her autobiography (or at least have somebody write it for her). Really? Only 22 years old and she thinks her life is interesting enough to justify people spending dough on her thoughts?

Regnery president and publisher Marji Ross insists, “It’s not a book about gay marriage. It’s not a book about traditional marriage ... She wanted to write a book about freedom of speech and the double standard that seems to exist when someone speaks their mind and doesn’t happen to be politically correct or consistent with what a crazy Hollywood celebrity thinks is the right answer.”

Oh, pleeeease. It sounds like American conservatives are simply using Prejean to advance their own out-of-step political ends. She’s a pretty tool, but a tool nonetheless.

Kent Jones, a regular contributor to MSNBC-TV’s Rachel Maddow Show, presented a segment last night about Prejean’s book, which is to be called Still Standing and appear in bookstores near you come November. Somehow we suspect that Jones’ “tribute” is much more entertaining than the finished tell-all volume will be.


Just the Facts, Ma’am

• Say “yes” to “No”: Ian Fleming’s sixth James Bond novel, Dr. No, debuted way back in 1958. Since then, its gone through multiple editions on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere. Today, the Web site Pulp International presents a delightful selection of Dr. No book covers from the beginning. We especially like the two illustrated versions at the bottom of that post, the second of which is part of a series of reissued Bond books from Penguin UK.

• Dean Koontz speaks! And speaks, and speaks ... Gravetapping’s Ben Boulden has posted a three-part interview that the late TV talk-show host Tom Snyder did in 1996 with American suspense novelist Dean Koontz. You can watch it all here.

• Did you know that Sunshine State novelist James O. Born, who’s best known for penning comical thrillers, has begun writing science-fiction novels under the pseudonym “James O’Neal”? Yeah, we didn’t either. But we do now.

Gordon Who?

• And our sister publication, The Rap Sheet, is holding a contest that will leave three lucky readers with free copies of thriller writer Joseph Finder’s forthcoming series debut, Vanished. The rules for entering are here, and Ali Karim’s interview with Finder -- which also contains the answer to the contest entry question -- can be enjoyed here. The deadline for entering is midnight on Sunday, August 16.

Biography: Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott by Zac Crain

Unsurprisingly, Black Tooth Grin (Da Capo) begins at the end. December 8, 2004, 24 years to the day that John Lennon died. “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott killed onstage, mid-song. The founder of the metal cover band Pantera, Abbott was not well known outside of his own metal community. However according to author Zac Crain, no one who knew the musician ever wondered why so many people called the act “the 9/11 of heavy metal.”

Of course, Black Tooth Grin doesn’t just tell the story of Abbott’s death. Much more time and detail is spent on the doomed musician’s life. Does D Magazine senior editor and music scribe heavyweight Crain sometimes move Black Tooth Grin towards the maudlin? Maybe only slightly. For the most part, though, Crain seems to hit all the right notes, skillfully blending fact with educated fancy, filling in the blanks and also imagining the what-might have beens and the nearly-weres.

Metal fans will, of course, find Black Tooth Grin to be a must-read but even those who had only barely heard of Abbott will find Crain’s book compelling. It’s a portrait of the music industry exactly as you always suspected it was… and yet entirely different. Fascinating.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review: Trust No One by Gregg Hurwitz

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor Anthony Rainone reviews Trust No One by Gregg Hurwitz. Says Rainone:
Nick Horrigan is a man running from his past. He has few friends he can trust. His relationship with his family is in tatters. His employment history is mediocre. Horrigan is on a linear path to obscurity. Then, things change in a heartbeat. Horrigan is taken from his Santa Monica apartment in the early morning hours by Secret Service agents. He is told that a terrorist is threatening to blow up a nearby nuclear power plant. The terrorist will talk only to him. Horrigan doesn’t know the man or why he’s been singled out. The agents dispatched to roust Horrigan are equally clueless and distrustful. From this opening, the reader is likely to believe that Trust No One is a novel about murderous terrorists, maybe the kinds of guys that 24’s Jack Bauer confronts on television. But then the plot blows up -- literally. From its ashes appears a political thriller of considerable ambition and tension. Author Gregg Hurwitz is a rising star among thriller writers, and Trust No One is going to make that ascent brighter.
The full review is here.

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Fiction: Godmother: The Cinderella Story by Carolyn Turgeon

In a season of reimaginings, Carolyn Turgeon (Rain Village) delivers Godmother: The Cinderella Story (Three Rivers Press). Turgeon’s retelling finds Cinderella’s fairy godmother banished from her fairy world and working as a bookseller in New York. For her fairy faux pas, she has been pulled away from her life, though if it seems to her that if she can contrive one selfless and beautiful act, all will be forgiven.

