Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Favorite for 2010 Nobel

We know that the Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced on a Thursday in October, though we don’t know which one. Beyond that, what do we know? According to The Complete Review, probably not very much.
So while academician-favorites are always considered ... it is very hit and miss as to who else is in the mix of authors-under-consideration. Every year a few submitted names leak out, as local institutions and worthies (usually from smaller countries that don't get much literary attention) show off their (supposed) influence; among this year's batch Paraguayan Néstor Amarilla has attracted a bit of notice ... leading Unibet to mistakenly make him the 4/1 favorite to take the prize....
Complete Review discusses long shots and those likely to make the shortlist and even examines the authors whom the bookmakers have given much better odds than last year. Complete Review’s own favorite for the Nobel shortlist includes Bella Akhmadulina, A.S. Byatt, Les Murray, Michel Tournier and Adam Zagajewski.

Meanwhile, the Nobel website reminds us that a great deal is at stake:
The honoured author receives the prize (10 million SEK in 2007) from the hands of the King in Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10th – Nobel Day.
The complete list of nobel laureates in literature -- dating back to France’s Sully Prudhomme in 1901, is here.

Where Are the Novels That Ooze Rococo?

In an era of international economic uncertainty, you’d think the novels we love would be rich and decadent. Instead, they are Spartan in spirit and nature. In the Guardian book blog, John Lucas phrases it all succinctly -- almost decandently, really. It’s too bad not all of what he writes holds water.
“What has happened to the great tradition of the decadent novel?” Lee Brackstone asks in a recent blog for Faber, bemoaning the dominance of realism and naturalism in contemporary fiction. Although he finds the decadent spirit alive and well in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, his question still holds: Pierre aside, can it really be that the grand heritage of the fin de siecle writers has been so short-lived, especially when their arch, satirical mode is needed now more than ever?
So is literary decadence dead? We don’t think so. What about you?

Cookbooks: The Homesteader’s Kitchen by Robin Burnside

If the homespun quality of Robin Burnside’s The Homesteader’s Kitchen (Gibbs Smith) seems a little disingenuous, there’s a reason for that; and we’re all the richer for it.

While Burnside has been living aspects of the homesteader’s life in Carmel, California, since 1991, there’s more at play here than that. Burnside is a kitchen pro, who happens -- also and genuinely -- to care about fresh and wholesome foods, simply prepared. Burnside was the co-founder, chef and baker at Carmel Café and Big Sur’s Café Amphora and she ran the food services at the Esalen Institute for five years. Burnside’s book seems to speak of all of these aspects of her life: the caring parent and grandparent, the professional foodie, the caring Californian, deeply engaged with preserving the Earth and her flavors. As Burnside says in her introduction:
This book is the fruit of my personal and professional journey preparing nutritious and delicious food for myself, my family, and my community -- a passion that began in my teens and evolved in a forty-year culinary career.
The Homesteader’s Kitchen is filled with recipes and lore about fresh and contemporary food as perfected by Burnside and her contemporaries in California over the last three decades. Influences are international and varied, flavors strong and rich. The recipes reach into all aspects of kitchen preparation, but there is a strong, if unstated, vegetarian component to the book and the section that deals with meat and fish is both small and very good.

It strikes me that this is food the way most of us in the west are enjoying it now: fresh, focused and thoughtful. With an emphasis on wonderful ingredients and big flavors. The Homesteader’s Kitchen is a very good book. ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Art & Culture: Surfer Magazine: 50 Years

There’s something extraordinary about Surfer Magazine: 50 Years (Chronicle Books). Or maybe it’s several things. One is, it makes you think about a half century of surfing culture. It forces you to think about a sport that has always seemed fresh and exciting as something... well... historical.

And, two: for something... well... historical Surfer Magazine: 50 Years is astonishingly fresh. And exciting. The book is beautifully designed, well edited and -- of course -- gorgeously illustrated. The whole production feels carefully considered and properly executed: very much like a LIFE Magazine with a fresher, more youthful vibe. The message is clear, though apparently unconscious: we may be half a century old, the subtext seems to say, but we’ve barely gotten started.

As much as anything, the subject matter must play a part in this. That plus a seasoned, talented team. Surfer Magazine is, of course, the seminal surfing mag of all time. If anyone has an archive on this topic, it’s here. And if anyone is in a position to offer documentation on the history of the sport, it’s these guys. And they do a credible job of it in Surfer Magazine: 50 Years.

And offerings from Surfer Magazine’s archives would probably have been enough, but they’ve dug somewhat deeper; given something more.

Surfer Magazine: 50 Years
collects the writing and recollections of talent, past and present and creates a chronicle of the history of the sport. Those who enjoy extreme sport books will like Surfer Magazine: 50 Years. Those who love surfing will be blown away. ◊

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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Future of Electronic Books: Web-Based?

Amazon has announced a beta version of its web-based e-book reader. If the online bookseller is successful with Kindle for the Web, it’s an innovation that may well change the face of the e-book in a permanent way. From an announcement made yesterday: (NASDAQ: AMZN) today introduced the beta version of “Kindle for the Web,” making it even easier for customers to discover new books and authors by sampling Kindle books directly through web browsers - -no installation or downloading required. Amazon is also inviting bloggers and website owners who are participants in the Amazon Associates Program to be part of Kindle for the Web by embedding samples of Kindle books on their websites. These website owners will earn referral fees from Amazon when customers complete book purchases using the links on their websites. More information about Kindle for the Web and how to embed Kindle book samples is available at

Customers simply click the “Read first chapter FREE” button on a book product page on Amazon or on other websites, and the first chapter will open within the web page. Customers can change the font size and line spacing, adjust the background color, and share their favorite books with friends and family via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail -- all without leaving the book in the browser.
The Register (“Biting the Hand that Feeds IT”) had this to say:
As Amazon races against Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, et al to see who can be first to completely destroy the neighborhood bookstore, Kindle for the Web gives it a leg up: making it easier for authors to promote -- and make a bit more cash from -- their own books might just prove to be a formidable marketing strategy.
You can try the technology out for yourself here.

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Fiction: For a Modest Fee by Freda Jackson

Gender equality -- and otherwise -- on the Canadian prairies is one of the major themes of For a Modest Fee (Touchwood). A doctor’s daughter is forced to pick up the reins he drops when he dies of a heart attack in a remote Alberta town in the summer of 1907.

If equality and issues surrounding gender play an important role in the story, they certainly don’t dominate all of it. There is, for example, the poise and poetry of a small, evolving town and the community of people who develop with it.

Readers who enjoyed Jackson’s 2007 debut, Searching for Billie, will already have noted this author’s eye for detail and care and respect for history. These things contribute again to making For a Modest Fee an enjoyable and illuminating read. ◊

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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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New This Month: Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin

Debut novelist Andrew Ervin’s clear, muscular voice never misses a step in Extraordinary Renditions (Coffee House Press) three connected stories that converge skillfully into a novel.

