Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: And Then There’s This by Bill Wasik

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, contributing editor Caroline Cummins reviews And Then There’s This by Bill Wasik. Says Cummins:
Bill Wasik may be the smartest guy in the room, but that doesn't mean he’s bright. A senior editor at Harper’s magazine, Wasik is the latest to shove his way into the crowded room of brave-new-media-world soothsayers, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Internet pundits Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) and Chris Anderson (The Long Tail) as well as such here’s-how-the-world-really-works types as Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) and the Freakonomics guys (Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt).

What these authors -- all male, mostly white, and generally middle-aged -- share is the Secret of the Scam: I will reveal the hidden mysteries of the universe to you, but only if you buy my book first.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fantasy Author Robert Holdstock Dead at 61

Well known and loved fantasy author, Robert Holdstock died today. His Web site reports that he had been in intensive care since November 18th, when he collapsed due to an E. coli infection. From the Web site:
Rob was one of the best fantasy writers of his generation, and a man with a huge appetite for life. There was nothing he liked better than the company of good friends, a cracking meal, drink and laughter. His departure at only 61 years old is a tremendous loss.
Holdstock was first published when he was just 20. The short story, “Pauper’s Plot,” was published by New Worlds magazine. His first novel, Eye Among the Blind, was published in 1976. Though he created a large and critically acclaimed body of work throughout his career, he is best known for the Mythago Wood cycle of novels. The first book in the series, Mythago Wood, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1985. The most recent book in the Mythago Wood Cycle, Avilion, was published in July of this year.

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Fiction: The Last Woman by John Bemrose

Readers in the west will find the latest offering from a rising Canadian author nearly fatally flawed. John Bemrose’s The Last Woman (McClelland & Stewart) takes place in a rural area instantly recognizable to Torontonians and absolutely non-evocative of anything to just about anyone else. This is “cottage country,” this is the “north country,” and for those unfamiliar with it -- and based on Bemrose’s descriptions alone -- it may as well be the moon. The alienation begins at the very beginning:
The sun suffers through a cloudless sky. Week after week, it pulses from shoreline rock, floods the lake with glare. New reefs have surfaced -- sullen herds strewing the channels -- while in remote bays, floating carpets of lily and arrowhead have given way to flats of dried mud.
And if this is an area that is familiar to you, you might catch your heart at this description and say, “Oh! I remember.” It might take your breath away. It might take you back. But if this world is not familiar to you -- as it is not to most Canadians and, in fact, the rest of the world, it’s just a lot of blah, blah, blah, trying to be something evocative and beautiful but, in the end, it floats away lifelessly like a lily after the first frost.

Forgive me. It’s not that I mean to say that The Last Woman is not a beautiful, well-considered book. Like arts journalist Bemrose’s acclaimed debut novel, The Island Walkers, The Last Woman is, for the most part, stunning. We have a love triangle, some Native land issues and threats to the ecology. We have relationships that live and characters that sometimes almost breathe. But as much as I wanted to love The Last Woman, I felt alienated by it, even pushed away. Bemrose’s vision of the North Country is not inclusive and, in the end, I simply tired of trying to understand a club where I clearly have no place.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Crime Fiction: Peepshow by Leigh Redhead

Simone Kirsch gets naked for a living. As we learn in Leigh Redhead’s 2004 thriller, Peepshow (recently re-released by The Outfit), she works in Melbourne’s sex industry as a peepshow performer. Wanting something better, and knowing that strippers often have short careers, she’s earned her license as an “inquiry agent,” Australia’s term for private investigator.

Her first case?

Strip club owner Frank Parisi has been stabbed and dumped in the ocean. Sal Parisi wants someone to pay for his brother’s death. He picks Simone’s pal Chloe, since Chloe had a beef with Frank. Simone manages to talk Sal out of killing her best friend, but of course the trade-off is that now she has to find the real killer. Just to be sure he’ll get what he wants, Sal kidnaps Chloe as collateral. Simone begins her investigation by taking a job as a stripper at Frank’s club, the Red Room. Things soon turn ugly. She runs afoul of Dick Farquhar, a corrupt cop. She also manages to pick up a boyfriend with anger issues. From there, Simone engages in a cat-and-mouse game with Sal, Farquhar and possibly an unknown suspect. And she immerses herself in the stripper role, even indulging a coke habit she’d already worked so hard to kick.

Author Redhead draws on her own personal history to paint a vivid portrait of Melbourne’s seedier side. The city that tourists visit and in which ordinary office employees live isn’t so different from the Melbourne that sex workers inhabit. And making this clear is perhaps Redhead’s biggest accomplishment. The strippers and peepshow performers work in a business, and the city they live in isn’t some sort of alien landscape. The men in Peepshow tend to be a bit aggressive, often after only one thing. But then again, most sex workers, legal or otherwise, see only a single type of male in the course of their work -- denizens of a seedy underworld that Redhead shows us is only a few steps away from our own.

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Stephen King Announces Shining Sequel

I was a teenager the first time I read The Shining, Stephen King’s masterful story about madness and magic in a remote Colorado hotel.

Now before you pipe up with a comment, if your experience of The Shining comes from the film of the same title starring Jack Nicholson, just hold your horses. It’s the book we’re talking about here: the film was a different animal and, like many others, I think I would have liked the movie better if it had a different title. That movie didn’t have much to do with the book I loved. It was an interesting psychological portrait. Well acted, sure. But the story was a bit damp.

But the book? The book scared the hell out of me. I remember closing my eyes sometimes as I read it, as I would have in a film. It didn’t work, though. Close your eyes in a movie and the sound can fill in the blanks. With a book, though, the virtual reality disappears. If you want the story to continue, you have to open your eyes again. I was something like 17-years-old and in perfect health, but there were moments in that reading when I felt as though I might have a heart attack.

Now according to The Guardian, 30-some years after the first publication of The Shining, Stephen King has announced that a sequel might be in the works:
Speaking to an audience of fans in Toronto about his new novel Under the Dome, King divulged that he’d begun working on a tentative idea for a follow-up to The Shining -- first published in 1977 -- last summer.

Danny, he said, was certain to have been left “with a lifetime’s worth of emotional scars” after his experiences at the Overlook, where his father was possessed by the hotel, tried to kill him and his mother and eventually died.
Since I think it’s possible even I have scars from just reading the book (and I’ve never been able to look at a hedge maze in quite the same way) I’m sure Danny Torrance will have been scarred as well. It will be massively interesting to see how King handles this idea and how, also, he’s matured as a writer. He was terrific then, but he’s a master craftsman now.

Don’t get your hopes too far up, though: according to King, the Shining sequel is far from a done deal:

King attempted to calm expectations about the sequel, telling the Toronto audience that he wasn’t “completely committed” to it, and adding: “Maybe if I keep talking about it I won’t have to write it.”


