Friday, October 30, 2009

The Emergence of the Curmudgeon

Many people still remember when Martin Amis was the enfant terrible of the British literary scene. Then he matured into the hot, cool guy who’d make pithy observations on other artist’s work while producing a fairly dazzling stream of work of his own.

From there, it’s inevitable, right? First enfant terrible. Then hot guy. From there it’s only a matter of time until you hit curmudgeon. This last seems to have arrived quite recently when Amis publicly said British celebutant -- and sometime author -- Katie Price “has no waist, no arse ... an interesting face ... but all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone.”

Amis was talking -- perhaps not directly -- about the state of publishing and the thought that celebrity authors were taking the profit from other, more worthy authors. (Not to mention any names.) But though Price requires no defense (she’s off having fun, probably doesn’t give a fig for Amis’ opinion and acknowledges that her books -- the ones intended for grown-ups, anyway -- have all been ghostwritten), the remark was the sort that invites comment. And some have.

Writing for The Guardian’s book blog, Jean Hannah Edelstein comments that Amis’ problem is not with Price, but with women. Plus, Edelstein adds, it likely all stems from his move towards crumudgeonliness, anyway:
When writers like Amis, or Philip Roth -- who declared this week that novel-reading would be a fringe activity in 25 years -- make their apocalyptic proclamations about the state of publishing, it seems apparent that their pessimism may in fact be rather strongly influenced by anxiety that their new work no longer carries the kind of cultural clout they have grown used to, not because people aren't reading novels, but because people aren't reading their novels. And part of the reason for that may be that with the bulk of modern consumers of fiction being women, the particular brand of literary writing in which a particular aptitude for fellatio suffices as characterisation for a woman is less interesting, or resonant, than it once was.
Edelstein’s piece makes many other points, is amusing if nothing else and it’s here.

Happy Birthday to Ezra

Ezra Pound was born on this day in 1885. From Writer’s Almanac:
Pound was born within a few years of James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, Hilda Doolittle, and T.S. Eliot, and he was instrumental in promoting the careers of each one of these writers -- as well as many, many others. He was a champion of modern poetry and prose; Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair proclaimed that it was Ezra Pound “more than anyone who made poets write modern verse, editors publish it, and readers read it.” He was extraordinarily generous with his clout, often described as “the poet's poet.” Pound’s mantra was “Make it new.”
Pound died in Venice, two days after his 87th birthday. His legacy survives.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stephen King to Enter the Twilight

Early in 2010, Vertigo will publish a five book series of graphic novels told by dark overlord Stephen King and short story writer Scott Snyder.

The series will feature American cowboy vampire Skinner Sweet and was originally conceived of by Snyder who had approached King for a blurb and ended up with a co-author.

“I love vampire stories,” King told The Guardian, “and the idea of following the dark exploits of a uniquely American vampire really lit up my imagination. The chance to do the original story -- to be ‘present at the creation’ – was a thrill. I owe big thanks to Scott Snyder for letting me share his vision, and sip from his bucket of blood.”

The Guardian points out that King is only the most recent author to add the graphic novel to his list of mediums.
Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin and twist-in-the-tale novelist Jodi Picoult have both recently dabbled with comics, but although his bestselling books The Stand, The Talisman and the Dark Tower series have been adapted into graphic novels, the American Vampire series will be the first original comic-book writing King has done.
The Guardian
’s story adds much detail and is here.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Birthday Brilliance

While it’s true that great writers can be born on any day of the month or week, it does seem as though there are certain days where the muses have sprinkled extra magic. October 27th is one of those. Today is the birthday of at least three of the really greats: from both now and then.

Dylan Thomas was, says Writer’s Almanac, “the man who called himself ‘a freak user of words, not a poet’ but who was one of the most popular poets of his generation.” Thomas was born in Wales on this day in 1914. He died in New York while on a book tour in 1953.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Fulbright scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sylvia Plath was born in Boston on this day in 1932, she committed suicide in 1963 and won the posthumously won the Pulitzer -- for her Collected Poems -- in 1981.

Zadie Smith, who was born in London on this day in 1975, created an exquisite sensation with her debut novel, White Teeth, published before she graduated from college. Writer’s Almanac says that, “while she was cramming for her final exams, she banged out 100 pages of a potential novel. Those hundred pages started a bidding war among London publishers, and Zadie Smith wound up with a six-figure book contract before she'd even graduated from college. That novel became White Teeth (2001), which was compared to the work of Charles Dickens, with a huge cast of characters -- Bengali Muslims, Jews, Jamaicans, Nazis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, animal rights activists, Islamic terrorists, and old English men. It sold more than a million copies.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Zombie Success Story Tops One Million

The usually elegant Three Rivers Press is quick to point out that their “2003 sleeper hit,” The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, was at the vanguard of the current zombie movement. From a Three Rivers Press release:
The Zombie Survival Guide has spurred countless other books on zombies, along with its own line of products such as The Zombie Survival Guide Journal that gives people a chance to record their to-do lists and survival strategies, and The Zombie Survival Guide Flashcard Deck, created to provide private citizens with an emergency crash course in basic zombie survival techniques.
The Zombie Survival Guide
has sold over 1,000,000 copies and sent author Brooks back to Zombie land for a couple of novels. Brooks has said his inspiration for The Zombie Survival Guide was the Y2K scare. “I wrote The Zombie Survival Guide for me,” says Brooks, “stuck it in a drawer for a while, and never imagined it would be published, let alone be this successful. I think its longevity is due largely to its realistic tone. Take out the zombies and it is still a general disaster survival guide.”


Kafka Controversy Continues

Eighty-five years after his death, the author of The Castle and Amerika is at the heart of a strange controversy. From The Guardian:
Israel’s National Library is calling on a German museum to hand over the original manuscript of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial to correct a “historical error”, in the latest unravelling of a complex dispute over the writer's legacy.

The manuscript was sold at auction by Sotheby's in 1988 for almost $2m to a book dealer acting on behalf of the German government and is stored in the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach. Now the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which collects all works published in Israel, says that The Trial should be returned to the country in accordance with the final wishes of Max Brod, a friend of Kafka and the executor of his will.
The full story is here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cookbooks: The Entertaining Encyclopedia by Denise Vivaldo

Today I dropped by my local Home Depot only to be met with a shock: the rows upon rows of barbecues I’d seen there just a few weeks ago had disappeared and been mysteriously replaced with ... fake Christmas trees and decorations. After I’d recovered and had gotten my too-hard-beating heart under control I stopped and took stock. After all, the time between when you see the first Home Depot Christmas tree of the season and when seasonal entertaining begins is not necessarily very long.

Upon my return home, I remembered the copy of The Entertaining Encyclopedia (Robert Rose) by Denise Vivaldo that I’d been perusing for the last few weeks. Suddenly its presence in my lair made sense.

Vivaldo is, after all, a sort of catering queen to the stars. Los Angeles-based, she’s catered the Academy Awards Governors Ball and she’s cooked for some of Hollywood’s top names. That being the case, it seems as though she’s a good person to look to advice for when it comes to holiday entertaining -- or any other kind, for that matter.

