Friday, April 29, 2011

Biography: Robert Redford

I don’t usually read biographies. I have nothing against them; it’s just that I’m never inspired to go that deeply into a life. But Vanity Fair ran a fascinating article about the making of the film All the President’s Men. Tuned out it was an excerpt from the new Robert Redford biography by Michael Feeney Callan. I knew I had to read the whole thing.

Robert Redford (Knopf) almost reads like a novel with a heavy focus on one character: a very handsome guy from L.A. who parlayed an eventful childhood surrounded by family and friends and Hollywood star drive-bys into one of the most successful careers in Hollywood itself. Actor, director, producer, and diehard supporter of independent film, Robert Redford is quite a guy. His life was never boring -- not to live, certainly, and not to read about. Callan has done exhaustive research, sanctioned by Redford, and Redford himself participated in the telling of his story. As did countless actors, directors, family members, and associates of all kinds.

You’ll see his family criss-cross the country in search of home. You’ll see his brushes with fame and crime, his first loves, his earliest forays into acting, and his transition into directing. In some ways, Redford seems to have sort of stumbled his way through things, working for (and then getting) lucky breaks.

A couple of things really come through. Redford is not the character many people think he is; that is, he is not Hubbell Gardener from The Way We Were. Everything did not come easily to him. What’s also clear is that Redford, while aware of his looks, didn’t coast on them. What’s somewhat more surprising is that Redford seems to have always had an instinct for character, story, and storytelling. His early work on stage and in film, the way he worked and argued with his directors about his characters’ finer points, proves he was well prepared when he took the helm directing Ordinary People, winning a Best Director Oscar his first time out.

I was impressed with Redford time and time again. Callan paints the portrait of a man who saw the importance of his work, a man who fell in love with the west, a man dedicated to nature and the land, a man focused on being an actor rather than being a star, a man who understood that his own early frustrations making films could be channeled into helping other young filmmakers craft their own. I think if there’s one word that personifies Redford’s story, it’s “opportunity.” He was good at finding them, taking them, giving them -- and never abusing them.

Robert Redford will show you that the man himself is more than you might think he is. It will also show you that one’s life story can be as thrilling as the stories he helps to tell. And it will show you that a well-written biography can be as compelling as any fiction. ◊

Tony Buchsbaum, a contributing editor of January Magazine and Blue Coupe, lives in central New Jersey with his wife and sons. These days, he is writing his second novel. Again.

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Poems for the Royal Wedding

As I write this, we are spinning rapidly towards the event that will finally make all the royal wedding hoopla cease. Meanwhile, though, in these last remaining hours before the much-ballyhooed event, the wedding sounds seem ceaseless. In fact, there’s so much of it that even a literary journalist doesn’t have to look very hard (or even at all) to find tie-in stories. And so here is the last possible (I think!) literary related royal wedding story. At least, it will be until the books start to come out.

Britain’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, whose duty it is to keep verse in the British consciousness, wrote a poem for the occasion. The Telegraph was gently scathing:
With no names or dates or places mentioned, the poem might apply to anyone. Anyone with an interest in rings, that is. There are bell rings, tree rings, lipstick rings, some other sorts of rings that aren’t really rings at all unless you stop and think about them in a new way. Ringworm is missing, as are the rings of Saturn, and those left on bartops by perspiring cocktail glasses.
But, The Telegraph says, if it’s not an especially inspiring poem, there are good reasons:
It comes as no real surprise that it is not a tremendously heartfelt poem. Duffy is in her fifties, a professor of contemporary poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University, openly bisexual, and from a Glaswegian working-class background. I may be doing her a disservice here, but I do not imagine her on the VIP guestlist at Boujis. She can have no real sympathy with the newlyweds and for their part I doubt they will have even heard of her.
What The Telegraph does not point out -- and that The Mirror does -- is that, as poet laureate, Duffy commissioned the worked 20 other poets, “with the theme of vows, to be used at weddings and civil partnerships in the UK. ‘Poetry is our national art and this is a part of that, this is a celebration of the whole country and for all couples and everyone.’”

The text of Duffy’s poem, as well as those of the other poems she commissioned, appeared in The Guardian last weekend. It seems to me to be a worthy celebration of the verse form, not to mention an occasion that will be remembered and remarked upon for decades.

You can read the poems in The Guardian here.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Crime Fiction: Hotel No Tell by Daphne Uviller

Daphne Uviller introduced Zephyr Zuckerman to readers in 2009’s excellent Super in the City, which found that feisty young woman becoming the superintendent of her parents’ Greenwich Village apartment building. In the course of that story, she coped with mechanical problems, crime and the arrival of a new boyfriend.

It’s great to have Zephyr back in Hotel No Tell (Bantam); we can always use another good mystery laced with smart-ass New York humor.

Now Zephyr, struggling at 31 with the demands of adulthood, is completing her probationary period as a detective with the city’s Special Investigations Commission. Not quite a cop, Zephyr goes undercover as a concierge at a hotel, looking for a missing $100,000.

The hotel is full of characters; one of Uviller’s strengths is her ability to create distinct oddball types who remain believable. For example, the desk clerk devotes his time to trying to score free products from manufacturers. One of the guests is an elderly Yiddish-speaking Japanese woman with a lot of attitude. Zephyr has a close friend who runs a wedding-planning service, but believes some of her brides die because she is cursed. And so on.

Zephyr eventually finds a link from the hotel to a human egg donation service, which assists women with in vitro fertilization. But that only seems to make things murkier. And since her cop boyfriend has moved out (because she refuses to consider having children), and her closest friends are struggling with the demands of marriage and parenthood and careers, hanging around the fertility service stirs up personal as well as professional concerns for our heroine.