Godmother is exquisite: oddly chic, dark, sweet and elegant... and not a zombie in sight. Turgeon has a light but meaty touch. The author has said that after her challenging debut, she was determined to work on something simpler. “I just wanted to work with something wonderful -- a fairytale -- and play,” Turgeon has said.

Godmother is a delicious departure.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Angela’s Ashes Author Dead at 78

Frank McCourt died in a Manhattan hospice on Sunday after a battle with meningitis and skin cancer. The outpouring of love for the Irish-American author who won the Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes in 1997 has been intense. Time’s Lev Grossman takes a long and luscious look at the author’s life here:
McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930 -- he would later, much later, memorably describe the scene of his conception in his memoir -- but he grew up in Ireland. His parents were both Irish immigrants, and they moved back there, to Limerick, in an effort to stay ahead of McCourt's father's drinking problem. They didn't succeed. Malachy, Frank's father, worked intermittently as a laborer, but he drank constantly.
The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen recalled an early interview with the author:
A few hours after Frank McCourt learned he had won the Pulitzer Prize for “Angela's Ashes,” I went to see him at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, where he was staying.

In what turned out to be one of his last moments of anonymity, he was sitting in a corner booth in one of the hotel lounges with his wife Ellen, who used to work at WGBH, less than a mile away.

"Well," he said laconically, "I suppose I'm the Mick of the moment." Material success always puzzled Frank McCourt. He did not go through life courting it. Hell, if he did, he wouldn't have been a teacher. Because while everybody today mourns Frank McCourt the writer, he always thought of himself as Frank McCourt the teacher.
The Guardian
-- generally a sure bet in the obit department -- comes in on a silly note:
Frank McCourt, whose evocative tales of a poverty-stricken Irish childhood enthralled readers around the world and sparked the genre of “misery lit”, has died of cancer in a Manhattan hospice aged 78.
Though there’s much McCourt can be credited with, “misery lit” is not one of those things: if there is such a thing, it’s as old as literature itself. Still, the balance of The Guardian’s coverage does a good job with all the bases and even includes a short excerpt of Angela’s Ashes.

The New York Times, meanwhile, not only offers up a very detailed obituary today, but it also asks readers to contribute their memories of the well-loved author. “Were you a student of Mr. McCourt’s?” the Times asks. “Or a fan of his work? Share your memories of the teacher-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning author.” At time of this writing, nearly 300 readers had done so. That piece is here.


Friday, July 17, 2009

And That’s the Way It Is

Iconic newsman Walter Cronkite died today. He was 92 years old. From The New York Times:

“My father Walter Cronkite died,” his son Chip said just before 8 p.m. Eastern. CBS interrupted prime time programming to show an obituary for the man who defined the network’s news division.

Mr. Cronkite anchored the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981, at a time when television became the dominant medium of the United States. He figuratively held the hand of the American public during the civil rights movement, the space race, the Vietnam war, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon. During his tenure, network newscasts were expanded to 30 minutes from 15.
We bow our heads. And an era passes.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Bloodletting in the Newsroom
Means to Books

Newsgathering as we know it is having its toughest year in memory. With so many readers skidding in the blood of the newspapers they’ve loved for decades -- forever -- and newsies finding themselves increasingly wondering what the hell the next cycle might bring, even the very best and brightest of the newsgathering breed are wondering what the future will look like.

In the shadow of this bloodletting, the vultures are gathering. No matter what happens to our free presses, we need our news. And if we can’t get it in the way we’ve always gotten it, well ... some of us are prepared to take it any way we can.

You cannot expect self-interested parties -- publishers, booksellers, even authors -- to disseminate unbiased stories about themselves and those they represent. It just doesn’t work that way. And yet, as traditional media fail, that’s exactly what we are increasingly seeing. For instance, Barnes & Noble’s Review. As good as its editorial material often seems to be, does a bookseller really have any business positioning itself as as part of “the press”? Publishers are playing, too. For instance, Penguin U.S. has just launched a full suite of what it’s calling “online programming.” Last month, Kristin O’Connell, Penguin’s director of online marketing, sent out a release letting us know that most of the online “content” now available through Penguin is “created, written, shot, edited and produced by more than 30 Penguin Group (USA) executives and department team members who are closest to the content, some having worked directly with the books.”

You can tell from both O’Connell’s release and the material itself that it was created with pride, and that’s all right. But can it be created without bias? I don’t think it can. How can those “closest to the content” be expected to share an uncompromised vision with us, their potential readers or viewers? They cannot. It is, after all, not their job to do that. It is their job -- I’ll just say it straight out -- to sell us stuff. And to be good at that job -- really, really good at it -- they can never do anything but pretend at journalistic integrity. That’s just how all of this works.