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New This Month: A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

It was the cover that drew me in. A man standing at the edge of a vast sea. Waiting for something to come in? Watching as something disappears? Just staring? Walking into it? I didn’t know. I just knew that I’d been that man once or twice -- and that was enough.

A Friend of the Family (Algonquin), the spectacular new novel by Lauren Grodstein, is a play of intricacies. It’s a book about the details, and each of them rings as clearly as notes in a song. In fact, the novel feels more composed than written, its notes carefully woven through, each with its own tone and color.

There are times when Grodstein’s use of certain notes catches your breath; she’ll mention something in passing, some detail, then mention it again at the moment it will have massive impact, when they’ll bring fresh tension and new dimension to already tense scenes. She plants these moments quietly, with no foreshadowing; you only know they matter when they burst open later. Brilliant.

The novel’s protagonist, Pete Dizinoff, is a middle-aged doctor with a wife and a son. His life has all the normal beats. If it weren’t so ominous, it’d be blessedly boring. Pete and his wife have been best friends with the Sterns for years. Their kids grew up together as the two sets of parents grew older, into their middle age. They’ve expereinced their lives together, side-by-side, even weathering the catastrophe that befell the Sterns’ daughter Laura when she was a teenager.

Laura is several years older than Pete’s son, Alec -- and the novel’s action, tension, violence, and climax all hinge on the budding and unfortunate relationship that flowers between the two of them. Pete is worried -- well, a lot more than worried -- that Laura’s darkness will rub off on his son, just when his son is figuring out who he is. Pete spends much of the novel trying to make sense of a world that seems determined to undermine his family and his life.

Grodstein fills her novel with not only the complexities of family and long-standing friendships, but also with the tension that occurs between outer and inner dialogue. When two people speak with each other, we experience what they say, of course. But Grodstein adds another layer to many of these conversations. She lets us know what one of the characters is thinking; sometimes the thoughts comment on the conversation, sometimes they’re a daydream that has nothing to do with it, and sometimes there are tenuous links, as if the spoken word has inspired thought ... and vice versa. It’s an incredibly captivating and complex device, and so completely right for this book. Remarkable, the author juggles all of this with an expertise that other writers will envy. I sure did.

Each of Grodstein’s characters has a unique texture. Silk here, sandpaper there, almost literally. They come across more like people than characters, like friends you might see in the neighborhood grocery or at the movies. None, though, is more developed than Pete. He’s a guy with butter on his hands, trying to hold on to a glass bowl, but it keeps slipping away and he manges to keep catching it -- until it finally falls and shatters. Likewise, Pete is desperate to keep hold of Alec, who does all he can to squirm out of his father’s grasp. Their shattered relationship echoes throughout the book, poisoning everything that matters most to Pete. He’s a man who loves his son without limits and without question, and he’ll do anything to protect him, even if it means he could lose him in the process. Pete is a man you root for, feel sorry for, understand fully, and are confused by, each in turn and all at the same time. That Grodstein pulls him off is a master stroke.

A Friend of the Family is a searing, unforgettable portrait of a family in crisis, haunted by the past and terrified of a possible -- even probable -- future. It’s fiction at its very best.

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The New Thanksgiving Table Redux

We ran a review of Diane Morgan’s very good The New Thanksgiving Table (Chronicle Books) early in October. Now, with Thanksgiving bearing down on us, it seems like a good time to point this book out once more. After all, it’s not every day you encounter a book with eight (count ’em) recipes to cook a turkey.

From Monica Stark’s review:
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.
The review is here.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New This Month: House of Reckoning by John Saul

After a couple of books that had some fans wondering if this author had lost his touch, bestselling author John Saul proves himself still in good form with his 36th novel. And while House of Reckoning (Ballantine) doesn’t even pretend to be high art, it’s every bit as compelling as the best of Saul’s work that started with the multi-million copy selling Suffer the Children in 1977.

In House of Reckoning we meet 14-year-old Sarah Crane, trying to recover from the loss of her mother. Things get worse when her grief-filled and booze-soaked father kills a man, leaving him in jail and Sarah in foster care.

A teacher set on mentoring the young girl brings Sarah to her ancestral home, Shutters, where House of Reckoning spins along on a sort of Shining-Meets-Carrie trajectory. Make no mistake: despite the obvious comparisons, Saul isn’t Stephen King, nor has he ever been. But, at its best, his writing is compelling, entertaining and frightening enough to keep those pages moving rapidly and House of Reckoning is certainly among his best.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, senior editor J. Kingston Pierce reviews The Big Burn by Timothy Egan. Says Pierce:
Americans, especially those of us living in the West, take our public lands for granted. They’ve always been places to appreciate from afar, or places to escape to and reinvigorate ourselves. But what would’ve happened had those public reserves -- those horizon-gobbling wilderness refuges and national forests -- not been saved for us to appreciate? That was a very real possibility back in the summer of 1910, when the largest and most destructive fire in U.S. history steamrollered through the timbered vastness of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. The “big burn,” as New York Times reporter Timothy Egan calls it in his new book, consumed 3 million acres (an area slightly smaller than Connecticut) in only two days, and killed more than 80 people. It was an environmental disaster. Yet Egan argues that it was also responsible for saving the U.S. Forest Service and turning the conservation movement into a nationwide cause.
The full review is here.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Children’s Books: Creature by Andrew Zuckerman and Alphabeasties by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss

Alphabet books would seem to be one of the most popular categories of children’s picture books. There appears to be an endless supply of “A is for this” and “B is for that.” Think of a topic and you can probably find an alphabet book to match it. The books ranges wildly in quality and content but the sheer number of them sometimes can’t help but make you wonder: does the world really even need yet another alphabet book?

In the alphabet book category, a single theme would seem to rise above the others in popularity. And no matter how often you see “A is for Animal” you know that another book or six on the same topic is just down the turnpike. You’d think that, after a while, it would all just make you want to yawn.

All of this makes it even more interesting that two animal-focused alphabet books published this year both rank full marks for being both innovative and terrific.

Creature (Chronicle Books) by Andrew Zuckerman is gorgeously illustrated by Zuckerman’s own wonderful animal photos. The book is also sharply understated. No “A is for Anything,” here. In fact, there are barely any words at all. Large block letters introduce the idea of the shape of letters and the occasional word (“Bear,” “Insect,” Kangaroo”) is inserted in an appropriate place, but Zuckerman’s photos are always the stars. And they’re wonderful photographs, too: isolated animals cleverly arranged against their stark white backgrounds. A glossary explains the identity of each of the players. (“Jackrabbits, also called hares, can run up to 45 miles per hour…”)

If Creature is a terrific book -- and it is -- Alphabeasties (Blue Apple) is even better. No photographs here, the animals are created with the letters that spell their name. Unsurprisingly, the co-authors are both graphic designers, a demographic I suspect will go crazy for this book. With cut-outs and die-cuts and other fun and creative exercises, along with camels made of Cs and dogs made of Ds and so on, Alphabeasties is a treat for almost all the senses. It’s also extremely well done.