Ervin tackles all the big issues in Extraordinary Renditions: life and death, war and peace, music and silence in a contemporary Budapest that is down-at-the-heels and clearly loved for its tawdriness by the author. “What amazed me the most about Hungary is that history is not history there,” he said recently in an interview. “The events of the past are still present every single day, at every minute, in ways I couldn't even imagine at first.” Extraordinary Renditions teems with this life and light.

The lives of three very different expatriates come together on Independence Day, entwining their lives in ways they don’t really see and can never understand. A solider, an aspiring musician and a composer and Holocaust survivor struggle for their own independence and the freedom, in a sense, to breath deeply.

There is a lyrical muscularity in Ervin’s writing that, at times, leaves the reader breathless. Extraordinary Renditions is tightly plotted and brilliantly composed. A very good book and, one hopes, a taste of things to come.

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New Today: You’re Grounded Forever... But First Let’s Go Shopping by Susan Shapiro Barash

Author and gender studies teacher Susan Shapiro Barash examines the fraught mother-daughter relationship in You’re Grounded Forever... But First Let’s Go Shopping (St. Martin’s Press). Don’t let the whimsical title fool you: there’s not very much that’s funny in You’re Grounded Forever. Here, for example, Barash talks about the women she interviewed for the book:
What was universal in the voices of the mothers with whom I spoke was their despair, their sense that it should be different, that their efforts seemed in vain when they considered the results. And the haunting questions: Had they done what they could for their daughters? Had their decisions and guidance been helpful or a hindrance in the long run?
With this much pressure, Barash tells us, raising daughters is difficult, especially since, “Past generations’ rigid rules for mothering girls have been replaced by rules encouraging a mother who is more of a pushover -- cushy, with a coddling mentality. Even mothers who think they can micromanage their daughters’ lives and seem to have an edge seem to struggle to achieve boundaries.”

If all of this is true, one must ask, what’s a mother to do? In truth, Barash spends more time dissecting the problem than she does in sharing big solutions. Although one gets the feeling that this may be the nature of the beast: mothers and daughters doomed forever in a sort of ageless and dangerous dance.

Though, in fairness, “doomed” may be too strong a word. Relax, Barash seems to say: there is no panacea. Love your daughters right, keep them safe but treat them fairly and trust them to find their way.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Fiction: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, January editor Linda L. Richards reviews the much ballyhooed Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Says Richards:
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom begins with a deceptively narrow focus. The life of a single family -- the Berglunds of St. Paul, Minnsesota -- viewed from a distance. The neighborhood they choose. The house they buy and love. The children they grow in the house and how all four Berglunds fit into the neighborhood.

When the topic -- the vision -- seems nearly exhausted, the field narrows still further. Now we see things from Patty Berglund’s view. But we go back still further and see things in sharp relief and great detail. Her childhood -- the things that shaped her. Her college days. The athletics that gave her life meaning. The female stalker who unexpectedly provided her life with the form it will ultimately take. Her distant love of a moody musician. Her actual love of his roommate, Walter Berglund, and the life the couple eventually forge together. In a neighborhood. In a house.

And here, perhaps one third into
Freedom, it seems as though it will all either drone on endlessly or all begin again. At this point, Freedom seems to be teetering towards tedious. And then it goes somewhere else.
The full review is here.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quote of the Week: William Faulkner

“It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.”
William Faulkner was born on this day in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, but was mainly raised in nearby Oxford. From Writer’s Almanac:
Besides being annoyed at him when they thought he mocked their town, the residents of Oxford didn’t pay much attention to Faulkner. They called him “The Count” because they thought he acted too high and mighty, and later they called him “Count No-Count” when they thought he was acting poorly (in other words, drinking too much). He said: “Some folks wouldn't even speak when they passed me on the street. Then MGM came to town to film Intruder in the Dust, and that made some difference because it meant I’d brought money into Oxford. But it wasn’t until the Nobel Prize that they really thawed out. They couldn’t understand my books, but they could understand thirty thousand dollars.” They began to refer to him affectionately as “that writin’ man of Oxford.” But Faulkner said that he only had four local fans who actually read his books: one professor, one lawyer, one doctor, and his mother.

Among Faulkner’s many books are The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Go Down, Moses (1942).
Faulkner died on July 6, 1962.

Writer’s Almanac is here. The “definitive Internet guide to Faulkner” is here. Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, from YouTube, is below.


Fiction: Edith’s War by Andrew Smith

It is not widely known that, during the Second World War, thousands of Italians in Britain were interred. Edith’s War (Axiom) tells that story from the viewpoint of a woman in Blitz-plagued Britain. Edith Maguire is awakened from apolitical torpor when the lives of her Italian neighbors are forever altered by war.

Edith’s War is told in a sliding timeline: in the near present day we see the effect from the viewpoint of Edith’s sons, Shamus and Will. In 1940, their mother is shocked to see the changes that fear manifest on her neighborhood... and her neighbors: the cause.

Though author Andrew Smith’s work has been included in the prestigious Journey Prize Anthology and shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards, there is a stilted quality to his voice in Edith’s War that keeps the reader at a distance. Still, this is fascinating material and Smith covers it well enough.

Edith’s War
is well worth reading: the book is entertaining and informative, even if the prose never quite soars.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Art & Culture: The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks by Bethany Keeley

I blame it on the untold number of ill-equipped grade school teachers who gave us the impression that all this punctuation stuff was somehow ephemeral. They gave us the idea that there was something soft and fuzzy around the edges of punctuation. That the absolutes of punctuation were sort of granular. That it wasn’t so much that we needed to find the right way or the wrong way, as long as we did it their way, we’d be go to go.

And so the result: more people than not seem completely undone by even super common issues of punctuation. Where to use a comma and -- just as confusing -- where not to. Should the choice be an en-dash or an em-dash... and what the hell is the difference between them, anyway? And colons and semi-colons? Most people pushed those right out the window before they ever got their license to drive.

Into this fray of confusion and misunderstanding comes The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks (Chronicle), a book -- based on a blog -- that celebrates hilarious misuses of the common quote. Rest assured: you will not exit The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks with a better understanding of punctuation and how to use it more powerfully in your life. But you will laugh. Sometimes you will laugh a lot.

“‘Hot’ Water is Very ‘Hot’” one sign tells us.

“Spread the word, peanuts are ‘good’ for you,” says another.

And I love this photo/cutline combo. The cutline says, “Three little words that become deeply unsettling with the addition of quotation marks.” The words in question? “We have ‘soup.’”