There is a mad blurring going on in the media today. Born of a kind of desperate clutching for something that makes sense when held against traditional standards of doing things. In all parts of the media, people are trying to find order in chaos. And they will. Of course they will. Just maybe not right now. Right now we need to find our way. Whatever happens, though, we need our newsgatherers -- our unbiased, independent, traditional newsies. Period.

Right at this moment I’m not sure how those newsies will be getting their goods to us in five years. But I do know one thing: we must avoid the trap of taking too much of our news and information, and too many of our book reviews, from those who have the most to gain by giving all of those things to us.


New This Week: Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Clearly, a novel where the action focuses around life in a 16th century convent is not going to be a laugh riot and, in that regard, Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts (Virago) delivers no surprise.

Over the last two decades, Dunant has been quietly building an international reputation as one of the most watch-worthy historical fictionists writing today. Sacred Hearts is Dunant’s ninth novel, but the third in a triptych set in the Italian Renaissance, after The Birth of Venus and The Company of the Courtesan. But Sacred Hearts is a jewel of a novel. Not a tiny, delicate one, either. But a big, robust, showy diamond that will hold its own with any going. Dunant is the whole package: trained historian, seasoned storyteller, fabulous writer.

“Before the screaming starts,” Sacred Hearts begins, “the night silence of the convent is alive with its own particular sounds.”

Sacred Hearts might be the very best of a the superior field of historical fiction published in the summer of 2009.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Biography: So Long As Men Can Breathe by Clinton Heylin

A little over 400 years after the publication of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, biographer and Elizabethan and Jacobian scholar Clinton Heylin offers up the story of Shakespeare’s Sonnet’s unauthorized and unorthodox path to publication.

It is a testament to Heylin’s art and skill that not only do we sense the presence of the living, breathing Bard in So Long As Men Can Breathe (DaCapo), we also feel the connections between a beleaguered 17th century publishing industry and the one we’re saddled with today.

Heylin’s vision is both eye-opening and entertaining. You’ve never seen the publishing industry in this light. You’ve never seen Shakespeare in quite this light. But in the same book? This is one that can’t be missed.

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Author Snapshot: Jennifer Weiner

Though Jennifer Weiner might wriggle under the appellation, if chick-lit has a champion purveyor, she looks like this: gentle eyes, calm of disposition, with a razor-sharp understanding of everything she observes.

Weiner’s books have been judged alternately empty and insipid and fully engaged with the pulse of contemporary American womanhood. Whatever busloads of critics might have said since the publication of Weiner’s debut novel, 2001’s Good in Bed, a lot of people would probably vote for the latter. Over 11 million copies of Weiner’s books are in print in 36 different countries. Her second novel, 2002’s In Her Shoes, was turned into a movie with Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. The author was actually in one scene of the film.

Weiner’s latest book, Best Friends Forever (Simon & Schuster), explores the impact of love, desire and familial loss on a friendship between two young women. “Former mousy types, rejoice!” writes People. “In Weiner’s delicious latest, a popular girl hits trouble long after high school and only the geeky pal she once shunned can help.”

If you can’t get enough Jennifer, you need not despair. The author signed a development deal with ABC Studios last year. She says she’s working with “many fine writers to come up with comedies and dramas that feature my kind of characters and humor (i.e., smart, snarky, soulful, possibly larger than the average leading lady).”

A Snapshot of... Jennifer Weiner

Most recent book: Best Friends Forever (Simon & Schuster)
Born: DeRidder, Louisiana
Reside: Philadelphia
Birthday: March 28
Web site:

What's your favorite city?
I love Philadelphia, but I always love visiting San Francisco.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Go to Yank Sing for dim sum. Go to the Ferry Building farmer’s market for flowers and bread, and the Cowgirl Creamery for cheeses. Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to build up an appetite. Take the cable car back to the Fairmont Hotel, and have wine, and cheese, and a nap.

What food do you love?
What food don’t I love? I'm a big fan of staples, cooked well: a good roast chicken and mashed potatoes, rib roast, grilled fresh vegetables

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
Oh, there’s nothing I won’t eat again -- I’m all about second chances -- but I just had a bad run-in with macadamia nuts and sake, so I probably won’t be mixing those two again.

What’s on your nightstand?
About 30 books that I’m either reading or re-reading: Kate Christensen’s Trouble, Julie Metz’s Perfection and Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three.

What inspires you?
Real life; my family and my friends. My daughters are both very funny.

What are you working on now?
I’m in the early stages of a novel about three different women -- young, middle-aged and old -- who find themselves thrown together, in the wake of various personal crises, in a big old house on the beach in Connecticut and I'm starting to gather the pieces for a potential non-fiction piece, which would be a big change for me.