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Cookbooks: The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals by Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine

There’s almost spirit and humor enough in The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals (Sterling Books) to match anything written by Amy Sedaris (you’ll note I said “almost”: Sedaris is really funny!). The bonus, of course, is that The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals is also a very real cookbook and, despite the focus, the food is surprisingly non-denominational.

Though in this book authors Georgie Tarn and Tracey Fine are working up feasts for Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and others, there are recipes here that almost anyone would find interesting and useful. As well, of the 120 recipes included, a very high percentage are vegetarian in nature. In fact, vegetarians looking for a different approach might find a peek through Tarn and Fine’s book very rewarding.

The Jewish Princess Feast & Festivals follows up Tarn’s 2008 Jewish Princess Cookbook in a reasonably organic way. After all, if you’ve indulged yourself in a book of Jewish kitchen classics, one that focuses on the food of the Jewish high days seems a natural progression.

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Amis Figures Feminists Will Holler About The Pregnant Widow

Here’s a shock: Martin Amis has said that he anticipates his upcoming book will “get him in trouble with the feminists.” Since that’s a place where Amis has spent much of his career -- in trouble with the feminists, that is -- he likely has the experience to be a pretty good judge. From The Guardian:
The Pregnant Widow, described by its publisher as a tragicomedy, follows the lives of six young people spending a long, hot summer holiday in an Italian castle during the sexual revolution and the “sea change” of 1970.

Amis said he had been told it would get him “in trouble with the feminists”, but he insisted that it was actually “a very feminist book” and that “they haven't got a case”.
The Pregnant Widow
will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in February and in the US by Knopf in May.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Twilight of the Book Industry? Maybe Not.

Right in the middle of the excitement about the opening of the latest movie based on Stephanie Meyer’s phenomenally selling Twilight series, it’s interesting to think about what all of this hoopla says about books and where we are with them now.

When the film, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, opens later today, it is expected to break ticket records. The first film, Twilight, grossed more than $190 million in North American revenues after it opened last year.

While much is said about just why Meyer’s series is so beloved, what interests me today is what this rabid outpouring is saying about the book industry.

Let’s face it: one way or another, book publishing has had a rough year. Much of it self-inflicted. Between shaky international financial news and the uncertainty many parts of the industry are forecasting through the final arrival of the electronic book, the industry has been stumbling. And through the stumbles we hear the chanting of cynical voices about the death of the book. It has always been thus, but now it’s more.

And then there is Twilight. And then there is The Lost Symbol. And then there is just about anything J.K. Rowling would care to put her name on. Others, as well. Books that create excitement and cause line-ups and watercooler chatter. And no: bestsellers do not an industry make, but they sure don’t hurt anything. For one thing, a book that is discussed, is talked about, is pressed on even friends who usually do not read gets a culture talking about books. More importantly, it spreads the very real joy of reading around. It gets people reading who might not otherwise have had a chance to be properly exposed to the full body experience of being immersed in a good story and the emotional virtual reality that reading offers.

The publishing industry, like so many others, is going through changes. Sure, things in the future are going to be different. But millions of girls and young women excitedly sharing a book that they feel simply must be read indicates a certain vibrance for that future. And not all change is bad.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Art & Culture: Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

It was bound to happen sooner than later. Someone just had to write FLOW: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (St. Martin’s Griffin). I only wonder why no one did it sooner. But I'm glad it was written on my watch.

FLOW isn’t just a book; it's a movement. It’s sparking debate all over the Internet, from the editors at Redbook, who unceremoniously and unfairly dismissed it (is Redbook still a magazine for women?) to those at The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, who celebrated it. Then there are all those people in the blogosphere and the Facebookosphere who seem unable to stop singing its praises.

And here’s the thing: FLOW deserves it. It’s not a breakout book (yet), but it sure is a breakthrough. It’s stimulating sometimes heated conversation about a subject that was, until now, taboo. And that’s the point the book’s authors, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, are making. Menstruation isn’t something to be ashamed of or decried; it’s something to be explained, understood, and celebrated.

Written in a hip, funny voice (and designed with an accessible yet edgy sensibility), FLOW tells it like it is -- or rather, like it’s been for too many years. For example, did you know Lysol was marketed as a douche for 40 years as a way to kill post-sex sperm and make the vagina smell nicer? Did you know the age for a girl’s first period has dropped over the last 200 years from 17 to 13? Did you know that the first pad was marketed in 1896? And did you know -- here comes the hate mail -- that there’s really no such thing as PMS? (Don’t blame me: Research proves that hormone levels do not change during periods.)

But that’s just scratching the surface. As it turns out, periods are woven throughout our culture. To see it, you’ve just got to look a little harder. FLOW looks at language, history, politics, sex, religion, marketing, scent, and more. And sprinkled in among all the cultural, corporate, and personal stories are full-color reproductions of the advertising used to sell feminine products over the last half century or so. In each, you’ll find images and language that perpetuated what we all thought about periods (if you thought anything at all). From From Dr. Scott’s Electric Corsets to The Hite Report, from Tampax to New Freedom, from Kotex to Carrie, it seems Stein and Kim have left nothing out. Frankly, if reading the whole book isn’t your thing, just study the illustrations; their images and words will give you a sense of what’s been going on.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been telling friends about FLOW, to gauge thier reactions. Some have been fascinated, some repulsed (shame on them!). But no one’s been unwilling to admit there’s a story here that deserves to be told. They don’t know what it is, but they sense, every one of them, that there is one. Even better, more than a few (women and men) told me they’d be buying it for their daughters; after all, they said, the girls are going to learn about periods eventually, so they may as well get the whole story. They should learn about it, understand it, and yes, be proud of it. Go with the flow, indeed.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Week in Tweets

It’s not actually meant to replicate all of January Magazine’s activity on Twitter over the last week. Rather, since we manage to cover so much over there that we just don’t have time to get to properly here, it makes sense to hit some of the highlights. After all, a lot of what Twitter is about are the links. Here are a few of the ones we’ve recently thought were noteworthy.

Hard to believe it when you see her on the road promoting her latest book -- or books-signing device -- but Margaret Atwood turns 70 today. Of course, the book she’s been promoting most recently is The Year of the Flood. It’s fantastic. January Magazine’s 2000 interview with Atwood is here.

Like a lot of outfits, massive Harlequin Books is scooting towards their idea of publishing’s brave new world. Their answer, a romance self-publishing imprint called Harlequin Horizon, has been raising some eyebrows.

When he died in 1977, Vladimir Nabokov’s heirs found instructions that his work in progress, The Original of Laura, was to be burned. That book was published yesterday. Not everyone thinks it was a swell idea.