“It might sound too simple to be true,” she begins, “but the best way to ensure that your guests are having a great time is to have one yourself.” But it’s a big, fat book. Even in paperback. Loads of recipes, lots of advice: a lot of it, in the end, dedicated, to helping you be proficient enough with the idea of entertaining that you will have a good time, despite yourself.

The Entertaining Encyclopedia: Essential Tips and Recipes for Perfect Parties is a great primer on ... well, everything to do with entertaining. Identifying and choosing glassware. Stocking a bar. How to handle coffee service. How to garnish a plate. Choose a location. Get a hard-partying guest to leave when the party is over.

And then the food: which is fantastic. Even if you have no intention of ever hosting a party, you’ll find useful recipes here. Some very good versions of old standards -- chicken satay, cheese fondue, spare-ribs, barbecue sauce. Scones. Some sophisticated modern dishes and the thing that I found most arresting: Vivaldo’s casual approach to food. For example, an hors d’oeuvres party appears almost as magically as if it had been waved in by a wand. Several pages of elegant hors d’oeuvres that are so simple, they seem almost to make themselves. And hors d’oeuvres are, of course, just the very beginning. There are over 200 recipes in the book.

If you have questions about entertaining or planning a party, you’ll find sensible answers in Denise Vivaldo’s The Entertaining Encyclopedia.

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Children’s Books: Guinevere’s Gamble by Nancy McKenzie

The Arthurian legends have inspired countless tellings and retellings though few of those have been for children. Nancy McKenzie corrected that a couple of years ago with Guinevere’s Gift, intended to be the first book in the series she is calling the Chrysalis Quartet. Guinevere’s Gamble (Alfred A. Knopf) is the second book in that series.

The strong female heroine in this series is likely to make this a book favored by girls aged 10 to 14. As Booklist said, this series puts a “feminine spin on a tale more typically focused on men.” And though Guinevere’s Gamble is the second book in the series, you will understand what’s going on with no trouble if you’ve not yet read the first one.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Comedian Soupy Sales Dead at 83

The Rap Sheet reports that pie-throwing comedian Soupy Sales passed away yesterday:
Another character from my boyhood has passed on to that great entertainment venue in the sky: Milton Supman, better known as the “rubber-faced” comedian and TV personality Soupy Sales, has died at age 83 in New York City.
Sales was also the author of several books, including My Life & Zany Times and Stop Me If You Heard It, both from M. Evans & Company.

J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet reports on Sales’ passing here.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Biography: Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (McLelland & Stewart/W.W. Norton) is fantastic. As good or better than the most celebrated graphic novels that it will inevitably be compared to. Stitches is all the more compelling because it is not a novel at all. Rather, it is a graphic telling of author and illustrator David Small’s early life.

This is David through the Looking Glass as seen by David Lynch or perhaps Tim Burton, a dark and often disturbing graphic glimpse at a childhood that many of us might have thought was best left alone. Small takes us through the dark corridors of his childhood in Detroit in the 1950s, the son of a radiologist father whose constant x-raying ultimately gives the boy cancer. And things go downhill from there.

Stitches is a huge distance from the work Small is best known for. He has illustrated over 40 children’s books and won the most prestigious awards available to him in the process. It’s not hard to see why: Small is hugely talented and his understanding of visual storytelling is complete. Stitches is undoubtedly one of the best books of 2009.

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New This Month: The Midnight Guardian by Sarah Jane Stratford

On the off-chance that you’re not yet totally sick of vampires, debut novelist Sarah Jane Stratford serves up an interesting new take on the blood-sucking mythos. A sort of alternate history, with vampires, The Midnight Guardian (St. Martin’s Press) opens on Hitler’s Germany, right at the bloody center of the Second World War. By 1940, Hitler has managed to kill all the vampires in Europe and Britain’s vampires are outraged and incensed and determine to disrupt the Nazis from their course of destruction.

Stratford’s fiction clearly owes a debt to the most senior of vampire lore weavers: both Bram Stoker and Anne Rice though, certainly, her creations show little resemblance to the Twighlightish teens of recent efforts by others. This may be in part due her education: Stratford holds a Masters degree in medieval history from the University of York and the depth and clarity with which she approaches these aspects of her material really come through. You get the feeling that, in building her particular lore, Stratford is on very solid ground.

Stratford’s story is tight and she can certainly write but one just wonders if -- really? -- the world is ready for still more vampires after we’ve seen so very many. Still The Midnight Guardian is a worthwhile and in some ways thought-provoking book.

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New This Month: The Last Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger

Harlow Giles Unger is one of those authors with the talent and skill -- not to mention passion -- to breathe life into history. You don’t have to read very far in his 16th book, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness (Da Capo) to understand this:
The world was awash with war when James Monroe was born in the spring of 1758. A dozen nations were spilling the blood of millions across four continents, and the seas between them, in what was then called the “Great War for Empire.”
In The Last Founding Father, Unger builds a case for the importance of a vastly overlooked and underrated figure, America’s fifth President, James Monroe.
Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people as no president had done since Washington. The most beloved president after Washington, Monroe was the only president other than Washington to win reelection unopposed.
There’s more, of course. A lot more. Unger delivers his material on a wave of adventure and a compelling sense of importance. You won’t ever see the early history of America in quite the same way.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Non-fiction: Good Night & God Bless by Trish Clark

Despite the weird title and the seemingly off-the-wall premise, Good Night & God Bless (Hidden Spring) is a cool little book whose time has come.

As you will not have guessed from the aforementioned weird title, Good Night & God Bless is a guide to convent and monastery accommodation in Europe. While in some cases this also means spiritual retreat, it can also just mean inexpensive and interesting accommodation in some very unexpected places.

Produced in classic contemporary guidebook form, the entries are organized by country and city. Each entry offers some history of the property, amenities, cost, local sights and travel highlights. If budget travel is on your agenda, Good Night & God Bless will make a good addition to your travel planning package.

Volume one, available now, covers travel to Austria, the Czech republic and Italy. Volume two will cover the convents and monasteries of France, Ireland and the UK and will be available early in 2010.

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Cookbooks: Araxi by James Walt

There has never been a better time for a cookbook from and about Araxi, the well known restaurant at Whistler, British Columbia, established in 1981 and a local and even international favorite ever since.

A couple of things will be certain to fix the eyes of the world on Whistler for the next year or so. For starters, the portions of the 2010 Winter Olympics that demand snow will take place at Whistler, just a couple of hours by car from the host city of Vancouver.

From a foodie perspective, though, the patronage and smiling eye of famed chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay is more important still. Ramsay, who has not only called Araxi the best restaurant in Canada, has also been named as the reward for the current season of Hell’s Kitchen, the US-based reality series that sees Ramsay harassing a clutch of would-be chefs. The winner will be created head chef at Araxi under executive chef James Walt.

While the flood of interest from various angles might cause a happy bounce in Araxi’s bottom line, I suspect that none of these shenanigans will effect the food served at the restaurant in a negative way. Araxi has been a long-time favorite of mine. Like a lot of people, I love Araxi for all the things it is. World class food in a stunning location. In my memory, the menu has always been reflective of the seasons and the locale and some of the meals I’ve enjoyed there number among the most memorable of my life: beautiful food, beautifully presented and evocative of the season in which the meal was consumed.