Tell us about your process.
My process is necessarily dictated by my kids, and the ensuing lack of time. Most of my work happens in the afternoons (when I have a sitter), on a laptop, in a coffee shop, where the kids can't find me. I really need to leave the house in order to get any serious work done, and I try, as best I can, to replicate the atmosphere of a newsroom when I find a workspace -- I like a little hustle and bustle, and music and conversation, not to mention latte and scones.

But really, I'm working all the time -- there’s always a part of my brain that's thinking about the work in progress, whether I’m at the park, pushing my baby in a swing, or in the minivan, waiting to pick up my big girl from school.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
I’m working at my kitchen table, so ... a stack of bills I’m about halfway through paying. A bag from Target filled with sunscreen and sippy cups and Season 2 of Arrested Development that I need to unload.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think as soon as I learned how to read. I remember being six, and my first-grade teacher Mrs. Palen giving me extra paper and letting me stay in for recess so I could keep writing a story.

If you couldn't write books, what would you be doing?
Hmm. Not sure that newspaper gig would have worked out, long-term. I
probably would have gotten a PhD in something and taught.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
The day I got to go home and tell my mother that Simon & Schuster was
publishing my book. The joy only lasted a few seconds. Then I had to tell
her what the title was.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
Writing has always been the thing that I love best and came most easily to me. I love just about everything about the work I do.

What's the most difficult?
The business of publishing: dealing with marketing and promotion and knowing that, as far as some reviewers are concerned, whatever I've written is just a big spun-sugar pink nothing.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
“Where do you get your ideas?” “What time of day do you write?” “Longhand or

What’s the question you'd like to be asked?
Nobody’s ever asked about all of the water imagery and swimming in my books. That would be fun to talk about.

What question would like never to be asked again?
“How do you feel about your books being called chick lit?” Not great. Next question!

Please tell us about your most recent book.
Best Friends Forever is the story of two girls who are best friends all through high school, then have a tragic break-up, and reunite on the eve of the 15th reunion, after the glamorous friend who skipped town does something terrible, and shows up on the doorstep of her mousy homebody ex-best-friend, saying that she's the only one who can help.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

Is this really the time to mention the third nipple?

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Carter’s “Malaise” Speech 30 Years On

Today marks the 30th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech, in which author Kevin Mattson points out, the word “malaise” never actually appears.

Mattson’s new book, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President (Bloomsbury) is bright and upbeat, but also a bit disturbing sad. From an excerpt in today’s New York Times:
It was the kind of secular sermon -- introspective, searching, occasionally soaring -- that can be a tear-jerker when delivered to swelling music on a TV show like “The West Wing” but works less well for real-world presidents. Mr. Carter’s speechwriters Hendrik Hertzberg and Gordon Stewart were brilliant, but they weren’t Aaron Sorkin.

Mr. Carter’s speech was a Hail Mary pass by a president in trouble. And like so many Hail Mary passes, it was picked off. Republicans clubbed Mr. Carter with its downer themes for the next year and a half. Ronald Reagan handily won the 1980 presidential election, denying Mr. Carter a second term. There wouldn’t be another Democrat in the White House for a long 12 years.
The excerpt can be found here.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reading to Write

At a writers festival last weekend, I taught a workshop called “Writing Killer Fiction.” During the workshop -- and throughout the weekend, for that matter -- I found myself repeatedly recommending the same three books to aspiring writers. To my way of thinking, this trio of books would be a fantastic addition to any writer’s reading list, not just those who aspire to writing crime fiction. I thought I’d share my chosen three with you here. There are other books on writing but, for my money, this slender trio covers all the bases perfectly.

This Year You Write Your Novel (Little, Brown & Company) by Walter Mosley
“I don’t promise a masterpiece,” Mosley warns in his introduction, “just a durable first novel of a certain length,” and later in the introduction he underlines this point. “I can't promise you worldly success, but I can say that if you follow the path I lay out here, you will experience the personal satisfaction of having written a novel. And from that point, anything is possible.” January published a review when the book first came out in 2007. That’s here.

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Fireside) by Noah Lukeman
The first five pages are the most important in your manuscript. If they’re not sharp and ready, who will want to read beyond? But literary agent Lukeman really goes much, much deeper than readers might expect. Those who are currently iffy about self-editing will do very well heeding Lukeman’s advice. And as much as anything, The First Five Pages is a book about editing. Though not just, as the title implies, the beginning of the book. Lukeman’s work seems to bring the currently much maligned Elements of Style to life.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Pocket Books) by Stephen King
Part memoir, part writing primer, King’s fans will be delighted to discover more about the master’s background, but there are few writers who won’t benefit from the straight-forward advice King’s hard-won experience helps him offer up. “This is a short book,” King says in On Writing, “because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers ... don’t understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.” ‘Nuff said.