Nothing in Zephyr Zuckerman’s life is easy. And since she is not a passive character, she is sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place. That’s part of the fun here. Wherever she turns, she finds angst and complications.

We eventually find out about the missing 100 grand, but it’s only one thread in an engaging fabric. New York City itself is a character in this story, and it is large, untidy, throbbing with energy and big enough to accommodate all sorts of people. Author Uviller has captured some of that … more power to her. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Defending the Porous Wall

With the previously hard lines between the press and their readership growing ever more difficult to detect, it’s not surprising to see book publishers trying to wiggle into the place between editorial and advertising where air used to flow.

Yesterday, I found myself more concerned than pleased to get word of two polished “independent” book-related publications launched by large publishing houses. PW called Penguin’s Book Country an online community “focused on supporting writers of genre fiction -- from romance, fantasy, science fiction and thrillers to a range of contemporary hybrid genres like paranormal romance, urban fantasy and Steampunk. The site is free to use and anyone can get an account and begin uploading writing.”

Book Country was developed by Penguin’s director of business development, Molly Barton, who told PW the site will be “publisher agnostic.”

Book Country is egalitarian and merit-based,” Barton said, “while fostering an atmosphere of encouragement and creativity.”

Book Country is a gorgeous site that’s obviously had a lot of thought and money poured into it. And we’re to believe Penguin is doing this to help the book community? I can’t be the only one who has a difficult time with that idea.

Same street, different bus: On the same day Book Country got its first push, Macmillan launched its “publisher-neutral crime and mystery community website,” Criminal Element. In a press release, Macmillan touted Criminal Element as having a “focus on sharing and enriching the experience of crime story fandom.” They explain “publisher neutral,” as “meaning that it will include author participation from all publishers and other content creators, and is not exclusive to Macmillan authors.”

Though Criminal Element is very different from Penguin’s offering, it is also a gorgeous site that’s clearly had a lot of thought and money lavished on it. And I get it: I really do. With review windows closing all over the place and the industry in fear of missteps, since the Kindle and the recession both came blasting down the pike on pretty much the same day, the publishing industry has been upside-down, with Chicken Littles trying to catch pieces of falling sky all over the damn place. But there is a reason that ethical journalists have spent the last bit of forever defending the sometimes porous wall between business and journalism. And let’s be realistic: Are we to believe that either Macmillan or Penguin are suddenly deeply interested in “building community”? Or are they interested -- as they should be, since it’s their job -- in selling their books?

And, yes, yes: I understand. The world? It’s changing. Smaller review windows. Topsy-turvy sales figures. Who knows which way is up anymore? And who knows how long that porous wall will stand without crumbling? But keep this in mind: when community builders have sales agendas, they create villages in their own image. ◊

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


Sir Vidia’s Rules for Writers

Want your writing to be smoother, creamier and all around better? The Rap Sheet offers up “Sir Vidia” V.S. Naipaul’s seven-point strategy for improving as a writer. Naipaul, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is known for clarity and beauty of his prose, but not necessarily generosity, surprises here by actually offering up some very good advice.

You can read Naipaul’s seven points in full here, but we’ll leave you with #3:
Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
See the other six here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Typewriter: “Reports of My Death ...”

Will history remember this day? Will the reverberations be heard around the world? Or will it be, to paraphrase TS Eliot, that the typewriter goes not with a bang, but a whimper? And the date that we’re remarking is significant because today the last typewriter factory in the world shut its doors. From the Daily Mail:
It’s an invention that revolutionised the way we work, becoming an essential piece of office equipment for the best part of a century.

But after years of sterling service, that bane for secretaries has reached the end of the line.

Godrej and Boyce -- the last company left in the world that was still manufacturing typewriters -- has shut down its production plant in Mumbai, India, with just a few hundred machines left in stock.
Here’s the whimper: Although the death of the typewriter makes a good story, Gawker pushed a bit further to find that, like the book itself, news of the death of the typewriter is both exaggerated and premature.
... rest easy, annoyingly hirsute hipster Luddites loitering at local cafes: The typewriter is alive and well. How do I know? Well, because I looked on Staples’ website. But don't take my word for it. Let's check in with a typewriter manufacturing expert.
Which they do, where they discover manufacturers in China, Japan and Indonesia are still making typewriters for, among other clients, prisons. That story is here.

Bottom line: In the unlikely event that you’re craving the impact rush of metal letters on paper, it can still be had, but you’re going to have to dig a bit.

The 23 Million Dollar Book

Even in an age of upended electronic book sales numbers, these ones are pretty crazy. The Making of a Fly, essentially a biology textbook, published by Wiley Blackwell in 1992, ended up being flogged on Amazon for over $23 million earlier this month. The answer to the question is not held in the product description of The Making of a Fly:
Understanding how a multicellular animal develops from a single cell (the fertilized egg) poses one of the greatest challenges in biology today. Development from egg to adult involves the sequential expression of virtually the whole of an organism's genetic instructions both in the mother as she lays down developmental cues in the egg, and in the embryo itself. Most of our present information on the role of genes in development comes from the invertebrate fruit fly, Drosophila.
Not exactly the stuff Da Vinci Codes are made of. So what happened? According to, “it appears it was sparked by a robot price war.”

Go on…
[Evolutionary biologist and blogger Michael] Eisen watched the robot price war from April 8 to 18 and calculated that two booksellers were automatically adjusting their prices against each other.

One equation kept setting the price of the first book at 1.27059 times the price of the second book, according to Eisen's analysis, which is posted in detail on his blog.