You (hopefully) won’t look at quotation marks the same way again. Happy Punctuation Day! ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


Appeal of the Repellent

Brooklyn author and veteran Rap Sheet and January Magazine contributor Anthony Rainone alerts us to a presentation he will moderate on Wednesday, January 19, of next year at New York City’s Mid-Manhattan Library. Bearing the title “Without Conscience: Why Psychopaths Make Such Interesting Characters,” this might not be a discussion for everyone, but we’d certainly like to listen in. Rainone’s fellow panelists will include novelists Wallace Stroby and Wendy Corsi Staub.

Click here for more information.

Children’s Books: Spork by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault

Spork’s mother was a spoon and his father was a fork, the resulting upheaval seems inevitable. After all, where does Spork fit? He is neither spoon nor fork, something that creates a problem when we first arrive:
In his kitchen, forks were forks and spoons were spoons. Cutlery customs were followed closely. Mixing was uncommon.
Spork, as a result and somewhat predictably, doesn’t easily fit into the cutlery drawer. Just what is he? He goes through a period of well-illustrated turmoil and indecision, that culminates in the arrival of the answer to all of Spork’s questions and, in the end, he discovers exactly where he fits.

Author Kyo Maclear calls herself a spork. From her bio: “The daughter of a British father and a Japanese mother, she conceived the story of this mixed utensil with her husband to commemorate the birth of their first son.”

While Spork (Kids Can Press) is Maclear’s first book, illustrator Isabelle Arsenault is a talented veteran who has brought her whimsical talents to many books and even won the Governor General’s Award for illustration. Spork is sweetly whimsical and non-preachy.

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“Dash Out and Celebrate”

National Punctuation Day was founded in 2004 by journalist Jeff Rubin. The day is intended to shine an international spotlight on the use -- and misuse -- of punctuation around the world.

This year, the very best use I’ve seen of National Punctuation Day comes from PoynterOnline, where Joe Grimm offers tips for avoiding common punctuation errors on resumes.
A lot of job applicants could help themselves out if they paid better attention to punctuation. Resumes are tricky because they are so heavily formatted with indents and boldface type that some of the usual rules for punctuation can be suspended on the resume.
Suspensions notwithstanding, Grimm goes ahead and helps students right the wrongs. His piece is here, while The Chicago Tribune doesn’t offer much beyond “Dash right out and celebrate.” (Groan. No wonder the newspaper industry is in so much trouble.) Still, that’s not as bad as Suite101, who let readers know that “National Punctuation Day Raises a Mighty Bracket.” And, of course, all the questions are answered and the mysteries solved at the official National Punctuation Day website.

Beating A Dragon Tattoo

Today on Blue Coupe, January Magazine contributing editor Tony Buchsbaum explores the music of the film versions of Stieg Larsson’s remarkable books:
What with the global mania about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, wasn’t it only a matter of time before we had the film scores released on CD? Well, Salander fans, wait no more. Composer Jacob Groth’s dark, twisty, and highly thematic scores for all three films are now available on two discs from two different labels.
Buchsbaum’s piece is here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cookbooks: Time for Dinner by Pilar Guzmán, Jenny Rosenstarch and Alanna Stang

Though Time for Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration and Recipes for Family Meals Every Night of the Week (Chronicle Books) is a cookbook, it’s also something of a battle plan. The object, as the subtitle suggests, is to get through the whole week without breaking down and eating out. A warning label as the book begins explains the strategy:
What you are holding in your hand is more planned playbook than cookbook. It takes into account that some days, you feel like Supermom, ready to prep four days’ worth of meals; and some days, it’s all you can do to slather a little peanut butter and jelly on bread and, yes, call it dinner.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting book doesn’t present much in the way of haute cuisine. On the other hand, there really are lots of great suggestions for getting healthy and nutritious meals on the table, pronto.

The chapter headings tell their own story: “If I Could Just Make it to Wednesday,” “I Want to Have a Family Dinner Where We All Eat the Same Meal,” “Do Sandwiches Count?” (Hint: they do.) “I Want to Use What I Already Have,” and “Let’s All Have a Playdate.” The first chapter is, in some ways, the most important: “The Family Kitchen” explains what should be where in your kitchen to help you get the meals out as easily as possible.

For the most part, recipes here are simple, some almost to the point of crude. Clearly Ice-Cube Tray Sushi isn’t going to win any iron chef awards, but it gets the job done, and fast. Ditto Ham & Pickles on Ficelle, the one that might well be a serious contender for Simplest Recipe in the World Award:
1. Spread the butter evenly on the bread.
2. Divide the ham and cornichons evenly between the wedges [of bread]. Serve with grape tomatoes if desired.
While all of the recipes are intended to be easy to follow, most are not quite as simple as that one and many call for actual cooking, with heat.

There is a great deal of innovation in this book as well as much gentle instructing. If you’ve ever stood at your fridge pondering while a preschooler tugged on you, asking what was for supper in a plaintive voice that filled you with dread, then you simply must have Time for Dinner. It might even change your life. ◊

Monica Stark is an American writer and editor and a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.

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Art & Culture: New York at Night by Jason Hawkes

You know the skyline. And, a lot of these buildings? You know their shape by heart. Even so, you’ve never seen them like this before, with the twinned effects of distance and darkness offering a softening blur.

New York at Night (Merrell) is not the first coffee-table book to be photographed by British aerial photographer Jason Hawkes. And judging by how well the franchise Hawkes is crafting has been received, I doubt it will be the last. Hawkes is also the author of Britain from Above and London at Night. But what city beyond New York could offer up quite this transformation? With the familiar landmarks here lovingly exploited and seen in a new and entirely different way.

There is an otherworldly perfection to the New York City Hawkes shows us. A sort of science fiction glow. “This is how Jason Hawkes has transformed New York,” writes Christopher Gray in an introduction, “from Hyde to Jekyll, simply by changing his flight plan to the off hours.”

Though there is, of course, more to it than that. Hawkes has specialized in aerial photography since he began his career. He understands the business of shooting from the air so well, he makes it looks... well, as easy as filing a new flight plan. But there really is much more to it than that.

In a concluding chapter, “The Photographer’s Viewpoint,” Hawkes himself shares a bit of what’s involved. He talks about overcoming vibration and stabilizing his cameras; decisions about shutter speeds and how digital photography has altered the way he shoots. Photography aficionados will find much of interest in this section. The rest of us will likely skip this view of the man behind the curtain. There’s so much that is magic in New York at Night. It’s enough to be transformed by Hawkes’ view of the city that really never does sleep.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New Today: The Exile: an Outlander Graphic Novel by Diana Gabaldon

One can’t help but wonder who will be the market for The Exile (DelRey), the first graphic novel from mega-bestselling author Diana Gabaldon.

Gabaldon’s Outlander series is well-known and well-loved... but mostly not by regular readers of graphic novels.

