Saturday, November 29, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Solitude by Robert Kull

“In many cultures, solitude is recognized as an opportunity to journey inward; in our culture, spending time alone is often considered to be unhealthy because we tend to believe that meaning in life is found only through relationship with other people … one of the challenges of solitude is that you have to face yourself.”

Robert Kull is an extraordinary man. In 2001, he put together sufficient supplies to last one year, then he traveled to a remote island in the Patagonian wilderness with the idea of exploring the effects that deep solitude might have on body and mind.

Years before, a motorcycle accident had left him with only one leg, so, right away, one knows that the physical challenge would be greater than might otherwise have been the case. But does that physical challenge even come close to the mental one?

In Solitude (New World Library) Kull’s prose is journal spare: a deep thinker’s notes to himself. “Rock-sitting in the evening rain,” he writes on December 4, 2001, “and then a shift. Light, that seems to come from beyond, floods my soul and brings love, peace, beauty and the gift of Life.”

And the answers he found?

“Some of those answers cannot be put into words,” writes Kull, “but I hope they have come drifting up between the lines of my journal.”

Some of them have.

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Holiday Gift Guide: To the Dogs by Peter Culley

Poet Peter Culley’s To the Dogs (Arsenal Pulp Press) is both stunning and fatally flawed. Which of those things weighs the most heavily will most likely depend on where you stand.

Culley explores the canine/human connection with an artist’s eye. That is to say that while books that collect historic and contemporary photographs and tie them together -- even lightly -- with editorial are generally spurred by some passion for the future well-being of all canines. One doesn’t get any of that from Culley. In fact, I’m fairly certain -- though not absolutely sure -- that Culley is not a dog owner at all. His essays are careful, clever and sometimes even insightful, but they never zoom to the place where dogs and humans connect. I suspect this is a place of which Culley is not even aware.
The “faithfulness” of the dog is both cliché and description, and it encompasses not only the dogs loyalty to humans but also its equally reliable connection with their older ways of being. The OED’s historical mosaic speaks to a connection with dogs that transcends both language and circumstance; in photographs and paintings, the postures of the humans can render them barely recognizable in present terms, but the dog is always contemporary.
Part of this distance might stem from the fact that To the Dogs began life as an exhibition at Presentation House Gallery back in the summer of 2007. The book reflects this heritage in every spill of ink. The photographs include the work of Lee Friedlander, Pieter Hugo, Bruce Davidson, William Wegman, Paul Kane, Shari Hatt, Amy Stein and others. The subjects include Yves St. Laurent, General Custer, Peggy Guggenheim and Andy Warhol, plus many more whose attached names would not impress you, yet whose inclusion is intended to underscore the place dogs have held in the history of humankind. It’s an exhibit I would have liked to have seen.

To the Dogs is a worthwhile book. Beautifully produced and presented, in some ways what it lacks in passion and understanding it makes up for in execution. Is that enough? Almost.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Jetpack Dreams by Mac Montandon

According to author Mac Montandon, the desire for flight without the aid of a fuselage is probably as old as mankind itself. “Adam and Eve, after all, didn’t bicycle from grace or swim from grace, they fell, and had they had jet engines strapped to their backs everything might have been different.”

It’s this sort of tongue-in-cheek but inarguable logic that makes Jetpack Dreams (Da Capo) such a delight and which sustains us through 261 hardcover pages of Montandon’s quest to strap said jet engine to his own back.

In the course of his quest, Montandon takes us along as he explores the history and even the development of this astonishing -- and oddly tough to nail down -- piece of technology. It’s a great ride and since you’re unlikely to find an actual jetpack under your tree, Jetpack Dreams may well be the next best thing.

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Holiday Gift Guide: City Wolves by Dorris Heffron

Though City Wolves (Blue Butterfly Books) has a lot going on, at its core, Dorris Heffron’s latest novel is about the secret lives of wolves and how they relate to humans. Fascinating stuff. There’s more to this historical novel, of course. Quite a bit. It’s the entirely fictional story of Meg Wilkinson, Canada’s first woman veterinarian. And though the life she has chosen provides inspiration at every turn, she opts to take the best of it from the sled dogs she encounters when her work and her travels take her to Canada’s frozen north.

Though City Wolves could have used a sharp edit, (and the author’s bio’s reference to a “fiction novel” almost saw this reader defenestrate the book even before page one) Heffron delivers a story of ideas and heart.

Those with an interest in or passion for women’s issues or Canada’s history -- or both -- will enjoy City Wolves.

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Holiday Gift Guide: Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide 2009

Oz Clarke is one of the top wine writers in the world and his annual Pocket Wine Guide (Harcourt) has come to be a must-have for certain segments of the wine-drinking community.

Though at least certain aspects of the coming year might be lean, wine lovers can easily rationalize the purchase of Clarke’s reasonably priced little book as he goes out of his way to find not only the best wines, but also the best “World Class Wines That Don’t Cost the Earth” as well as “Top value Wines.” As well, he reports on producers and regions to watch.

Especially interesting this year is a section on the effect that climate change might have on wines and wine producers. He makes some interesting points, but concludes that the type of temperature change associated with global warming might well have us entering a “post-classic” era of wine production.

And as astute a wine writer as former actor Clarke has proven to be when it comes to international wines, potential readers with an interest in Canadian wines and wine production will want to give this one a wide berth: Canada doesn’t even rate its own section, but rather gets lumped in with “Other Wine Countries” between -- get this -- Bulgaria and China, both of which get a more intimate look than does Canada. In fact, of all the “Other Wine Countries” the one that gets the closest and most detailed look is England (Did I mention Clarke is a Brit?) which is just stupid: the United Kingdom produces more wine than only six countries: Syria, Malta, Panama, Lichtenstein, India and La Réunion. And don’t tell me it’s about quality: no one is running around claiming that Sussex wines beat the pants off… well… anyone.

Now all of that said, for many people, Clarke’s annual guide is an absolute must. For those people, Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Guide 2009 is a terrific gift.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide... it Begins

There’s a very good reason that books keeping topping all the lists of things that people actually purchase on the Internet: they’re easy to ship. More, the book you see on the shelf in Chicago is going to be exactly the same as the one you see if you’re visiting Portland. If you happen to pop into a bookstore in Mississauga, Ontario, or Norwich in England, that same book might have a slightly different look and some of the words might sport a slightly different spelling, but, at its core, it’ll still be the very same book.

This is why books consistently top gift lists, as well. I can purchase a book in the comfort of my home and have it shipped to my best friend’s home on the other side of the country or across the world. If I choose to purchase the book at my local bookseller’s, I can even package the book with my own little hands along with a box of cookies and a card and I’ll know that, no matter what happens to the cookies, that book will probably arrive just as it was sent.

So, in a nutshell, books ship well. On a shrinking planet, this is a pretty good reason all by itself. But, of course, there are more. Even people who don’t customarily read very much like getting books as a gift. They like them for their shelves and they like them for their coffee tables. A shining new book is like a badge: “I know you think I don’t read much, but my niece in Baltimore? She thinks I do.”

Reading is not even requisite in all cases. Since there are books published on virtually every topic imaginable, there is one out there for every potential reader you can imagine. Here are a few that the January staff have read, enjoyed and feel they can recommend for the current season of holiday book sharing.

Stay with us, because our recommended list keeps growing. Anticipate updates just about every day between now and the end of the season. And why? Because books are important, they’re a good deal. And they make great gifts.

Our growing list of gift book suggestions are here.


Holiday Gift Guide: Swallowing Darkness by Laurell K. Hamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton is relentless. Since 1993, she has been dishing up her special blend of paranormal eroticism. Clearly, not everyone’s cup of hot beverage, but millions upon millions of fans line up, mostly, for new books in one of two series: the ever popular Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books -- the most recent of which was Blood Noir (Berkley) -- and her lesser known and more recently launched Merry Gentry series, of which Swallowing Darkness (Ballantine) is one.

In this series, a faerie princess has turned private investigator and is hiding out in L.A. I must share something from the press material, because it’s just too rich to keep all to myself: “Between dark faerie magic and the deepest desires lies the world of Meredith Gentry -- princess, private investigator, and powerful player in a game of supernatural sexual intrigue.”

You see what I’m saying?

In this new book, Gentry is determined to fulfill her destiny and deliver an heir... or more. Again: not everyone has a taste for this sort of reading, but chances are, if your giftee is one of Hamilton’s many fans, this is the one they’d be delighted to find a copy of under their tree.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Author Snapshot: William Conescu

A Snapshot of... William Conescu
Most recent book: Being Written (Harper Perennial)
Born in New York City
Grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana
Now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Web site:

What food do you love?
Wolferman’s English muffins.

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
I don’t like foods that slither down your throat, like mushrooms or eggplant. It’s unfortunate because I’m a vegetarian, and according to the rules, we’re supposed to love both.

What are you working on now?
Daniel, the character in Being Written who knows that he’s a character in a novel, believes he’s being set up for a sequel. I am not, however, working on a sequel. (Don’t tell him.)

I’m working on a new novel that has its own flavor of strangeness to it. I still haven’t told my friends or family what it’s about, but I’ll tell you, if you promise to keep it a secret.

Okay, that’s not fair. I’ve written a complete draft, but I need to spend more time in the world of the new novel before I’m ready to start talking about it.

Tell us about your process.
In Being Written, the character Daniel knows he’s being written because he can hear the scratching of an all-powerful author’s pencil. Do I write with a pencil? Well... no. But after I compose something on the computer, I sit down with a printout (and perhaps a cat) and edit with a pencil.

And I like knowing I’m headed somewhere, even if I don’t end up going there. So I do use an outline when I’m working on a novel, but I change the outline frequently.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
Calder print, books, papers, coffee mug, maniacal bird that keeps hurling itself into my window.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
I was thrilled to have my first novel, Being Written, accepted for publication, and I was surprised to discover how many “This is it!” moments there have been.

There was the moment I started working with an agent, the moment the novel was sold to Harper Perennial, the moment I saw the advance copy, then the final copy, then the final copy at a bookstore.

In short, I’ve discovered that I can turn almost any “first” into a reason to go out to dinner to celebrate. For instance, no one has ever asked me this exact question before. It’s a first. That at least earns me some frozen yogurt, right?

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
The dress code. Pajamas are acceptable.

What’s the most difficult?
It’s humbling to consider how many novels are out there -- not just in print but at any given bookstore. And how does a person who will enjoy your novel find out it’s there on the shelf? (In my case, under “Co-” beside many, many Jackie Collins novels.)