The other equation automatically set its price at 0.9983 times the price of the other book. So the prices of the two books escalated in tandem into the millions, with the second book always selling for slightly less than the first. (Not that that matters much when you're selling a book about flies for millions of dollars).

The incident highlights a little-known fact about e-commerce sites such as Amazon: Often, people don't create and update prices; computer algorithms do.
In case you’re wondering, the pricing has been brought back to more or less normal now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Flocking to the Temple of Literature

On April 23rd, thousands of people were drawn to the Temple of Literature in Ha Noi in order to take part in Viet Nam Book Day, an initiative of the National Library. From Viet Nam News:
The day, entitled Reading Books for Tomorrow, was supported by publishing houses, companies and bookstores, who agreed to discount one book by 20-30 per cent.

Activities were held to connect readers with writers and instruct students how to choose books. There was a cover illustration contest, a talk on reading culture and speed reading, performance poetry, a favourite books competition and other activities.
A great initiative that could be put in place around the world. And what place couldn’t benefit from a Temple of Literature?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fiction: The Brothers’ Lot by Kevin Holohan

While the world hardly seems in need of still more intense Irish literature that wallows in trenchant self-observation, The Brothers’ Lot (Akashic) manages to offer something both new and interesting to a literary avenue I thought I’d tired of long ago.

Debut novelist Kevin Holohan manages a tone that is at once darkly sweet and murderously angry. If that sounds like a fine line, you’re close. But Holohan’s deep talent is the reason we can even begin to care about the story he’s chosen to share here: a look sometimes too deep inside a down-at-the-heel Dublin-based Catholic boy’s school.

You don’t expect to find much levity in a novel where the main themes revolve around various forms of child abuse, including sexual, yet Holohan manages this quite well. More than well, actually. In his skillful hands, humor becomes the tool that makes the abuse the boy’s endure even more horrible.

Holohan’s prose is spare, poetic and sharp, while his dialogue is colored entirely by the low rent Dublin he brings so close. Here, at the very beginning of the book, we see mad, doomed Brother Boland waking from a dream:
His slippers made a dead fish sound on the highly polished wooden floor as he tiptoed along. The half-light from the street slid through the windows and cast shadows everywhere, From his perch in the return of the stairs, Venerable Saorseach O’Rahilly, the founder of the Brotherhood, seemed to cower uncertainly back into the shadows, so unlike his stern, disciplinarian, daylight demeanor. Brother Boland nodded and blessed himself as he passed the statue and wisped down the stairs to the ground floor like a tattered black fog with the shakes.
The Brothers’ Lot is unforgettable. It juxtaposes the horrors of a corrupt, archaic system against the beautiful resilience of youth. ◊

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


Dictator Lit 101

“When not tyrannising their people,” Leo Benedictus writes in today’s Guardian, “it seems despots such as Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein like to turn their hand to writing books.” Not only that, Benedictus notes, it appears that it’s difficult for dictators to find an honest editor.

This is a silly piece. Some will find it annoying or even offensive. We think it’s sort of brilliant, and it’s here.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Non-Fiction: Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America by Les Standiford

Today in January Magazine’s non-fiction section, Brendan M. Leonard reviews Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America by Les Standiford. Says Leonard:
By now, the facts of the Adam Walsh case are so well-known, so embedded in the nightmares of parents and their children’s imaginations, that they have almost become part of American folklore. That doesn't make those facts any less terrifying: One morning in July 1981, Revé Walsh and her son, Adam, went shopping for house lamps at a Sears store near their Hollywood, Florida, home. Entering the store, Revé let Adam out of her sight to play a videogame while she shopped. When she returned minutes later, her son was gone. A local, then national search for Adam followed, ending in tragedy when the boy’s severed head was found. Along with the parents of other missing children such as Etan Patz, Revé and her husband, John Walsh, became advocates for reforming the response to missing-children cases. Their achievements include lobbying Congress to pass the Missing Children Act in 1982, and the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 1984. John Walsh later became the host of America’s Most Wanted, the long-running TV series that’s reportedly responsible for the capture of more than 1,000 fugitives.
The full review is here.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Royal Wedding Overdrive

Just when you thought you’d managed to escape royal wedding fever entirely, Bluewater productions has to go and rain on your parade:
With the considerable media buzz and excitement surrounding the upcoming royal wedding, Bluewater Productions is releasing the much anticipated biography comic book and graphic novel based on the lives of Prince William and Kate Middleton will be in stores on Wednesday, April 27.

The Royals: Prince William & Kate Middleton written by CW Cooke and penciled by Pablo Martinena, looks to give context to two perceived fairy tale lives and how an eight-year romance flourished in such a fishbowl existence.
But don’t take my word for it: Bluewater offers up a press release here. (And forwarned is foreamed: the company is cooking up a Charlie Sheen comic right now. Amazon says Infamous Charlie Sheen will go on sale July 12.)

Meanwhile, yesterday on my personal blog I offered up a much lamer royal wedding link with absolutely no book connection at all. You can see that here.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SF/F: The Door to Lost Pages by Claude Lalumière

Coming as it does while the selling of books as we have known it would seem to be in its death throes, The Door to Lost Pages (CZP) at times reads like a dark love letter to the tiny, magical bookstores all of us with a bookish bent have known and loved.

A 10-year-old child runs away from home, surviving by her wits and cunning alone until a strange creature leads her to a bookstore called Lost Pages, a place more magical than it first appears that will impact her existence for the balance of her life. And nothing, ever, is quite what it seems to be.