Naturally, then, I met the announcement of an Araxi cookbook with some excitement. Though Araxi (Douglas & McIntyre) is not quite what I expected, it’s certainly not been a disappointment. The introduction might be interesting to those who are unfamiliar with either Whistler or Araxi, but no one who has eaten at the restaurant will need to be told about Chef James Walt’s locavore leanings or how well the cellar has been built and maintained. Moody black and white photos set the tone. Chef pensive, then laughing. Sparkling glassware. Artistically arranged corks. They’re good photos but, by this point, we’ve seen it all before.

The business part of Araxi is divided into three seasons: Summer, Harvest and Winter. Each of these seasonal sections offers its own introduction (more moody black and white images) and its own detailed table of contents. And then, finally, we begin.

Some of the recipes are dead simple -- Butternut Squash Soup with Pumpkin Seed Oil; Chilled English Pea and Mint Soup. Some would require all the attention of a home chef with moderate kitchen skill -- Herb-crusted Halibut with Pea Purée and Coriander Vinaigrette; Loin of Lamb with Summer Squash and Sweet Peppers. And a good many seem to be intended for the accomplished home chef to spend hours slaving over lovingly -- Saddle of Rabbit with Buttered Noodles, Carrots and Mustard Sauce; Black Forest Cake with Brandied-Cherry Ice Cream.

Stunningly photographed, well-designed, produced and even printed, I think Araxi is also meant to be one of those cookbooks you moon over and, certainly, if you’re the type who does like to do that sort of cookbook dreaming, you could not pick one better. From beginning to end, a terrific job has been done on Araxi. It’s the perfect two-dimensional representation of a truly great restaurant.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Today: Look At the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

When Look at the Birdie (Delacorte) crossed my desk, my breath caught in my throat, my heart skipped a beat, my hand reached out. I’m betting that, no matter what the popular consensus gets to be, that will be the book buying public’s reaction. New fiction by Kurt Vonnegut? Where do I sign?

Vonnegut, who died early in 2007 at the age of 84, left behind an astonishing body of work, including some of the English language’s most important novels. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and 17 others.

Look at the Birdie is subtitled “Unpublished Stories.” Although this is clearly an error (they’re published now, aren’t they?) it’s possible the author never intended them to be. In a foreword to the book, Vonnegut’s friend and confidant, the author and editor Sidney Offit, writes:
Unpublished is not a word we identity with a Kurt Vonnegut short story. It may well be that these stories didn’t appear in print because for one reason or another they didn’t satisfy Kurt. He rewrote and rewrote, as his son, Mark, as well as agents and editors testify. Although Kurt’s style may seem casual and spontaneous, he was a master craftsman, demanding of himself perfection of the story, the sentence, the word.
The stories might not have satisfied Vonnegut, but fans won’t be disappointed. This is vintage Vonnegut, 14 early stories that reflect the author -- and the world -- as they were.

New This Month: When Autumn Leaves by Amy S. Foster

You might not have heard her name before but, chances are, you’ve heard her words. Amy S. Foster has written lyrics for Josh Groban, Diana Krall, Eric Benet, Michael Bublé, Destiny’s Child and Andrea Bocelli. Even with that kind of star power and international coverage, When Autumn Leaves (Overlook Press) is Foster’s debut novel.

The magic in When Autumn Leaves is sweet and charming. Even, in an odd way, calming. The book takes place in a tiny Pacific Coast hamlet called Avening, where there is magic in the every day.

When Autumn Leaves
is a gentle, intelligent book. Foster’s premise here provides opportunity for escape, but her lovely prose brings it right home. A lyricist’s touch, a poet’s heart and the gift for helping us delve into our own personal magic.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Biography: After the Falls by Catherine Gildiner

Ten years after the publication of Too Close to the Falls, the critically acclaimed biography of growing up Gildiner in Lewiston, New York, clinical psychologist -- and sometime writer -- Catherine Gildiner brings us another chunk of her life in After the Falls (Knopf Canada). This time out Gildiner explores her precocious coming-of-age in the 1960s.

Pretty much as After the Falls opens, Gildiner bridges her old life with the one that’s about to begin:
As the car chugged toward the top of the escarpment, I, like Lot’s wife, looked back at the town below me. I had no idea then that I was leaving behind the least-troubled years of my life. Strange, since I felt there was no way I could cause more trouble than I had in Lewiston.
On the surface of things, there’s not much here. Let’s face it: book one dealt with the childhood years of a non-celebrity. Someone who most of us probably would not be that interested in knowing more about. Book two deals with the same person’s teenage years. And a third book (one can only imagine the Falls allusions) is currently under Gildiner’s pen. But Gildiner’s successful telling of these tales is as much about her perspective as it is about her experience. That, of course, and charm. Is there sometimes too much charm? Maybe just a little. But she is an ordinary person doing -- mostly -- fairly ordinary things, but relating them in an extraordinarily skillful way. In the end, I think, she entertains us by reminding of us our own specialness. A fantastic gift.

Film rights have been optioned.

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The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

No one reading this lives under a rock, so I won't insult you by announcing that Dan Brown has a new book out. Heck, by now you’ve either read the book or a few of the reviews. So why am I bothering to review a book that you’ve either read by now or, if not, have little interest in reading? I suppose because, having read the book and some of the reviews myself, I’m starting to wonder if some of the reviewers actually read the same book I did.

Look, I thought The Lost Symbol (Doubleday) was really good. But it's not another Da Vinci Code, and it’s not the second coming of the genuinely brilliant and innovative Angels & Demons. It’s probably somewhere in between, if you want to know the truth. There’s no question Dan Brown can write, although his pace sometimes feels more like a rocketing roller coaster than a novel, and his characters, well, they’re sketched more than written. And I have to say, the man loves his italics, which he seems to think is an acceptable form of punctuation.

As I sit here, thinking about The Lost Symbol, this is what pops into mind: There’s this joke about some guy who says, “I was thinking in my head the other day...” blah blah blah. My kids always laugh at that -- because where else would the guy think but in his head? And there was a TV ad for Cadillac a few years back in which the announcer said something like, “This new Cadillac is longer in length than ever before.” I thought then (and still do), longer in length? As opposed to what? Longer in color?

I mention these because they illustrate the level of The Lost Symbol. The book feels, oh, it feels like we’ve all been here before. It feels so logical (in the Brownian world, at least) that it borders on the obvious. Ancient symbols. Langdon in his dependable tweed jacket, thrust into a situation he doesn’t understand. Clues that should be clear to him from the moment he sets eyes on them, except if he did there’d be no suspense (and thus, demanding that we suspend our disbelief from a much higher hook). Skeptics galore and faux bad guys. A couple of sacrificial lambs. And the inevitable, beautiful, and brainy girl whose life’s work is somehow threatened by the villain, who in this case isn’t quite a religious freak but whose freakiness is almost a religion to him. Except that Judeo-Christian artifacts and dark rituals are switched out for American-slash-Masonic ones, it’s all so damn familiar.

