Monday, August 30, 2010

Art & Culture: The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex by Kristen Schaal and Rich Blomquist

The opening line lets you know what sort of ride you’re in for:
Sex is the most powerful thing in the universe, and if you’re not instantly good at it, you probably never will be and everyone will laugh at you.

This is something you should know before even attempting sex.
In case you’re under the impression that The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex (Chronicle Books) is some sort of manual intended to help you do... well... anything, think again.

Fans of The Daily Show will be familiar with co-author Kristen Schaal’s face -- she’s one of their correspondents -- as well as the work of her co-author and partner Rich Blomquist, who is a writer on the show. And while The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex is not precisely Daily Show fare, it certainly would seem to be set to appeal with those who enjoy that sort of humor: the kind of arms akimbo, sophisticated, heavy-on-the-irony fun that Daily Show watchers enjoy.

There is some actual advice in The Sexy Book of Sexy Sex, but that isn’t really the point. What is? How about Great Pick-Up Artists of the Animal Kingdom? (Squids and seals make the top five.) Or A Brief History of Sex. (“33: Masturbation falls to an all-time low given possibility of Jesus watching.”) Or an STD chart complete with nicknames, famous sufferers and the “ooze factor”.

The examples chosen are intentional: this is funny stuff, creatively illustrated and well thought out and presented. But, clearly, it’s not for everyone. ◊

David Middleton is a graphic designer and photographer and the art and culture editor of January Magazine.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

When Vegan Goes Mainstream

A few months ago, January Magazine editor Linda L. Richards began a review of The Locavore Way (Storey Publishing) with these words: “So many people are talking about green issues these days, alternative lifestyles have gotten to be mainstream.” And while I’m still not entirely certain that’s true, some recently published cookbooks would seem to back up at least part of what she’s saying.

Case in point: Viva Vegan! (Da Capo Lifelong) by Terry Hope Romero, whose previous book, Veganomicon, was both hardcore vegan and a bestseller. And it’s not that Viva Vegan takes a gentler approach to veganism. Rather, it narrows the focus in a most surprising way: offering 200 recipes for authentic Latin food. All vegan. Unthinkable? Apparently, that’s what Romero’s friends thought when she began this journey:
When friends would ask me what new cookbook I was writing, my answer, “a vegan Latin cookbook,” was often met with looks of “comp?” How can that be? The meatiest cuisine on the planet (so say some) made meatless. Is she loca?
Apparently, she is not loca and she delivers. Pupusas Sauteed with Black Beans and Plantains. Sopes with Chorizo Spinach. Tamales made with red chile-seitan and my absolute favorite, a smooth, creamy and elegant Café con Leche Flan.

Mark Reinfeld (Vegan Fusion World Cuisine) and Jennifer Murray (The 30-Minute Vegan) deliver a book with a similar -- yet entirely different -- focus. Here Murray and Reinfeld fuse their talents to bring us The 30-Minute Vegan’s Taste of the East (Da Capo Lifelong). Even non-vegans will enjoy these simple and well-described recipes for Madras Curry, Mu Shu Vegetables, Pad Thai, Wontons and more.

The 30-Minute Vegan’s Taste of the East is broken into regional chapters: the cuisines of India, Thailand, China and Japan are represented. As well, a very healthy sized chapter on fusion includes recipes that couldn't easily have been categorized anyplace else.

While not strictly speaking a vegan cookbook, The Vegetarian Slow Cooker (Robert Rose) by slow-cooker queen Judith Finlayson seems to me to be in the same spirit: an idea that was once -- and not that long ago -- esoteric, here brought into the mainstream ... in this case, via Crockpot. In addition, many of the recipes Finlayson has included here are either vegan, or could be with very few modifications. A terrific book for those who like the idea of dinner bubbling away while they’re at work, but who don’t want to ingest all the meat that many slow-cooker cookbooks feel the need to include. ◊

Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Boy Bum Gets Book Banned

You don’t often hear cries of “censorship!” in Canada, but when you do, it can get pretty silly.

The most recent example is a good one. Annabel Lyon’s debut novel, The Golden Mean (Vintage Canada), is a fictionalized account of Aristotle’s teaching relationship with Alexander the Great. Since the book was published in Canada in the fall of 2009, it has been treated as a work of some literary merit. It won the 2009 Rogers Writers' Trust first prize, and was a finalist for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. In Canada, that’s pretty much the literary trifecta: the best there is.