Fantasy and what here passes for reality live shoulder-to-shoulder in an uncomfortable truce. Lalumière (Objects of Worship), a former January Magazine contributing editor, shapes simple-yet-elegant prose into a series of connected stories that become a complete tale. In some ways the story reminds the reader of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game meets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with just a touch of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline thrown in for good measure. Of course, what all of that really means is that Lalumière’s voice is clearly his own and The Door to Lost Pages is quite unlike anything else you’ve read.◊

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


Non-Fiction: Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal

We feel a certain arrogance, perched here as we are on the edge of the brave new world. We know that new things are close by: a whole revolution of them. And us? We’re going to be part of the change. All of us. It’s a new day.

According to Alexis Madrigal, though, we can safely lose the smug: Americans have been having green dreams for a very long time. In Powering the Dream (Da Capo) Madrigal tells us:
In 1900 people could use the sun to heat the water for a howler. They could drive across New York City in an electric taxicab …. In 1945 a person could have purchased a solar house or gone to see the one-megawatt wind turbine …. Green technology has been a viable set of technologies for more than one hundred years but, regardless, supplies little of America’s energy. What happened? What might have been?
Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic and former Wired staff writer, skillfully uses stories from the past to illustrate both the follies and successes of the present. In doing so, he places some of the environmental madness we’re experiencing now in perspective. It is, at present, too easy to feel as though we’re out there all alone, fighting environmental battles that few have thought of and that fewer still have seen. And, somehow, the struggles of the past give us hope for the future and, in the end, they make us realize, there’s really nothing new under the sun. ◊

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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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Film Version of On the Road will Debut This Fall

It’s taken more than 50 years for Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic On the Road to find its way to the big screen. In fact, it’s been so difficult, and has met with so many false starts that the New York Times described is as the “Kerouac curse.”

The curse ends now, though, with a $25 million production filmed in Montreal and San Fransisco, among other places and set to air this fall. From the Times:
The creative team from another counterculture road movie is leading the project: the director Walter Salles and the screenwriter Jose Rivera from the award-winning Che Guevara biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

The cast is peppered with actors with box-office appeal, including Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen. The two male leads, characters based on Kerouac and his fellow flâneur Neal Cassady, are played by lesser-known actors, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund.
The NYT piece is here.


New in Paperback: The Hypnotist by MJ Rose

M.J. Rose’s star is one we’ve been watching rise since the earliest days of January Magazine. Because of that, it’s gratifying to see the rest of the world coming to terms with something we’ve known all along: Rose is a terrific author who writes books worth spending time with. Her work is thoughtful, intelligent and always delves deeply into topics worth considering.

I talked about The Hypnotist in this space last June. The new paperback edition, released today, will make the book available to an even wider readership.

The Hypnotist is the third book in this series, after The Reincarnationist and The Memoirist. Of the three, The Hypnotist is far and away my personal favorite. This is due in one part to the fact that Rose is a writer who seems committed to sharpening her voice and her skills: every book really is better than the last. The other part, for me, is thematic. In The Hypnotist Rose returns to some of the themes I really enjoyed in her earlier works -- notably 2002’s breathtaking Flesh Tones -- a book that was never given the attention it deserved. These are themes that Rose does as well as anyone currently writing, notably art and love and how those things can impact one upon the other.

The Hypnotist was among my favorite books of 2010. As I said in my review from last year, “The Hypnotist is a stunningly satisfying read. Thoughtful, fast-paced and subtly sensual, this is one of the best books thus far from a really terrific writer.”

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Art & Culture: The Tribes of Burning Man by Steven T. Jones

When the counter-culture was but a gleam in a few proto-stoner’s eyes, this is what they dreamed of. A glimmering city of art and ideas in the desert. Not Las Vegas, but something near it, yet utterly different. This is only right, Steven T. Jones tells us in The Tribes of Burning Man (CCC Publishing), because Burning Man and contemporary American counterculture share common roots.

He explains the genesis of Burning Man in his introduction:
The essential history goes like this: After a few years of this weird little summer solstice beach party called Burning Man, the San Francisco police cracked down, so its staggers and supporters moved the event out to the Black Rock Desert in rural Nevada …. And there, it grew and grew and grew, every year, eventually morphing from scattershot frontier filled with freedom-loving freaks into a dynamic city of about 50,000 colorful souls -- Black Rock City -- that burns brightly for a week in late August and then disappears into dust after Labour Day.
That is, of course, the bare bones of the thing: the sketch of Burning Man’s history. Award-winning San Francisco journalist Stephen T. Jones delivers an insider’s vision of what has grown to be an important cultural and counter-cultural annual event.

Burning Man, Jones contends, is important and has grown beyond Nevada, reaching out into its community in myriad and surprising ways, including Burners Without Borders, the Burning Man alumni who offered their hands and experience in building cities out of nothing after the Katrina catastrophe of 2005. Though the organization gelled for Katrina, it has offered willing hands in international catastrophes since: the massive earthquakes in Peru in 2008 and Haiti in 2010.

The Tribes of Burning Man offers a very trenchant look, not just at Burning Man, but at all the event has come to mean and the reverberations it still may have. “Because,” Jones offers, Burning Man “isn’t a counterculture as much as a space that reflects and helps shape a wide variety of distinct subcultures, ultimately giving these disparate groups a bit of shared culture, uniting them into a new American counterculture.” ◊

David Middleton is art director and art & culture editor of January Magazine.

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New in Paperback: Captive Queen by Alison Weir

When Ballantine published Captive Queen last summer, contributing editor Aaron Blanton liked the book quite a lot. “With Captive Queen,” he wrote at the time, “noted historical biographer Alison Weir (The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy) comes full circle, completing a process she started years ago while doing research for the book that would become the biography, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. In an Author’s Note to Captive Queen, Weir tells us that while she worked on the Aquitaine biography, she first got the idea to write historical fiction.”