That said, The Exile is beautifully written and realized, and the artwork -- by Hoang Nguyen (Metal Militia) -- hits just the right notes of dreamy mysticism to illustrate Gabaldon’s historical, time-traveling stories.

Interestingly, The Exile is told partly from the viewpoint of Jamie, the lead male character in the Outlander novels, which are usually told from the view of Jamie’s wife, Claire. Whether this was to accommodate the largely male graphic novel readership or simply so that Gabladon could change things up is unclear. Either way, my own misgivings aside, it’s clear that The Exile is going to be a huge seller. As always, everything Gabaldon touches turns to Scottish gold.

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Non-Fiction: The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller

The first and most obvious question, when faced with The Smart Swarm (Avery), is what is a National Geographic editor going to have to share with me about business that I’m going to care about? Because, from the first, it is clear that the book is intended for those interested in reading business texts. The subtitle conforms this thought even while it more or less answers the question: “How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done.”

Broken down completely, The Smart Swarm first shows us how close study of the lives of colonizing insects has taught experts much about human nature and interactions. Next, author Peter Miller, shows us how their smart swarming techniques can enhance our businesses and our lives. From the introduction:
As everyday life grows more complicated, we increasingly find ourselves facing the same problems of uncertainty, complexity, and change, drowning in too much information, bombarded with too much instant feedback, facing too many interconnected decisions. Whether we realize it or not, we too are caught up in worlds of collective phenomena that make it more difficult than ever to guide our companies, communities, and families with confidence.
Miller is a seasoned journalist and he writes compellingly. Much of the information he shares with us in The Smart Swarm is genuinely fascinating. While I enjoyed the book greatly, I found myself chewing it over for days after I was done and I’m still not sure I’ve fully parsed what I found there. There are times that I feel contemporary humans act too much like sheep. If, as Miller suggests, we also in some ways act like ants or bees, is there any hope for true intellectual independance? And, sure: 500,000 heads are better than one, but do we really have to have our noses rubbed in it?

At the end of the day, I can’t help feeling that Smart Swarm needs closer scrutiny. Though it documents a lot of truly interesting work, I’m not sure there’s enough substance here to give the topic staying power.

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A Very Morlock Birthday

British born author H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds, The Time Machine), best known as the father of science fiction, was born on this day in 1866. From Writer’s Almanac:
It’s the birthday of science fiction writer H.G. Wells, born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England (1866). He grew up poor, and failed at being a draper's apprentice and pharmacist's apprentice. Eventually, he ended up in teaching. He started writing articles about politics and science, and occasional short stories, and he was working on articles about the possibilities of extra dimensions when his editor suggested he turn the ideas from his articles into fiction. So in 1895, he published The Time Machine, a short novel about a protagonist called only The Time Traveler, who builds a time machine and finds himself in a world where people have evolved into two distinct species, the workers called the Morlocks and the useless upper class, the Eloi.

Wells was just 29 when The Time Machine was published. It was a big hit, and he became a prolific and popular writer. In the next three years, he wrote The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Wheels of Chance (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).
The Writer’s Almanac entry is here. An Online Literature profile of Wells is here.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Pain of Being a Writer

Though these days, hardly anyone gets papercuts, there are still occupational hazards in the writer’s life. Author and journalist Ben Myers explores the most common one on the Guardian book blog:
It pains me to write this -- literally. My neck is crooked, one of my wrists feels like it has been trapped in a car door and there's a rapidly calcifying knot of nastiness lurking around my right shoulder blade that caused a masseuse to laugh with sadistic delight, and which goes by the name of The Nub. This is the price one pays for hammering a keyboard like Jerry Lee Lewis all day, every day for 15 years.
Myers explores cures and repercussions here.

Children’s Books: Burnt Snow (Book of the Witch) by Van Badham

Sophie Morgan and her family have just moved from Sydney to the New South Wales coastal town of Yarrindi. Yarrindi has a lot of secrets among its teen population -- but so do the Morgans. When Sophie begins to be attracted to local “bad boy” Brody Meine, a lot of people warn her to stay away, including her own mother, and not entirely because he’s a bad boy.

What is Goth girl Ashley Ventwood’s secret -- and how does she seem to know Sophie’s mother? What about the giant crow hovering everywhere Sophie goes? And the horrific events that happen every time she gets close to Brody?

With all the teen paranormal novels out now, Burnt Snow (Book of the Witch) (Pan Macmillan Australia) should do well. I can’t make too many comments on it without spoilers, but the kids will love it, especially girls who have been reading all those novels featuring vampires, werewolves, faeries, daemons, angels and so on. While reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of what a friend said of Buffy The Vampire Slayer while it was on: “All those demons and vampires and the world coming to an end and it’s, ‘You stole my boyfriend!’” That happens a lot in this one. Teenagers will be teenagers, even in the middle of over-the-top events and Sophie, no matter what happens to her, is very worried about who hates her and whether she will look good for Brody at the party. Very believable!

Recommended for girls 14 and upwards. ◊

Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog The Great Raven can be found at

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Friday, September 17, 2010

And Then Hell Froze Over

The news caused The Washington Post to use an exclamation mark (even though, by then, no one was super surprised):
Oprah has forgiven Franzen!

In this, the First Week of her Very Last Season as Queen of Daytime Talk TV, Oprah Winfrey continued making headlines Friday, when she, exactly 14 years to the day of announcing her first Book Club pick, officially forgave Jonathan Franzen for that unpleasantness back in 2001, and named his new novel "Freedom" as her new Book Club Pick.
The Washington Post piece is here but, of course, the news is everywhere.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Get Ready for Banned Books Week

Regular readers of January Magazine know that we love Banned Books Week around here. It’s well known that there’s nothing like a good banning to boost interest in a book and, quite often, sales. During Banned Book Week, though, the whole thing gets more intense. From the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week page:
Intellectual freedom -- the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular -- provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.
Banned Books Week runs from September 25th through October 2nd. Read how you can get involved here and here. And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to read a banned book!

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Computerworld: Kindle Top E-Book Reader... For Now

In the ongoing battle for who has the best e-book reader, after careful consideration and rigorous testing, Computerworld has pronounced that Amazon’s Kindle is the best of the bunch. But maybe only for a minute:
The latest-generation Kindle raises the bar even higher than the vaunted Kindle2 -- it is smaller and lighter, has a brighter screen, and comes with double the memory and significantly better battery life. Most important, the price was lowered even further for the basic 3G model. The public responded to the new Kindle so enthusiastically that it was sold out and back-ordered within hours of being announced.
And if you’re waiting for interest in electronic book technology to peter out, don’t hold your breath:
For instance, Stieg Larsson’s Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became the first e-book to sell more than a million downloads. E Ink Corp., the company that manufactures most of the monochrome displays used in e-readers, projects that it will manufacture over 10 million screens this year alone. School boards and textbook publishers everywhere are feverishly planning for the imminent retirement and replacement of high-priced physical textbooks; tomorrow's students will simply have all the books they need for the next semester transmitted directly to their e-readers.
Computerworld has a lot more to say, and it’s here.