I can’t say I didn't enjoy The Lost Symbol. I got on the ride, I bought into the whole thing, I had a good time, and when it was over, it was very, very over. But can I ask -- and no one has, to my knowledge -- why Brown felt the need to add the ridiculous plot twist? I won’t spoil it for those two or three of you who haven’t read the thing. But my God, Dan! You had the book chugging along at a pretty good clip, and then you toss in that bit about -- well, you know -- the thing about the victim and the villain’s shared past -- and it was like you kicked me square in the pants and hurled me off the train. What gives? Let me tell you a truth your editor was afraid to: You absolutely did not need that bit. And I'll tell you something else: Your book would’ve been a lot smarter if you’d found another way to link them -- or just forgot about linking them altogether.

Here’s the thing about books like The Lost Symbol (and then I’ll shut up). You can’t argue with its sales. But in the end, it’s not really The Lost Symbol that anyone’s buying. What they’re buying is The Next Book From That Da Vinci Code Guy. The sales, in this case, have nothing to do with this book. I mean, Brown could have written a romance novel and sold a million copies the first day.

Come to think of it, maybe Brown should try that next time. Then, at least, the ride would be one we haven’t taken before.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

No Mystery About Bouchercon 2009’s Excellence

Bouchercon, the 40th World Mystery Convention, is now winding down in Indianapolis, Indiana. Among the very best coverage coming out of Indianapolis this weekend has been from January Magazine’s sister publication, the crime-fiction-dedicated Rap Sheet.

The Rap Sheet team has been delivering amazing coverage from the event, including results from the awards handed out there, various news items and even some fantastic interviews. Thanks to the magic of labels, you can see it all here.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Please Don’t Shoot the Pianist

According to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, today would have been author and playwright Oscar Wilde’s 155th birthday.
His mom wrote Irish Nationalist poetry under an Italian pseudonym meaning “Hope,” and his dad was a prestigious ear and eye surgeon who served Dublin’s poor population. Oscar Wilde studied classics at Trinity College Dublin and got a scholarship to Oxford, where he became involved in the Aesthetic Movement. He grew his hair long and dressed unconventionally. He displayed peacock feathers and sunflowers in his dorm room. He professed a belief in art for art's sake. And he began to say a lot of witty things.
Among the witty Wildeisms that Writer’s Almanac shares, is an incident from his great North American tour of 1882:
Twenty-seven-year-old Oscar Wilde arrived in New York in January 1882. He went to Pennsylvania, where he drank elderberry wine with Walt Whitman. He lectured to coal miners in Leadville, Colorado, where he saw a sign on a saloon that said, “Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best,” and called it “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.”
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30th 1900.

Children’s Books: Smudge’s Mark by Claudia Osmond

From the outset, Smudge’s Mark (Simply Read Books) is dense and meandering and at first seems quite incomprehensible. And I couldn’t put it down. If you think those things don’t seem to go together, welcome to the club and read on. I’m still not sure I understand how it happened, but I do know I’d read another book by this author.

One of the most powerful things about Smudge’s Mark is the strong and personable voice of the narrator, Simon, a.k.a. Smudge. “My grandpa was a wicked prankster,” Osmond-as-Simon begins. “Usually after working the part-time midnight shift at the mushroom farm, he’d make his way home to 49 Stone Elements Drive in the darkness of the early morning.” And the correct response would seem to be: who cares? At this point -- the beginning -- Osmond has seemingly done nothing to insure we care at all. And yet, oddly enough, we do. It is as though, with those first simple words, Simon waltzes into our lives as though he hasn’t a care in the world. And then, layer upon layer, we learn of all the dark places: all the things that are at stake and by then we realize that while we weren’t paying attention, Osmond has somehow -- magically? -- made us care.

Smudge’s Mark is, in its own strange way, a very good book. At story’s beginning, we meet Simon in a moment of quiet, almost introspection. By journey’s end, Simon has more or less preserved life as he knows it as well as Emogen, a hidden realm with a strong connection to Earth.

Smudge’s Mark is intended for older children -- what the industry likes to call young adults -- but I suspect it will find its place with the nine-to-twelve-year-old set. The book does not try to be either Harry Potter or Coraline, but young readers who enjoyed those books are likely to respond to elements of Osmond’s debut novel.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Criminal Minds Descend Upon Indy

Bouchercon, the 40th World Mystery Convention, kicked off earlier today in Indianapolis, Indiana. And already it’s producing headlines, mostly in the form of award winners. Our sister site, The Rap Sheet, has a complete rundown of the victors and the vanquished so far. Among the happy crime fictionists this evening are Deborah Crombie (Where Memories Lie), Arnaldur Indridason (The Draining Lake), Tom Rob Smith (Child 44), Julie Hyzy (State of the Onion), and James O. Born (who walked away with the Barry Award for Best Short Story).

On Friday night, during a banquet at The Slippery Noodle bar, the Private Eye Writers of America will hand out its Shamus Awards (nominees here), while the grand announcement of this year’s Anthony Awards is to be made on Saturday afternoon (with a list of the contenders to be found here.)

Stay tuned to The Rap Sheet for further Bouchercon coverage.



There is simply not enough time to report fully on the all the stories that catch our eye and float by our desks. However, we do manage to comment on a fair amount of those stories in our microblogging presence on Twitter. (Don’t let anyone steer you wrong: it’s a lot easier and faster to write a 140 character story than a real one.)

Here, then, are some of the things we’ve reported on Twitter over the last few days:

Awards, awards and then some awards: The shortlists for both the National Book Awards and the Governor Generals Awards were announced yesterday. Some surprises on both lists. And what does it all mean? Big book party time is approaching fast and furious.

The 10 Coolest Bookstores in the United States. (I’d love to see someone do lists like this for Canada, the U.K. and Australia. Any takers?) The U.S. list is here.

Here’s something not intended for your Kindle: The fur-covered edition of Dave Egger’s The Wild Things (McSweeney’s Books). The movie tie-in edition is based loosely on the book by Maurice Sendak and the screenplay co-written with Spike Jonze.

Passages: Anne Friedberg and Stuart M. Kaminsky.

National Post Books reviews Egg on Mao (Random House) by Denise Chong. We just love the title.

Lonely Planet ramps up Digital Strategy.

Though it’s yet another round-up of “links around the Web,” we could not resist this title: “Bookmarks: Terminatrix Palin, Wild Things art, and the interactive Proust questionnaire.” Quill & Quire wins our come-on-title-of-the-week award. (Did you even know we had such a thing? Me neither.)

Boing Boing brings word of this Reading Radar API mashup that adds Amazon-easy information to the New York Times’ bestseller list. Oddly useful, right? It’s here.

Kinda Boing Boing related, but not really: the delicious Cory Doctorow blows his top. “The author, activist and co-editor of the influential Boing-Boing blog,” said the Bookseller, “urged TOC delegates to ‘restore ownership to books’ and blasted publishers and rightsholders who continue to apply DRM to their content.” Go, Cory!

Bookselling megastar Colm Toibin has launched a new imprint, Tuskar Rock, with fabled agent Peter Straus.