The take-it-to-the-beach-sized paperback version will be published tomorrow.

“As always,” Blanton notes, “Weir’s writing is captivating and vivid. She brings, of course, a mastery to her subject through, at least in part, all of that research in putting together her very good biography. But Weir is also a very good storyteller and, as a result, Captive Queen is like a gift to enthusiasts of this character and the period.”


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Interested in Creating Your Own E-Book?

Sometimes it seems like we’ve been talking about e-books around here forever. We’ve certainly been deeply aware of, interested in and involved with them from both a technology and professional level for more than a decade.

Some readers will remember that January Magazine spun off an e-book magazine a little over 10 years ago. The world wasn’t ready and we discontinued Backlight Review after a year or so. Remember the dot-com bomb? Backlight was one of the casualties. Aside from that, we were lucky to get through that period relatively unscathed. But it was a little ahead of its time. People were talking about e-books for a while in that period, sure. But very few people saw it in their hearts. No one saw what was coming or, if they did, they weren’t talking about it too much.

Then in 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle, we at January Magazine joined the technology press in making fun of the online bookseller’s new release. At the time we said it “looks goofy and has a funny name,” even though we thought it might “kindle e-book sales.” (Groan.) We didn't realize at the time that the wave that we’d been waiting on for such a very long time had finally arrived. When it got here, the wave was puny, after all. Hardly even a lap on the shore.

So we’ve been watching pretty closely and writing about the e-book revolution for as long as it’s been something that could be called that. Sometimes passionately.

Most recently, I’ve entered the fray in a very personal way. Muscling part of my own backlist, as well as those of a few friends and colleagues, into e-book form. January Magazine art director, David Middleton, has backed me in these efforts, which is why the covers of my own electronic books are as sharp and professional as any in the business. David knows his stuff.

I found the whole process to be not nearly as scary and frightening as I’d feared. It was actually pretty fun. This was due in one part to my own deep experience in matters of technology and, in another, to equally deep experience in many aspects of the book industry. There are moments, while you're doing it, that it feels a bit like you’re herding cats. In the end, though, it is incredible to stand back and look at the finished product and know that it’s something you’ve created with your own hands.

And so David and I started talking about that: about how some authors were feeling overwhelmed by the new roles being thrust upon them and how we could see a path through the forest, when maybe a lot of people were beating their way through the most thickly treed part. And wouldn’t it be fun, said we, to put what we know about publishing -- electronic and otherwise -- into a really enjoyable week-long intensive. Gorgeous surroundings. Good food. Camaraderie. And a lot of talk about the subject closest to our hearts: books and how they’re made.

We decided to mandate it: have people bring a manuscript and their own computer and, before the week is through, we’ve helped them design a cover, format their e-book, do all those necessary fiddly bits and upload it, ready for sale. Along the way, we’d talk about marketing and promotion and all the things that authors really do need to be thinking about these days.

Almost before we even knew what was happening, our E-Book Intensive was born and began to take shape. It will take place June 19-24th at Dancing Deer Farm and Retreat Center near San Luis Obispo, California, in the central coast wine region. We’re planning on making e-books. And we’re planning on talking about books, books, books. And we know we’re going to have fun. If you want more information, it’s here.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Fiction: Naked Cruelty by Colleen McCullough

Fans of Colleen McCullough’s bestselling novel The Thorn Birds will once again be somewhat disappointed by this latest offering from an author who seems never to have quite recovered from the heights hit at the earliest part of her career.

A quiet American suburb is being terrorized by a series of rapes. It’s 1968 and the girls are reluctant to come forward. When one finally does, the crime escalates to murder.

Naked Cruelty (McArthur & Company) is McCullough’s third novel to feature Captain Carmine Delmonico (after On, Off in 2006 and Too Many Murders from 2009). It’s not that the writing here is not up to the Australian author’s standards. In many ways, it’s as good as anything she’s ever written and at times it even reaches Jamesian tightness of prose and tautness of twists. But it will never be The Thorn Birds, will it? As unfair as it may be, McCullough’s star shone early when she wrote what may well be one of the most beloved novels of all time. And it’s tough not to compare the sublime heights she reached with that epic family saga. It’s tough not to stack the books next to each other and, under those circumstances, what chance does poor Captain Delmonico even have?

Miss McCullough, if you’re listening, it isn’t that we don’t love your books. We do. But we want what you gave us early on. The dry wind chasing over an Australian landscape; a wind that whispered of forbidden love. ◊

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

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Art & Culture: Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead by Jovanka Vuckovic

Say what you like about zombies, the undead have never been quite as popular as they are right now. Between books -- mash ups and other kinds -- television shows, movies and more, just about everywhere you look in entertainment and the arts, a zombie can be found.

So what could the enduring charm of the undead be, to warrant such faithful followings? In her new book, Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead (St. Martin’s Press) this is the question that writer and documentary filmmaker Jovanka Vuckovic strives to explore:
They are lifeless, gloomy, and sometimes smell worse than a meat-rendering plant after a month-long power outage. Some lumber about aimlessly with vacant stares while others sprint -- blackened teeth gnashing -- in hot pursuit of our brains. They are zombies. And despite their offensive odor and relentlessly poor fashion sense, they’ve managed to worm their way into the hearts of the living all over the world.
Vuckovic, who has appeared in zombie movies by Zack Snyder and George Romero, not only explores the cultural phenomena that is the zombie, arguably “the most beloved mythical monster in mainstream popular culture,” she also looks closely at the films, books, television shows and other popular media that have brought us zombies over the last several decades. And George Romero, who also writes the foreword, gets a whole chapter: “Romero’s Flesh-Eater Renaissance and Spanish Zombies of the 1970s.”