Will Oprah Give Franzen the Book Club Nod? Again.

The literati and the blogosphere are speculating all over the place: will Jonathan Franzen’s much-ballyhooed new novel, Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), be the next Oprah Book Club pick?

I’m going to play crystal-ball-reading-person here and say: no. This will not happen. And why? Because, should Oprah pick the book and Franzen accept, we will all know that hell has frozen over. As many of us remember, and as Quill & Quire succinctly points out, “The topic is particularly surprising since, in 2001, Franzen refused Oprah’s seal of approval for The Corrections, cancelling the induction mid-deal with a series of controversial comments.”

Quill & Quire does a great job of rounding up the various dissenting voices here. Meanwhile, I’m reading Freedom myself right now. Not a newsflash, but: while the book is very good, it seems to me to be neither masterwork nor sexist drivel. It’s good, sure. But, still: it’s just a book. Worth reading? Absolutely. Worth all the Franzenfreude? C’mon. What do you think?

We previously talked about Freedom here and here and, in the long ago, reviewed The Corrections here.


Cookbooks: The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kennedy

I was absolutely astonished to discover that The Geometry of Pasta (Quirk Books) is not some obliquely named self-help book, but that it is actually about... pasta. Not only that, it takes a sober, educational -- and even a little art school -- approach to the subject. The end result is the kind of cookbook that seems likely to find resting spots on chef’s bookshelves for a long time to come. It’s just very, very good.

The Geometry of Pasta is a collaboration between designer Caz Hildebrand (who has, among other things, designed the tastiest of Nigella Lawson’s rich and lovely cookbooks) and Chef Jacob Kennedy, co-owner of London’s very successful Bocca di Lupo.

The resulting book is, I think, probably one of the definitive works on pasta of all time. It is, as I said, low-key and considered. It is as much discussion about food as it is creation of it as Kennedy walks us through the history and evolution of hundreds of pasta shapes and recipes. And so we learn that corzetti are “large coins of pasta from Liguria,” and that fusilli “are an industrial semolina pasta, a triple helix, like an elongated propeller or fan blade.” There are tips for making pasta, for choosing it and for plumbing it for maximum enjoyment.

Many of the pasta entries are accompanied by Hildebrand’s gorgeous black and white illustrations. In her introduction to the book, she writes that the duo here offer “a guide to the geometry of pasta; pasta at its simplest and best, to be enjoyed as the Italians do.” ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New Today: Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass

Whatever it is you’re expecting from Rick Bass’s most recent book, Nashville Chrome (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) will probably be a surprise. From the faintly lyrical ironic tone to the larger-than-life historical characters, Nashville Chrome is an absolute change of pace, direction and voice for the writer whose alma mater describes as being utterly “concerned with the nature of the human heart and the heart of nature.”

Or maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. After all, in Nashville Chrome the human heart is very much a factor, and this time the fiction has come more or less straight from history. Bass (The Lives of Rocks, Why I Came West) has explained that, on a visit to Nashville to interview Keith Urban, he came across the story of The Browns, a 1950s singing group comprised of three siblings: Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed Brown.

The Browns are a now obscure band who were, in their day, at the heart of “New Nashville Sound.” As a group, they had several number one hits (notably “the Three Bells”) and behaved pretty much as Nashville royalty is expected to: at one time, Maxine dated Johnny Cash, Bonnie was engaged to marry Elvis Presley and the Beatles said that The Browns were their favorite American band. And then... obscurity. In Nashville Chrome, Bass looks a little at what was, but mostly he looks at what might have been and what, in a way, may still yet be.

Bass is, as always, pitch perfect and you don’t hear even a single sour note, starting with this stunning opening line:
For a little while, the children -- Maxine, Jim Ed, Bonnie -- were too young to know the weight of their gift, or even that their lives were hard.
In Nashville Chrome, the days that were -- the might-have-beens -- are woven through with scenes from an entirely fictional present, one where once vibrant Maxine scrabbles with her waning years while scheming for one last hurrah.

Nashville Chrome is a strange yet memorable -- and highly readable -- book. Look for awards for this author. More: if this one doesn’t make it to the big screen, I’ll be astonished. ◊

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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Biography: Becoming Jimi Hendrix by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber

Before you even pick the book up, you know that the story of legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix is flawed; sure to disappoint. The star of the story dies in the end. Astonishingly, September 18 is the 40th anniversary of Hendrix death.

As befits a rock god, there is bound to be some brouhaha. Expect to hear some never-before-aired studio recordings and a documentary film, Valleys and Neptune, will come out this fall.

And then there’s Becoming Jimi Hendrix (Da Capo), a very good biography co-authored by author and journalist Brad Schreiber and noted Henxdrix historian, Steven Roby. The inside background stuff is rich and thick and it starts on the very first page:
He was born Johnny Allen Hendrix. But when his father, Al, returned from World War II and saw his son for the first time, he renamed him James Marshall Hendrix.

As a little boy, he earned the nickname “Buster,” because his hero was the actor who played Flash Gordon, Buster Crabbe.

In his Seattle band The Rocking Kings, his innocent face and quiet demeanor made others call him “Cupcake.”
There’s more -- quite a bit more, actually -- but you get the idea. Roby and Schreiber have worked at unearthing the story of Jimi and then they share it with all of us here. Even so, they’re careful to point out that they’ve chosen exactly what to share with some care. From an interview with the authors:
Most biographers try to capture most of a life and can overwhelm readers with too many facts. Becoming Jimi Hendrix is in 6-month chunks, from 1962-66, highlighting the events that shaped him musically, psychologically, personally and professionally. We’ve also included an extensive appendix for the hardcore fan, with timeline, sessionography, bibliography and Internet links.
This is the first biography that deals extensively with Hendrix’s early years, including his roots, his army stint, his influences and his time as a sideman. Frankly, Becoming Jimi Hendrix rocks. ◊

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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Monday, September 13, 2010

Most Expensive Book Heading for the Auction Block

You might say that a copy of James Audubon’s Birds of America is as rare as hen’s teeth but, thanks to the author, we know hens don’t have those. Even so, the existence of only 119 complete copies of the book are known: but they are spectacular and historically important.