“The parsley explodes muscle.” Here’s a bit of silly fun: the 10 worst translations. Ever.

A statue and a check? It’s awards season. Most recently, the 2009 Governor General’s Awards and the 2009 National Outdoor Book Awards. (Though they aren’t the same thing. At all.)

Seriously, Seth Godin? The Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg seems almost weirdly annoyed with something Godin posted to his blog.

The New Oxford American Dictionary
has chosen their 2009 Word of the Year. Seriously: “unfriend”? What an odd choice. After all, 2009 has been all about Twitter. Facebook is just so 2007.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood revisited, half a century on.

The coming e-book revolution will revitalize the industry, opines leading tech analyst, Tim Bajarin: “Conventional wisdom has it that the publishing industry will benefit the most from this re-invention of the book, but while this may be true, the advent of such technologies may also lead to the emergence of a new creative class.” Bajarin says other interesting stuff, too. Bottom line? The sky is changing but probably will not fall.

The worst books of the decade? Judging by this list, The Times Online’s reading list is not as deep as ours. If we were to make such a list -- which we won’t be doing -- ours would have way more stinky books than does this one. Way.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cookbooks: Vegan Lunch Box Around the World by Jennifer McCann

I used to know a guy who brought a cheese sandwich to work every day. Processed cheese slice. White bread. A single leaf of iceberg lettuce. Every day. I didn’t know him well. Maybe I didn’t know him at all. I’d wonder about him, though. I’d wonder about what kind of guy would do that -- perhaps even find comfort in it. The same sandwich. The same processed cheese. Every day.

I avoided getting to know him too well.

The thing is, there’s just so much terrific stuff to eat for lunch. I know that. Really. I do. At least, I thought I did. But Jennifer McCann knows it better. Vegan Lunch Box Around the World (Da Capo) is her second collection of vegan lunches. Though I have yet to see the first one, 2008’s Vegan Lunch Box, I suspect that it’s terrific, because the sequel is no one’s idea of an also-ran: it’s really very good.

Though both books have that scary word -- vegan -- in the title, there’s nothing to be frightened of here. McCann’s success lies in her approach to cooking without animal products: she treats it like a big, fun challenge. As a result the food she creates -- and would help us create -- could be enjoyed by anyone. Potato salads, sushi rolls, tagine, African-style greens, orange couscous: 125 recipes in all. The fact that all of this great food is vegan makes us want to stop and think: in a world possessed of this much abundance and all of these wonderful possibilities -- without even eating meat products -- who would ever want to eat a cheese sandwich every day?

If you’ve ever wondered how to shake up your noontime meal, have a stroll through Vegan Lunch Box Around the World. It’s possible you’ll come away from it looking at many foods in an entirely new way.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Art & Culture: Public Art in Vancouver: Angels Among Lions by John Steil and Aileen Stalker

Every city needs a book like Public Art in Vancouver (TouchWood Editions) a kind of walking tour through the public art -- all the public art -- in the city of Vancouver, Canada.

“The character of a city is revealed by its public art,” the authors point out in their introduction, “what it collectively places on its streets and walls and in its public spaces.”

Most of the book, however, is given over to that art in well-organized sections that begin with a map that indicates each artwork under discussion in that section. Each piece of art is given one third to one quarter of a page that includes a small but clear photograph, the name of the piece, the year it was installed and a little about how it came to be where it is. And so you have, for instance, the iconic Girl in A Wetsuit from Stanley Park. We’re told it was installed in 1972 and that there was initially talk “of recreating the Little Mermaid from Copenhagen’s Harbour, but luckily, a West Coast image was used instead. Many people refer to her as a mermaid, but she is a scuba diver with flippers.”

This is a fantastic, well conceived and executed book. I hope TouchWood is planning on adding other cities and making it a series.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Cabin of One's Own

I have long been fascinated by the homes and haunts of writers -- where they grew up, where they lived as adults, and especially where they wrote. This particular strain of the “gentle madness” has taken me to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, Mark Twain’s home, in Hartford, Connecticut, James Thurber’s boyhood home, in Columbus and one of my favorite places on earth, Thomas Jefferson’s experiment in architecture.

So, I was pleased to see the recent Wall Street Journal piece about Tim Cahill’s writing cabin along the edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, in southwestern Montana. Cahill is one of our most prolific and entertaining travel writers, the author of A Wolverine is Eating my Leg, Pass the Butterworms, and Lost in My Own Backyard. Cahill is also a founder of Outside Magazine.

Cahill has owned his 500 square foot cabin since 1991 and uses it as a retreat for week-long writing stretches when he feels the need for isolation. The rest of the time, he resides in his home in Livingston, about an hour away. A daily hiker when he’s in residence, Cahill tells reporter Alexandra Alter, “My backyard, honest to God, is pretty much the size of Switzerland,” referring to the greater Yellowstone area.

Of course, Montana has long attracted writers and fiction; the names James Crumley, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. And judging from the slideshow, it sure looks like a nice place to write a book.

The Wall Street Journal piece is here.


Children’s Books: Born to Write by Charis Cotter

There’s a lot to love about award-winning children’s author Charis Cotter’s Born to Write: The Remarkable Life of Six Authors (Annick Press). Here Cotter delivers very good mini-biographies of half a dozen children’s authors: Lucy Maud Montgomery, C.S. Lewis, E.B. White, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Pullman and Christopher Paul Curtis. Each of these, perhaps with more support material, would have been sufficient for a slender book. But combined as they are, Born to Write reads like a mini-encyclopedia of children’s authors.

By drawing connections between her half dozen subjects, Cotter goes deeper than you would expect: illustrating how early experience can shape a life and push an individual one way. Or another.

“And when they grew up,” Cotter writes at one point, “instead of forgetting what it felt like to be a child, they remembered, and put it into their books.”

As well, Cotter perfectly captures the essence of the book culture of childhood and shares that with her young readers:
If you love reading books, you know what it is like to lose yourself in a story. Your bedroom drops away and you’re in the world of the book, side by side with the hero or heroine. Your ticket to those other worlds depends on the strength of your imagination and the power of the words you’re reading. The best writers scoop you up and take you on a ride that ends only on the last page of the book.
Born to Write is a good and interesting book about books and the culture of reading. This is a good one to share with the youngsters in your life.

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SF/F: And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer

I first discovered Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when I was studying librarianship, many years ago. We used to throw quotes at each other over coffee, between classes. “Forty-two!” we would cry. “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything!” We needed the humor; librarianship was a heavy, exhausting course which gave us very little time to ourselves.

At home, my brother was taping the radio series. We listened to it and developed a passion for that. The story was over-the-top hilarious. It became a television series and a movie and recordings.