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
“Was it difficult writing in the second person?”

Being Written alternates between third person chapters that show the perspectives of characters who aren’t aware they’re in a novel and second person chapters that show Daniel’s perception of being written into the book.

Was it difficult writing in the second person?
No, it was a lot of fun. The second person can give a sense of a character talking to himself, and it can work well for a character who has an unusual mindset or is in a strange situation. It was difficult writing about Daniel before it occurred to me to try the second person. Originally, I wrote his sections in the third person, but something was missing. Using the second person allowed me distinguish Daniel from the other characters and helped me show his unique perspective on how the universe works.

Please tell us about Being Written.

It’s been called a dark comedy and has been called a literary thriller, and I think both are fair descriptions.

The story centers on Daniel Fischer who has made the unhappy discovery that his entire world exists in the imagination of an author. Daniel is the only one who can hear the scratching of the author’s pencil when someone is being written nearby, but unfortunately, Daniel is a very minor character -- the literary equivalent of a movie extra.

When Daniel discovers that the author has taken interest in an unhappy young singer, Daniel inserts himself into her social circle and attempts to reinvent himself to win the author’s favor. Being Written is about the lengths to which Daniel will go to win a bigger part.

Author photo by Chris Hildreth

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Holiday Gift Guide: The Graveyard Book By Neil Gaiman

Bod -- short for Nobody -- has been orphaned early, by a murderer known only as “the man Jack” who had killed his entire family and is still on the hunt for him. Not until late in the book does he learn why.

In the meantime he is rescued by a community of ghosts in the graveyard on the hill of a small but ancient town. There, he is cared for by the kindly ghosts of Mr. and Mrs. Owens, tutored by other ghosts and mentored by the only graveyard inhabitant who can leave the cemetery for food and other things a living child might need: Silas, a vampire. Between his toddler years and his late teens, Bod has many adventures.

Sound familiar? It should. In fact, in an afterword to The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins), author Neil Gaiman admits he was thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, although Gaiman’s tale also has a strong flavour of Ray Bradbury, if you can imagine that most American of writers as British.

The Graveyard Book is more or less a series of connected short stories; in fact, Chapter four, “The Witch’s Headstone,” was first published as a short story.

It works, in any case. Like all of Neil Gaiman’s works, this one is very readable, with the elements of good story and good characters. Despite its gruesome background, this novel is gentle, quite suitable for children to read.

Chris Riddell’s beautiful cartoon-like illustrations go perfectly with the text.

Highly recommended.

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Reasons to be Cheerful Even When the Bubble Burst

I had a surreal experience recently meeting up with Mark Sanderson, who writes the “Literary Life” column for The Telegraph and who has written a novel called Snow Hill that will be published by HarperCollins in 2009. The surreal angle is that, when we met at the HarperCollins crime dinner recently, we discovered in a surreal twist of fate that Sanderson and I both attended the same primary school in a village in Cheshire in the 1970s.

During that excellent dinner, I also discovered that HarperCollins editor Julia Wisdom’s first rock concert was seeing the British Heavy Metal band Hawkwind, who also happened to be one of my all time favorite bands, as well as that of Ian Rankin. Over the meal, Wisdom and I discussed the merits of Heavy Metal and Hawkwind’s psychedelic brand of space opera, especially their ground-breaking 1973 concept double album, Space Ritual, which was recorded live in London and Liverpool in December 1972. This album is an astounding mesh of science fiction, drugs and heavy rock and features writing from British SF writer Micheal Moorcock, as well as poet Robert Calvert and the whole Hawkwind entourage, including Lemmy who was a.k.a. Ian Kilmister who later formed Motorhead.

So with Hawkwind in my mind currently; I am pleased to announce that Reasons to be Cheerful (Adelita) by Paul Gorman is being released next month in the UK. It celebrates the short life of graphic artist Barney Bubbles who helped design the covers and imagery of many Hawkwind albums including Space Ritual and the definitive In Search of Space. Bubbles also designed graphics that Hawkwind used in their concerts. But Bubbles worked with many other British acts, and the title of Gorman’s book relates to the iconic Ian Drury and the Blockheads single of the same name.

It seems Bubbles made the transition from Hawkwind’s brand of SF Heavy Metal to the raw pulse of the emerging British Punk rock scene, reports The Sunday Times:
Soon Bubbles was designing record covers for Hawkwind, an explosion of ideas that pushed their freeform space-rock into a new dimension. The 1971 classic X in Search of Space, which unfolded into the shape of a cruciform hawk, was an elaborate triumph of sci-fi nouveau. “It was in the days of LSD, and I think Barney used to take the odd acid tab when he was doing the sleeves," laughs the Hawkwind co-founder Dave Brock. “You can probably see the results of that in his artwork, like Space Ritual.” Indeed, with its sleeve panels of cosmic embryos, nipple planets and sonic waves, Space Ritual combined Bubbles’s ideas on philosophy, theatre and art. Still he refused to sign his work, though his reputation was growing apace.

By the mid-1970s, Bubbles made the transition from hippie to punk, reshaping [
New Musical Express] NME’s logo and landing a job as in-house designer at Stiff Records. His graphics gave the fledgling label a sharp, smart new identity. He created sleeves for Nick Lowe, the Damned, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and more — many of which cleverly subverted art movements such as dada and constructivism. It was a fiercely intelligent streak he carried through to F-Beat, Radar and Go! Discs. “His sleeve work was sensational,” asserts the Stiff photographer Brian Griffin. “And his work rate was phenomenal. I never saw Barney sleep, ever. Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick is one of the great art pieces of the 20th century. It’s mind-blowing. I think it’s up there with a Picasso painting.”
You can see some of Bubbles’ work from Word Magazine here. However, like many creative people, Barney Bubbles was a troubled soul who tragically ended his life, here reported by Mark Paytrees at the Hawkwind fan site Starfarer:
Barney was struggling. The regular outlets for his work were drying up. He was underpaid for the work he was still doing, and a love affair crumbled around him. "I used to do this magazine with him called Y," recalls Brian Griffin. "And one day we had this argument about the rude words in the text. It was the only argument we ever had. I went round to see him and patch it up, and he'd lacerated his face with a razorblade." Nik Turner also witnessed a more desperate Barney around this time. "I got a call from his girlfriend, who said, 'Come round and help us, Barney's threatening everyone with a knife.' I did and he said, 'Look, I'll kill you too.' Then he threw the knife on the ground. He was having a nervous breakdown. Soon afterwards, he committed himself to a hospital."But Barney never recovered. "He phoned me up on the morning he committed suicide," Griffin remembers. "He said, 'Beej, I really feel terrible.' I recall him being worried about his VAT. I said, 'Don't worry, after I've finished shooting this Echo & The Bunnymen video I'll come straight over.' I finished early, mid-afternoon, and I phoned up. But it was too late. His sister came to the phone and said, 'Barney's killed himself.'"

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: The Science of Good Food by David Joachim and Andrew Schloss

The Science of Good Food (Robert Rose) won’t be every home chef’s idea of a good time. However, if the foodie on your list loves the “why” as well as the “how”of cooking, he or she might be a great candidate for this astonishingly complete book.

After close reading, it appears to me that The Science of Good Food includes everything. Everything. There are over 1600 entries in a book that is paperback, yet very thick and surprisingly heavy. It’s a substantial volume. Pick a topic: it’s here. What it is about butter that makes cakes so tender. Exactly -- exactly -- what is hydrolyzed vegetable protein? What’s an emulsion? Irradiation? Milk? What should be done with mollusks, mustard greens and okra (though not in the same dish).

Information, recipes, myth busting and demystification, The Science of Good Food touches on every aspect of food, cooking, preparation and storage. An amazing book.

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Holiday Gift Guide: Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins

Emily Perkins isn’t widely known in North America, which is a shame, as Novel About My Wife (Bloomsbury), her fourth book, is amazing. Tom Stone, a foundering screenwriter, is trying to piece together what went wrong with his wife Ann, who we know at the outset is dead. We don’t know the how she died, or why, but as this almost gothic story unfolds, it’s impossible to put down until we learn the truth.

Ann is everything Tom is not: a beautiful, unconventional Australian, a talented sculptress with a past she refuses to discuss. Tom, is English and more conservative than he’d like to admit, less fortunate in his field and besotted by his red-headed wife. Their relationship is intensely, almost violently sexual in ways Tom chooses to overlook. He also overlooks the jagged scar on Ann’s upper arm, a past pregnancy (aborted), and her literally insane response to Australian Film Producer John Halliburton, whom Tom is longing to work with.

The couple extends themselves financially, purchasing a large fixer-upper in the seedy London neighborhood of Hackney. Ann becomes pregnant, reason for joy, but she also beings unravelling, certain she is being stalked and that malevolence lurks in their crumbling new home. Even the birth of son Arlo fails to calm her increasing hysteria, leading to an inexorable ending.

Perkins’ takes a wry view of English life, of the young couple scrabbling madly for real estate, the right cars, the properly-kitted-out strollers, drinks in the right bistros. That these couples must live beyond their means, chased by envy, is a matter of course, and many American readers will nod in grim recognition. But it is Perkins’ chilling rendering of Ann, mercurial, moody, ultimately unknowable, that truly frightens. Ann’s fears overwhelm both Tom and the reader, moving a novel of domestic unrest into the realm of true horror: hitting us, literally, where we live.

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Holiday Gift Guide: Wacky Packages

I don’t know about you, but I spent far too many of my own tween afternoons pouring over Wacky Packs, those addictive trading cards that fractured ads and product packaging, turning the most inocuous of claims into a hysterical parody that often spoke more truth than the real products taglines did. (I think they played a large role, in fact, in my career choice as as advertising copywriter -- but it’s possible I’m being a tad too honest.)

Now dozens of the best Wacky Packages (Abrams) have been collected in a book of the same name. As it turns out, Art Spiegelman, later of Maus fame, was responsible for a lot of the memorable madness, and there’s an illuminating interview with him here about the world of journeyman artists and art directors of the period, as well as how this series was born.

Best of all, there’s original art for Jail-O dessert mix, Crust toothpaste, Kook-Aid drink mix, Cheapios cereal, Hipton tea, Big Muc burgers, and more than 200 others, from Series 1 through Series 7. This treasure trove is a must-have book for any culture-conscious adult who was a kid about 40 years ago.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

New in Paperback: Lion Eyes by Claire Berlinski

What one feels, throughout the pages of Lion Eyes (Ballantine Books) is a sort of disconnect, almost disassociation. For the most part, the feeling is delicious. It’s a sensation of wondering, throughout much of the book, “Is this real?” or “Is this part fabrication?” We know that both things are a possibility and therein lies that pleasurable confusion.