The book is huge and contains over 1000 life-size illustrations of 500 different types of birds and took Audubon a dozen years to complete. Another copy of this important work sold at Christie’s in New York in 2000 for more than $8.8 million. A decade later, that remains a record price for a book. This copy will go on sale at Sotheby’s auction house in London this year. From Time’s newsfeed:
Southeby’s have hailed the December sale as one of the most important auctions of books and manuscripts for many years. Along with Birds of America, there is also a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio to go up for sale, which Sotheby's has described as “the most important book in all of English Literature.” Of the 750 that were probably printed, only 219 are known to exist today. The book dates from 1623 and is valued at $1.5 million.

New This Month: Philip Roth: Novels 1993-1995

The Library of America continues their publication of Philip Roth novels just as the author is about to add to his oeuvre with the publication of Nemesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) which will come out early next month.

Meanwhile, fans as well as those new to the author’s work can sate their desire with the sixth Library of America publication of Roth’s work. Included in Philip Roth: Novels 1993-1995 are two books that were highly awarded when they were published (though not universally loved): Operation Shylock from 1993 and Sabbath’s Theater from 1995.

While neither of these more recent Roth works are among the author’s best known, Operation Shylock, a tail of mistaken identity that includes a character named Philip Roth, won the PEN/Faulkner Award. Sabbath’s Theater, a book that was alternately loved and loathed when it was first published, won the National Book Award in 1995.

Previous Library of America Roth-focused editions collected the novels from 1959-1962; 1967-1972; 1973-1977, 1979-1985 and 1986-1991. This most recent publication represents two of the author's most important works, in that they heralded an era of new focus and renewed energy for Roth, one that clearly continues in the work being published now.


Children’s Books: Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang

Mirabel (Lei An) is a Chinese girl in wartime Melbourne. Her family has been in Australia since the gold rushes, but they are still Chinese, in culture and lifestyle, and her father is a strong supporter of the Nationalist government back home.

When Chinese soldier Jin Jing (JJ) arrives from Shanghai, Mirabel knows she is in love. When JJ is posted back to China, Mirabel follows -- and so does adventure.

Little Paradise (Penguin Australia) is a wartime adventure-romance based on the true story of the author’s parents. It is very visual: Melbourne during the 1940s, filled with American soldiers, Shanghai in the middle of a civil war, the life of Melbourne’s Chinese community 60 years ago. If no one turns this into a television mini-series, I will be very disappointed.

It’s written in Gabrielle Wang’s usual gentle style and will be very readable stuff for girls from about 14 upwards. Her heroine would be a good, strong role model, even if she wasn’t based on a real person. The language is not difficult and even medium readers can handle it.

Get it for your teenage girls who enjoy historical fiction.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, Brendan M. Leonard reviews The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley. Says Leonard:
I grew up in small-town northeastern Ohio, which shares many similarities with the small-town Michigan of Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake (2009). Those similarities ran deep enough that Gruley’s first novel, nominated for an Edgar Award this year, resonated with me. In addition to being a son of the fabled land that gave the world rock ’n’ roll (as well as Drew Carey, Devo and Chrissie Hynde), I’m also the son of a newspaperman and spent much of my youth in newsrooms. Gruley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, evoked in his debut novel that twilight time in the late 1990s, before the Internet gutted the newspaper industry but after everyone knew it was only a matter of time for the ink-stained wretches, with the same simple, memorable prose that he used to describe daily life in a post-industrial town.
The full review is here.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

New This Week: Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

It seems ridiculous to suggest that Jane Urquhart has exceeded herself with Sanctuary Line, out this week in Canada from McClelland & Stewart and next month in the U.S. from MacAdam/Cage.

Urquhart is a winner of the Governor General’s Award (for The Underpainter), an officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of France’s Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. There are many other awards and accolades. Stacks of them, in fact. No one ever argues that Urquhart has a deep and generous talent and that her books have been universally wonderful. But Sanctuary Line? It’s even better.

And why? This voice is smooth and rich and polished. Urquhart seems to have figured out where all the words go... and then put them in that order. That’s not meant to trivialize what is truly a significant gift. Rather, seven novels, one work of non-fiction, four collections of poetry and an editorship of a short story collection later, Urquhart has learned a thing or two about conveying her message; sharing her gift. There is no girlish awkwardness in Sanctuary Line. No missteps or false notes. To sit down with the book is to be engaged by it. More: Urquhart has something to say and she says it very, very well.
Look out the window.

The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination.
Though there historical elements show up in Sanctuary Line -- from 19th century Ontario and Ireland -- they are woven into a contemporary story that concerns a single family. And while a single narrative voice gives the book an intimate feel, there are times the story sweeps along like a multi-generational saga. This, too, is part of Urquhart’s gift: the ability to make us feel connected and intimate and, at the same time, part of something much, much larger than ourselves.

That single voice belongs to entomologist Liz Crane, come to stay in her family’s abandoned farmhouse where she spent most of the summers of her life. She’s there to study the migratory patterns of the Monarch butterfly, but she ends up deep in recollections and discoveries about her family and their forgotten secrets and it is all so much more than she bargained for.

Sanctuary Line is a beautiful, unforgettable book. How does Jane Urquhart just keep getting better and better? ◊

Linda L. Richards is editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


The Bard in 3D

Is this the real face of William Shakespeare? Scientists say “it proves the writer suffered from cancer towards the end of his life.”

International Literacy Day 2010

Today is International Literacy Day: a date worth noting. Wikipedia reminds us that “September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO on November 17, 1965. It was first celebrated in 1966. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. On International Literacy Day each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally. Celebrations take place around the world.”

For 2010, UNESCO is focusing their attention on women’s literacy:
Some 796 million adults still lack literacy skills. About two-thirds are women. The International Literacy Day global celebrations will therefore focus on the transformation literacy can bring to women’s lives and thosen of their families, communities and societies.
The are celebrations and activities happening around the world today. Here are a select few to get you started:

The United Nations points out that action is even more important now, as we’re in the “Literacy Decade.”

Read, Write, Think offers lesson plans and other activities for International Literacy Day.

Crayola offers participant-driven activities on their website while the National Adult Literacy Database collects and shares information of ways that everyone can get involved. Life Literacy Canada is inviting people to “take the Literacy Day Challenge.”


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Biography: Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Just when you thought the world couldn’t possibly need yet another biography of “Bloody Mary Tudor,” (1516-1558), along comes a young, hotshot British historian who not only discovers aspects others before her have missed, she shares her new tidbits in a compelling and lucid manner in her debut work.

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen (Random House) is published in the U.S. today, but it’s been out in author Anna Whitelock’s native United Kingdom since 2009, where it has garnered kudos and respect for Whitelock’s fresh approach. From the Author’s Note:
So the Mary of this book is an unfamiliar queen, and hers is an incredibly thrilling and inspirational story. She broke tradition, she challenged precedent; she was a political pioneer who redefined the English monarchy.
Whitelock received a PhD in history from Cambridge in 2004 with a thesis on the court of Mary I. Just as important, for fans of historical works, Whitelock was recognized this year by Lady Antonia Fraser who awarded her the Arts Club Emerging Writer Award.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

SF/F: Noise by Darin Bradley

In every niche and genre and corner of fiction, critics and fans always have their ears open for the voice that will lead them into the future or, at very least, will define the fictional moment in terms of the art and the craft of wielding those words.