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Children’s Books: Torn Pages by Sally Grindley

Lydia and her younger siblings, Joe and Kesi, are African AIDS orphans, trying to survive alone. Lydia has had to leave school to support her brother and sister. Most of the villagers are suspicious of them. Their own grandmother, who is well-off, not only won’t take them in but is actively undermining them. She firmly believes her son married beneath him and that it was his wife’s fault he died of AIDS, even though it was the other way around.

The only comfort Lydia has is their mother’s “memory book,” written especially for her as the mother was dying. But her grandmother has plans that might take away even this comfort.

Torn Pages (Bloomsbury) is a touching story that looks at a real problem in the world and brings them down to a human dimension. The children in the story are sympathetic characters you can care about and they don’t simply accept their troubles. At the end, there is hope for the future.

Suitable for children in late primary school to early secondary.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Crime Fiction: Bad Things Happen
by Harry Dolan

In Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen (Putnam), a man who calls himself David Loogan settles into Ann Arbor, Michigan, to live a quiet life. Bored, he writes a short story that he tosses over the transom of a local crime-fiction magazine called Gray Stories, a clever publication sure to make the denizens of Rara-Avis giddy with visions of fresh noir. Rather than being published, though, he is hired by Tom Kristoll to edit Gray Stories. Before long, Loogan becomes a favorite drinking companion for Tom and a lover for Tom’s wife, Laura. So it’s no surprise who Tom calls when there’s a dead body in his den. He calls the man who calls himself David Loogan. Loogan helps bury the corpse and then ditch the car used to transport it.

That, supposedly, is that.

Until Tom suddenly ends up face-first on the pavement in front of the offices of Gray Stories. Then an intern smitten with Laura apparently shoots himself. Police believe the intern committed suicide in a fit of remorse for having slain Tom Kristoll. Only whatever triggered this series of deaths is far from finished. While Loogan is enigmatic, admittedly behaving like a character one might read about in Gray Stories, he is not considered a suspect, having always been somewhere among people--witnesses--when the killings occurred. But as local police Detective Elizabeth Waishkey digs into the expanding homicide case, Loogan’s past comes back to complicate matters.

Author Dolan starts Bad Things Happen with the feel of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie, maybe Strangers on a Train. Loogan is no Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, however--he’s far too brooding. Still, one can certainly picture Ray Milland or James Mason playing the part of Tom Kristoll, oozing charm as he lures Loogan into a bizarre web of intrigue. The one thing that strains credibility is Gray Stories itself, a profitable print version of Plots With Guns. Oh, were it a real magazine ... but I digress.

Throughout the yarn, Loogan lightens the mood by juggling for various people. It’s rather appropriate, since Dolan himself is juggling at least four subplots in these pages, as well as a cast of characters likely to inhabit the bar at any writers’ convention. His complex tale has to shift quickly from one thread to the next in the book’s short length, thus helping to ratchet up the suspense. It doesn’t hurt, either, that almost everyone is lying in this story, even when they’re telling the truth.

Bad Things Happen is a clever debut novel mixing wishful thinking with a morally ambiguous cast. Just the kind of tale you would expect to read in Gray Stories.

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Fiction: The Best of Men by Claire Letemendia

Even in a season reasonably stuffed with weighty works of historical fiction, The Best of Men (McClelland & Stewart) stands out. Debut author Claire Letemendia has the right sort of academic pedigree to get the details right in her vast epic tale of England in the middle of the 17th century. But even with a doctorate in Political Theory, Letemendia doesn’t write like an academic. Rather, she drops us deftly right into the center of her story and we find ourselves in England in 1642, with Laurence Beaumont, newly returned from the wars that have changed the map of Europe.

For all of Letemendia’s knowledge and the intricacies of her plotting here, there are times when the reader is aware of every single one of the book’s nearly 700 pages. The reduction -- or even elimination -- of some of the less important storylines would have created a more tense, exciting read. As it stands, there are times when the action seems to come almost to a standstill.

Fortunately, the bogged down moments in The Best of Men are infrequent and, for the most part, the reader is swept away in the world Letemendia shares. And that’s a good thing as The Best of Men won’t be a one-off: the author has promised a trilogy.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Fiction: A Pathless Land by Robin Porecky

It wasn’t until I was well into A Pathless Land (Austin & MacAuley) that I realized I’d never before read a novel set in Finland. And with the cultural smugness of my kind, the book brought me to some conclusions. I will acknowledge that it is possible that they are wrong but, here they are in any case: Finland is dark, cold and is scored by a fold of violence. Fins are hardy, hearty and capable of that same violent edge. A Pathless Land does not say these things, but it implies them, or such was my reading. It sketches the shape of a dark and lonely land and a great journey undertaken with high hopes and few other provisions, at least not of the kind that will prove of any use.