The book -- Lyon’s debut -- has been heaped with praise. Russell Banks’ blurb now seems especially ironic. Banks said the book was “more than a brilliant and beautifully told novel: it’s also a profound exploration of moral and philosophical issues that have troubled and perplexed us since Aristotle.”

The moral and philosophical issues dealt with in the book were not the cause of a recent ban of The Golden Mean by BC Ferries. The marine transportation company have opted not to sell the book on their boats due to the graphic nature of the cover: a beautiful boy astride a beautiful horse, the image is certainly more reminiscent of classic art than pornography, and entirely in keeping with the content of the book.

Writing on The New Yorker’s blog, Eileen Reynolds sums the whole thing up neatly here:
Censorship, to our way of thinking, is generally bad news. Is there ever a good reason to ban a book? Maybe not, but the cause for a recent Canadian ban on Annabel Lyon’s “The Golden Mean” strikes us as particularly silly. BC Ferries, a maritime transportation service in British Columbia, has removed Lyon’s novel from its bookshops—not because the author penned a controversial scene or racy bit of dialogue, but because the paperback’s cover art features a naked man’s rear-end!
Meanwhile, The Vancouver Sun talked to BC Ferries about the banning:
BC Ferries has a habit of banning books that feature nudity of any kind. Stephen Vogler's Only in Whistler was banned in 2009 because it featured a historical photo of four naked female skiers viewed from the rear. Two years ago, Wreck Beach, a history of Vancouver's nude beach, was banned for similar reasons.

BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall told The Vancouver Sun the books for the ferry bookstore are chosen by committee. "We choose to select non-controversial books in our gift shop. We have a wide audience so we want to keep it family appropriate. This book has a naked boy on the cover."

The image, of a young man draped across a horse, shows bare buttocks.

"We offered with the publisher to put a belly band over the cover," said Marshall, "but they declined."

Marshall conceded that the bookstore carries a wide range of magazines, such as Men's Health, that often feature partial nudity on their covers.
I’ve not heard anything in defense of the ban, but stories condemning it have appeared internationally. That should prove to be great news for Lyon: The Golden Mean is a terrific book and it seems likely that this will help her sell even more copies. And, in many ways, the timing just couldn’t be better. The US edition -- sans boy bum -- will be published September 7th. Too bad they don’t still have time to change the cover.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

New This Week: Juliet by Anne Fortier

Emmy Award-winning producer, Anne Fortier (Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia), here takes on one of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters with a rich and resonant result.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said that, in Juliet, (Ballantine) Fortier “bobs and weaves between Shakespearean tragedy and popular romance for a high-flying debut .... that reads like a Da Vinci Code for the smart modern woman.”

Does anything more really need to be said? We didn't think so either.

If people stop talking about Jonathan Franzen for five minutes, this one is likely to generate a whole lot of buzz.


Non-Fiction: Raising Confident Readers by J. Richard Gentry

Did you know that four out of ten American children eight-years-old can’t read on their own? It’s not because they aren’t being taught, but rather because they aren’t being exposed to books and reading during their formative periods. Childhood literacy expertly J. Richard Gentry would change all of that.

“Confident readers are not born,” Gentry writes in his introduction to Raising Confident Readers (Lifelong Books), “but they can be made -- naturally, lovingly, and joyfully -- by a child’s first reading teacher: you.

Gentry’s book is clear, loving, lucid and simple to use. If you have a very young child at home or are expecting one in the future, read Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write -- from Baby to Age 7. Anyone could follow Gentry's gentle program. And everyone should. ◊

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Children’s Books: The Gnome’s Eye by Anna Kerz

A cover does not the book make. Still: for The Gnome’s Eye (Orca Books), it was certainly the cover design that caught mine. And no complaints, either: that sharply designed cover brought me to a book I might otherwise have missed.

In post-War Yugoslavia in 1954, young Theresa’s life is forever altered when her father announces that the family will leave their war-torn country and emigrate to Canada. The only home Theresa has ever known is the refuge camp, so the prospect of a country -- little known and far away -- is unappealing, no matter how optimistic her father may sound about the possibilities in a new land.