Zombies! works on every level. Beautifully illustrated and carefully rendered, you won’t realize until read it how much zombies have infected our lives. ◊

David Middleton is art director and art & culture editor of January Magazine.

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Book Clubs Still Gangbusters

In an era when a certain demographic fears the end of the book is near, aspects of reading and book-loving have never been more popular. Take, for example, the book club. Once upon a time only the literati and the socially elite and pretentious would have a go at anything as erudite as a book club. These days, it’s a fairly normal pastime, a community activity in a world with room for too few of them. From the UK’s Daily Mail:
While binge drinking and Facebook have become the social activities of choice for a generation of young people, thousands of British women of a certain age have embraced the Book Group as the new rock ’n’ roll.
British journalist, Mandy Appleyard, breaks down the formula from a girl-in-the-street perspective:
And the Book Group is entertaining. It is the only gathering I know where, in one short evening, you can go from chick lit to the classics, from the state of someone’s marriage to someone else’s divorce, from idle gossip about a naughty neighbour to analytical discourse about post-colonial literature.

It’s a simple enough formula, a bit like a latter-day Tupperware party except that it’s about the written word instead of storage tubs.
A different approach, but the same big picture, last year in The Huffington Post Delia Lloyd offered up “Five Reasons To Join A Book Club.” The reasons would still work today.

Want to start your own book club? The Book Club Cookbook is a well established starting point. Real Simple magazine offers a “Start a Book Club” checklist.

Can You Sign My Kindle, Please?

E-Books are a big deal now; there’s more of them all the time. It’s not a trend that shows any sign of going away soon. According to Forrester Research, sales of e-books will triple by 2015 to close to $3 billion. That’s a lot of trees that won’t need to die.

In a world where an increasing number of books are electronic, there’s a new challenge: what happens to the long-beloved author signing? In a world of Kindles, Nooks, Kobos and Diesels, is there still room for an author to leave a personal mark on a fan’s reading material? St. Petersberg, Florida, author and inventor, T.J. Waters, says “yes.” What’s more, he’s already done something about it. It’s called Autography and the industry will see it next month in New York at BookExpo America. From the New York Times:
Here’s how an Autography eBook “signing” will work: a reader poses with the author for a photograph, which can be taken with an iPad camera or an external camera. The image immediately appears on the author’s iPad (if it’s shot with an external camera, it’s sent to the iPad via Bluetooth). Then the author uses a stylus to scrawl a digital message below the photo. When finished, the author taps a button on the iPad that sends the fan an e-mail with a link to the image, which can then be downloaded into the eBook.

Wait time? About two and a half minutes. Bragging potential? Endless: Readers can post the personalized photo to their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The New York Times piece is here. You can visit the Autography website here.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cookbooks: Everyday Flexitarian by Nettie Cronish & Pat Crocker

The first time I heard the phrase “flexitarian” I gave a derisive snort. It was not as dramatic a reaction as the one I gave the first time I heard the phrase "pescatarian,” but still: it was in the ballpark. Are we all so desperate for distinction that we’ll give ourselves fancy labels at the drop of any hat? Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that not only was the whole flexitarian thing grounded in some fairly solid ideas, I was actually one myself and had been for years. Who knew? Well, for starters, Nettie Cronish and Pat Crocker, authors of Everyday Flexitarian (Whitecap Books) know that it’s something a lot of us are thinking about.
The truth is, a lot of people eat meat and would have a hard time removing it from their diets completely. Awareness is growing, however, and many meat eaters are mindful of where and how their meat is raised. In addition, there is a growing number of people who are eating more vegetarian meals because they recognize the health and environmental benefits.
And that’s really a lot of us, isn’t it? Going completely vegetarian would just be more trouble than it’s worth, but we’re thinking more about things now -- holistic things. And the thoughtfulness makes us move ahead more slowly. Not only that, but we have more options than our forebears did. Even to cut down on your meat consumption 50 years ago would have been much more difficult than it is now. With all the gorgeous grains, fancy legumes and amazing cheeses available to almost everyone in every area of North America these days, it’s easy to make non-meat-based choices when it comes to meals.

If we take all that as given, then Everyday Flexitarian is really not a specialty cookbook at all. It really reads as though it’s meant to be a very thorough yet basic guide to simple whole foods… without a lot of meat. The book is filled with lots of good, solid basics as might be enjoyed by a modern family. In addition, there is advice about stocking a mindful pantry and lots of hints to working with certain types of food.

While much of the food here is both easy to prepare and throughly delicious, there is slightly too much emphasis on health for my tastes; not quite enough on good for good’s sake. For instance, I can’t imagine the world where Eggplant Manicotti is a good idea and the very thought of barley in a split pea soup troubles me unreasonably. And lentils on a pizza? Honestly: I don’t need protein that badly. No one does.

That said, there are many more terrific combinations than dodgy ones. I particularly loved the Sweet Potato, Fennel and Apple Salad, a terrifically easy salad that comes together with a surprisingly vivid flavor. The Vegetable Shepherd’s Pie was very good, and very straight-forward, though pairing it as they did with lamb kabobs seemed a bit silly. After all, if you’re going to pair it with meat, why not just put the meat in the pie and be done with it? (I opted to just have a little bit more of the wonderful pie.) For me a really winning though surprising combination were the Ancho Chile Cranberry Brownies: moist and the flavor held a sharp edge with an undertone of spice. Delicious!

Overall Everyday Flexitarian is a very good book. Well produced and packed with inviting photographs and -- most importantly of all -- new ideas.