A Pathless Land is Robin Porecky’s debut novel. His bio material is sketchy enough to make me suspect the persona might be an alias: “Robin Porecky (pronounced Poretzki) is of Polish origin, but was born and brought up in England. He now works in northern Sweden as a knife-maker.”

So we are to believe that A Pathless Land is a Swedish knife-maker’s debut novel? Yet the book is ethereal enough and -- in a dark and experimental way -- skilled enough to make me think it could be the work of a better known writer. In either case, it’s a worthwhile introduction to a cold, dark land.

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New in Paperback: The Islamist by Ed Husain

More than two years after its initial publication, Ed Husain’s The Islamist comes to us in a sleek new paperback from Penguin.

The Islamist is riveting. This is partly due the extraordinary subject matter and partly to Husain’s calm and stately voice.

Though this is a topic that can invite strident voices to either side, Husain is all the more compelling for never really going there. Instead, he tells his tale simply: born in a Muslim but largely non-political London suburb, recruited to fundamentalism at 16 and swimming with extremists for five years. When he was in his early 20s, Husain rejected what was on offer, did his own research and found his way back to a more traditional form of the faith in which he had been raised. Much of The Islamist consists of this spiritual and physical journey and the view from inside is both frightening and enlightening, as is Husain’s personal journey back.

Since The Islamist was first published in 2007, it was nominated for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing and the PEN/Ackerly Prize for Literary Autobiography as well as several other prizes.

If you’ve ever wondered about Islam and how it fits into the modern world, you’ll find The Islamist to be a worthwhile starting point as well as a deeply interesting read. Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Fiction: The Road to Jerusalem: Book One of the Crusades Trilogy by Jan Guillou

Though not at all well known in North America -- yet -- Jan Guillou is one of Sweden’s most popular literary personalities. A journalist and broadcaster, he is also the author of the Coq Rouge novels, one of the most popular series of Swedish spy novels ever created. Guillou’s Crusades Trilogy has been translated into 20 languages and has sold 2.5 million copies in Sweden alone.

The first book in the trilogy, The Road to Jerusalem (Harper), has just been released in English. Steven T. Murray did the skillful translation. Since it was Murray -- using a pseudonym -- who translated the first two of Stieg Larsson’s books to be published in English (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire), it seems a safe guess to call Murray the top Swedish translator working today. And in The Road to Jerusalem, once again, the translation is seamless. One never senses a falter or a misstep.

The Road to Jerusalem tells the story of a young Swedish nobleman who ends up conscripted into the Knights Templar. But this is a thick and engaging novel: I’ve taken a very short route to tell the story. Guillou’s path is much less direct, and far more exciting. And while details of a U.S. film production will likely be announced soon, Swedish film and television productions are at various stages, and have been for several years.

Fans of historical fiction -- particularly those with an interest in Crusades-era material -- simply must read The Road to Jerusalem. The huge international following this series has attracted will only continue to grow now that it’s available in English.

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Children’s Books: Just MacBeth by Andy Griffiths

In 2008, Australia’s Bell Shakespeare Company commissioned humorous children’s writer Andy Griffiths to write a script for the company to perform as a children’s introduction to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Just MacBeth is the resultant work, in print, illustrated by the equally funny artist Terry Denton.

Andy Griffiths is enormously popular in Australia for all his work, but especially for the “Just” series which feature characters Andy, Danny and Lisa. Andy fancies beautiful Lisa. In this story, he gets to be married to her. When the three teens have to prepare a scene from Macbeth for school, the witches’ potion whisks them into 11th century Scotland, where they find themselves playing out the roles of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Banquo. Danny, as Banquo, finds himself with a son who’s older than he is.

Andy rather enjoys being Macbeth, because as King he will be able to eat as much Wizz Fizz as he wants, order people around and gets to be married to Lisa. The scary thing is that he and Lisa make a very good Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who have no problem in killing people, including Banquo/Danny.

This makes an excellent introduction to Shakespeare. Some of the Bard’s lines are used in the course of the play, and the meanings are pretty much explained. Let’s face it, Macbeth may be a short play, compared with some of Shakespeare’s others, but it’s confusing.

For those of us who are reading the book instead of seeing the play, Terry Denton provides hilarious cartoon commentary on the side of each page and even the page numbers are funny, beginning with an increasingly-disgruntled head of Shakespeare who complains about being the world’s greatest playwright, reduced to supporting page numbers, is replaced by a number of other page-holders, including a haggis, devoured by a machine and returns, defeating all other page-holders.

Fans of the Just stories will enjoy this once they get over its being in script form instead of a short story. Schools can buy class sets and have fun playing it out in class.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fiction: The Lie by Fredrica Wagman

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Lie by Fredrica Wagman. Says Leach:

The Lie opens with 17-year-old Ramona Smollens sitting on a park bench, smoking. Her father, the monstrous Nathan Smollens, has been dead exactly one week.