Crazy insane beautiful 43 seconds of pure Pop. Works with all music. A complete brain snack,” from the wonderful @DougCoupland. January’s 2001 interview with Coupland is here.

Ken Bruen has been awarded the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière 2009 for Priest.

Emily Flake sends dispatches from the Small Press Expo in Maryland.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Biography: Imagine: A Vagabond Story by Grant Lingel

In 2005, not many credits shy of a college degree, Western New York student Grant Lingel knew he wanted something else.

“Nothing made me different than most people at twenty-two,” Lingel writes in Imagine: A Vagabond Story (Langdon Street Press). “I was broke, scared, clueless, and annoyed. College debt was up to my ears, and there was no clear direction down any particular path.” When a path didn’t present itself, he bought a one-way ticket to Mexico and, with $300 in his pocket, he left his life behind, trading in the safety of the life his middle class white American upbringing had assured him for a sea of question marks in parts unknown.

Lingel is no Kerouac and Imagine is certainly no On the Road but Lingel’s earnest ramblings have a certain youthful appeal. It’s good to know, too, that the more things change, the more they stay the same and even children of the high tech age (Lingel was born in 1983) can be called beyond the safety of their laptops, PDAs and entertainment consoles.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fiction: Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

First of all, as near as I can tell, the title of Thomas Trofimuk’s latest novel has nothing at all to do with the 1978 album by Little Feat. It’s also a bit of a red herring. The main character in this novel set in a contemporary mental institution in Spain isn’t actually waiting: he thinks he is the explorer, inexplicably come to ground just at what he seems to feel is the worst possible time.

Waiting for Columbus (Doubleday/McLelland & Stewart) is told from three clear perspectives: the man who is not Columbus himself, comfortable with his delusion if not always his incarceration; his nurse, Consuela, who against her better judgment finds herself romantically drawn to her unusual patient; and Emile Germain, a French Interpol officer on the trail of an elusive prey. His path leads to Spain where Emile finds a mystery larger than the one he anticipated.

This is Trofimuk’s third novel after The 52nd Poem and Doubting Yourself to the Bone. All three have been memorable and quite worthy of the deep notice and attention they’ve been paid. Trofimuk is a writer worth watching, he has a delicate touch and a lot to say.

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Excerpt: The Michael Jackson Tapes by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

In 2000–2001, Michael Jackson sat down with his close friend and spiritual guide, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, to record what turned out to be the most intimate and revealing conversations of his life. It was Michael’s wish to bare his soul and unburden himself to a public that he knew was deeply suspicious of him. The resulting thirty hours are the basis of The Michael Jackson Tapes, recently published by Vanguard Press. From the book:
“I am scared of my father to this day. My father walked in the room -- and God knows I am telling the truth -- I have fainted in his presence many times. I have fainted once to be honest. I have thrown up in his presence because when he comes in the room and this aura comes and my stomach starts hurting and I know I am in trouble. He is so different now. Time and age has changed him and he sees his grandchildren and he wants to be a better father. It is almost like the ship has sailed its course and it is so hard for me to accept this other guy that is not the guy I was raised with. I just wished he had learned that earlier.”
The full excerpt is here.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Non-Fiction: The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights by Ingrid Newkirk

The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights (St. Martin’s Griffin) is a smart and compassionate new book from PETA founder and president Ingrid Newkirk. Despite the organization’s reputation for zero compromise, here at least Newkirk comes across as lucid and helpful, truly delivering on the title’s promise of a “Practical Guide” with tips, points and even instructions on how to make kind choices in a complicated world. From the book:
The beautiful thing is that activism is easy and takes as many forms as there are drops of water in a river. It can be quiet, practical, and incorporate seamlessly into our lives. Or it can be exciting, avant-garde, and even raucous. It takes all kinds of people and all kinds of actions to get the job done. All that matters is that if enough of us do something, then all the bits and pieces will come together to make one glorious success story.
On the road to that success, Newkirk delivers a road map to help would be activists find their own way to bringing change into their own lives as well as those of the animals with which we share the world. Newkirk’s book is a compelling blend of touching stories and rock solid how-to advice. Considering the miles this author has put into the trenches, her passion and expertise, it’s difficult to imagine anyone better placed to write this book. It’s an interesting and useful book on this difficult topic.


Stuart M. Kaminsky Dies at 75

We were saddened to read of the passing of noted mystery author Stuart M. Kaminsky last Friday. On The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce who interviewed Kaminsky for January Magazine back in 2002, had this to say:
“A very warm, witty, wonderful guy, and a terrific writer” is how fellow author Max Allan Collins remembers Kaminsky. I shan’t disagree. Although I never actually met Kaminsky, I had many opportunities to communicate with him via letters and e-mail, not only in association with that long-ago January Magazine exchange, but also having to do with an earlier profile I did of Toby Peters for Stephen Smoke’s now-forgotten Mystery Magazine and requests for comments on a number of subjects (including “overlooked ... or underappreciated” crime novels). He was never less than generous with his time and expertise in this field.

I think I’ve read all but a small handful of Kaminsky’s novels. He was a confident, comfortable stylist with a taste for quirky and humorous, but never less than believable characters, people revealed by their responses to challenging circumstances. I looked forward to reading each new book born of Kaminsky’s imagination. I can now look forward only to re-reading them in his profound absence.
Pierce’s lengthy tribute -- with many appropriate links -- is here. January’s interview with Kaminsky is here.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cookbooks: Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source and How It All Vegan

If the idea of green food appeals, then Clean Food (Sterling Epicure) may well be for you.

Author Terry Walters is a certified holistic health counselor and it shows. Clean Food is a gorgeous book, beautifully produced and while it is long on intent and sustainability, the recipes are more serviceable than inspired. In truth, though, and considering the thrust, for this particular book, that may be enough.

At one point Walters writes that “a perfect diet alone will not fully nourish us. What we need is connection -- to our bodies, hearts and spirits, to our families, to community, to the environment, the land, the season and to a purpose.”

This spirit is echoed throughout the book, which is long on recipes that will help round out the repertoire of someone just begin to play with the idea of a vegan diet or who wants to add a few vegan and veganish dishes to their old standbys.

What Clean Food lacks in flights of foodie fancy it makes up for in sheer volume. As the subtitle says: “With More Than 200 Recipes for a Healthy and Sustainable You.” There are many options here and a lot of the bases are covered and covered well.

For pure and joyous vegan inspiration, try the tenth anniversary edition of How It All Vegan (Arsenal Pulp Press) by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer. Since the publication of the first edition in 1999, How It All Vegan has won numerous awards, inspired several sequels and been reprinted 14 times. This edition includes new recipes and, perhaps more importantly, has been updated to reflect a way of eating that has moved more firmly into the mainstream over the past decade.

As the title implies, How It All Vegan is a celebration of the vegan way of life. “Healthy lifestyles should begin by making conscious decisions about the food we eat and things we do to make it a better world.” For all of that, though, the recipes are great: easy-to-follow and potentially life-changing.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

New This Month: American Fantastic Tales edited by Peter Straub

If you were to make a list of experts to choose the very best of contemporary literature of the fantastic, Peter Straub’s name would certainly be very near the top. The author of 18 novels, if you’ve read any horror fiction at all over the last three decades, you know his name. That being the case, you simply could not ask for a better editor for The Library of America’s two volume American Fantastic Tales.