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Young Adult: Burn Bright by Marianne De Pierres

Marianne De Pierres and I have a history. When we first met, at a writers’ workshop at Aussiecon 3, she had submitted 4000 words of adult cyberpunk and I had submitted the same amount of YA fantasy. In the end, my YA novel got 60,000 words in and froze and Marianne became a well-known and highly respected author of, first cyberpunk, then space-based SF for adults. With her first young adult novel, Burn Bright (Random House Australia) she has entered my territory and it is very, very good.

The heroine of Burn Bright, Retra, is a Seal. That doesn’t mean she loves swimming but that she lives in a sealed enclave, one whose lifestyle would make the Puritans look like hippies.

When Retra’s brother, Joel, runs away to Ixion, island of teenage pleasure, where young people party all night (there is no day there), Retra’s family is punished. Unable to stand it any more, Retra flees to Ixion herself, to find her brother. She finds out a lot of other things too. And one question everybody on Ixion asks sooner or later is: what happens when you get too old?

I enjoyed Burn Bright, not only because of the storyline but because the heroine grows. She has always been strong, deep down, preparing herself for the pain she will feel from her obedience strip when she escapes, but the girl who arrives at Ixion is meek and easily shocked. As the novel progresses, Retra -- who eventually takes the Ixion name “Naif” -- is able to show her strength and courage to look after her new friends. Ironically, her Seal discipline is a help.

This is the first of a series, so be prepared for it to end at a dramatic moment. Recommended. ◊

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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Monday, April 11, 2011

Fiction: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, contributing editor David Abrams reviews The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Says Abrams:
As a writer, I should hate Téa Obreht. She’s 25, earned a coveted spot on The New Yorker’s bally-hooed “20 Under 40” list of hot young writers, and has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Zoetrope: All-Story -- all in the time that most of us are still learning how to form coherent sentences. What’s more, she can write circles around me in her sleep. I should hate her, but it’s impossible not to love what she has delivered in The Tiger’s Wife, an impressive novel by any standards -- no matter the age or career-longevity of the author.

Non-writer readers, those who are blithely ignorant of the hard work of carving words from recalcitrant language and sculpting them into something as poised and confident as Obreht’s debut, will just appreciate the novel for what it’s meant to be: damned fine storytelling.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Anniversary Edition: Franklin in the Dark by Paulette Bourgeois

In 1986, Franklin got over his fear of the dark with the aid of a night-light. He was a turtle so bright green you figure he almost should have been able to provide his own illumination. Millions of children around the world didn’t see it that way, especially when they discovered that the dark he was afraid of was inside his own shell. They were enchanted by Franklin’s antics -- both with nightlights, then soon beyond -- and he went on to become the star of 30 books read by children in many languages all around the world.

Twenty-five years on, Franklin isn’t looking the least bit tired by the turning of years and all that success and, in honor of this momentous occasion, KidsCan press has introduced an special 25th Anniversary Edition of Franklin in the Dark, the book in which the beloved turtle made his debut. It’s a very special hardcover that includes a letter from the author. “After hearing the television character Hawkeye on M*A*S*H say he was so claustrophobic, he’d be afraid of his own shell,” Bourgeois writes, “I had my idea for a story.” Bourgeois adds that she thought it would be a “one-time deal.” She couldn’t have been more wrong.

A letter from illustrator, Brenda Clark, who has so carefully brought Franklin to visual life all these years is here, as well along with some very interesting early sketches for the book.

A section at the rear of the book takes readers through Franklin’s history, from the editorial process right through to his phenomenal success in almost every medium.

But of course -- and appropriately -- the bulk of the book is given over to Franklin’s first tale, here reproduced in all its luminous glory. To think now that a second generation is likely reading the story to their children is a warming thought, not to mention an inspiration for turtles everywhere.

On the occasion of the anniversary, KidsCan has re-released a dozen classic Franklin stories. ◊

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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April is National Poetry Month

Into rhyming couplets? Free verse? Limericks? Whatever your poetic passion, April is your month and the nice people at Knopf Doubleday want you to know they’re giving their best stuff away. One poem at a time, one day at a time. You’ll find a brief video and a little box where you can enter your e-mail address to sign-up for their Poem-A-Day give away.

After you sign up, you’ll start receiving some real gems from some of the world's best poets every morning. I signed up a short while ago, and this week alone I received little nuggets of gold by Cynthia Zarin, Leonard Cohen, and Marge Piercy.

Now, if that’s not a good way to wake up every day, I don’t know what is.

To sign up for your free poems, point your browser here.

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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Fiction: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Today in January Magazine’s fiction section, editor Linda L. Richards mourns over The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. Says Richards:
Everything written about David Foster Wallace since his death by suicide in 2008 is tinged with tragedy. It can’t be helped. The enormity of his talent. Gone. And the thought of the books we’ll never get to read. The thought of it still just breaks our hearts.

That being the case, there’s no real surprise that every word breathed about his last book, the posthumously compiled, finished and published The Pale King, should evoke shudders of tragedy from readers and reviewers alike. We’re just so goddamned sad.

It doesn’t help that we can’t be sure if this is the book he would have wanted us to read. The core of what is being published this month as The Pale King was found in a pile on the author’s desk after he was dead. Michael Pietsch, the executive VP and publisher at Little Brown, was charged with the daunting task of making something worthy of the celebrated author out of sometimes disconnected-seeming material.
The full review is here.

Last year, Richards reviewed Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. That review is here.


Director Sidney Lumet Dead at 86

American director Sidney Lumet died at home in Manhattan today of lymphoma. He was 86.