Ramona is joined by Solomon Columbus, an older man who offers her another cigarette. The two begin talking, with Ramona mesmerized by Columbus’s thick peasant hands, culminating in ten “astonishing penis fingers.” Their conversation continues even as the withering August heat gives way to a torrential rainstorm. The couple talk and smoke through the pelting rain, finally returning to the house where Ramona now lives with her mother, the self-absorbed, obnoxiously rude Trixie. The couple brush off her jeering welcome, working their way to the attic, where they spend four days making love and exchanging confidences.

Written in broken, elliptical prose, bristling with bold print and exclamatory remarks, The Lie is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates’s more incantatory, dark works.
The full review is here.

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Biography: Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown by Jennifer Scanlon

If Bad Girls Go Everywhere (Oxford University Press) is not quite the sexy tell-all of author and journalist Helen Gurley Brown’s life that the cover might hint at, in some ways, it is a great deal more. Right away, it should be understood that author Jennifer Scanlon is an academic. A Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, she’s an award-winning teacher and scholar as well as the author of books with titles like Significant Contemporary American Feminists and The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader.

In some ways this authorship -- as well as Scanlon’s academia informed approach to the former Cosmo editor’s life -- makes Bad Girls Go Everywhere the definitive work on Gurley Brown. One can not imagine anyone exceeding it. Thirty-four pages of footnotes and a very good index tell that story.

All of that said, even though the book lacks the puerile tone and surface facts of biographies written with a more popular readership in mind, Bad Girls Go Everywhere is a very interesting book. Even without the author’s obvious passion and knowledge of her subject, Gurley Brown’s life provides plenty of fuel for a well-stuffed biography. Most surprising of all -- at least, for this reader -- was the fact that, despite her reputation as a tough-as-nails professional women who never ate enough, Gurley Brown emerges Scanlon’s portraiture as a second wave feminist. Someone whose contributions to the women’s movement and to her gender’s real-world emancipation are perhaps too great to calculate.

Other books on 87-year-old Helen Gurley Brown’s life may well emerge over the years, but I imagine Bad Girls Go Everywhere will remain the definitive record of this remarkable journalist’s life.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst

A new book by Robert Bringhurst is always a noteworthy event. Bringhurst is an author, typographer, translator and award-winning poet and each of his books is a work of art on every level.

It seems to me there is something even more special about Selected Poems (Gaspereau Press), a single volume that brings together selections from several of Bringhurst’s collections including The Beauty of the Weapons and The Calling. It also includes a new series of poems called “The Living.”
The ear of language rests
On the breast of world,
Unable to know and unable to care
Whether it listens inward or outward.
Everything about Selected Poems is extraordinary. The first hint of it is in the plain black cover, no image. The title and the author’s name are printed in silver ink in a plain, serif font. This stark understatement is typical of Bringhurst. And the book’s deceptively simple production speaks volumes for the work itself. Just enough, always. A little less, perhaps, than another might give, but it’s the correct less. The right less. Somehow defining the work by what is not there as much as by what is.

Those who already enjoy Bringhurst’s work will want to add Selected Poems to their collections. And if you’ve never before encountered his sparse, elemental imagery will find this collection a perfect place to start.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

New in Paperback: A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America -- One State Quarter at A Time by Jim Noles

In 1997, the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act was passed into law. It meant that, beginning in 1999 and over the course of the next decade, the U.S. Mint would issue five new quarters each year. It was determined that the quarters would be issued in the order that the states joined the Union. As author Jim Noles writes in A Pocketful of History (Da Capo):
… Delaware, admitted to the Union on December 7, 1787, would lead the charge, followed at ten-week intervals for the remainder of 1999 by quarters for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, respectively. After ten years, the program would end, forty-five quarters later, in 2008, with the issuance of quarters of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii.
Each quarter gets its own chapter in Noles’ book, where history is shared in gentle doses. We learn a little about the history of each state, as well as the cultural and historical significance of the images the coins display.

For Noles’, history is lively and each journey is entertaining and informative. A Pocketful of History is a very good book.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Fiction: Going Ashore by Mavis Gallant

To say that Going Ashore (Douglas Gibson Books/McClelland & Stewart) may well be the most important work of fiction that will be published in Canada in 2009 sounds like hyperbole of the highest order. And, actually, it pretty much is. Yet immerse yourself in Mavis Gallant’s world. Read these 31 stories -- some of them never before published intact in book form -- and try to imagine anything finer.

This is the writer that Fran Lebowitz has called the “irrefutable master of the short story in English,” and whom Michael Ondaatje said was one of “the great short story writers of our time.” Even the uninitiated won’t find it difficult to understand the praise. For the passionate reader, Going Ashore is pure pleasure. For the writer, it is that and education, as well. This is some of the very best work of a writer whose career spans over 50 years.