Like author Claire Berlinski, the main character is called Claire and she is an American living in Paris. Also like the author, Claire has written novel called Loose Lips. You see where all of this is going, right? Claire gets e-mail from a Persian archeologist who says he’s read her book. They begin a torrid electronic affair and when he proposes coming to visit her in Paris, Claire looks forward to finally meeting the man who by now embodies all of her fantasies.

When he arrives, however, Claire finds herself lifted from her romantic fantasy into a world of intrigue and espionage. Berlinski’s prose is charming. Sometimes wildly funny, sometimes oddly innovative, sometimes marvelously insightful. Lion Eyes is quite wonderful and should not be missed.


Review: Crimini edited by Giancarlo De Cataldo

Today in January Magazine’s crime fiction section, contributing editor M. Wayne Cunningham reviews Crimini edited by Giancarlo De Cataldo. Says Cunningham:
On their Web site, the folks at London-based Bitter Lemon Press boast: “Our books are entertaining and gripping crime fiction that exposes the dark side of foreign places. They explore what lies beneath the surface of the bustling life of cities such as Paris, Havana, Munich and Mexico City.” And now with the publication of the nine exciting stories in editor Giancarlo De Cataldo’s anthology, Crimini, you can add Bologna, Milan, Rome and Palermo as settings for noir tales that can bring a smile to the lips, a tear to the eye or a jolt to the imagination.
The full review is here.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Tall Tales by Al Jaffee

For anyone who ever read Mad magazine, the name Al Jaffee is seared into memory. But before he was Mad, he was syndicated in newspapers nationwide with a strip called “Tall Tales.” Turning up his nose at the standard horizontal format, Jaffee created something, well, taller, one column wide and several inches tall. Now 120 of the best have been gathered into a book, also called Tall Tales (Abrams). Without a single word, each cartoon deftly tells a single joke, and they’re often incredibly funny.

Using the simplest of lines and nothing but black ink -- a starkness that reminds me of the theatre drawings of Al Hirschfeld -- Jaffee manages to tell tales that are almost painfully insightful (painful thanks to the cramps they induce). One of the things that make them so funny is the absolute lack of pretense; they simply show us as we are, which makes them as eye-opening as they are gut-busting.

Finally, like Jaffee’s tales themselves, the book is tall -- but at just $14.95 retail, it’s also low enough to be the comedy bargain of the year.

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Holiday Gift Guide: Owls of North America by Frances Backhouse

Readers with an interest in owls will simply not find a better book than respected science and environmental writer Frances Backhouse’s Owls of North America (Firefly Books).

The book is large and handsome, suitable for coffee table adornment, but don’t let it spend too much time there. Backhouse hits just everything you’d want to see covered in a book of this nature: owls in history and mythology, their mating and flight habits, how they communicate, see rest.

A large chunk of the book is given over to profiles of 23 species of owls, intended to help owl buffs identify and observe their own neighborhood owls.

“From ancient myth to Harry Potter, owls hold an enduring place in the human imagination,” Backhouse writes. “In some cultures they are revered, in others, feared. And for every superstition that associates owls with good fortune, a dozen more link them to mortality, sickness or evil. A small sample of the hundreds of legends, beliefs and customs that invoke owls gives a sense of the prominent and diverse roles in which these birds have been cast.”

Owls of North America will be a fabulous gift for the naturalist of curious child on your list.

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Holiday Gift Guide: The NFL Gameday Cookbook by Ray Lampe

With a name like The NFL Gameday Cookbook (Chronicle Books) you’d maybe think there wouldn’t be a lot to say. 150 recipes. Official NFL colors. Lotsa pictures. Add a football fan or six and some food and you’re ready to party, right?

In all fairness, though, the The NFL Gameday Cookbook is a lot more. In fact, it’s more than it has to be. First, the recipes are surprisingly varied. Sure there’s a lot of barbecue, but everywhere his name comes up, we’re told that author Ray Lampe is a.k.a. Dr. BBQ. He’s a multiple cookoff champion, has been “grilling professionally” for more than 20 years and is a columnist for Fiery Foods magazine. So Lampe knows BBQ. But he also knows football and food and it shows.

The NFL endorsees the book and, in a foreword, the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen says, “It’s a time-honored, football God-given inalienable right that cuts across every conceivable demographic -- the entitlement to stuff yourself silly while watching the game.” However, author Lampe manages to go beyond mere gourmandishness, delivering a truly well-rounded and carefully thought out cookbook. One doesn’t expect Sweet Potato Bread with Pecans; Vegetarian Chili; Lobster with Chili Lime Butter and Chocolate Martinis. The expected stuff is here as well. There’s lots of delicious barbecue as well as food clearly dedicated to testosterone heavy boys determined to have fun watching football while, as Eisen said, stuffing themselves silly. Turkey Gravy Sandwiches with Homemade Cranberry Sauce; Judy’s Double-Stuffed Cheeseburgers and Barbecued Bologna Sandwiches are just a few examples of those.

All in all, The NFL Gameday Cookbook is a terrific book that more than delivers on early promise. Lots of football and team information is well put together but never overshadows our real reason for being here: “It’s your party and you can have it any way you want! Just call it NFL game-day fusion cooking.”

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: The Spy who Came for Christmas by David Morrell

I don’t know what it is, I don’t know why it should be, but I’m a total sap for the holidays. I love the food. I love the shopping. Much to my partner’s chagrin, I love the goofy music, the tired old movies, the television shows that only get dusted off every 12 months and sent out at us in a massive airwave for a couple of weeks late in the year.

And I love the holiday traditions I’ve built for myself over the years. One of them involves books and reading. Every year -- right around this very moment -- publishers release a few select titles totally targeted to only make sense during the holidays. Some of them will become holiday classics, destined to get hauled out year-after-year just like the aforementioned goofy tv shows and tired old movies. And some of them will disappear almost without trace before we even finish picking tinsel out of the rug.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not yet sure on which side of this classic divide thrillermeister David Morrell’s brand new The Spy Who Came for Christmas (Vanguard) will come down. On the one hand, this is the dude who gifted Rambo to the world. On the other, the Christmas market is a fickle one. I mean, seriously: whatever even happened to Tickle Me Elmo? Think about it.

Little more than novella length, in many ways The Spy Who Came for Christmas is more charming than regular readers of Morrell’s books might expect. This is surprising in a tale that in no way will shortchange those looking for the thrills Morrell always delivers.

Morrell’s story here centers around Kagan, a spy who has long been in deep cover and who now wants out: only his handlers won’t let him go. More: Kagan has in his care a child whose fate might have the power to change the world. The Spy Who Came for Christmas is stuffed full of metaphors. There are some wise men-ish types; a young mother and her son have been victimized and need Kagan’s help. Possibly other things, as well, but Morrell’s pacing is such that the story flows by very quickly. Metaphor or no, we are reminded that this is one of the top thriller writers of his generation.

That said, I’ll have to revisit the question: contemporary classic, yes or no? And so maybe now I’ll venture out with a cautious “yes” if only because I suspect it will take multiple readings to pull all of the nuance out of this slender and seemingly simple book. I’ll plan on doing that over a series of years. And maybe that is the place where classics are born. There, of course, and with heart.

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Holiday Gift Guide: The Letters of Allen Ginsberg edited by Bill Morgan

“If you are in any ennui or doldrums, lift up your heart, there IS something new under the sun.” This line opened a letter Allen Ginsberg wrote to Jack Kerouac in July of 1950. The newness he was writing about was a relationship. “Ah, Jack,” he continues later in the missive, “I always said that I would be a great lover some day. I am, I am at last.”

Most everyone is familiar with the work of poet Allen Ginsberg, but few had reason to know that he was also a fabulous -- and prolific -- correspondent. Editor Bill Morgan -- Ginsberg’s archivist and biographer -- reports that he sifted through nearly 4000 Ginsberg letters to come up with the 165 reproduced in The Letters of Allen Ginsberg (Da Capo). “Strictly speaking,” Morgan tells us, “a man of letters is not someone who has written a lot of letters but rather someone who is actively engaged in the literary and intellectual world. Allen Ginsberg was both.”

Morgan has -- once again -- done a terrific job with Ginsberg’s words. In many ways, what we have here is the very heart of the Beat Generation. A wonderful book.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cookbooks: The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice Ojakangas

“Casseroles are making a comeback,” writes Beatrice Ojakangas in her introduction to The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever (Chronicle Books). And no wonder: the casserole can be like nature’s perfect food. Perfect for busy lifestyles and budget conscious chefs, casseroles are about as 2008 as can be imagined.

Unfortunately, the author completely misses the mark on the history of the casserole and its ancient origins. However, most readers probably won’t mind this as The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever includes over 500 recipes for just about any type of casserole imaginable, as well as a few that are definitely not considered casseroles at all, but are nice to see included in any case.

Those looking for a way to use holiday leftovers will find inspiration here: recipes for Turkey and Curried Rice Casserole, Turkey and Mushroom Casserole, Turkey and Wild Rice au Gratin, Turkey Breast Mole and others are all waiting here to help turn your post-holiday frown upside down. More importantly, following some of the author’s advice for the making ahead and freezing of casseroles could be life-changing for would-be home chefs who seldom find themselves with enough time or energy to cook.

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Costa Male

Having an awards list from Costa Coffee seems apt when you consider that strong coffee is what you need when faced with a novel that refuses to be put down. The BBC reports that the big issue with this year’s awards is that the shortlist for best novel is all male:
De Bernieres has been nominated for his book, A Partisan's Daughter, which judges described as “an elegant love story about the lies we tell ourselves and why we have to”.

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave tells the story of three young characters, including Little Bee, a 16-year-old refugee from Nigeria, and how their lives intertwine. The book was inspired by the author's early childhood in West Africa and a visit to a detention centre in Essex.

Trauma by Patrick McGrath is described as a “riveting read”

And Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is about an elderly character approaching her 100th birthday.
There are five categories in all, the others being poetry, biography, first novel and children's. Each category winner receives £5,000.

The overall winner receives £25,000 and will be announced on 27 January, 2009.

Personally I was delighted to see Man Booker longlisted and CWA Dagger winner Tom Rob Smith shortlisted for Best First Novel.