Considering the nature of his dystopic fiction and the fullness of his vision, I can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that, in his debut, Darin Bradley may be The One. Noise (Spectra) is relentless and so succinct, it’s almost not there at all. Bradley has the sharp and pummeling vision of a noirist, but, in the end, this isn’t noir. Rather, it is the end: a view of a world gone so bad, the only thing left to do is destroy it. And so friends Hiram and Levi begin at the place it was once most vital: schools and universities throughout the US:
The plan was simple. We wouldn’t steal, which is paranoia -- we would take, which was force. Things were falling apart faster than we expected.
Noise is not a thick book, so the dense layering and compelling characterizations will surprise you all the more. It’s unexpected. And given Bradley’s dark view and haunting prose, it’s even possible you won’t like Noise. But it is not possible that you will forget it. ◊

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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Zen and the Art of Aging with Grace

The author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the most important works of philosophy to come out of the 1970s, turns 82 today. The Wikipedia entry on author Robert Pirsig is both hyperbolic and interesting:
Pirsig’s publisher’s recommendation to his Board ended with “This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius, and will, I’ll wager, attain classic stature.” Pirsig noted in an early interview, that Zen was rejected 121 times before being accepted by William Morrow Publishers. In his book review, George Steiner compared Pirsig’s writing to Dostoevsky, Broch, Proust, and Bergson, stating that “the assertion itself is valid... the analogies with Moby-Dick are patent.” The Times Literary Supplement called it “Profoundly important, Disturbing, Deeply moving, Full of insights, A wonderful book.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a novel about a motorcycle trip taken by a father and son. It’s a thoughtful look at values and, allegorically, the meaning of life. Since its initial publication by William Morrow in 1977, the book has sold four and a half million copies, been translated into 27 languages and treated widely as an important work of philosophy. January Magazine has looked at related works here and here.


Crime Fiction: Moscow Sting by Alex Dryden

In his new release, Moscow Sting (Ecco) -- the sequel to 2009’s Red to Black -- Alex Dryden picks up the story of Anna Resnikov, once the youngest female colonel in the KGB, who defected to the West out of love for Finn, a British MI6 operative who has since been murdered. As Finn’s despondent widow, she has been stashed in a “safe house” somewhere in the south of France with their 2-year-old child, Little Finn. Only recently has she begun to feel an interest in life again and look forward to the periodic visits by her handler, Willy.

Unfortunately, the Russians (KGB), the Americans (CIA), the Brits (MI6), plus other independent intelligence agencies all want Anna. The Russians want her dead for her betrayal with Finn, and the other agencies want the information and contacts she can supply. Finn was the only handler for a spy buried deep in the Russian hierarchy (code name: Mikhail), and Anna now holds the key to Mikhail and his secrets.

Dryden’s story unfolds from the viewpoints of multiple characters:

Adrian Carew, the head of MI6, is obsessed with avenging Finn’s death. He now has the identity of the killer and wants Anna to help him exact his retribution.

Logan, a clever freelance espionage agent, is constantly trolling for information. During a routine lunch with one of his blustery contacts, he stumbles on a clue to the possible whereabouts of Anna’s safe house. After confirming his hunch, Logan proceeds to sell Anna’s location to various intelligence communities in a large-scale double-dipping scam.

Lars, a hired assassin, specializes in extreme challenges. His prowess with difficult shots, which include maximum distances and tricky angles, is told in loving detail.

Burt Miller, the jovial head of a private information-gathering firm called the Cougar Intelligence Agency (initials CIA -- ha ha), has seemingly unlimited resources with which to pay for intel and maintain safe houses all over the place.

Then of course there’s Anna, the ex-KGB officer, who is at the center of this story. She had quickly advanced in the KGB, but threw it all away for love. Her son is the only thing she has left of her beloved Finn. She just wants to protect the boy, at the same time as she shields the mysterious Mikhail. But Anna has become a pawn in a dangerous game played by the Great Powers. And after a plan to kidnap Little Finn and blackmail Anna into returning to Moscow falls apart, Anna and her son are “saved” by Miller and relocated -- to America. The stakes for all parties involved are now higher, while the chances that matters might be resolved without bloodshed have declined sharply.

The potential in these pages for an engrossing tale was considerable, but the results are less than satisfying. I think I finally understand what is meant by a “plot-driven story,” and it’s not a pretty picture -- or rather, not a rewarding read. If you want a book with minimal character development and negligible reflection, or one in which actions and lifestyle choices result in little or no personal angst, then Moscow Sting is just your ticket.

One of the most annoying faults here is Anna’s behavior in regard to her separation from Little Finn, after their secret move to the United States. Anna finally agrees to leave the child behind and go to Washington, D.C., with Miller and Logan, hoping to convince Mikhail to defect. Apparently, she “talks” with her son, but how exactly does she accomplish that? Via Skype? And why does she seem curiously long-suffering but not frantic about their separation? Every mother I know (myself included, although my last encounter with a child of mine at 2 years of age was more than three decades ago) would be hysterical at such a parting under dangerous circumstances. Perhaps she feels that the safe house Miller has found her among the peaks of northern New Mexico (in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, maybe?) is the equivalent of the Fortress of Solitude, and Little Finn is safe there. Who knows? Author Dryden doesn’t make it clear at all.

Then there’s the later and thoroughly unconvincing plot twist involving assassin Logan. If you haven’t read Moscow Sting, beware here of spoilers -- and jump to the next paragraph. For everyone who has stuck with me, let me ask: Is there anything less believable than that Logan should kill Finn’s slayer in order to win Anna Resnikov’s love? “I want you, Anna,” he declares. Argh!! And why would Finn’s killer, a professional assassin with a strong self-protective impulse, who is known to spend plenty of time studying situations in order to achieve maximum lethal results against impossible odds, allow Logan to get within deadly range of him within just three days? Granted, that hired gun is a Russian thug from the provinces, but even a first-bracket apprentice assassin wouldn’t let his guard down in such a short period of time, would he?

As I read along, I kept noticing references to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s KGB-controlled Russia and assorted modern-day spy schemes. I confess, I found those rather far-fetched until the news broke about a Russian ring of “sleeper spies” who’d been embedded in middle-class American life for the past 10 years. They were recently deported in a Cold War-style trade for several U.S. agents of a higher caliber, who had been jailed in Russia. Included in that ring was a couple with a small child, who held seemingly innocuous jobs in my old hometown. I found it all rather amusing. Later, though, I read that Putin had met with those deported spies near Moscow and joined them in singing the equivalent of the KGB fight song. That news, coupled with a very long article on corporate spying and a multitude of private agencies engaged in the so-called war on terror, made for a more compelling spy story than the one told in Moscow Sting. Maybe I should get on the anti-Russian, conspiracy bandwagon too.