Douglas Gibson, who has published Gallant in Canada since 1978, tells us that Going Ashore began to take shape when Gallant let him know that not all of her short stories were still in print.

“Intrigued,” he writes, “I encouraged her to compile a list of the ‘missing’ stories, and promised to publish them. She was delighted, and asked me -- in a typically direct way -- if I could bring the book out before she died. We are such old friends that I felt able to answer with another question: ‘What are your plans in this regard, Mavis?’ She laughed, and started to make research enquiries.”

And so it is that, in Gibson’s words, he was able to publish a collection “that will delight [Gallant’s] admirers, who will find that, at eighty-six, she is able to bring out a book of distinctive yet unfamiliar stories that are full of surprises.”


Non-Fiction: The Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar

If, in the course of reading a towering stack of books intended to make you perform better, faster and stronger you discover you have pushed yourself too close to perfection, then The Pursuit of Perfect (McGraw Hill) may well be the book for you.

After a decade of teaching Happiness classes at Harvard (one gets the idea of a class of grad students sitting around blowing bubbles, but I don’t think that’s it) author, philosopher and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar came to understand that most people aspire to more than mere happiness. Whether or not they realized it, people wanted perfection in their lives.

The result should be obvious (but does not seem to be until it is pointed out). If you crave and search for perfection, you will inevitably be disappointed -- both in yourself and the world around you. If you need perfection in your life, you’ve failed before you get out of the gate. The Pursuit of Perfect is the answer to that discovery, with Ben-Shahar guiding you through the idea of looking for attainable self-fulfillment rather than setting unrealistic goals that can’t fail to do anything but disappoint.

In addition to teaching the topic at Harvard, Ben Shahar is the author of the bestselling Happiness, so he knows this topic from many angles. He writes engagingly and is an accomplished thinker who says much that is worthy of attention. The Pursuit of Perfect is a must-read for the overachiever in your life.

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New Today: Children of the Waters by Carleen Brice

In 2008, Carleen Brice was named Breakout Author of the Year at the African American Literary Awards Show. The book under discussion at that time was her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey (which has, incidentally, been optioned for film by the Lifetime Movie Network).

Though Orange Mint and Honey was Brice’s debut novel, that well-received work was not her first book. She is also the author of the non-fiction works Lead Me Home: An African American’s Guide Through the Grief Journey; Walk Tall: Affirmations for People of Color and she edited Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife. As can be gleaned from the title of those books, Brice is deeply concerned with issues of race and how those issues manifest themselves in contemporary America.

That concern shows again in her most recent book, Children of the Waters (One World). Here Brice introduces us to Trish Taylor, a white woman married to a black man with whom she is raising a child. When Trish’s marriage ends, she returns to her family home in Denver where she begins to unlock a series of secrets spiraling out from one that is central to her understanding of her family. Trish had been told her mother and baby sister, Billie, died in a car crash many years before. But Trish discovers that her sister didn’t die. Billie was put up for adoption because her mother’s parents didn’t want to raise a biracial child. There are other secrets. And deep misunderstandings and a lot of ground to cover before those misunderstandings and hurts decades old can be put to rest.

Children of the Waters is, for the most part, an enjoyable journey. Are there times when it seems that Brice’s concern for issues of race overtakes her story? Perhaps. But it’s a good story and Brice is a wonderful writer. How can one fault passion when that passion is part of what makes the tale exactly what it is?

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Children’s Books: Ghost with A Message by Mary K. Pershall

Ruby Clair is a girl who sees dead people. Well, the ghost of her cousin Nicola, anyway, plus any ghosts Nicola sends her way. Because she can see ghosts, Ruby can help them adjust. Ghost With A Message (Penguin Books Australia) is the second book in the Ruby Clair series. The ghost is a small child who has a message for her family, but can’t speak any better than any other three year old.

Ruby wants to help, but it makes things awkward for her with her friends and family, to whom she can’t explain what’s going on. Somehow, she manages to work out what the ghost child is trying to tell her, help the ghost’s family and make a new friend.

This is a gentle story with both humor and serious elements. It is a book that girls in middle to late primary school should enjoy.

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Edwards Aide to Ink Tell-All

There’s something really awful in this item from Muckety:
A man who was one of former Senator John Edwards’s closest aides has a deal to write a tell-all book about Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter that among other things repudiates his earlier claim that he is the father of Hunter’s baby.

The aide, Andrew A. Young (not to be confused with politician and diplomat Andrew J. Young), reportedly signed a contract with St. Martin’s Press for an undisclosed price to tell his story about the former presidential candidate.
‘Nuff said about this one, I think. We’ll file it under Books You Just Don’t Want to Know About and call it done, done, done like dinner.