Best Novel Award
  • Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
  • Chris Cleave, The Other Hand
  • Louis de Bernieres, A Partisan’s Daughter
  • Patrick McGrath, Trauma
First Novel Award
  • Poppy Adams, The Behaviour of Moths
  • Sadie Jones, The Outcast
  • Jennie Rooney, Inside the Whale
  • Tom Rob Smith, Child 44
Biography Award
  • Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End
  • Judith Mackrell, Bloomsbury Ballerina
  • Sathnam Sanghera, If You Don't Know Me By Now
  • Jackie Wullschlager, Chagall
Poetry Award
  • Ciaran Carson, For All We Know
  • Adam Foulds, The Broken Word
  • Kathryn Simmonds, Sunday at the Skin Launderette
  • Greta Stoddart, Salvation Jane
Children’s Book Award
  • Keith Gray, Ostrich Boys
  • Saci Lloyd, The Carbon Diaries 2015
  • Michelle Magorian, Just Henry
  • Jenny Valentine, Broken Soup
According to The Independent:
The Costa judges whittled 616 submissions down to 25 books. Known as the Whitbread before it was taken over by the coffee chain in 2006, the competition is unique in bringing together adult and children's fiction as well as biography and poetry.

The overall winner will be announced in January and will receive £25,000.
The youngest contender is the Liverpool-born Jennie Rooney, a 28-year-old lawyer who completed her first novel Inside the Whale during lunch breaks from her legal practice. She will find herself competing in the first-novel category against Sadie Jones, daughter of a Jamaican poet, Evan Jones. Sadie Jones's debut, The Outcast, set in post-war suburban England, has already been shortlisted for the all-female Orange Prize. The only man to make it on to the first-novel shortlist is a former screen writer, Tom Rob Smith, whose Stalinist-era Child 44 was described as "unputdownable".

This year's judges include the author Lisa Jewell; the actress and writer Pauline McLynn; the journalist and broadcaster Michael Buerk; the poet Roger McGough; and the writer Victoria Hislop. A final panel of judges, to include a member of the book-reading public, will be announced next month.
While The Guardian’s coverage includes asking some of the shortlisted authors what they would do with the money. (Charity, says Tom Rob Smith. Lollipops for his children says Sebastian Barry.)

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Children’s Books: Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Australian, readers will certainly have heard of Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta’s wonderful first novel about the immigrant experience, seen through the eyes of a young Italian girl living in Sydney, trying to cope with various teen problems, including those headaches you have when you’re having to worry about all the old ladies of the community who mind your business for you. Even if you’re not Australian, you may well have fallen in love with Sydney through the gloriously warm, feel-good movie based on the novel.

In the last few years, Marchetta has written two other books, Saving Francesca and On the Jellicoe Road, both of which were a long way from Alibrandi.

In her fourth novel, she has returned to the migrant experience. Or, to be more accurate, the refugee experience. However, she’s done it in a way that many writers have used to make comments about our world: through the medium of speculative fiction.

In Finnikin of the Rock
(Penguin Australia), the title character has been travelling the various lands to which half the population of his homeland, Lumatere, have fled since the royal family was murdered and many Lumaterans massacred by the followers of a usurper.

Ten years have gone by and Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, have been visiting the various refugee camps and rulers in the kingdoms surrounding Lumatere. Nobody can get in or out of Lumatere, which is surrounded by a magical mist that was produced by a dying priestess as she was being burned at the stake. Only the rightful heir can lead the refugee Lumaterans home and dispel the mist. There is a rumour that Prince Balthazar -- one of Finnikin’s two best friends -- may still be alive, but no one has seen him since his family died. Should Finnikin and Topher try to create a new homeland for the exiles? Should they trust Evanjelin, a novice of the Lumateran Goddess, who says she can walk through the sleep of the people behind the mist and knows what is happening at home? There is, in fact, something very familiar about her.

There’s magic in this novel, as you’d expect in fantasy, but that’s all. There are no dark lords, no evil sorcerers or large-bosomed witches, no immortal Dark Riders to chase a Chosen One. And when you do finally learn about the Chosen One, you think that if you were chosen that way, you’d plead with God to choose someone else!

There are only humans, good and bad. The bad ones are ordinary people, doing what they can get away with. Even the usurper king is wisely kept offstage rather than made the novel’s villain. Not all Lumaterans are good guys. Some have lost their identity and children are growing up without their language or culture.

In some ways, I think Finnikin of the Rock might have worked better if we could see a few Lumaterans who aren’t victims and who are so comfortable they don’t want to return, despite losing their identity. But the story takes place only ten years after the exile and wounds would still be raw.

Still, it does work, at least partly because the author doesn’t beat you around the head with the message as some writers and artists have done in recent years.

Marchetta manages to explore the overall issue of the refugee experience without preaching about any individual group. The style reminds me just a little of Howard Fast, who, apart from his famous historicals such as Spartacus, managed to write a lot of thoughtful SF and fantasy.

I’m not sure how teenagers will feel about a novel which is written like fantasy but isn’t really fantasy, but it’s a good story, with enough action to hold interest, and despite the apparent male focus, it has plenty of strong female characters.

Well worth a look.

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Dancing With the Devil

In terms of traffic and readership, January Magazine is one of the top book-related sites on the Internet. As a result, an almost unimaginable number of books find their way to our doors, a healthy percentage of them uninvited. We try to review as many of them as we can, but there are no guarantees. Here is one guarantee, however: I’m about to tell you about a book we will not be reviewing. But the book is just so bizarre, I couldn’t let it slither away without mention.

From the press release for The Lennon Prophecy (New Chapter Press):
Did John Lennon sell his soul to the devil in exchange for his worldly musical success with The Beatles and beyond? That’s the theory set forth by Joseph Niezgoda in his soon-to-be released book The Lennon Prophecy, A New Examination of the Death Clues of the Beatles.
Now, obviously, right away there are some problems with this theory. For instance -- and just for starters -- the book presupposes a heaven and hell and, of course, a devil with whom to make a deal. But wait, it gets worse:
The Lennon Prophecy puts forth the theory that a 20-year-old Lennon, so disillusioned with a life of sadness and disappointment where he was abandoned by his father and stricken with the death of his mother, entered into a deal with the devil to achieve fame and fortune. Niezgoda alleges that a 20-year pact began in December of 1960, shortly before a night when Beatlemania first struck audiences on December 27, 1960, when the Fab Four played at Town Hall Ballroom in Litherland, England. During that performance, as Niezgoda writes, "The Beatles evoked a response noticeably different from anything in their past." From there, The Beatles inexplicably and immediately shot to global fame at a level never seen before or since. The 20-year pact came to its tragic conclusion on December 8, 1980, when Mark David Chapman, who testified he was possessed by demons, fulfilled the end of the contract by murdering Lennon outside of his apartment at The Dakota in New York City.
Now, let’s be clear: I have not read The Lennon Prophecy and I don’t intend to, nor will I ask anyone on my team to do so. Life is short and there are a lot of books at there waiting to be read, some of them pretty great. From where I’m sitting, this one is... not. This is fruitcake-worthy stuff. And I’m not suggesting you read the book, either. But it did seem like a book to know about, if you follow my thinking.

Imagine a world where people actually believe this stuff.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Grand... and a Grand Life

On occasion, I love to read a beefy business book. Tom Peters. Seth Godin. They’re the guys who seem to have their fingers on the pulse of what works -- and more, why it works. Every time I read one of their books, I find nuggets of gold.

So imagine my curiosity when I spotted a book called 1,000 Dollars and an Idea (Newmarket) by a guy called Sam Wyly. It reached out to me, I think, because it didn’t look like a Peters book or a Godin book or any number of those slickly designed business memoirs by any number of quasi-famous people who might appear in Vanity Fair’s annual establishment issue. It looked... real. And you know what? It is.

1,000 Dollars and an Idea doesn’t reads less like a business memoir and more like a thriller. I mean, there’s never any doubt that 007 kills the villain, destroys the lair, beds the girl. And here, there’s no doubt that Wyly becomes a billionaire; it says so, right on the cover. So the big question is: how does it happen? What’s the path? What’s the story?

For Sam Wyly, the story began in a tiny Louisiana town, from being dirt poor to becoming one of the nation’s most visionary businessmen. Back when everyone was looking at computer hardware, Wyly was looking at software. Back when everyone was shying away from doing business with AT&T and its monopoly, Wyly took them on and was instrumental in the company’s break-up. Along the way he also rescued the Bonanza restaurant chain and grew Michaels craft stores into one of the nation’s megabrands. Today, he’s involved in wind energy. Will he change our lives again? Bet on it.

As thriller-like as it is, 1,000 Dollars and an Idea is, at heart, a nostalgic look back at a man’s life. Wyly has an intense respect for his past, his own history. In these pages, his childhood home comes to life. He describes early business meetings and infuses them first with real suspense, then the exhilaration of success. It’s almost childlike, wide-eyed -- and suddenly this billionaire seems like a real guy. Not a god of business, but a guy with good ideas who found himself more successful than he ever dreamed he would or could be. But he knows it could have gone the other way.

“That’s been the experience,” Wyly told me in a recent interview. “You sort of learn by doing. Some things work, some things don’t work. We learn by failing as well as by succeeding at things.”

One of the most arresting details of Wyly’s life has nothing to do with business. In Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, he saw the president’s motorcade. “I had just watched the president and Jackie go by, watching from the third floor of the Neiman Marcus building, and by the time I got in my car in the parking garage, it was coming on the radio that he’d been shot. I just couldn’t get over it, it was just disbelief and denial that it couldn’t have happened. And gradually I realized, yeah, it happened, and it’s just... I spent several days just glued to the TV.”

And two days later, he saw Ruby shoot Oswald -- then recognized Ruby as an old neighbor of his. “That was a double stunner.”

This kind of thing happens throughout 1,000 Dollars and an Idea. Though Wyly is always in the middle of something exciting, his focus isn’t on himself as much as it is on the people who helped him and contributed so much to his success and his life.

“I’ve been lucky to have had some really able people come into my life at points along the way,” he told me. “Different people with different skills and different knowledge that contributed to what we’re doing together.”

There’s something about writing a memoir about your own life, then giving so much of the credit away to other people. You don’t see that lot. It impressed me.

Early on, Sam Wyly was in the oil business. Now he’s in the clean energy business -- and there have been a lot of ventures (and adventures) in between. I wondered if there’s one thing that stands out, a legacy.

“I don’t know if I could just pick one thing. I’m a guy who likes a chocolate milkshake one month,” he told me, “and a strawberry milkshake the next.”

We talked a little about John Adams, the HBO miniseries, and the nation’s founding fathers. I mentioned the episodes about writing the Declaration of Independence and said that these were simply men of their times, businessmen and farmers with a vision for something new, even revolutionary.