One of the leading directors of the 20th century, Lumet directed over 50 films including 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and many, many more. From The Hollywood Reporter:
Lumet, who received five Oscar nominations and seven DGA nominations for his work, was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005 for his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of motion pictures.”
Lumet is survived by his fourth wife, Mary Gimbel.


Waiting for the Twitterpocalypse

You always figured there was something hinky about Twitter. Now it’s been confirmed. From the science fiction news and reviews site, Grasping for the Wind, comes an irresistibly named article: “6 End Theories of Twitter.” And, if that august publication is to be believed, the end may well be nigh.

There are six competing theories, Grasping tells us, one of them sure to end the world. “Until that happy day,” they say, “we will have to simply forearm ourselves with knowledge of these theories, and grimly soldier on.”

Grasping describes the Twitterpocalypse as “a re-imagining of the popular (and much-hoped for) Christian End of Days.” Beyond that, they say, there are five other Twitter doomsday scenarios, most of the gist of them self-evident from their names: “Big Twitter Is Following You,” “The Tweetularity,” “Tweetlander,” “Peak Twitter,” and -- the most frightening of them all -- “The Tweetnarök,” which, Grasping warns, “will bring about the end of the world in a series of battles and disasters, all set to Wagner.”

I don’t know if we’re actually looking at the End of Tweets any time soon, but surely there must be a book in here somewhere?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Fiction: Mothers & Daughters by Rae Meadows

A young mother trying to get her feet under her after the birth of her daughter while getting over the death of her own mother the year before sets the stage for Mothers and Daughters (Henry Holt) by the author of Calling Out and No One Tells Everything.

While the theme of daughters learning surprising things about their mothers later in life or even after death has been worked over very well, the incorporation of some strong historical elements in Mothers and Daughters adds some welcome and unexpected depth. Even so, Meadows never quite delivers on her earliest promises.

From contemporary America to early 20th century New York City’s violent Fourth Ward we are introduced to what actually amounts to five generations of women caught in a web of quintessentially American themes: issues of class, migration and, of course, motherhood.

Along the way we encounter everything from opium addiction to breast cancer and, in the end, it’s all a little much. Or maybe, upon consideration, it’s not quite enough. It’s as though Meadows sets us up for this epic journey, then never really takes us all the way home.

Mothers and Daughters is a good book, sure. But that’s the problem, in a way: it could have been so much more. ◊

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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Mellencamp and King Craft Musical

What happens when you ask rocker John Mellencamp and author Stephen King to collaborate on a project? Apparently, what you end up with is a musical... of the understandably (or, at least, unsurprisingly) Gothic kind.

The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, “a riveting Southern gothic musical,” will run at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre from April 4th to May 13th of 2012.

According to Artist Direct, “King’s story is based on the real 1957 deaths of two brothers and a young girl. Mellencamp is crafting the ‘roots and blues-tinged score,’” while T-Bone Burnett provides musical direction.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Non-Fiction: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding

In the autumn of 2010, a media event occurred that, over the fullness of time, will likely alter the course of history when an avalanche of previously secret diplomatic documents were released on an unsuspecting public. Unsuspecting and unprepared, really. We weren’t, as a culture, ready for WikiLeaks. And some of us still aren’t quite sure what hit us (though most of us have some sort of opinion).

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (PublicAffairs) changes that lack of understanding. Written by a brace of Guardian reporters, in the UK, the book is in fact published by the Guardian newspaper. These things contribute to making WikiLeaks the definitive book to the WikiLeaks matter, because, as the book shows, the Guardian’s team was so far inside the matter, they were pretty much a part of it to the point where Julian Assange for a while hid out at co-author David Leigh’s house. Even so, their assessments seem, at most times, quite even-handed.
The media and public were torn between those who saw Assanage as a new kind of cyber-messiah and those who regarded him as a James Bond villain. Each extremity projected on to him superhuman powers of good or evil.
If the WikiLeaks storm took you with surprise and left you with unanswered questions, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy will come close to answering them. At the same time, it delivers a riveting portrait of the culture and personalities that made the WikiLeaks matter not only possible, but perhaps inevitable. ◊

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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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Kafka Letters Headed for New Home

Over 100 letters and postcards that Jewish Czech-born writer Franz Kafka sent to his favorite sister, Ottla, have been purchased by the Bodleian library at Oxford University and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach, Germany, in a collaboration The Guardian described as “unprecedented.”
The letters have been on deposit in Oxford for 40 years but only for safe-keeping. About a year ago the owners, Kafka's descendants, said they were minded to put the letters to Ottla up for sale and it became clear that the Bodleian would not be able to afford the full amount, hence the successful approach to Germany.
Thomas said the Bodleian had relied on many private donors and it had felt, at times, like an American-style barn raising as they approached the scheduled auction date of 19 April.

Neither the purchase price nor the precise details of the arrangement have been released to the press. Other than that, The Guardian has the full story here.

Monday, April 04, 2011

E-Books: Libraries and Publishers Armed for Showdown

With some publishers gathering steam to put a limit on the number of times the electronic version of a library book can be checked out, librarians may be getting ready to hit back. After all, Seattle Times book editor, Mary Ann Gwinn, argues, should taxpayers actually be asked to pay more for a book because it’s better loved? From Gwin’s Lit Life column:
Today we live in an age of instant printing and e-books. A lot of this is good — information is more accessible than ever — but it's terra incognita for libraries, publishers and authors. Hence the current debate convulsing the library world about mega-publisher HarperCollins' recent decision to limit the number of times library patrons can check out e-books to 26, a figure the publisher calculated is a year's worth of use. After that, the library would pay — again — for the right to circulate the e-book.
The full piece is here.