The title is gifted to the book by Theresa’s friend in the refuge camp, Martin, who give her a small stone he says is a gnome’s eye. Says Martin:
“A gnome’s eye always turns to stone when it falls out,” he tells her. “It will protect you from all things evil, alive or dead. Take it.”
And then Canada, where Theresa is frightened of everything, from the other tenants in the boarding house where the family initially shelters, to the children she meets at her new school... and just about everything in between. In a sort of comfortably surreal Lost-fashion, Theresa’s unbearable reality slowly morphs into the high relief of her own imagination: a place fraught with danger, but much less so than the reality she has been dealt.

The Gnome’s Eye is a charming fish out of water story with sharply imaginative elements that children nine to 12 will enjoy. Author Kerz emigrated to Canada when she was a child in the 1950s. One gets the feeling that the elements of The Gnome’s Eye that feel real enough to touch were quite hard won, indeed.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Jonathan Franzen’s Higher Plane

With a great deal of the publishing industry in a tailspin for the last couple of years -- international economic crisis, the coming of age of the e-book, the falling of the sky in general -- there have been more questions than answers. But while everyone wonders what will save the industry, a lot of people agree on one thing: bestsellers of the blockbusting kind go a long way to take the ouch out of just about everything. And maybe that’s part of the reason that Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, is being heralded by almost everyone as the sort of second coming tsunami that will cause the world to burst into flames almost by being in its ultra-hot presence. At The Guardian, Jonathan Jones practically bursts into song while praising Franzen’s new book:
Jonathan Franzen is the great American novelist reborn, a literary genius for our time. Only recently, a critic was lamenting the decline of the American novel, the passing of the age of Updike, Roth and Bellow. But there is no excuse for pessimism about the future of serious fiction when a writer such as Franzen is coming into his prime. His hit The Corrections won him an army of readers, then he published a set of provocative cultural essays – and this autumn, Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections, will be finally be published. It is an extraordinary work, which develops and deepens the immense talent so evident in The Corrections in a way that is at first troubling, then addictive – and then, with mounting satisfaction, convinces you this is simply on a different plane from other contemporary fiction.
And while The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani doesn’t come close to bursting into song, the review is a very good one:
Jonathan Franzen’s galvanic new novel, “Freedom,” showcases his impressive literary toolkit — every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles — and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life. With this book, he’s not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters.
But just what is Freedom actually about? Kakutani breaks it down to a single, chewy line:
Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary, Mr. Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal urges.
Franzen’s Freedom is out August 31 from Farar, Straus and Giroux.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Books That Sound Interesting, But That We’ll Probably Never Get Around to Actually Reading: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century

From the publisher’s Web site:
Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is generally considered the greatest American SF writer of the 20th century. A famous and bestselling author in later life, he started as a navy man and graduate of Annapolis who was forced to retire because of tuberculosis. A socialist politician in the 1930s, he became one of the sources of Libertarian politics in the USA in his later years. His most famous works include the Future History series (stories and novels collected in The Past Through Tomorrow and continued in later novels), Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
And here’s more, this time from a Tor/Forge news release:
Scholar William H. Patterson Jr. was offered unprecedented access to Heinlein’s letters, notes, family, and friends, and has spent years researching the significant occurrences and relationships that shaped the mind of one of America’s most celebrated science-fiction writers. Patterson sets out not only to honor Heinlein, but to give his fans (and those yet to discover him) an entertaining and illuminating portrait of the man and his legend.
All well and good, except that the book is 624 pages long -- and it’s only Volume 1 of a planned two-volume set.

READ MORE:Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium.”


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Interview: Justin Cronin

Today in January Magazine, contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum interviews Justin Cronin, author of the post-apocalyptic bestseller, The Passage.

Among other things, Cronin discusses how his life has changed since The Passage was published. These days, Cronin reports, he’s working harder than ever:
“Now I treat every day like a workday. I start work around nine o’clock in the morning, and I work until three, when the kids get home, and then I’ll do a second shift basically after everybody goes to bed. Somewhere between nine or ten I’ll go back out to the office until midnight or one. And the deeper you are in a book, the longer and weirder the hours get. So by the time I was finishing the book and doing the last draft of the book, I was the last man awake in Houston, Texas. I’ve always had to work around the fact that I have kids, and I work at home, so that’s the unmovable fact of my life. The nightowl thing suits me. There are other writers who get up at four or five in the morning and try to get most of their workday done by noon, and I’m not that guy, my rhythms aren’t like that.”
Read the full interview here.