I loved the first two books. The third was not quite as good, though it was still very funny. Since then, I have listened to Douglas Adams reading the talking book and decided I liked it better than the first time around. The fourth book came along and it was not as good as the third. It still had some fun, but it was almost serious. In it, Arthur Dent got a girlfriend, Fenchurch, but she suddenly disappeared from his side and never returned. The fifth book, Mostly Harmless, was such a disappointment to me that I gave away my copy and never read it again. My re-reading rarely goes beyond the second book and never past the fourth

I mention all this so it will be understood that I am a major fan of this universe, but I acknowledge that even Douglas Adams, who created it, had lost the plot, so to speak, by the end. So when I heard that Eoin Colfer, author of the wonderful Artemis Fowl novels, had been commissioned to write a sixth book in the series, I was in two minds about it. If Douglas Adams couldn’t keep it up, how could anyone else, even Eoin Colfer? But the author’s widow had approved him and of course, I was curious to see how he would get Arthur, Ford and Trillian out of the impossible situation in which they had been left at the end of Mostly Harmless.

And Another Thing has been written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It starts with a summary of the story so far, written in an Adams-esque style. It may have been to refresh the reader’s memory, and in any case, Douglas Adams did it himself. It may have been for any potential new readers, but my advice to these readers is not to read it till they have read the original. There’s no point. And Another Thing... was clearly written for people familiar with the universe.

I must admit, Colfer does a good job of getting Ford, Arthur, Trillian and their daughter, Random Dent, out of the fix they were in at the end of Mostly Harmless. I couldn’t imagine how it could be done, but he did it.

He makes a fairly good fist of Adams’s style, except for an irritating tendency to stop for asides. Douglas Adams did it, but nowhere near as often.

The story brings back a lot of characters from the third book, Life The Universe And Everything, including Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. He was the green-skinned immortal who was trying to liven up his eternal existence by insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Now, he has returned and he wants to get rid of the immortality; we learn that his insults are aimed at getting someone to kill him.

The original character was there as a single joke. He was funny. Now he has become, of all things, a romantic interest for Trillian. He isn’t funny anymore.

Zaphod Beeblebrox is back too, with one head; the other one has replaced Eddie as the ship’s computer on the Heart of Gold. He has a quest of his own: helping Wowbagger get killed. This involves searching for the Norse god Thor, original owner of Wowbagger’s ship.

Also in the novel are the Vogons, who are still trying to wipe out the last humans to tie up loose ends -- not only Arthur and Trillian, but a colony of middleclass Earthlings who have bought the Magrathean-built planet Nano. The Vogon captain, Prostetnic Jeltz, who destroyed Earth in the first novel, is back, with a son who may not agree with him.

The story bounces around from one storyline to another, but all the ends are tied, although the very end suggests there may be more to come.

I got the occasional chuckle out of this book, but no more. It starts well enough, but just isn’t funny. A friend of mine suggested that Tom Holt might have been a better choice, but personally, I don’t think anyone could handle it.

Eoin Colfer is a brave man to have had a go at something like this, which has a passionate fandom. I commend him for it. I don’t believe anyone could have done it, but he has done as well as anyone could and at least he seems to be a fan.

If you are completist, buy it by all means -- hey, if you’re reading the book at all, you almost certainly are a completist. At least this story extracts our heroes from an impossible situation.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Art & Culture: My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice by Erin Moure

“Writing is always and forever a social practice. The varying discourses in a society either shore it up or challenge it. And discourse isn’t something we walk away from when we set down our pen.”

My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice (NeWest Press) is like an intellectual dance through Erin Moure’s three decade (thus far) career as a writer and translator. It’s not always an easy dance. “The framework,” she writes at one point, “can we avoid it? Can we speak outside a framework? A guide or friend? A restraint on vision? Can we ignore it? Can we say ‘pure sound’? ‘I am a woman is full of consequences’ … for we are part of a representational system, a system of behavioural laws, of social conditions that have privileged the (male) gaze.”

Not well known even in her native Canada, Moure is, however, deeply respected and very well published. Her thoughts on the writing life are complicated and even -- sometimes -- a little angry but it’s an interesting journey through a well-lived creative life.


Do Not Adjust Your Set...

If you checked in on January Magazine late yesterday or earlier today, you might have encountered an out of service message. An unexpected surge in traffic over the last few months caught us -- and our servers -- unaware. We’re now bolstered for our increased popularity so will be able to withstand even future surges. Meanwhile, our face is red to have been caught so unprepared. After all these years, you’d think we’d know better.

Thanks for joining us. All of us here at January enjoy your participation in our ongoing conversation about books.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Broadcast Journalist Wins Canada’s Richest Literary Prize

I don’t understand why everyone keeps talking about Linden MacIntyre’s “surprise upset” in winning the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize for The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada). OK, actually: I do understand. I’m just not in the mood to dance the CanLit dance of literary vs. commercial novels. It’s a song that’s been playing through the Canadian media all autumn. It’s all been said -- more or less been said -- and no one appears to be listening, so I’ll keep my soapbox under my desk for the moment.

But the 2009 Giller...

At the risk of sounding unsportsmanlike (and I wasn’t in the race, so you can call me what you like) the biggest Giller surprise this year was that Margaret Atwood’s fantastic and luminous The Year of the Flood (McCLelland & Stewart) didn’t make the shortlist. Ditto Douglas Coupland’s very thoughtful Generation A (Random House Canada). If you’re a Canadian who follows literary stuff, it’s possible you have a few favorites of your own to chip in. Still, Coupland gets weirdly overlooked when the time to hand out CanLit trophies comes around. Atwood has won her share but -- oh! -- The Year of the Flood is breathtaking.

But, clearly, I digress.

The winner of the Scotiabank Giller prize was announced at a mondo gala in Toronto last night that was wildly tweeted about. (In fact, January tweeted the results within about an a minute of the announcement being made last night. How fun is that?)

MacIntyre picked up a check for $50,000 as author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English. The other finalists won $5000. each. Those finalists were:
  • Kim Echlin, The Disappeared (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (Random House Canada)
  • Colin McAdam, Fall (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (McClelland & Stewart)
The 2009 Giller prize judges were US author Russell Banks, UK author and journalist Victoria Glendinning, and Canadian author Alistair MacLeod. Of the winning book, the jury remarked:
The Bishop’s Man centres on a sensitive topic -- the sexual abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests on the innocent children in their care. Father Duncan, the first person narrator, has been his bishop’s dutiful enforcer, employed to check the excesses of priests and, crucially, to suppress the evidence. But as events veer out of control, he is forced into painful self-knowledge as family, community and friendship are torn apart under the strain of suspicion, obsession and guilt. A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding.
I’m not sure how surprised everyone should be that MacIntyre won. (Especially considering Atwood wasn’t in the running. But we did that already.) He is, after all, a respected and well known journalist. He’s co-host of CBC television’s The Fifth Estate, an investigative journalism program. He’s won nine Gemini Awards for broadcast journalism and his most recent book, the memoir Causeway: A Passage from Innocence was critically acclaimed and also won some significant awards.