Straub knows this arena, from every angle. He knows the stars and he knows a good story when he reads one. Maybe better still, he’s not shy about sharing his finds. The collections resulting from this passionate and caring expertise are… well… fantastic.

In both Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now and Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, we encounter the work of a breathtaking number of writers. The heavy hitters are here -- Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Anthony Boucher, Shirley Jackson, Michael Chabon -- as well as some unexpected names known for other types of fiction -- Truman Capote, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton. And between these stories from authors with household names come glittering offerings from writers who really should be better known.

In this regard -- perhaps in every regard -- American Fantastic Tales is a perfect collection. Pushing at the boundaries of genre; embracing it where appropriate and -- in the act of all of that -- defining it in a way. As Straub himself says in his introduction to American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now:
When thought of, in really the simplest manner possible, as an alternative to straightforward realism, the fantastic can immediately be seen to offer writers of fiction another toolbox, another set of instruments available for the depiction of human beings in interesting and revelatory situations. Or, take of those glasses and put on these glasses: see how different everything looks? The landscape instantly becomes craggier, the shadows deeper, the buildings more eccentric and Gaudiesque. At its core, I think, the fantastic is a way of seeing.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

New in Paperback: The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley

The Right Mistake (Basic Civitas) begins:
“Yeah, brothah,” Billy Psalms said before he downed half a paper cup of Blue Angel red wine, “Freddy Bumpus made a big mistake when he married Vanessa Tremont.”

“Vanessa Tremont.” Martin Orr repeated the words lustfully, licking his lips and
moving his head to silent music.

The other men sitting around Socrates’ card table nodded and raised their paper cups in a toast.
Whether you love or hate Walter Mosley’s work (and these days it seems, there are more people who love it than those who do not) you have to admit: the man knows just how to plop you right into the middle of a scene. It’s one of the enjoyable things about just about any Mosley book. His characters are never wooden. They race across the page. They live, they breathe. And, sometimes, they die.

Fewer people die in The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow than in some other Mosley novels. That might even be why this book has not received the attention that’s been given to other recent releases by this author. It’s a thoughtful book, in many ways, focused as it is on a group that Socrates and his friend, Billy Psalms, put together and call the “Thinkers Club.” Made up of people from many walks, together they ponder life’s big questions and Socrates -- ever the philosopher -- encourages the Thinkers to look closely at issues of personal and social responsibility as they bring change to the world and themselves.

I know, right? Not the stuff of which bestsellers are made. And yet, The Right Mistake is thought-provoking fiction. Even, sometimes, compelling.

“In the face of gangs, drugs, poverty and racism,” Publishers Weekly wrote in a starred review, “Mosley poses the deceptively simple question -- ‘What can I do?’ -- and provides a powerful and moving answer.”

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Art & Culture: Page Fright by Harry Bruce

Readers are more interested in process than product we’re told be author Harry Bruce in his vastly entertaining new work, Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers (Douglas Gibson Books). Says Bruce:
But process, which is what this book is all about, includes not only tools but the rooms in which writers work; the number of hours, in each day or night, that they imprison themselves in those rooms; and the number of words, in each day or night, that they’ve sworn to write…. Indeed, process is everything that creative writers do to make themselves as receptive as they possibly can to what so many of them see as dictation from a forever-unknowable source.
Bruce’s strong interest in the process of making books has led to him collecting the anecdotes that contribute to Page Fright throughout his 50 year career as an author and journalist. Burce tells us that Susan Sontag wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads as do Nelson DeMille, Jim Harrison, Beverly Cleary, Toni Morrison and Wendell Barry.

Yellow legal pads had not been invented when Alexandre Dumas did his writing, but the poet and author still used yellow, though only for his poetry. Dumas wrote his non-fiction on rose-colored paper and his novels on blue. And as silly as that sounds from this distance, it probably made it easier to find what you were looking for in his office.

“Nabokov and Saul Bellow liked to soak themselves in bathtubs,” writes Bruce. (Though probably not at the same time.) Nor were they the only water babies in this crowd. Bruce includes a quote from Diane Ackerman, who does it up right:
I have a pine plank that I lay across the sides of the tub so that I can stay in a bubble bath for hours and write. In the bath, water displaces much of your weight and you feel light. When the water temperature and the body temperature converge, my mind lifts free and travels by itself.
Since Ackerman is best known as the author of 1990’s A Natural History of the Senses, all of this sort of makes sense.

Page Fright is fantastic. Writers and would-be authors will find inspiration here. And anyone who loves books will find facts worth collecting and smiles that can’t be resisted. It’s a great book.

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Party Over Poe’s Passing

Nine months ago we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth in Boston, Massachusetts. Today marks 160 years since that author’s mysterious demise in Baltimore, Maryland.

In commemoration (and perhaps also to firm up Baltimore’s claim to Poe’s legacy, which has been disputed by Philadelphia in the recent past), the city has scheduled a series of appropriately eerie events honoring the great man’s passing. Today, from noon to 11 p.m., the public is invited to an open-casket viewing of “Poe’s body” at the Baltimore Poe House and Museum. At midnight begins an all-night vigil at downtown’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, where the author’s grave can be found. (A photograph of yours truly and January Magazine editor Linda L. Richards at the gravesite, taken during last year’s Bouchercon in Baltimore, is available here.) And this coming Sunday, October 11, beginning at approximately 11:30 a.m., a funeral procession will transport “Poe’s casket” through the city streets from the museum to the burial ground. “There,” reports The Baltimore Sun, “actor John Astin will serve as host for a memorial service featuring eulogies from a host of Poe fans.” While no big deal was made of Poe’s interment 160 years ago, this time multitudinous well-wishers -- including performers dressed as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, and Alfred Hitchcock--will be on hand to usher Poe off to the Great Beyond. Tickets for this event go for $35 in advance and $40 at the door; seating is limited.

On top of all this, the Baltimore Museum of Art has mounted a presentation titled “Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon.” Explains the museum’s Web site: “This dramatic exhibition brings together 80 prints, drawings, and illustrated books drawn largely from the BMA’s distinguished collection. These rarely shown works of art explore the enduring legacy of Poe’s uniquely dark fiction through the themes of Love & Loss, Fear & Terror, and Madness & Obsession. See how ‘The Raven,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Tell-tale Heart,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ and other Poe classics inspired some of the greatest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

For a complete listing of Baltimore’s Poe-related events, click here.

New Last Week: John Dies at the End by David Wong

At a time when many writers are pushing at the edges of the novel, trying to redefine what the word means and what it is, David Wong sort of does. This comes in part from the publication history of his first novel, John Dies at the End (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne), one of those weird Internet success stories you hear about. In fact, this might be one of the best yet.

John Dies at the End started out as a Web serial in 2004. The story appeared in book form for the first time in 2007, as a paperback from “Horror and Apocalyptic Book Publisher” Permuted Press, an independent publisher whose area of specialization you can pretty well guess at. John Dies at the End would have fit right in with their line.