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Children’s Books: Chester’s Masterpiece by Mélanie Watt

Award-winning Montreal-based author and illustrator Mélanie Watt has a lot to answer for. Since 2001, Watt has created armloads of books for KidsCan Press, bringing home many awards in the process. Young readers have enjoyed her Scaredy Squirrel series of picture books and a whole series on Learning with Animals.

More recently, Watt has been delighting young readers with the adventures of Chester the cat, beginning with Chester in 2007, following up with Chester’s Back in 2008. For his third outing, we find the ultimately creative creature back at it in Chester’s Masterpiece.

Here Watts’ whimsical illustrations and free-wheeling sense of story finds Chester determined to tell his own tale: if only he can get that pesky Melanie out of the way! What we end up with is a beautifully rendered commentary on the creative process... but not without some false starts and a great deal of fun. Recommended for ages four to eight.

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Biography: 7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin by James Sullivan

It's difficult to imagine a time when George Carlin (1937-2008) won’t be missed. He was more than a comedian. He commented on our life and times with a brutal honesty and an insight that cut through the sheep-like suits we humans can often don.

7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin, journalist and biographer James Sullivan’s intimate look at Carlin’s art and life, does not always crackle. He delves beyond what was often an explosive public persona and brings us elements of Carlin the man. It’s a rare and intimate portrait that not all fans will eat up. After all, for all his veneration as the country’s chief critic of counterculture, in his personal life, most often, there was a lot less going on. A couple of addictions, sure. But then he dealt with them. For the most part, Carlin worked very hard at making it all look so easy. He was a perfectionist and he studied and reworked and retooled all of the material he seemed to toss off without effort.
Like a master craftsman, Carlin worked with words. He held them up to the light. He inspected them, rubbed them, and whittled them. He worshipped them, in a way that he felt precious few products of the human mind deserved to be worshipped.
The book is, of course, named for Carlin’s best known routine, the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” which became better known as “Seven Dirty Words.” The routine first appeared on Carlin’s 1972 album Class Clown, but over the years it drew attention, controversy and eventually triggered a landmark supreme court ruling on broadcast indecency.

Sullivan’s portrait feels honest and his interpretations seem right on the mark. “To Carlin,” Sullivan writes, “American mediocrity was a real disappointment. We’ve sold our souls, he said, for cheap thrills and false beliefs.” There will never be another quite like him.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Art & Culture: David Choe

Much is made of the fact that David Choe is relatively young (he was born in 1976), is by some accounts homeless, that he dropped out of art school and did some sort of stint in a Chinese prison. What is said less often -- but what is immediately apparent -- is that Choe is brilliant, his talent so deep it can appear bottomless.

Identified as both a gallery and street artist, Choe himself says he can and will paint “anything.” Graffiti, murals, paintings, sketchbook pages, photographs, toys, t-shirts, collages, artwork created with blood. And more.

Though there are some scribblings in David Choe (Chronicle Books) they are probably not why anyone would buy this book. The depth of this work -- and the virtuosity -- are staggering. Unless you follow a certain type of work or a certain type of magazine or game, you may not recognize Choe’s name or his style. But leaf through David Choe and there is no going back. There is a raw and real energy in almost every one of the works chosen to be included in what is a reasonably massive book. It’s impossible to think that there isn’t something going on here. Something important. And something that, when you recognize it, you won’t be alone. ◊

Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area where he works in the high tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

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New This Week: With Friends Like These by Sally Koslow

The only thing really surprising about With Friends Like These (Ballantine) is how good it is. It could, quite easily, have gone either way.

Author Koslow (The Late Lamented Molly Marx) is an editor and journalist whose byline you will likely have seen if you read women’s magazines at all. (Oprah, McCall’s, Women’s Day and so on.) In short, she has the kind of pedigree that often produces books that are chirpy but empty. Which is why, in the end, With Friends Like These proves to be a pleasant surprise.

The book starts on a distressingly Sex in the City note. Jules, Chloe, Talia and Quincy begin their friendship in the early 1990s, connected by little more than their mutual need for an apartment in New York City, a place where housing tends to always be one of the central issues.
Before husbands, before babies,before life claimed other loyalties, it started with a wish. Each of them wanted a place to return to that they could call home, a nest where they could hatch and polish their dreams.