Fiction: Ray of the Star by Laird Hunt

2009 has been an incredible year -- a breakthrough year, perhaps -- for fiction that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and, certainly, of genre. Perhaps the most visible of these was China Miéville’s incredible The City and the City. If you liked that one and have been hungering for something that approaches the tone and originality of Miéville’s most recent creation, it seems quite possible to me that you’ll also like Laird Hunt’s fourth novel.

In most regards, the two books are almost nothing alike, but for a few important things. In both novels, dynamic young authors have reached beyond what is usual and what has been done to tell their imaginative – and entirely different -- stories in new and compelling ways. In both of these examples, they are mostly -- though not always -- successful.

Like The City and the City, Ray of the Star (Coffee House Press) is set in an imaginary European city. In Hunt’s book, however, the city we think of most is Barcelona. The stories are as reflective of the cities they’re not set in, as well. Where The City and the City is skillfully cold and distant, the world Hunt creates here seems to vibrate with warmth and light.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Today: Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Young scribe Caitrin, fleeing an unwanted marriage with a violent cousin, finds herself on Whistling Tor, whose chieftain, Anluan, needs a scribe to do a summer’s work, translating Latin documents. Anluan’s family has been cursed for a century, since an ancestor conjured up a ghostly horde from the Otherworld and then couldn’t either control them or send them back. Anluan can handle them as long as he stays on the Tor, but if he leaves, the spirits could go on the rampage. They want to go back too, and something -- or someone -- is driving them insane, unable to control themselves. There may be a counter-spell in the Latin documents that will help. Everyone is relying on Caitrin to find it.

Despite the curse and the fact that Anluan can’t be the chieftain his people need, Caitrin finds friends on the Tor, some of them supernatural, and also finds love.

Heart’s Blood is a Gothic-style romance that has moved the story of “Beauty and the Beast” to mediaeval Connacht, a part of Ireland facing imminent invasion by Normans from England. Anluan is not a fairytale Beast, but crippled by a childhood illness. The “heart’s blood” of the title is a plant used to make very expensive ink, but also has a much more important use, as Caitrin finds.

It’s an interesting setting for the story, and it works. Western Australian-based novelist Juliet Marillier’s other Celtic fantasies are set in Ireland and she knows her period well. She reminds her readers that Irish law was fairer to women than the laws in other places at the time. Women had positions of responsibility and they had more property and inheritance rights.

The story is very readable; it was my first time reading one of this writer’s books and it won’t be my last. It is, admittedly, something of a Mary Sue. But I have been known to enjoy Mary Sue when well-written and at least this one is lacking long-lost princes, quests, elves and high priestesses. The only evil sorcerer is the hero’s ancestor, who was unpleasant and stupid, but hardly Sauron. And I must admit that “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairytale I like, and the author has done a good job of putting it into an historical context.

If you haven’t read Juliet Marillier’s other books, this one might be a good place to start, as it is a stand-alone and not part of a trilogy.

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Cookbooks: Gordon Ramsay’s Maze by Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton

There are cookbooks that make you instantly want to rush to the kitchen and prepare your tools and there are those that make you want to curl into a comfy chair and peruse. Gordon Ramsay’s Maze (Key Porter Books) is of the latter type. To be honest, I can’t imagine anyone being inspired to actually cook from reading this book. But there’s plenty to look at and to be inspired by and perhaps even to envy.

My first hint that this would be the case came from the foreword: it’s written by Ferran Adriá, the mad genuis chef behind Barcelona’s El Bulli, possibly the most visible practitioner of molecular gastronomy in the world.

While the food in Gordon Ramsay’s Maze is not that, neither is it especially Gordon Ramsay. Maze is the Ramsay owned and backed London restaurant helmed by Ramsay and Adriá protégé, Jason Atherton. Maze has been one of those incredible restaurant industry success stories: people line up, book far in advance and pay vast prices for a peck at Atherton’s food. And a peck is all they’ll get, too. In many ways, it seems the antithesis of Ramsay’s hearty and gorgeous “keep it simple” fare. Atherton’s food is fussy and beautiful. Ramsay has called it “modern tapas” but it really seems much more than that: perhaps the place where tapas meets molecular gastronomy. Food that is fueled by imagination and technology as much as the desire to produce beautiful food from, say, local ingredients. I can not imagine, for instance, the circumstance that would lead me to try my hand at Asparagus with Quail’s Egg and Pink Grapefruit Hollandaise or Mango Soup with Lychee Granita. How about Pineapple Carpaccio with Fromage Frais and Lime Sorbet? Even the simple sounding things appear overworked and precious, but this is as much due to food styling as anything else: sweet little portions artistically arranged. For example, Perfect Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes on Toast is beautifully framed and shot. From an aesthetic stance, it’s a gorgeous photo. It also looks entirely unappetizing: a runny mess of yellowish material on toast that looks overdone.

Gordon Ramsay’s Maze is a beautiful, interesting book. It’s stunningly photographed, well organized and the recipes are sensibly put down and shared. I know this is entirely subjective -- the nature of review -- but there was little here I found inviting. I say this knowing full well that this may well be an early glimpse of the food that is to come.

Another thing: I know this is likely silly and it was something I tried to overcome but, ultimately, could not: though he owns the restaurant, sticking Gordon Ramsay’s name in this book’s title seems deliberately misleading. It may be Ramsay’s joint, but this is Jason Atherton’s book.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

The Richest Literary Prize

You’ll have to forgive us if we don’t reproduce the entire longlist for the IMPAC Dublin, the award that calls itself the “world’s most valuable annual literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English.” It’s a very long list.

Nominations have come from 163 libraries in 123 cities and 43 countries worldwide. The authors of the longlisted books, announced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin last week, hope to win the €100,000 award but, as any bookmaker worth his salt will tell you, the odds aren’t that good for any one title: the longlist comprises 156 novels representing authors from 46 countries.

Of the longlisted books , some will resonate more strongly with January’s readers than others. Here are a few of them: Louis Bayard (The Black Tower); C.J. Box (Blood Trail); Joseph Boyden (Through Black Spruce); Andrew Davidson (The Gargoyle); Kenneth J. Harvey (Blackstrap Hawco); Patrick Lane (Red Dog, Red Dog); Ursula Le Guin (Lavinia); Dennis Lehane (The Given Day); Toni Morrison (A Mercy); Walter Mosley (Diablerie); Stewart O’Nan (Songs for the Missing); Richard Price (Lush Life); Philip Roth (Indignation); Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence); Anne Simpson (Falling); Tom Rob Smith (Child 44); David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) and many others.