The action in John Dies at the End all centers around soy sauce, a mysterious and fairly unstable drug that alters not only the mind, it seems to have an effect on time and eventually opens a portal to a pretty hell-like place. After you take it, Wong tells us, “You might be able to read minds, make time stop, cook pasta that’s exactly right every time. And you can see the shadowy things that share this world, the ones who are always present and always hidden.”

The story is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the author who actually isn’t David Wong, but says he is throughout the novel. In real life (and it’s not even a secret) he is National Lampoon contributor and editor-in chief Jason Pargin. That CV might make you think that John Dies at the End is hilariously funny. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s deeply disturbing and even horrifying. And then it’s funny again. In between there are some starkly -- and even surprisingly -- human moments. And all of that sounds like too much for one little debut novel to hold up under, but wait: this is a book that reportedly had over 70,000 downloads when it was free on the Internet. Since it was free, you might think “big deal,” but think again: try to give away 70,000 of anything on the Internet. I promise: it won’t be as easy as it sounds.

And so, is John Dies at the End high art? Not exactly. Or maybe, not even. But it’s interesting, compelling, engaging, arresting and -- yes -- sometimes even horrifying. And when it’s not being any of those things, it’s funny. Very, very funny. Next stop for David Wong (or maybe he’ll be back to being Jason Pargin by then), who knows? But, whatever it is, I feel very confident that a lot of people are already waiting to see what he dreams up next.

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Cookbooks: The New Thanksgiving Table by Diane Morgan

Over the years, we’ve reviewed a number of Diane Morgan’s excellent cookbooks at January Magazine. And, in general, we like them quite a lot. Morgan’s approach to food is sensible. Though she stays aware of trends and her food is always modern, there is nothing of faddishness about a Morgan cookbook.

All of these things can also be said of The New Thanksgiving Table (Chronicle Books), the latest addition to the Morgan oeuvre. If I have a single quibble, it’s that the title is a bit misleading. One arrives expecting Thanksgiving-specific recipes. And while those are all there -- and then some -- there is so much more here, as well.

I’ll tell you what I mean. Of course there is turkey. And turkey. And then turkey. In fact, aside from basic turkey know-how (buying, defrosting, brining) Morgan has included eight ways to cook a turkey, including the very trendy -- and perhaps even slightly faddish -- Spatchcocked turkey. Some of the eight would seem to have a broader appeal than others. Perhaps that’s to be expected? But while I have no trouble at all imagining hordes of home chefs settling in to prepare Herb Butter-Rubbed Turkey with Giblet Gravy, thinking about the Roast Turkey with Vidalia Cream Gravy makes me feel a little queasy.

As impressive as a book with eight (eight!) turkey recipes might sound, to my mind, the most significant recipes in The New Thanksgiving Table would seem to me to have very little to do with Thanksgiving at all. Crostini with Fig and Calamata Olive Tapenade. Tex-Mex Honey Pecans. Sizzlin’ Corn and Jalapeño Bread with Bacon. Oyster Stew. Roasted Chestnut Soup. Forget Thanksgiving. In some ways, Morgan’s new book is autumn delivered straight to the table. Which is not a bad place to be come Thanksgiving.

The New Thanksgiving Table is another winner for Morgan.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Giller Prize Shortlist Announced

In our excitement in reporting on the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Award earlier today, we neglected to report the Giller Awards shortlist, announced even earlier. Quill & Quire sets us straight:
The Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was announced this morning, and it included a mix of “sure bets” and surprise nods. The biggest surprise, however, was the omission of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (McClelland & Stewart), which was widely considered the frontrunner going into the announcement.
The five shortlisted titles are:
  • Kim Echlin, The Disappeared (Penguin Canada)
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (Random House Canada)
  • Linden MacIntyre, The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada)
  • Colin McAdam, Fall (Penguin Canada)
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
The Scotiabank Giller Prize is Canada’s richest literary award. The winner will be announced in Toronto at a nationally televised gala on November 10.


Mantel’s Wolf Hall Wins 2009 Man Booker

Hilary Mantel’s historical novel set in 16th-century Britain has won the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate) is the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the Tudor court. The book has also been the bookies’ favorite since the announcement of the Man Booker longlist back in July. The longlist was reduced to a shortlist in September.

The Man Booker Web site points out that this is the first time a book published by Fourth Estate has won the Man Booker, although three of its books have previously been shortlisted: Nicola Barker’s Darkmans in 2007; and two from Carol Shields, Unless in 2002 and The Stone Diaries in 1993.

Here are the other books shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Award:
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (Random House, Chatto and Windus)
  • Summertime by J.M. Coetzee (Random House, Harvill Secker)
  • The Quickening Maze by Adam Fould (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
  • The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown, Virago)


New in Paperback: 2666 by Robert Bolaño

The book so many media outlets called the literary sensation of 2008 is likely to be one of the most awaited paperback publications of 2009.

2666 (Picador) was the book that occupied -- some have said preoccupied -- the last five years of Robert Bolaño’s life. Initially published in Spain to wide acclaim the year after the author’s 2003 death, the American edition -- translated by Natasha Wimmer -- brought the literary world to its knees. 2666 won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Translation Prize and was a New York Times bestseller. “A masterpiece,” raved Time. “Strange and marvelous and impossibly funny,” said the Los Angeles Times, while Slate said 2666 had “the confident strangeness of a masterpiece.”

A philosopher, a reporter, an author and a detective take on the mysterious disappearance of many woman over the course of many years. That is, of course, condensing the nearly 1,000-page novel quite beyond where it can be compressed. Never mind: if you wanted to read 2666 last year but couldn’t face that big ol’ hardcover, think it over again now. The book is still almost impossibly intense, deliciously convoluted and starkly unreal, but in paper, it’s much, much easier to carry around.

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Non-Fiction: Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada by Stephen Schneider

On the world stage, Canada has a certain reputation. In general, Canadians are known to be quiet, self-effacing and the country itself is often seen as a vast, pastoral wasteland, but for the six months in winter when the country is covered in snow.

The reality, of course, is different. But just how different is it? Maybe we’ve never come closer to knowing than we can with Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada (Wiley).

Well-researched and skillfully put together, Iced is an even better book than one might at first think. Author Stephen Schneider is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Because of these deep and real creds, I anticipated that Iced would be dry and textbookish, an idea helped by the fact that publisher John Wiley & Sons does have a textbook division. But while I imagine Iced may well function in that capacity at some point, lay people with an interest in this topic will find much here to enjoy. It’s easy to feel confident that Schneider has done his homework, but he never leaves his reader feeling as though they’d just like their six hours back. This is no doubt due Schneider’s skill, but the material here is just terrific.

Though some aspects are well worn and widely known -- the role Canada played during the United States’ Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, for instance -- much, much more of this material will be unfamiliar to most Canadians. From pirates operating off Canada’s east coast in the 17th century, to the contemporary gang violence that over the last two decades has accelerated to its highest point in history.

All the way through there are interestingly told anecdotes and careful documentation and, especially in the case of contemporary incidents, well considered ideas on what should be done and what isn’t being done and what needs to be done if only certain politicians would rise off their hineys.