“That’s what I’ve seen myself doing,” Wyly said after a moment. “To look at something as it is and think about how could it be. And then to set about to make it happen.”

1,000 Dollars and an Idea isn’t hard-edged or prescriptive like Tom Peters’ and Seth Godin’s books. Instead, it’s got a gentle style that feels like you and Wyly are sitting in his living room, and he’s telling you stories... whispering, so you lean in. And when he’s done and you’re driving back home, you suddenly get the one real message, the powerful suggestion that in business and in life, if you have courage, if you stoke your own determination, and if you surround yourself with talented people you, too, can make it happen.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Orgasmic Appetizers and Matching Wines by Shari Darling

Picture this: a full house at your place in the weeks leading up to the Big Holiday. You come out of the kitchen with a tray. And on that tray, Seared Scallop with a Pickled Ginger and Clementine Butter Sauce. And nestled next to it, a platter of Meatballs in Camembert Sauce that you put down on the table right next to the Chipotle Goat Cheese Dip with Bagel Wedges. And the whole place sighs. Oh heck, this is your fantasy: the whole place applauds. To be honest, though, Shari Darling would take it up a notch: she’d have the whole place moan.
The culinary orgasm is sometimes just a happy accident. As a home cook (I’m not a chef), I love to hear my guests moaning over my food and wine choices …. For many of us, provoking this sublime response in others is hit and miss. What if you could learn the science and art of causing the culinary orgasm by purposefully preparing hedonistic recipes and matching wines, and you could produce them on a consistent and frequent basis?
In Orgasmic Appetizers and Matching Wines (Whitecap Books) Darling takes us there. Why appetizers instead of something more substantial? “Appetizers are indulgent and irresistible, risky and exciting. They’re sexy!” Are you sensing a theme here?

Orgasmic Appetizers and Matching Wines will make a terrific present to yourself on your quest for unforgettable holiday entertaining, or to make a strong statement under someone’s tree. This might very well be one of those gifts that just keep on giving.

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Obama Book Club Open for Business

Bush critics would say that many things have been absent from the White House during the current president’s administration. But certainly one of the things missing was a leader that read books. Previous presidents have made careers and started trends. Take, for example, Bill Clinton’s casual 1999 mention of Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane. Though Lehane’s career had been clipping along nicely by that point (hell: the book ended up on the president’s nightstand, did it not?) once Clinton had given Lehane’s work his boyish smile, there was no looking back.

In the time between, we have occasionally sighed for those good ol’ days of presidents who read for pleasure. Unsurprisingly, in this way, too, Obama seems the answer to so many dreams. In yesterday’s New York Times, Motoko Rich went so far as to compare Obama to Oprah in the book department. “For Books, Is Obama New Oprah?” queried the headline. Nor was it an idle comparison. Says the Times:
When President-elect Barack Obama appeared on “60 Minutes” on CBS on Sunday in his first interview since winning the election, he mentioned having read “a new book out about F .D. R.’s first 100 days” without specifically naming a title or author.

That tantalizing reference set off a scramble for the claim to First Reader rights all day Monday before a spokesman for Mr. Obama disclosed what the president-elect had actually read.

The publishers and authors of at least three such books that could fit Mr. Obama’s description each spent much of Monday wondering whether they had just gotten a plug from the soon-to-be leader of the free world.
As a result, publishers found themselves scurrying back to press while journalists tried to uncover exactly which non-fiction work about Franklin Delano Roosevelt the president-elect had been enjoying.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Several books on FDR enjoyed a boost in sales and Americans got a new taste of what once again having a reader in the Oval Office will feel like. From the sound of things, it felt more than all right.

And speaking of politics (come on: it was a long haul. It’s going to be a tough habit to break) the Los Angeles Times reports that a book by Samuel Wurzelbacher -- aka “Joe the Plumber” -- is being super-fast-tracked to bookstore shelves even as I write this. The book will be published December 1st.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: The Fire by Katherine Neville

While a few reviewers have been somewhat cool about Katherine Neville’s long-awaited sequel to 1988’s The Eight, we predict that The Fire (Ballantine) will still manage to find its way under a lot of trees this holiday season.

The Fire features Alexandra Solarin, the sole daughter of the heroic couple we first met in The Eight. The Fire covers a lot of fictional ground between 1822 and 2003 while Solarin searches for a piece of a legendary chess set that -- in its own context -- has the capability of transforming the shape of the world.

The best news for fans could come at the very end: it seems possible that the game might continue at some future point. The possible bad news: will we have to wait another 20 years?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

If you’ve never encountered the book before, reading it is like stumbling across a lost treasure.

First published in 1985, a decade before The Golden Compass ever saw the light of day, Philip Pullman’s mystery series featuring 16 year old Sally Lockhart provides a glimpse at a sort of proto-Lyra Belacqua.

The Ruby in the Smoke (Knopf) was the first of four Sally Lockhart Mysteries, a series set in Victorian London. In the first book, Sally is trying to solve the mystery of her father’s death. Pullman aficionados will know that all of the Sally Lockhart books were well received when they were first published, and they have never been out of print. However, if you weren’t at the time paying close attention to children’s literature, it would have been possible to miss them as it would be another decade before Pullman became really well known after his Dark Materials trilogy belted him into the stratosphere. When it was first published in the United States in 1997, The Ruby in the Smoke was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Booklist Editor’s Choice and was nominated for the Edgar.

Knopf has chosen to republish all four Sally Lockhart mysteries at the same time: The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess are all available in very handsome and reasonably priced paperback editions, and just in time for holiday gift giving for the young mystery reader on your list.

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Meyer and Harris Give Vampires a New Stake

Young fans of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (Little, Brown Young Readers) will be unsurprised to hear that the first movie based on one of Meyer’s books is expected to be an unqualified hit with its target audience. From Newsday:
The love-after-death movie “Twilight” is going to be so huge it would take a stake through the heart to stop it. And the reasons seem so obvious they make you say, "D'oh!": A heavily computer-generated, blood-flecked, teenage soap opera set in the hormonal chaos of high school. A ready-made fan base of rabid Gothic/chick-lit readers cultivated by Stephanie Meyer's four-book series. And a not-so-secret weapon named Kristen Stewart.
Back in August, Meyer’s fans celebrated the publication of Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the Twilight series, with the kind of enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen since Harry.

Despite the extreme success of the series, Meyer recently told Entertainment Weekly that her next project might not be in the world of Twilight at all:
I have two projects I want to work on. But the movie has been so time-consuming — all the publicity and the merchandise to approve. But I want to get in and write something totally different, a whole new world, and lose myself in that. I think that will be the most healing thing for me. So that's my goal.
By the time the movie opens on November 21st, media interest should have reached a frenzy. Shoot a silver bullet in any direction and you’ll hit a story about Twilight, Stephanie Meyer or one of the much ballyhooed cast of the film. Business Week brings a different angle, however, sharing the Cinderella story that led to the making -- and well-timed release -- of the film.

All of this comes on the heels of the success of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Series, recently reimagined as the hit HBO series, True Blood. Writing for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, back in October, Oline Cogdill wrote:
In her novels, vampires have come out, so to speak, thanks to a synthetic blood manufactured in Japan. But not everyone is so accepting of vampires who have been know to, well, be vampires. Sookie Stackhouse, however, is sympathetic. She’s a waitress in a small town and, because of her ability to read minds, she knows what it’s like to be different.

Harris’ novels re-imagined as a series has become a perfect fit for HBO, with Sookie Stackhouse played by Oscar-winner Anna Paquin and the executive producer Alan Ball, who created the hit Six Feet Under and won an Oscar for the screenplay of the 1999 film American Beauty.

True Blood airs Sunday nights on HBO with numerous encores.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Author Snapshot: Malena Lott

A Snapshot of... Malena Lott
Most recent book: Dating da Vinci (Sourcebooks Casablanca)
Resides: Oklahoma
Birthday: April 14
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
I’m very pro Oklahoma City. If you’ve never visited, you’d be amazed at how progressive and modern it is now. We have a revitalized downtown, cultural Bricktown area, multi-million dollar arena and convention center, our first-ever NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and great cost of living. It’s very diverse with lots of great shopping, dining and nice, nice people.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?

Head straight to downtown to see the Bricktown Canal, eat lunch at the Museum Café and then tour it to see the huge Dale Chihuly exhibit, visit our beautiful Oklahoma City National Memorial, then shop some of the downtown shops like Painted Door or head up to a wonderful independent bookstore called Full Circle Books.

What inspires you?

Nature. If I’m feeling glum, I just need to “fill up” with a few moments outside.

What are you working on now?
A work of women’s fiction about three sisters invited by their estranged mother of 20 years to “walk in her shoes” by traveling the world to see where she’s been the last two decades to decide if they want to reunite with her at the end of their journey. It’s like Eat, Pray Love meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Tell us about your process.
I like to go with the flow when it comes to writing. I don’t plot except for general beginning, middle, end and the theme. Characters come to me like a mirage at first and then as I’m writing the first draft they fill in and become whole, solid people standing in front of me. They are so real to me, that I miss them when I’m through with the book. I usually write in the morning (with two cups of coffee).

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
I see a beautiful built-in bookshelf in my library, colors of red, gold and green in the furniture and home decor and tiger print carpet. A very cozy and elegant room. I write here in my sleek black recliner on my MacBook most mornings.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Sixth grade for sure. I’ve never not written, even though the format changed throughout the years -- journalism, radio and television ad copy, Web content, novels and, of course, lots and lots of blogs.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?
I would stick to branding and marketing companies. Otherwise, I think I would’ve been happy (and miserable) as a country singer.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being a writer?
Ideas and dialogue.

What’s the most difficult?
Revisions. And the almighty synopsis. I have yet to meet anyone who likes them.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
“How do you go about getting published?”

Everyone thinks there will be an easy answer to this. Like there’s a magic number you have to call to make it happen. I also get asked, “where do you get your ideas?” a lot.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
“Can I buy up all the books at your signing?”

Please tell us about your most recent book.
Dating da Vinci is about a young widow searching for la vita allegro, joyful living, two years after her husband’s death. She seeks answers to his past and a way to build a wholly new life. She teaches English to immigrants and meets a handsome Italian immigrant named Leonardo da Vinci who becomes a catalyst in her renaissance. The book explores the theme of soul mates, second chances and everlasting love as she finishes her dissertation on “The Language of Love” and rebuilds her life.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
Most people don’t know that one of the first commercials I worked on in marketing featured Leonard Nimoy, Spock. I also burst into song spontaneously and love to dance around the house. Songs get stuck in my head and just have to come out. Much like my story ideas. My dearest friends know this about me, and don’t care. Sometimes they’ll even sing and dance with me.