The complete longlist is here.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cookbooks: The New Best of BetterBaking.Com by Marcy Goldman

I feel as though, until now, I’ve been shuffling along in the dark. Having now experienced the flaky, buttery goodness of BetterBaking.Com, how did I ever attempt a flan or pie crust without it? This is the good stuff. So good, it’s better than anything mother ever made.

Author Marcy Goldman is a Montreal-based pastry chef who’s written for Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, The New York Times and many others. As that CV would imply, Goldman writes clearly on a topic she obviously loves: how to make baking better.

The New Best of BetterBaking.Com (Whitecap Books) includes over 200 recipes as well as Goldman’s sharp and ever-present advice. As might be expected -- and as is only right in a beautifully produced and illustrated cookbook -- the recipes are the stars, here. Hotel School Cream Cheese Rugalach. Tiramisu Cheesecake. Blackberry Wine Crunch Biscotti. Fried Parmesan Pizza Wedges. I could go on (I want to go on.) but you get the idea. Goldman’s endeavors are so successful because she pushes the envelope. That’s why The New Best of BetterBaking.Com isn’t just another baking book. It’s better.


National Bookstore Day Today: Let’s Shop!

Let’s face it: bookstores have had a pretty rough ride this year. Between the (cheerfully monikered) economic meltdown (cue scary music now), the rising tide of electronic books and the hardcover price wars of earlier this autumn, there must have been at least a few days in 2009 when some booksellers just didn’t even want to get out of bed.

All of this leads us to the Publishers Weekly-sponsored National Bookstore Day, the idea being that bookstores are front and center on one day: November 7th. Says PW:
Event organizers are hoping promotions tied to the day will attract local and national media coverage -- and, in turn, draw new customers into bookstores. “The number of stores already signed up meets our rosiest hopes for this first year. Many of the stores celebrating National Bookstore Day are recognized nationally as leaders, so we're gratified that this idea has been endorsed by these savvy booksellers,” said Ron Shank, PW group publisher. Among the offerings that bookstores are planning are author signings, children’s activities, discounts, extended hours, free refreshments, marathon “read-aloud” events, raffles and writing contests.
Though the idea is laudable, here at the 11th hour, National Bookstore Day doesn’t seem to have gained the traction garnered earlier this year by American thriller author Joseph Finder’s grassroots “Buy Indie Day.”

Even so, every conscious step taken moves us in the right direction. The message is one to cherish and remember: books are important. So are the people who buy, make and sell them. The place books have in our lives is of value: it’s meaningful to us. And if we take all of this as read, it behooves us to do everything in our collective power to keep independent bookstores not only strong and out there, but going. And how do we do that? We try to raise awareness. We raise readers. We spread the word.

And then we shop.


Friday, November 06, 2009

Children’s Books: Death on the River by John Wilson

In Death on the River (Orca Books), veteran children’s author John Wilson weaves a compelling tale with his first person, present tense account of the final days of the American Civil War.

We see the horrors of war through the eyes of Jake Clay, a young soldier who enlisted after his brother was killed in battle. Young Jake is wounded and taken prisoner in his very first battle:
I come to with a pair of Rebel soldiers holding an ankle each and hauling me, upside down, over the breastworks. I feel like my head is going to explode every time it bumps against a log. It doesn’t, but I keep blacking out.
John Wilson has written over 20 books for this age group, all of them focused on illuminating some aspect of history for young people. He does a great job. In fact, sometimes in Death on the River if anything it’s too good an illumination. Though he (thankfully) brings little of the actual gore, we feel the horrors of war very keenly. It’s a lesson it’s always good to remember: one we are not able to forget.

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Non-Fiction: Harvard Business School Confidential by Emily Chan

It would be inaccurate and possibly even ridiculous to suggest that Harvard Business School Confidential (Wiley & Sons) distills four difficult years into one very lucid book. And yet, when you read it, that’s more or less how it makes you feel.

We get right down to business from the very beginning: there’s just no messing around:
Most parents and teachers would tell you: Study hard in school, get a good job, receive a good salary, and live happily ever after.” …. There is nothing wrong with getting a good job if you just want a stable life …. However, to most Harvard Business School (HBS) Students, “getting a good job” is a means, not an end.
HBS, author Emily Chan tells us, “teaches you to differentiate between two types of income: linear and investment” and then she goes on to explain “How Money Works” in a chapter of the same name. If you’re not a Harvard Business School Grad; if you’re just a normal schmuck, like me, some of this is absolutely mind-blowing stuff. Chapter headings offer hints as to why: “Speak So People Will Listen,” “It’s Who You Know,” “You Can Negotiate Anything,” and my personal favorite, “Plans Are Nothing.”

A year-and-a-half, maybe two years ago, I wouldn’t have cared about a whole lot of this stuff. Now, though: the world has changed. There’s things I didn’t care about then that I know I need to care about now, before it’s entirely too late. Harvard Business School Confidential gives one the feeling that understanding it all is an attainable goal.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Fiction: The Chief Factor’s Daughter by Vanessa Winn

I had the rare delight of traveling to the city of Victoria on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island twice during the time I was reading The Chief Factor’s Daughter (Touchwood Editions). It’s not that I’m a super-slow reader, either. Rather, my life aligned in such a way that, not only was I in the city on which the action in Vanessa Winn’s debut novel centers, I even had cause to sit near historic monuments and some of the locations in the book and just contemplate the rush of time while her story swirled through my mind, fresh: still at the ripest point of enjoyment. That’s the biggest pay off on historical fiction. It takes your hand and walks with you. Actually strolling the sites was an unnecessary bonus, but it enhanced even that.

Though The Chief Factor’s Daughter starts off dry and distant, the rhythms of the lives of Winn’s characters sweep you along, if you let them. Winn has worked closely with history and it shows. Her detail has a rich and authentic feel that doesn’t always lend itself to breathtaking storytelling. Never mind, though. Once the reader is immersed, it’s an easy story to find your stroke with and swim along.

The daughter in question is Margaret Work, a proper young lady raised in good English fashion who is socially hampered by the matter of her birth. Though Margaret’s father is the chief factor at Fort Victoria, her mother is Métis and so Margaret and her siblings find the pool of potential mates in Victoria to be limited. To make matters more difficult, Margaret has set her mind on a marriage that will involve her heart, something her mother approves and so we find Margaret in her mid-20s and heading ever more deeply into spinsterhood.

The Chief Factor’s Daughter is a quiet, elegant book. It deals with an important piece of regional history but, even that falls second to what this book does best and the thing that all successful historical fiction must do: it transports us out of time, out of mind.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

New Today: Inklings by Jeffrey Koterba

The debut work of writer, musician and political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba is published today. Inklings (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tells the author’s own story with the aid of strong graphic elements, without the maudlin self-pity often associated with works of that genesis.

In his bio, Koterba tells us that “during the summer of 1978 [I] was struck by lightning and lived to tell about it.” He makes it sound like an advantage -- a thing to have survived and gained strength from, rather than a horrid obstacle which had to be overcome.