According to the promotional materials sent out with advance copies of this novel, Alex Dryden “is a pseudonym for a journalist who has lived in and around the Soviet Union and Russia for decades, with many years experience in security matters.” Well, he may have the inside scoop on Russia and the current business of spying, but as an author he is no master of character development or creating the nuanced motivations of his principal players. I found the cast here to be thinly drawn and cartoonish. The story would have made a better graphic novel, or perhaps an action film -- one starring Angelina Jolie. She does seem perfect for the role of Anna. A New Yorker review of her latest movie, Salt, described her character, Evelyn Salt, as “impervious: her cool lies in how little she responds to what happens to her.” That sounds like Anna to me.

Comparisons between Moscow Sting and the espionage-fiction works of renowned authors John le Carré and Len Deighton are totally unjustified. Listen, I want George Smiley and his lamplighters back just as badly as the next lover of spy novels. And I remember with affection Bernard Samson toiling in Mexico while full of regret about his marriage going down the drain. But it’s a cheap trick to invoke those writers and get our hopes up. Most books I’ve read lately with blurbs comparing them to stories by Saints John and Len are major disappointments.

If you are looking for novels that are both well-written and do a fine job of building tension, check out some of those by Jo Nesbø (The Devil’s Star) and Olen Steinhauer (The Nearest Exit). In the case of Moscow Sting, all I can say is caveat emptor. Wait for the movie adaptation -- it ought to be worth at least renting. ◊

Gretchen Echols is a Seattle writer, artist and bookstore employee with a longstanding fondness for crime and mystery fiction, especially the works of Ross Macdonald, Reginald Hill and Tana French.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

New This Week: Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer

In 2008, I was captivated by a children’s book with a real but ephemeral edge. When the end of the year rolled around, I pegged The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum as one of my favorite books of the year. I wasn't alone: everyone loved that book, many of them for the same reasons I did: it was smart; it was beautiful; it was easy to look at, yet it didn't give it’s real meaning away easily.

The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum was a picture book, but it was an intriguing enough one that when I heard that author Kate Bernheimer had written another, yet very different book, I made sure a copy found its way into my hands and I wasn’t, in the end, disappointed.

Like that previous work, Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press) seems like more than the sum of its parts. Bernheimer once again takes the feeling and rhythm of the fairy tale and turns it on its side.

The eight fairy tale-like stories in Horse, Flower, Bird tell haunting and poetic tales. A girl makes friends with a tulip bulb. An exotic dancer builds her own cage. A woman keeps a secret petting zoo inside her house. One way and another, these are feminine stories with strong narratives and high consequences. Bernheimer’s tales are brief and surprisingly haunting. Or maybe one shouldn’t be that surprised: this is turf well known to Bernheimer, founder and editor of The Fairy Tale Review as well as the editor of three fairy tale anthologies, including this year’s My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin).

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Non-Fiction: The Empowered Patient

You’ve seen her on CNN where she is senior medical correspondent. While being a talking head on CNN doesn’t make you a medical expert, it does establish you as someone who knows how to ask questions and get answers. In The Empowered Patient (Ballantine) Cohen doesn’t do a lot of that. Rather she sets out to help readers ask the questions and find the best care as simply and directly as possible. The Empowered Patient is as slender and as succinct as the author herself:
I’m writing this book so that you, too, won’t have to suffer. Never in the history of modern American health care has there been such an urgent and dramatic need to advocate for yourself and the people you love at the doctor’s office and the hospital. But here’s the good news: you can do it.
Is there a political rallying cry in Cohen’s words? Perhaps. But that needn’t be the central point. On a global level, sure: all Americans should have access to good and affordable health care. Cohen, however, concerns herself with the individual level: what can you and I do for ourselves right now? The Empowered Patient is a great starting point.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

New Today: Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

The Kirkus review is as much as many readers will need to know. When Kirkus said that Our Tragic Universe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was a “freewheeling intellectual journey with no destination,” some readers were bound to reply with excitement, others with disdain.

It is apparent that Thomas thinks. A lot. About stuff. And she thinks about a lot of stuff. And those things? They’re not necessarily connected.

This latest work, for instance, is about Nietzche, tarot, cosmology and knitting patterns. More things, too, but you get the idea. In a larger way, Our Tragic Universe is about relationships and the things that connect us, personified here by book reviewer-turned-genre-novelist Meg Carpenter and her grumpy boyfriend.

Our Tragic Universe is a whimsical book, sure it is. But it also tackles all of our big, important questions and practically no one is better suited to be asking them than Thomas, nominated for the Orange Prize (for The End of Mr. Y) and named as one of the Telegraph’s 20 best writers under 40. If you haven’t heard of her, you will. Because the future of fiction? I think it looks a lot like this.

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Literature for Peace

It’s impossible not to like the idea behind the four-year-old Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an award that celebrates “the power of literature to promote peace, nonviolent conflict resolution, and global understanding.”

For 2010, contenders include Dave Eggers (Zeitoun), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), Chinua Achebe (The Education of a British-Protected Child) and Ha Jin (A Good Fill).

Winners will be honored at a ceremony on November 7th in Dayton, Ohio, though a winner and runner-up in fiction and nonfiction will be announced September 22nd. Winners will receive a $10,000 honorarium and runners-up receive $1,000. They will be honored at a gala ceremony hosted by award-winning journalist Nick Clooney in Dayton on Sunday, November 7th.

Sharon Rob, chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation, says that the 2010 finalists help readers see, “pressing global issues through the eyes of individuals whose lives are immediately affected by the larger forces around them. While challenging us to confront difficult and painful truths, each work, in its own way, is ultimately hopeful, offering the reader powerful insight into the resilience of the human spirit.”

Eligible books must have been published or translated into English in 2009 and “address the theme of peace on a variety of levels, such as between individuals, among families and communities, or among nations, religions, or ethnic groups.”

The 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize fiction finalists are:
A Postcard from the Volcano by Lucy Beckett (Ignatius Press)
A Good Fall by Ha Jin (Pantheon Books)
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Knopf)
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (Penguin Group; G. P. Putham's Sons/Riverhead Books)
The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim (Henry Holt and Company)
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adiche (Knopf)
The 2010 non-fiction finalists are:
Enough: Why the Worlds Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman (Public Affairs)
In the Valley of the Mist by Justine Hardy (Free Press)
Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson (Penguin Group, USA)
Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe (Knopf)
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s)