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Fiction: Entitlement: A Novel by Jonathan Bennett

Canada owns a contemporary tradition of producing authors who are also working poets. In recent years wordsmiths like Helen Humphries, Andrea MacPherson and Anne Simpson have made room between books of poetry to write novels that are understandably quite unlike those being created by authors whose backgrounds are less focused on the sound a single word makes when dropped upon the page.

Now understand: this is not a bad thing. But it does explain the almost ethereal tone that Jonathan Bennett’s Entitlement (ECW) takes on occasion. And it’s an interesting juxtaposition -- ethereal -- because in some ways, Entitlement could almost be called LadLit (if that was a term that was still being used, which of course it is not), focused as it is with the concerns of men and boys.

The men and boys in Entitlement, however, are of a rare and almost invisible breed: they are of the ruling class of Canada’s moneyed establishment. And so Entitlement evolves to a discussion of class in a culture that does not discuss it. It’s not a lesson, though. Nor even a social comment in a big picture sort of way. Bennett may be a poet, but he’s also a damn fine storyteller, as he proved with his first novel, After Battersea Park, which he proved again in his collection of short stories, 2003’s Verandah People, and which he proves conclusively in Entitlement.

Was there ever a question that Jonathan Bennett was fast on his way to cementing his place in Canadian literature? There isn’t anymore.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: The 2009 Old Farmer’s Almanac

Obviously, you’d don’t have to be an old farmer -- or even any kind of farmer -- to enjoy The Old Farmer’s Almanac (Yankee Publishing), which has been published annually since 1792. The contemporary editions retain all the down-homey advice that made the annual publication an absolute must for those who made their living from the land, but gears itself these days to answering questions and bringing smiles to readers wherever they live. The 2009 edition includes articles on fashion trends, growing tomatoes and even one on global cooling. But the heart of the whole thing is in the calendar pages. “They present sky sightings and astronomical data for the entire year and are what make this book a true almanac.”

Who needs an almanac? Brides, gardeners, event planners: basically anyone who wants a shot at seeing into the future. In any case, the book is slender, inexpensive and will slide easily into a stocking and should, theoretically, provide a whole year of fun.

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Holiday Gift Guide: Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna

Who says nothing good came out of the 1970s? Jim Davis’ sardonic comicbook kitty, Garfield, turned 30 this year. And though he was born in the 1970s, as Davis points out in an introduction, “Garfield morphed from a grumpy lump of wisecracking clay into the iconic ‘spokescat’ for the ‘80s generation: the ‘Me Generation.’ What perfect timing!”

Garfield: 30 Years of Laughs and Lasagna (Ballantine) offers up a generous sampling of Garfield over the decades. The over 400 strips include 30 that Davis calls his favorites. A wonderful remembrance or a great introduction, and an anniversary celebration befitting “the world’s most famous feline.”

Not quite enough Garfield? Or maybe a little too much? Garfield Minus Garfield (Ballantine) is a ridiculous idea that works eerily well. Based on a viral Internet joke, this little book looks exactly like the Garfield books of yore: except there’s no Garfield. Garfield’s owner, Jon, is left speaking into a void, looking like a lonely kook when he should be speaking to a kitty. Good fun!

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Holiday Gift Guide: 101 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada

101 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada (Key Porter Books) is a weird little book. It reads like an anthology of Canadian stuff as described by a handful of Canada’s top contemporary writers. Contributions by Camilla Gibb, Christopher Moore, Todd Babiak, Michelle Berry and others reflect a view of Canada that is distinctly east of the Rockies in a package that looks and feels more like a children’s book than perhaps it really should. The topics are not childish, however. The contributors tackle health care, the Canadian flag, peacekeeping, hydroelectricity, the St. Lawrence Seaway and oil.

101 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada is the ultimate result of an Ipso-Reid Survey Canada’s Dominion Institute did that asked Canadians -- about 3000 of them -- what things they considered quintessentially Canadian.

“In the final analysis,” writes editor Rudyard Griffiths, 101 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada shows that we are not, as we are often told, a disparate nation made up of ornery regions, cloistered ethnic groups, and aggrieved linguistic communities. Instead, we are a people who enjoy and benefit from a set of widely shared understandings about the fundamentals of a common Canadian identity.” As well as the Stanley Cup, Queen Elizabeth. And moose. Quite a mix, eh?

Considering the contributing talent and the topics covered, the book is not as sharp as it could be. Still. It’s a slender little volume that will fit handily into a size-large stocking, making it the perfect gift for the Canuck (or Canuck-lover) on your list.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Half a century on, Holly Golightly is as fresh and compelling as she was the day Truman Capote first skated her across the page.

Capote’s novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, turns 50 just as holiday shopping gets going in earnest. Vintage has published an anniversary volume that goes on sale today. The film, of course, won’t join the anniversary for another couple of years. According to The New York Observer, Capote didn’t want Audrey Hepburn for the part:
Conjure Audrey Hepburn, if you like, but my Holly Golightly has less polish, more sizzle. (Truman Capote thought Hepburn was wrong for the part; he wanted Marilyn Monroe, which is maybe too much sizzle, if there can be such a thing.) Yes, she’s beautiful, but what makes her irresistible is the wild jumble of words that comes pouring out of her mouth:

“I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing. My complexes aren’t inferior enough: being a movie star and having a big fat ego are supposed to go hand-in-hand; actually it’s essential not to have any ego at all. I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Also on sale today, the paperback edition of the very splendid Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (Modern Library), another good holiday gift giving choice.

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Bestseller Greeley Hurt in Fall

Octogenarian Chicago mystery novelist, columnist and theologian Andrew M. Greeley was hospitalized after a fall on Friday. His Web site says he remains in “critical but stable” condition at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, the accident happened when his jacket got stuck in a taxi door:
As the cab began to pull away, the 80-year-old priest fell to the ground and hit his head, fracturing his skull. He was taken to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where he was in critical condition, friends and family said Saturday afternoon.

“Right now he’s critical but stable, very stable,” niece Laura Durkin said. “Doctors are hopeful and pleased with his progress from [Friday] to [Saturday].”

Greeley, who was wearing a Barack Obama baseball cap when he fell, suffered bleeding on the brain.
Greeley was in the news most recently when he compared then vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin to South Pacific’s racist Nellie Forbush. From Greeley’s column:
“South Pacific” is a morality play for our time. Sarah Palin is the Ensign Nellie Forbush--an All-American girl as racist, this time a racist with her eye on the White House. She can stir up crowds to shout “Kill him!” at the mention of the presidential candidate of the other party a couple of weeks before the national election.
Greeley’s accident happens just as his 17th Bishop Blackie Ryan novel, The Archbishop in Andalusia (Forge), heads into bookstores to meet its November 11 publication date. According to Publishers Weekly, Greeley hasn’t lost his touch. “Greeleys breezy 17th Blackie Ryan novel ... takes Ryan to the south of Spain for a conference, where the local cardinal requests his help preventing the murder of a beautiful and wealthy widow ... whose many relatives envy her money, title and power in the community .... some readers may feel the travelogue aspects overshadow the mystery untangling, but all will enjoy Greeleys wit and good humor.”

Greeley’s Webmaster is posting regular health updates here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

French Playboy and the Media Heiress

Not exactly book-related, but it’s been a while since we had an excuse to run a Playboy cover, so what the hell?

Today Gawker pointed out that publishing heiress Lydia Hearst posed recently for French Playboy. Which, as Hearst herself pointed out -- via Gawker, via an old Page Six column -- is “a different magazine altogether. I was shot for French Playboy, which is very high fashion, sits next to Vogue on French newsstands and isn’t wrapped in plastic. No nudity for me.”

Hearst is the daughter of Patricia Hearst and her former bodyguard Bernard Shaw. Her birth name is Lydia Hearst-Shaw, but in her life as a MAW (model-actress-whatever) she prefers plain old Hearst. (Not for anonymity, I guess.) Earlier this year, the Michaels Awards gave her the nod for 2007 Model of the Year.

So maybe this can become a book-related story after all. Seriously: after reading all that, what do you think? Can a publishing deal possibly be very far behind?

Midnight’s Children Reaches for Silver Screen

Though Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning 1981 novel has been called “unfilmable,” the author has recently hatched a new plan to change that.

According to The Guardian, he will work with Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta to co-write a film adaptation for a movie that is expected to begin production in 2010. Mehta will direct.
With its bravura mix of historical events and inventive flights of fancy, the 650-page novel has long been seen as unfilmable.

Reached at home in Toronto, Mehta rejected any such concerns. “If I was doing it myself it would be rather daunting,” she said. “The fact that we like and respect each other is a good foundation for collaboration.”

The pair will begin writing the screen adaptation in mid-March, with Rushdie and Mehta's partner, David Hamilton, acting as co-producers. Hamilton said he had had preliminary discussions with two Hollywood studios, both of which were keen to see the fruits of the Rushdie-Mehta pairing. But, he added, the script would dictate the ultimate response.
The Guardian
calls Midnight’s Children a “panoramic 1981 allegory of the birth of modern India.” The book has twice been named the Best of the Booker: in 1993 at the time of the Booker Prize’s 25th anniversary and again earlier this year as the prize -- now known as the Man-Booker -- turned 40.


Holiday Gift Guide: I Live Here

I Live Here (Pantheon) is stunning, heartbreaking, riveting. True.

Actually four books held together in an artful portfolio, each documents the stories of some of the displaced women and children in four locations: survivors of ethnic cleansing in Burma, war in Chechnya, globalization in Mexico and AIDS in Malawi.

Some of the voices we encounter belong to those very women and children, other stories come to us through noted artists and writers -- Ann-Marie MacDonald, Joe Sacco and Karen Connelly among them.

The book is part of a project put in motion by actor Mia Kirshner, who was initially looking to fill a hole in a seemingly rich and comfortable life and possibly ended up with more than she bargained for, but certainly not more than she could chew. In a recent interview, Kirshner said that, on her travels, she “mostly met people who weren’t that different from you and me. Sure, they were desperately poor, but they were even more desperate to be heard. This project is about making that happen.”

The I Live Here Foundation can be reached online.

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The Sandman Cometh

With his Sandman series turning 20 this month, the publication of a biography about him, Prince of Stories (St. Martin’s Press) and a series of special appearances planned throughout the month (various locations), it seems only fitting that Neil Gaiman should celebrate a birthday smack dab in the middle of all the Gaimanish festivities.