That pretty much describes all of Inklings. Koterba’s inky stylings are luminous, yes. But so is the spirit that drives them. Inklings is an almost rabidly optimistic look at a difficult childhood and coming-of-age from the hands of a fiendishly talented artist.

If Inklings is just the beginning, I can hardly wait to see what is yet to come.

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Cookbooks: The Foodie Handbook by Pim Techamuanvivit

The very first paragraph of The Foodie Handbook (Chronicle Books) describes the journey on which you’re about to embark:
Relationships that matter most in our lives are often complicated. Think of the one with your mother or your current love, and perhaps the most perplexing, food. These liaisons can be fraught with love, hate, joy, fear, trust, suspicion, and a whole lot of other emotions. Sometimes it is nearly enough to make us wish we were orphans, turn us celibate or, worse yet, vegan.
Many foodies have met Techamuanvivit through her food blog, Chez Pim, where the Silicon Valley dropout brings foodie stuff to many thousands of visitors every week. The Foodie Handbook is better. And why? Because it is the physical embodiment of Techamuanvivit’s passionate, knowledgeable spirit. Foodie lore, recipes, advice from Techamuanvivit and other, more famous, chefs: it’s all here, just as on Chez Pim. But the book stuffs the blog into the shade. You can hold the book in your hands, flip through it, bury yourself in it and learn. And enjoy. The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy is what the book is subtitled. And it’s that -- sure it is. But, oh, so much more.

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New Today: The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

This is a brand new and greatly improved edition of a modern classic: the National Book Award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory (Sterling). Originally published in 1975, it was named one of the most important non-fiction books of the 20th century by the Modern Library. In his preface, author Paul Fussell explains his book succinctly:
This book is about the British experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized and mythologized. It is also about the literary dimensions of the trench experience itself.
The new Sterling edition is greatly enhanced. Photographs, illustrations, maps and other ephemera from the period illuminate what was already a good and celebrated work. This new edition takes on a very good work and makes it better and, ultimately, more useful.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

New in Paperback: The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder

It’s not that Warren Buffett gave Alice Schroeder permission to write his biography, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Bantam). He hand-picked her, a move typical of the man many consider to be one of the most successful business people in the world. And typical of Buffett’s style, he chose right.

Former Morgan Stanley analyst Schroeder’s in-depth portrait of Buffett is better, even, than one might imagine. Buffett gave Schroeder full access: spending many hours with her and talking candidly about his personal life and his business. Nor is The Snowball simply sunshine. The Oracle of Obama comes across as extremely human: strong, assured, deeply intelligent, but flawed, of course, and sometimes even frail. More importantly, The Snowball delivers on the promise every biography makes but few can dish up: careful readers leave feeling as though a secret has been shared -- several, really -- and that the answer to an important question is within reach.

When the book was released early in 2008, The Los Angeles Times said, “The Snowball is likely to remain the most authoritative portrait of one of the most important American investors of our time.” We agree.

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Art & Culture: Best Music Writing 2009 edited by Greil Marcus

2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the Best Music Writing anthologies edited by music journalist and scholar Daphne Carr and published by Da Capo. As befits an anniversary edition, this anthology is stunning with contributions from some of the very top names in music writing, and letters, as well.

As guest editor Greil Marcus points out, Best Music Writing 2009 is not meant to be an almanac:
It is not a record of the best or worst or most important what-happened-in-music of 2008, the year from which all of the pieces here were drawn …. I distrust the notion that something has to happen in any given year that in the future we will look back upon as a portent of something or as an example of something else.
What we have, instead is, quite simply, the best. The most passionate, the most deeply felt, the most well-crafted and stated and sharply rendered. Over 30 pieces reflect all aspects of the music business and all types of music. You’ll recognize some of their names. Jonathan Lethem. Aidin Vaziri. Carrie Brownstein. David Remnick. Stanley Booth.

If you appreciate reading about music, you’ll enjoy Best Music Writing 2009. It does not get better than this.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Children’s Books Shadow of the Leopard by Henning Mankell

Internationally bestselling author Henning Mankell talks about the first time he met Sofia. He was in Mozambique in the early 1990s. Passing a hospital, he spied a small girl in a wheelchair and he stopped to talk with her. “I still don’t know why,” he says on his blog.

Though Sofia’s story didn’t come to him all at once, he was able to piece it together over time. Sofia and her sister had been running at the side of a road when a landmine was detonated. Sofia’s sister died instantly. Sofia herself suffered many injuries. And Mankell, ultimately, was compelled to tell her story.
Today, many years later, Sofia is one of my closest and dearest friends. No one has taught as much as she about the conditions of being human. Nor has anyone taught me more about poor people's unprecedented power of resistance. Those who are forced to survive at the bottom of society in a world we all share and inhabit; so unjust, brutal and unnecessary.
Though Mankell is best known for his Curt Wallander novels, his books for children are very, very good and, in his own country, extremely admired. Three books into his Sofia series (after Playing With Fire and Secrets in the Fire) Sofia is a young woman of 20 with two children of her own and another on the way. Her domestic challenges turn life-threatening when her ex-partner drags her into the savannah and leaves her to die.

Shadow of the Leopard (Annick Press) is classified as a children’s book, but I’m not entirely sure why. Though the young adult readers this book is intended for will certainly enjoy it, adults will also be compelled by Sofia’s story and Mankell’s commanding voice.


Have A Novel Inside of You? Get it Out!

If it’s true that everyone has a novel inside of them, National Novel Writing Month -- NaNoWriMo -- is meant to be the tool to force it out. From their Web site:
Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is for participants to write a 50,000 word novel by November 30th. Start... now.

The NaNoWriMo Web site is here.

Cookbooks: Savory Baking by Mary Chech

The title is misleading, and not in a helpful way. It offers the idea that this will be yet another book on being a better baker. The fact is, Savory Baking (Chronicle Books) is so much more than that.

You don’t need to read very far to understand what I’m saying. White Cheddar-Zucchini Pancakes. Hazelnut Waffles. Buckwheat Blinis with Warm Bing Cherries and Crème Fraiche. Fig and Rosemary Spread. Caprese Salad. And, yes: some of these things are meant to go with other -- baked -- recipes. And, yes: there are more baked items in Savory Baking than not. But still, it is a book beyond the expected, filled with tempting savory versions of a lot of recipes that are quite often sweet.

Author Mary Chech was named one of the top ten pastry chefs in North America. She is an award-winning pastry chef and cooking instructor. That combination shows both in the innovation she brings to Savory Baking as well as the clear and sensible way she tells us to make her creations.

Savory Baking includes recipes for every meal of the day, plus snacks. This is beautiful, well-conceived food, temptingly styled and photographed, clearly shared and quite beyond expectation.