Iced is a very good book. Readers with an interest in these topics will find a great deal to enjoy here.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

New Last Week: The White Garden by Stephanie Barron

Stephanie Barron, Jane Austen mystery maven (Jane and the Barque of Frailty, Jane and the Ghosts of Netley), here turns her eye and heart to another well-loved English writer: Virginia Woolf.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virignia Woolf (Bantam) is a clever tapestry of past and present: think The Hours, but with a strong focus on the weeks between Woolf’s mysterious disappearance and the recovery of her body in the River Ouse.

Well-imagined and beautifully rendered, Barron’s nine Austen mysteries have all been bestsellers, but it’s difficult not to think this wonderful book steps things up.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Cookbooks: Slow Cooker Comfort Food and Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever

There’s certainly not much less cool than slow cooker cooking. A combination of things. First you start with the name. Crock pot. A brand name, sure, but one that’s stuck like a Xerox copy. Like Tampax. Like Coke. You show someone that deep, electric vessel -- especially if that someone is of a certain age -- and you can say “slow cooker” until your face is blue, but they’re gonna call it something else; that’s just how it will go.

“My concept of comfort food is warm and welcoming and provides a sense of sustenance,” writes Judith Finlayson in Slow Cooker Comfort Food (Robert Rose), “a kind of culinary haven in a heartless world.”

Finlayson is the slow cooker queen. She is the author of The Healthy Slow Cooker. 175 Essential Slow Cooker Classics, The 150 best Slow Cooker Recipes and others. Slow Cooker Comfort Food itself contains 275 “soul-satisfying recipes.” If it can be said about slow cooking, Finlayson has said it, maybe even a couple of times in different ways.

This latest book is large and friendly. A color guide on each page lets readers know if the recipe is “entertaining worthy,” “vegan friendly,” “vegetarian friendly” or suitable for halving. The type is large and the recipes are easy to follow. The food styling and photography is, unfortunately, not that great. In fact, some of this food looks awful: homogenous and bland in some places; too glossy and overly manipulated-looking in others. And while, yes: a lot of this food sounds comforting, some of it just has no business being done in a slow cooker. I don’t understand the sense of poaching quinces for eight hours when a similar effect could be accomplished in minutes -- and not a lot of them -- on top of the stove. Ditto all of the dips with shrimp and/or crab. Please: nothing with either of those delicate meats should be allowed anywhere near a slow cooker. Ever.

Many, many of these recipes, however, are of the type that slow cookers were intended for: the type of low maintenance, high return dishes working families most need. Just a few of these: Moroccan-Style Lemon Chicken with Olives; Simple Soy-Braised Chicken; Corned Beef and Cabbage; Old-Fashioned Beef Stew with Mushrooms; Pinto Bean Chili with Corn and Kale.

In Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever (Chronicle Books) veteran cookbook author Diane Phillips takes a different approach. “Whenever I look at my slow cooker,” Phillips writes, “I think of the lyrics to that old Sinatra standard, ‘I’m not much to look at, nothing to see,’ but upon closer inspection the slow cooker is like the girl in high school who everyone said had a nice personality.”

That said, Best Slow Cooker is by far the more attractive of this particular pair of books. The type is not as large, and the pages are not as shiny but the design is completely contemporary, as is the approach to recipe description. Instructions are not needlessly wordy. As a result, even complicated recipes appear more simple. That said, does anyone really need 400 slow cooker recipes? There are definitely some good ones here (I especially loved the Chicken, Artichoke, and Mushroom Casserole and the Pork Tenderloin Osso Bucco-Style is practically genius) but, as with Finlayson’s book, after a while it seems like a bit of a reach. An artichoke spinach dip that spends two to three hours in a slow cooker? Who would even want that? It just seems contrary to everything slow cookers excel at.

All of that said, if you have an interest in slow cooking or the kind of lifestyle that could benefit from this type of culinary intervention, either of these books would serve very well. Both books include many very good recipes along with the silly ones. And both books talk about slow cook rationale as well as why and how to do it. As well, both authors take a very different approach to their topics even if, in some ways, they end up at a similar place. In fact, the recipes are varied enough, if you’ve the means, you might reasonably opt not to make it a competition at all. Perhaps you don’t have to decide between them: in the end, you might decide you want both.

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Children’s Books: Time of Trial: Volume 4, The Laws of Magic by Michael Pryor

Time of Trial (Random House Australia) is the fourth of Michael Pryor’s delightful Laws of Magic series, set in an alternative Edwardian England.

Once again, Aubrey Fitzwilliam and his friends George and Caroline are needed to save the world, as one of the characters observes wryly in the novel. This time, after the usual opening scene of magical mayhem -- in this case, cloud ships attacking a university cricket game in which George and Aubrey are playing. It’s during a trip to Holmland (Germany in our universe) where Lady Rose, Aubrey’s mother, is speaking at a symposium.

But this is where the evil Dr. Tremaine, Aubrey’s nemesis, is living. He has influence in high places. Very high places. And then there are the golems, which are far from the lumpy clay things of folklore; you can make them very lifelike, so that it’s impossible to tell them from real people till they’re deactivated. Who can be trusted? Certainly not characters who can get sucked into telephones, as in one memorable scene.

Then there’s the pearl Aubrey took from Tremaine in the last novel -- what mystery does it hide? Our heroes are about to find out -- and they won’t like it.

It’s not all bad, though. Aubrey now has a Beccaria Cage, which reunites the body and soul he tore apart in a stupid experiment before the start of the first volume. If only it hasn’t been sabotaged ...

As always, the adventure tears along at a breakneck pace, and is very funny. It doesn’t let you go easily; there’s a twist near the end, just when you think the main story is over.

I found myself falling comfortably back into this universe, enjoying it as much as ever. It’s rarely that a series can continue for this many volumes without losing something, but though it will need to finish some time, at least for this story arc, The Laws Of Magic is one series that doesn’t go downhill.

I think the series will become a fantasy classic. Bring on Volume 5!

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

New Today: Almanac of the Infamous, the Incredible and the Ignored by Juanita Rose Violini

“Sometimes the world’s magic leaks out,” Juanita Rose Violini writes in her introduction to Almanac of the Infamous, the Incredible and the Ignored (Weiser Books). “Mystery does that; it can never be truly contained. Jagged cracks occasionally split the carefully laid constructs of our safe and predictable lives, and the unexplained tumbles forth into our awareness.”Link
If this is not something that you know for certain, it is something that you’ve always suspected: that the thing you look at isn’t always what you see.

That is the subtext -- always -- of Violini’s wonderful book, a work that is also an almanac in the proper sense of the word. Mysterious crystal skulls of unknown origin. Green children with inexplicable pasts. Phantom hitchhikers grabbing rides on the backs of passing motorcycles. Flakes of flesh that fall from the sky.

With skill, panache and a real sleuth's quest for the unknowable detail, in Almanac of the Infamous, the Incredible and the Ignored, Violini delivers a world most of us can't even begin to imagine. This is something quite beyond strange occurrences. Rather, Violini brings us a whole year’s worth of unexplained mysteries with which to confuse our staid little hearts: a new one, each and every day.

Be afraid! This one could change your life.