They didn’t say it even to themselves -- they might not have even realized it -- but most of all they wanted friends.
Despite this less than promising opening, With Friends Like These proves to be funny, smart and engaging, mostly because Koslow’s wit is real and her talent deep. With Friends Like These may not be a deeply memorable book, but readers will have no trouble at all imagining -- and casting -- the film version.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

New in Paperback: Why Does E=mc2?: (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

When Why Does E=mc2? (Da Capo) first came out in 2009, I was a big fan. In fact, the book was one of my personal choices for Best Books of 2009. Out last week in paperback, I like it no less now.

Particle physics professor Brian Cox and professor of theoretical physics, Jeff Forshaw are clearly trained to have the answers. But here's something that training as a physicist simply can not teach: they deliver their message not only clearly, but with a deep and resonant humor. In the preface they explain their message with the clarity that makes the book work so well:
Our aim in this book is to describe Einstein’s theory of space and time in the simplest way we can while at the same time revealing its profound beauty.
They manage to do this with both stories and questions, no mean feat but it keeps the reader drawn in and engaged. Exactly what does Einstein’s famous equation mean? How does time work? Are time and space the same thing? How about mass and energy? What would happen if we could travel at the speed of light? when Why Does E=mc2? manages to explain these things in simple, but not patronizing language, the whys and whatnots of particle physics and why it is -- or should be -- important to all of us.

Can I even begin to explain a portion of some of the theories and scientific principles covered in this book? Not a chance. But if you read Why Does E=mc2? it’ll all be deciphered for you in nice, elegant, and often humorous prose. I can’t say enough about it. ◊

David Middleton is a graphic designer and photographer and the art and culture editor of January Magazine.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Jonathan Franzen’s TIME

Today Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) joins an elite group of authors: he becomes one of a dozen novelists to grace the cover of TIME Magazine since Virginia Woolf made her cover appearance in 1937.

In a lengthy and informative piece, TIME’s Lev Grossman writes, “Franzen isn’t the richest or most famous living American novelist, but you could argue -- I would argue -- that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best. His third book, The Corrections, published in 2001, was the literary phenomenon of the decade. His fourth novel, Freedom, will arrive at the end of August. Like The Corrections, it’s the story of an American family, told with extraordinary power and richness.”

Grossman’s TIME piece about Franzen is here. January Magazine’s 2001 review of The Corrections is here.

The dozen authors to ever grace the cover of TIME:
  • Virginia Woolf (1937)
  • William Faulkner (1939)
  • Robert Frost (1950)
  • James Baldwin (1963)
  • John Updike (1968)
  • Norman Mailer (1973)
  • Alexander Solzhentisyn (1974)
  • John Le Carre (1977)
  • Michael Crighton (1995)
  • Toni Morrison (1998)
  • Stephen King (2000)
  • Jonathan Franzen (2010)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Biography: Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan

Today in January Magazine’s biography section, contributing editor Andi Shechter reviews Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan. Says Shechter:
In Cooking Dirty author Jason Sheehan has a kick-ass way of expressing himself and explains the why of a cook’s love of food, expresses passion and tells the reader why anyone would do what he did for years; work in exhausting, overheated, nasty kitchens full of egos, burns and yelling and make meals for people. And you get it.

Sheehan hid cooking magazines under his bed the way other adolescent boys hide skin mags. He comes across, often, as an utter mess. A college drop-out, he smokes, drinks, drugs and messes up. He had, it seemed, for most of his life, no idea what to be as an adult. He didn't own a bed. You read his honest narrative and think "I so do not want this guy to get anywhere near my food."
The full review is here.

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Fiction: The Season of Risks by Susan Hubbard

For me there was something intriguing in the idea of an “ethical vampire novel.” It implies -- no states -- a moral superiority. Were other vampire novels unethical, then? Or even antithetical? And would the book, as the publisher promised, “encourage readers to re-examine the idea of vampirism and to consider the social, environmental and spiritual issues of immortality”? I knew I’d have to answer these questions for myself and there was only one way: I grabbed a copy of The Season of Risks (Simon & Schuster), dove in and didn’t look back.