Neil Gaiman was born on this day in 1960 in Porchester, England, the son of a company director and a pharmacist. Read January Magazine’s 2001 interview with Gaiman here. From the interview:
Whenever I do things because I want to do it and because it seems fun or interesting and so on and so forth, it almost always works. And it almost always winds up more than paying for itself. Whenever I do things for the money, not only does it prove a headache and a pain in the neck and come with all sorts of awful things attached, but I normally don't wind up getting the money, either. So, after a while, you do sort of start to learn [to] just forget about the things where people come to you and dangle huge wads of cash in front of you. Go for the one that seems interesting because, even if it all falls apart, you've got something interesting out of it. Whereas, the other way, you normally wind up getting absolutely nothing out of it.
A review of Prince of Stories: the Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman is here. The author’s own Web site is here.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

In the War on Books, Does the Internet Win?

What has the Internet meant for us as a culture? What havoc has it wreaked on the culture of books? More: in an all out battle -- books vs. the ‘Net -- who wins?

The answer, according to Air America’s Beau Friedlander, writing for The Los Angeles Times, is not as simple as it might at first appear:
Books require a different sort of communion with one’s subject than the Internet. They foster a different sort of memory -- more tactile, more participatory. I know more or less where, folio-wise, Eliot gets nasty about the Jews in his infamous 1933 lecture series “After Strange Gods,” but I always have to read around a bit to find the exact quote, and the time spent softens the bite of his anti-Semitism because the hateful remarks were made amid smart ones. For literary works, books are still, and most likely always will be, indispensable.

But not all nonfiction requires that depth. I asked “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen Dubner how the Internet is changing writing and more generally the way we think.
“The crabbiness,” he says, “that emanates from a certain breed of thinker/writer -- a breed that I generally admire, by the way -- about how the Internet’s cornucopia of information is destroying book culture is based on fear of change more than anything. Most people don't even like to change the part in their hair; asking them to accept a change in the way words are disbursed through culture is a bit much.”
The LA Times piece is lengthy, magnificent and right here.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman

It’s like we turned a special corner, hit some magical turnpike or passed a mystical milestone no one can really see. But -- quite suddenly -- everything seems like Neil Gaiman, all the time.

One of the reasons for all the brouhaha, of course, is that November marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Gaiman’s seminal Sandman series. Vertigo Comics is marking the date with the publication of -- among other things -- The Absolute Sandman Vol. 4, which is the final of four slip-cased volumes collecting the final 19 issues of The Sandman series. Also, keep your eyes posted for other publications and events commemorating the date. For example, on November 9th, author and designer Chip Kidd will discuss Sandman with Gaiman at a special anniversary celebration at Kaufmann Concert Hall in NYC. More information on that event can be found here.

Another mark of the author’s achievement comes in the form of Prince of Stories: the Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman (St. Martin’s Press) by Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden and Stephen R. Bissette. If the authors seem to occasionally run to hyperbole, we must forgive them: at this moment, and just a few days shy of his 48th birthday, Neil Gaiman seems poised on the very lip of the type of literary achievement that nails names into history books forever. From the introduction to Prince of Stories:
Who is Neil Gaiman?

Forbes magazine labeled him “the most famous author you’ve never heard of.” His publisher, William Morrow, calls him a “pop culture phenomenon.” He is listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of “the top ten living post modern writers,” along with Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs.
Prince of Stories
is the perfect biography of a powerful artist at mid-career. It collects some of the interviews he’s done throughout his career, never-before-published writing by Gaiman himself, rare artwork, comics and book covers; trivia on Gaiman, a Gaiman timeline; Gaiman trivia; a foreword by Terry Pratchett; information on the entire Gaiman oeuvre and more. So much more.

Prince of Stories is not the final word on Gaiman. Not by a longshot. With any luck at all, we won’t be seeing that book for many, many years. In the meantime, though, fans of the author and his work simply must have this book. It casts a light on this important author in a way we’ve never seen before.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

No Rush for Bush Memoir

With a little over 70 days before President-Elect Barack Obama takes office, you might think current president George W. Bush would be thinking about writing his memoirs. According to a Canadian Press item released today, publishers most likely have one word of advice for Bush: Take your time.
“If I were advising President (George W.) Bush, given how the public feels about him right now, I think patience would probably be something that I would encourage,” says Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf, which in 2004 released Bill Clinton’s million-selling “My Life.”

“Certainly, the longer he waits, the better,” says Marji Ross, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, which is more likely to take on anti-Obama books in the next few years than any praises of Bush.

“There’s a pent-up frustration among conservatives that will focus their attention on a Barack Obama presidency and lead them to buy a lot of books about Barack Obama. But that’s not the kind of emotion that anyone is going to use to turn to reading a memoir by a conservative president.”
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the bestselling novel American Wife (Random House), feels that a Laura Bush memoir might be a different story:
“When I give readings, a disproportionate number of people who buy my book are middle-aged women who say, ‘My mother loves Laura Bush!’ So I suspect that I and a lot of 90-year-old ladies would line up for a Laura Bush memoir on the day of publication,” Sittenfeld says.

“And honestly, I have found that a lot of people in general -- men and women of various ages -- seem to have vaguely positive feelings about her, or just to wonder what she thinks, and feel that they know surprisingly little about her, given the visibility of her position. Because of this, I’m sure it (a memoir) would be a huge best seller.”

And a book by her husband?

“Personally, I would find a memoir by President Bush resistible.
Meanwhile, aspiring authors take note: one way to boost the sales of your books is to win a presidential election. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Obama’s Tuesday win has been super good for sales of his books:
As expected, Barack Obama’s memoirs, The Audacity of Hope (2006) and Dreams From My Father (1995), were given a sales boost immediately following the Illinois senator's historic victory in this presidential campaign. As of noon today, the two books ranked 3 and 8, respectively, on’s best seller list.
The full CP item is here. The Chicago Sun-Times piece is here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton Passes

Well, this teaches me to never step away from my computer for even a nanosecond. I took myself out to breakfast this morning, in celebration of Barack Obama’s historic election yesterday as the 44th president of the United States, and when I returned, I found a note from Rap Sheet correspondent Ali Karim, telling me that author Michael Crichton has died. From The Hollywood Reporter:
Michael Crichton -- whose books were made into films including “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain” -- died Tuesday. He was 66.

The author died “after a courageous and private battle against cancer,” according to his Web site. A statement on said Crichton died “unexpectedly” in Los Angeles.

Crichton was a brand-name author, known for his stories of disaster and systematic breakdown, such as the rampant microbe of “Andromeda” or dinosaurs running amok in “Jurassic Park,” one of his many books that spawned major Hollywood movies.

Crichton also was a screenwriter and filmmaker, earning producing and writing credits for the film versions of many of his titles. He also created the NBC hospital drama “ER” in 1994.
In addition to his best-known novels, Crichton penned several works of crime fiction under the pseudonym “John Lange.” Two of those books have been republished within the last couple of years by Hard Case Crime -- Zero Cool (1969) and Grave Descend (1970) -- but his first Lange novel was in fact Odds On (1966).

Still, I remember Crichton best for his historical thriller, The Great Train Robbery (1975), which fictionalized -- with style, wit, and humor -- England’s notorious Great Gold Robbery of 1855. I read that book when it came out in paperback, and was entirely consumed by its story and characters. I’ve re-read it once since, and still find it a marvel of plot development, tension, and historical re-creation. A film was made from the book in 1979, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, but the novel far outshines its cinematic adaptation. Go find a copy. Right now.

READ MORE:Michael Crichton Dies at 66,” by Hillel Italie (AP); “The Admirable Mr. Crichton,” by Ali Karim (The Rap Sheet).


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Review: The Complete Robuchon: French Home Cooking for the Way We Live Now by Joël Robuchon

Today in January Magazine’s cookbook section, contributing editor Diane Leach reviews The Complete Robuchon: French Home Cooking for the Way We Live Now by Joël Robuchon. Says Leach:
Okay, so I’m a coddled, spoiled, Berkeley tree-hugger type of eater. Not only do my vegetables come from a farm, so does my meat. And though I pay slightly less for farm-driven, high-end organic food than I would at the market, that cheaper price comes at the expense of choice. For this year, tomatoes, corn, and fresh fava beans are a memory. The first acorn squash of the season rests in the fridge, awaiting transformation. Likewise, our monthly meat box offers no lamb or vitello (humanely raised calf), but we’re awash in ground beef, steak and two pounds of ground goat.

In other words, I am hamstrung -- albeit willingly -- by seasonality, a commitment to local eating, and the preparation of nightly meals (which often morph into the next day’s lunch).

Cookbooks, of course, are a tremendous source of creativity when faced with a pound of ground goat. So much the better if that cookbook is French. So it was I welcomed Rubochon’s 832 page missive into the house.

I was in for a few shocks to my delicate ecosystem.
The full review is here.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Author Snapshot: Mark Leiren-Young

If you live in Vancouver, it’s next to impossible that you don’t know Mark Leiren-Young’s name. For one thing, it’s a distinctive double-barreled moniker: you remember it once you’ve seen it. Especially since, again if you live in that city and you happen to read, you’ll have seen it a lot, most often bylining sharply written articles that display the author’s wide knowledge of stuff as well as a journeyman’s skill with words.

Among other things, then, Leiren-Young is a writer’s writer and if it sounds like I’m a fan, I don’t mind a bit, because I am and have been for quite some time.

And so it was with a fangirl’s enthusiasm that I approached Never Shoot A Stampede Queen (Heritage House), Leiren-Young’s comic memoir about a young reporter’s rookie season in the Cariboo. I was not disappointed. Stampede Queen is Leiren-Young’s first book, though a couple of the author’s plays have been produced in book form. He has, however, written for just about every other medium imaginable.

The author describes himself as a screenwriter, playwright, performer and freelance journalist. He wrote, directed and produced the award-winning feature film The Green Chain, a documentary style -- he says he’s avoided the use of the word “mockumentary” -- drama about a dying B.C. logging town.

As a journalist, Leiren-Young’s byline has appeared in Time, Maclean’s and The Utne Reader. He contributes regularly to The Georgia Straight and is a humor columnist for The Tyee, where he also hosts an environmentally themed podcast series.

A Snapshot of... Mark Leiren-Young

Most recent book: Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo
Born: Vancouver, British Columbia
Resides: Gibsons, British Columbia
Birthday: September 4h
Web site:

What’s your favorite city?
Vancouver. Although I was just in Barcelona and that city rocked my world.