And so, for me, the truth was quick to uncover: after a very short time reading, whatever was initially meant by “ethical vampire” didn’t matter. The Season of Risks is stylish, sensuous and poetic. The language lilts and the story flows. If there were ethical battles being waged, I didn’t notice them: at least, not any more than one usually does when fiction of this nature is unfolding. This territory is both fraught and well worn. Adding something new to the oeuvre and unusual and perhaps not truly to be expected. Or even, when one thinks of it, strictly necessary. What do you want when you pick up a book like this? Entertainment, perhaps escape. The Season of Risks delivers profoundly on both counts. What else matters?

Ariella Montero is a classic fish out of water. As a hybrid half human, half vampire, even she doesn’t understand all of the things she is capable of or all of what her parentage might mean.
The season of risks began with the summer of love. That was my name for it: a time of strong feelings that changed quickly, from bliss, to embarrassment, to anxiety.
The first two books in English prof Hubbard’s Ethical Vampire series were aimed at young adults, while this one has been pitched straight at a wider audience. Published in trade paper, with a reading group guide included, it seems possible Simon & Schuster have a larger audience in mind, as well. The Season of Risks deserves it. ◊

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

America’s Most Overrated Writers

Who are America’s most overrated writers? Houston-based author, poet and critic, Anis Shivani, attempts to set us straight in an essay for the Huffington Post. His list will surprise a lot of people, as it includes some of the very top names in contemporary American literature including Amy Tan, Junot Diaz, Jjumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Safran Foer and William T. Vollmann who gets singled out for special treatment. In all, 15 of America’s best known voices make Shivani’s personal overrated writers list.

While the list is obviously and of necessity a subjective one, Shivani’s essay asks some interesting questions and raises some thought-provoking points, even if not all of it holds water:
Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).
Shivani posits that there are many facets to this mystery, one of them being that it may no longer even be possiblefor us mere mortals to tell the difference between writing that is good and other types. To that end he sets out to set us straight:
Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.
It’s difficult not to think that at least some of this is sour grapes. After all, Shivani’s single venture into book-length publication -- an ambitious collection of short stories which publisher Black Lawrence Press says “addresses the limitations of prevalent models of multiculturalism under conditions of stress,” was largely ignored when it was released late in October 2009. And it may well be a marvelous, even earth-shatteringly good collection but, even so, few people would have reason to know that as the book was given a limited push. Which, when you think about it, more or less makes this author’s point. In any case, Shivani’s HuffPost piece is thought-provoking and it’s here.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Cookbooks: How to Cook Like a Top Chef foreword by Rick Bayliss

Though the recipes included in this companion book to the Bravo series could stand on their own, those that don’t watch Top Chef are unlikely to really care. Let’s face it: who but Top Chef fanboys and girls are likely to care much about John Besh’s Frozen Cauliflower Blintz or Nild Noren’s Salmon with Napa Cabbage and Chorizo and, honestly? Andrew’s Squid Ceviche with Yuzu-Mint Glacier looks so astonishingly unappealing, it’s difficult to imagine anyone would care about it at all.

So those who haven’t been following Top Chef the television series will likely want to give How to Cook Like a Top Chef (Chronicle Books) a miss. But Top Chef is one of the top-rated cooking shows of all time so there’s a chance you have been watching and, if you have, well, despite its sometimes silly asides and somewhat gratuitous bios, How to Cook Like a Top Chef is quite an excellent cookbook. And in addition to some very well-described and illustrated recipes -- many for foods you will have seen prepared on the show -- How to Cook Like a Top Chef takes its title seriously enough to share basic knife and other kitchen skills in a well-illustrated section.

All in all, How to Cook Like a Top Chef is an interesting and useful cookbook. If you have never watched the show you will not care about that and, in all truth, there are cookbooks that would be more interesting and enlightening than this one. For fans of the show, however, this is the real deal: all of television’s glitz and glamour packed in a brightly designed and well-illustrated book.

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SF/F: Secrets of the Sands by Leona Wisoker

Ten years ago Leona Wisoker’s debut novel -- the first book in a series -- would have been published to much fanfare by a large house. Secrets of the Sands (Mercury Retrograde Press) has the kind of clarity of voice and vision and extreme depth of scope that one associates with large publishing companies and media fanfare. It’s a very, very good first book. But this is the new millennium and -- in the publishing industry -- times are shaky. While it saddens me that a work of this calibre is unlikely to get the attention it deserves, I’m heartened to see small presses picking up some of the slack from their less confident big brothers. Their loss, as one might say. And cream tends to rise. And then you read Secrets of the Sands. And here we are.

I know almost nothing about Virginia-based writer Wisoker other than the fact that she has an “extraordinarily patient husband,” two large dogs and that she seldom vacuums. It’s not enough information, but after reading her debut work, it’s not difficult to imagine her deeply lost in the collection of details and the complete immersion in a world of her own creation.

Like all very good works of fantasy, Secrets of the Sands is a complete re-imagining of the world and society. Unlike science fiction, that can offer distinction with a slight shift of the light, fantasy -- properly put down -- carries us away completely. It’s what enchants us so about The Hobbit an what continues to rivet us about the work of George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb. They tell stories, sure: but also they recreate every aspect of what we hold dear and familiar and it is with these incredible sleights of hand that we come to see ourselves better and more clearly.

Desert Lord Cafad Scratha is dedicated to catching the people who murdered his family when he was but a child. But the king has other ideas and he tries to tame the southern lord. As a result, Scratha goes underground under a false identity. This throws the southern lands into chaos and turns the lives of Scratha and the tightest portion of his cadre into confusion. And it’s an opening move. Secrets of the Sands is but Book One of Wisoker’s “Children of the Desert” series. I’m not sure where this series will take us, but I know it’s a bus I’ll be on.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Gone Viral: We Were No Longer “Good Society”

Into a blizzard of literary mash-ups comes what may be the most succinct and amusing one yet: Jane Austen’s Fight Club, a fake trailer for a movie that never-will-be (one hopes!) based on Chuck Palahniuk’s brilliant 1996 debut novel, Fight Club, (made into a movie starring Edward Norton and a then-still-watchable Brad Pitt in 1999) and the special sense and sensibility that is Jane Austen.

Though it could use a bit more blood and pain, the video is funny and quite good, once you get past the mostly dreadful British accents.

Hat tip to the Chicago Tribune.

Barnes & Noble Up for Sale

When Barnes & Noble announced late yesterday afternoon that its board was putting the 720-store chain on the market, The New York Times reported that it could mean trouble for an industry that is already flailing under signs of great change:
The news surprised analysts and alarmed publishers, who have watched as the book business has increasingly shifted to online retailers and e-book sales, leaving both chains and independent sellers struggling.

Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest book chain with 720 stores, said that its board believed the stock was “significantly undervalued” and that it had set up a special committee to review its options.
Nor have the challenges come only from online:
For years, Barnes & Noble has been battered by large shifts in the publishing industry and the retail environment. Book sales have moved toward big-box stores like Costco, Wal-Mart and Target, and away from mall-based stores like B. Dalton, which Barnes & Noble acquired in the late 1980s.

“There’s been a long series of pressures,” said David Schick, managing director at Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore. “The market has not been kind to bookstores, and it’s for new reasons like competition with Apple and Amazon, and it’s for old reasons, like what we believe has been a decline in reading for the last 20 years. Americans have devoted less of what we call media time to books.”
Despite a possible price tag of around $700 million, there are some potential buyers on the horizon. Barnes & Noble chairman, Leonard Riggio, told The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that he was considering putting together a group of investors. And major B&N investor Ron Burkle who currently holds 19 per cent of the company, has been trying to gain a larger share.

The major news gatherers have all begun their reportage, including the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

New Today: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is best known for a staggering pile of well-researched and loved historical novels, Gregory is perhaps best known for 2002’s The Other Boleyn Girl, made into a successful movie in 2008 starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana.

Gregory, who was born in Kenya, holds a doctorate in 18th century literature, didn’t set out to be an author. As she told January Magazine last year, “I never really wanted to be a writer, I wrote little stories from early childhood, but I did not know I would make my living from writing fiction until my first book was accepted by a publisher. Even then, I thought I would do it alongside my chosen profession of teaching history. But the history post never came up, and the next book did.”

Fifteen novels later, Gregory is a force to reckoned with in international publishing and her latest, The Red Queen (Simon and Schuster) is an event. Gregory’s biggest fans will rejoice to find that here, once again, the author is revisiting the Tudors. This time out she fictionalizes the life of Henry VIII’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort who, Gregory posits, was relentless in her drive to see her son on the throne.

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Non-Fiction: Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math by Alex Bellos

The title alone earns it a second look. With that title Here’s Looking at Euclid (Free Press) promises to deliver the impossible: math that is fun. Who knew it could even be done?