You only have six hours to spend there. What do you do?
Visit the beach, stare at the mountains, gaze at the skyline -- and try not to get too nostalgic for the days when we had so much more skyline. Those six hours have to include two meals, because every time I’m away from Vancouver there are at least a dozen restaurants I come home craving. The second meal might change, but one of those meals will be at the Topanga Café.

What food do you love?
My current addiction is ahi tuna. Seared ahi, Ahi sashimi, Ahi sushi, Ahi burgers. Yes, I know it’s really high up on the food chain, and it would be better for the planet if I ate kelp instead, but it’s sooooooo tasty...

What food have you vowed never to touch again?
I stopped eating meat in January, but I haven’t made any vows about staying away from it. I tend to trust my body on what to eat.

What’s on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading Sidney Lumet’s book about filmmaking, Making Movies. It’s a master class in film. Up next, James Glave’s Almost Green. Then my friend Laurie Channer’s book, Godblog.

What inspires you?
The world and the people in it. Art. Music. The news. A cashier who says hi to me in the grocery store. A stranger who scowls at me on the street. A double rainbow. Life.

What are you working on now?
I’m developing several new TV series, including one based on my book, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen. I’m working on a couple of screenplays. A new stage play. And a new environmentally-themed comedy CD for my troupe, Local Anxiety. I’m also hosting a podcast series about forestry for The Tyee. I’m turning that into a book that should be appearing next year.

When I need a break from writing one project, I tend to take a break by writing something else.

Tell us about your process.
Although I’ll scrawl on anything with anything when inspiration hits, nobody tries to read my handwriting, even me.

I write on a MacBook Pro. Yes, I’m a Mac addict. I tend to do my best creative work at night, often really late at night. My process changes depending on the project. Some pieces are pure inspiration and the words just pour onto the page, others are seriously outlined. TV and screen work tends to require killer outlines, because structure is so important for film -- and especially TV -- so scripts are almost like architectural blueprints. And if the structure’s not solid for screenplays, rewrites are a nightmare.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?
The inside of the Starbucks just outside Granville Island. I stopped in for a net connection and an iced tea, saw this and decided to try answering it.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was in elementary school.

I gave my answer to this question to a character in my play, Last Writes. It’s a true story, except I think I was 12, not ten. The field trip was to Victoria. Here’s the monologue as written (although I’ve changed the character’s name back to my own and in the play, it’s not a teacher, but a nun).

“When I was about ten years old my class was coming back from a field trip to the island. We were all on the ferry, we'd been moving for about 15 minutes and suddenly there was an announcement. The ferry was turning back to the terminal. Everybody on the ferry was nervous and all of us were asked to return to the bus. Just as we were lining up to get inside the bus the teacher asked the bus driver what was the matter and without thinking he said that there was a bomb scare. All the girls started to scream and cry and the teacher tried to calm everyone down but she couldn't. We all thought we were going to die. And one of the girls, Sandee, turned to me and said: Mark, you’re always telling funny stories, tell us a funny story. So I told a story. I don’t remember what it was, but everyone stopped crying to listen to it. And just for a moment I’d held back the fear. I never forgot that.”

There were a couple of other moments that made me realize I wanted to write, but this is the one that stands out for me. I’m still friends with Sandee and mention her in Stampede Queen.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?
Tough question. Really tough question. I can think of a lot of amazing moments. It’s tough to beat the adrenaline rush of having former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, make her first public appearance after losing the federal election on stage, with my comedy troupe, Local Anxiety, in our stage show The Year in Revue at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. No one could believe she was really there. Including me. But I finally beat that rush watching the cast and crew screening of my new movie, The Green Chain, which I wrote and directed. Opening soon at a theatre near you...

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?
I get to dream for a living.

What’s the most difficult?
Making sure I’m writing the stories I have to tell, not just the ones I can get paid to tell.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?
It’s a toss up between: “What kind of writing do you like to do most?” And: “If you could only do one kind of writing, what would it be.” I love ‘em all. And if I could make a living at it and could only do one form or writing -- radio drama -- I love the way you can create an entire dreamscape with words, sound effects and music.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?
So Mark, how does it feel to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Followed closely by: Are you and your wife, Angelina Jolie, planning to adopt any more orphans this week? And: George W. Bush -- Great President or The Greatest President.

OK, pretty much any question asked by Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart.

What question would like never to be asked again?

Would you like to support ___ by buying this box of chocolate covered almonds? I HATE ALMONDS!

Please tell us about your Never Shoot A Stampede Queen.

I absolutely hate plugging my own stuff, so I’m going to cheat. This is what Spider Robinson wrote about the book:

Never Shoot A Stampede Queen isn’t just sound advice; it’s also the most fun I’ve had this year. God does not subtract from one’s allotted span the hours spent reading books as wise, warm and witty as this City Mouse’s comic memoir of his years in the Country .... of another planet. Indeed, the residents of remote Williams Lake, in the heart of the Cariboo, satisfy science fiction editor John W. Campbell’s classic definition of alien creatures: they think as well as a human being, but not like one. Mark Leiren-Young is a natural storyteller, a peer of writers like Stephen Leacock. W.O. Mitchell, Jack Douglas and W.P. Kinsella: quietly hilarious, effortlessly moving, and always surprising. Like them, he makes it look easy.”

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.
I think I would have missed half my deadlines if not for Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” album. When I’m on deadline it gets me writing... like a Bat out of Helllllllllllllllll...

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Warning: Politics Ahead (Counting Down the Hours Now)

Since George W. Bush began occupying the White House in January 2001, the United States has gone through what has often seemed like a never-ending series of scandals and disasters. And in most cases, Bush and his Republican allies--including John McCain--haven’t shown the ability or even the willingness to fix things or guard against repeating mistakes in the future. We were lied into a war against Iraq. We’ve been spied on by our own government without sufficient reason or the sanction of law. We’ve been put through the sad and ideology-driven psychodrama of the Terri Schiavo fiasco. Bush has sought extraordinary powers through his abuse of “signing statements,” and his administration has ignored ethical standards, which led to the CIA leak scandal. We have seen the beautiful city of New Orleans flooded, because Bush put a political crony, Michael Brown, in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and then didn’t even listen when Brown warned--well before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005--that there was the potential for disastrous levee breaches. The hefty economic surplus that President Bill Clinton left behind has been squandered by Bush on war-making, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and payments to Dick Cheney’s too-powerful Halliburton corporation. Our nation’s safety in the world has been undermined by Bush’s go-it-alone approach, and its moral standing has been further compromised by the abuse of inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

No wonder U.S. historian Sean Wilentz wrote in Rolling Stone a couple of years back that Bush was well on his way to being remembered as “the worst president in history”--a charge that must be salutary to descendants of James Buchanan, who’d previously been derided as the worst America had to offer.

His vague reassurances to the contrary, John McCain has demonstrated in his policy proposals no desire to change Bush’s dismal direction for the country. As he’s acknowledged in the past, “I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time, higher than a lot of my even Republican colleagues.” (Proof of that can be found here.) This is hardly the hallmark of an independent thinker--but then McCain isn’t really the “maverick” he claims to be. He selected as his vice-presidential running mate a person, Sarah Palin, who even GOP officials say lacks the judgment and experience necessary to take over from the 72-year-old McCain in the event of his demise--a woman who doesn’t even know what the First Amendment is about. (This, from somebody with a college journalism degree?)

Since he lost to Bush in the 2000 presidential race, McCain has flip-flopped dozens of times on issues he claims are of the utmost importance, hoping to capture Bush’s base of Republican and Christianist support. And he has certainly run one of the most inept, ugliest, and intellectually dishonest campaigns for the Oval Office during my lifetime, showing that he is indeed willing--as others have put it--to take the low road to the highest office in the land. Furthermore, McCain has shown little interest in talking seriously about subjects other than national defense, preferring some variation on the non-specific pledge “I know what to do, I know the people involved--trust me.” As it became clear that the U.S. economy was in crisis, McCain showed a lack of both judgment and leadership, lurching back and forth between allegedly “suspending” his campaign and then upsetting a settlement in Congress that required other, cooler heads to repair once he finally stepped away from the microphones and TV cameras. Even now, as Americans say that fixing the economy is the most important issue facing the next president, McCain has other priorities, focusing his “transition team” on “taking control of the U.S. national security apparatus,” rather than finding financial relief for Americans who have lost their homes or their retirement plans as a result of this crisis.

If nothing else about this campaign proved that Senator Barack Obama is ready to become the 44th president of the United States, his handling of the financial crisis should have. While McCain flailed about in a frantic artifice of command, Obama remained cool-headed in the crisis, consulted his economic advisers for the best approach to solving the situation, and then was clear in explaining to the public what needed to be done. That’s the sort of leader this country demands right now. Which is why Obama and his skilled running mate, Joe Biden, have been endorsed by so many newspapers, as well as a number of Republicans, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff, Ken Duberstein.

Obama has shown a willingness to embrace both Democrats and Republicans to right the ship of state. He’s not an ideologue like Bush, but somebody willing to consult the best minds in search of the best solutions, no matter which side of the political spectrum they inhabit. Obama understands, unlike the bellicose McCain, that this nation cannot continue down the Republican “borrow and spend” path if it ever hopes to regain solvency. Nor can it continue to prosecute Bush’s war on Iraq, when that conflict is costing the United States $10 billion a month and when the Iraqis themselves want us out. And Obama’s life story--the fact that he was raised in modest circumstances, and understands what it’s like to worry where the next meal is coming from--recommends him as a person who will stand up for those of us who cannot claim to be rich. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, like Bush; and unlike McCain, Obama didn’t cheat on his first wife and then dump her in order to marry a younger beer heiress who would advance his political career. Just listening to Obama talk about people in poverty and the elderly who’ve been cut from insurance rolls because of “pre-existing conditions,” you can see that he’s honestly concerned. His empathy isn’t political, it’s personal.

For these reasons and others, I proudly marked my mail-in ballot for Barack Obama. As he acknowledges, he isn’t a perfect person and won’t be a perfect president. But I’m convinced that Obama is the right man for the job right now.

READ MORE:Obama’s Winning Argument,” by Joe Conason (Salon); “Vote, Damn It!,” by J.D. Rhoades (What Fresh Hell Is This?); “Barack Obama for President,” by Ben Hunt (Material Witness); “‘Doonesbury’ Comic Strip Presumes and Obama Victory,” by Andale Gross (Associated Press); “That Why They Call ’Em Secret Ballots ...,” by Chris F. Holm.