Well, actually, author Alex Bellos did. Bellos claims that, as a child, he was good at both writing and math (a combination many -- myself included -- would have thought was impossible). After graduating from Oxford with degrees in math and philosophy he became a journalist. And where do you go from there? Here’s Looking at Euclid.
When writing this book, my motivation was at all time to communicate the excitement and wonder of mathematical discovery. I also wanted to show that mathematicians can be funny.
And with this impossible goal in mind, Bellos moved forward and achieved it. Here’s Looking at Euclid is one of those rare and wonderful books: it manages to entertain, enlighten and engage on every level. With stories and numbers, Bellos actually does manage to achieve his goal and Here’s Looking at Euclid is reaching international audiences, conveying not only excitement, but philosophical satisfaction in numbers. There are aspects of geometry -- and PI and x-factor and so much else -- that you’ll never look at the same way again. ◊

Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Cookbooks: The Complete Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie

If you’re serious about your local organic food and your 100 mile diet, in many parts of North America, the only way to truly go whole hog is with a root cellar. And according to authors Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie, the root cellar isn’t just for grandma anymore. In The Complete Root Cellar Book (Robert Rose) they take a complete look not only at root cellaring, but how to plan and build one, how to make it work, how to select the fruits and vegetables you will store there and -- finally -- how to cook the delicious cold stored vegetables you eventually remove.
While root cellars are not convenient in the typical, microwavable sense, they do allow us to connect personally with food in ways nothing else can match. Modern food purveyors are starting to recognize our longing for deeper food experiences, enticing us with new apple varieties, vegetables from Asia and fascinating organic foods with a story behind them. But the system’s only able to go so far, and many of us are left wanting more.
And more, in this instance, is -- in many ways -- less. Maxwell and Mackenzie’s root cellars are not the simple hole in the ground you might be imagining. Rather, they are intricate and carefully conceived food storage systems: 21st century root cellars, if you will.
A good cellar is the gateway to experiences and a food philosophy that’s more important to some of us than 24/7 wall-to-wall convenience.
Even so, if the complicated plans included don't appeal, the authors offer some simpler options and there's even a section called Root Cellars for Condos, Townhouses and Warm Climates. And then, after discussing myriad storage options and possibilities, some food: and much of it is too good to be buried in a book that, by its nature, will always have a somewhat limited appeal. Clearly, Warm Fennel and Shiitake Mushroom Salad, Spice-Roasted Turnip and Beet Batons and Brussel Sprouts in Browned Butter with Pine Nuts all deserve the widest possible following.

In all ways, The Complete Root Cellar Book is a very good volume. One that covers every aspect of its topic in a thorough and complete way. ◊

Linda L. Richards is an author and journalist and editor of January Magazine.

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“Kindle Killer” Not Quite Ready for Prime Time? Apple iPad Heading for Court

Apple is facing a class action suit from consumers who feel Apple’s claim that “reading on the iPad is just like reading a book,” is untrue. From MarketWatch:
The suit alleges that the iPad, launched in April of this year, shuts down from overheating under normal operating conditions, even far below Apple's advertised temperature limits, making the product virtually unusable for many of its advertised functions.

“The iPad was touted as a revolutionary invention -- a product that Apple claimed could be used inside or outside and for purposes such as playing games and reading e-books,” claim the attorneys at Scott Cole & Associates, the law firm that filed the action. “Books and board games don’t close up after a few minutes of use and require you to stick them in a refrigerator to cool off.”
Issues of not-quite-bookishness might explain, at least in part, why Kindle enthusiasts are so keen to hang onto their dedicated reading device. The Kindle, after all and despite its flaws, has always performed pretty much like a book. From e-reads:
How has Amazon endured against the attacking swarm of competitors and corporate adversaries? Among the many reasons are that it’s an elegant product with superb functionality, it’s backed by first-rate service, its library is all but infinite, its name has become as branded as Band-Aid or Frigidaire, its list price has remained competitive, and, like a wasp laying eggs in its living victims, Amazon has embedded its kindle apps in the bowels of its rivals.
Meanwhile, with Amazon’s profits showing a 45 per cent increase over last year and Random House chief executive quoted as saying that the house expects electronic book sales to account for over 10 per cent of their gross revenue by 2011 and as much as 50 per cent by 2015, one thing is certain: while the battle for best e-book reader will continue into the foreseeable future, that future will certainly contain electronic books.