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December 2007

Guest Bookshelf: Ben Lukoff

We bring in the New Year with a Omnivoracious bookshelf from Ben Lukoff, our former colleague over on our music blog, Amazon Earworm (who I believed signed off from Earworm this fall with a post on his "concert experience of a lifetime": a Petula Clark show! Ben loves him some '60s Brit pop--and who can argue with "Downtown"?):

This is one of the seven bookshelves in my apartment: fairly typical in its mix of subjects (almost entirely non-fiction, heavy on the linguistics and philology with a bit of economics, history, and politics--plus some classic comics), but not so in that it is one of only two of those bookshelves shallow enough to only accommodate one row of titles. The book I acquired longest ago is probably Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, bought for me by my father at the Seattle Museum of History & Industry gift shop sometime in the early 1980s. Second oldest is The Young Detective's Handbook, which my sister got me for my seventh birthday--I fancied myself a bit of an amateur Sherlock Holmes at the time. Next is The Glory of Their Times, a history of the early days of baseball my dad bought me when I was 10. The latest acquisition is, I think, The Elements of Murder--I've always been fascinated by toxic chemicals. I blame library sales, remainder bins, working at Amazon for over five years, and what used to be an excellent local secondhand-books scene for the fact that I may soon be forced to move to make room for not only the books on the back rows, but the ones filling the boxes in my living room, as well.

See Ben's full bookshelf and links, and contribute your own shelf photo to --Tom

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Kathryn Harrison on Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee: "What changes for Coetzee’s readers between 'Disgrace' and 'Diary of a Bad Year' is our opinion of the author. In this most recent 'novel,' we are deliberately manipulated by a form that is coy as well as playful, and it’s hard not to conclude Coetzee is more invested in his relationship with his readers than in his characters’ credibility and interactions with one another.... After all, how riveting can fictional entanglements be when compared with the more immediate and real relationship between a writer and his audience."
  • Lee Siegel on Modernism by Peter Gay: "If anyone is aware of the complexity of modernist attitudes, it is Peter Gay. He is the country’s pre-eminent cultural historian and the author of masterpieces of social and intellectual reimagining including 'The Enlightenment,' 'Weimar Culture,' 'Freud' and the towering multi-volume study 'The Bourgeois Experience.' Such achievements make it all the more dismaying to find that in this rich, learned, briskly written, maddening yet necessary study, Gay’s formidable syntheses often run aground on lapses of knowledge and judgment."
  • Tom Shone on The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman: "The author of four novels, Freeman is, you realize, a little more in love with mysteriousness than with mere mysteries, or their resolutions, and while the same could be said for Chandler, who never could keep track of who did what to whom in 'The Big Sleep,' this makes for a woozy kind of book, in which the blurry latitude afforded by long-distance 'obsession' consistently cuts against the more painstaking task of bringing the marriage into any kind of focus."
  • Mark Costello on An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisberg: "Ruttenberg, the narrator, is a bit like the text, a sutured and negotiated personality. He can view his spying in heroic terms, hoping 'to protect and promote freedom.' But he is, at heart, a company man.... He is a team player for the evil C.I.A., that boogeyman of history. Yet the boogeyman seems to have the office culture of a savings bank in Cleveland. Among its other satisfactions, this book is surely the best portrait of the working C.I.A. we have had in many years."

Washington Post:

  • Book World is on a New Year's holiday.

Los Angeles Times:

  • Emily Barton on People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks: "Geraldine Brooks has ... half-found and half-invented a swashbuckling book and, despite occasional quirks, woven a tale that's haunting and satisfying. Her Sarajevo Haggadah embodies both the story of the survival of the Jews against terrible odds and the story of all thinking people's relationship to the past."
  • Sarah Weinman on Salt River by James Sallis: "When Sallis' characters do make choices ... he doesn't always give the reader a sense of closure. Rather, he invites chaos back in, as when a major character is never seen again, his or her fate left outside the scope of the book.... Conventional crime fiction craves resolution, but by looking inside order's hairline fractures for any fleeting sense of chaos, the author creates a texture that is both comforting and quietly disturbing."

Globe & Mail:

  • Greg Gatenby on The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller: "Throughout his book, and especially in the last chapter, Heller questions the morality of the tactics used by Watson, and even, albeit politely, questions his sanity. In other words, while no fan of whaling, Heller remains objective about his subject, and it is that relative aloofness that gives this account its authority. I have hundreds of whale books in my library, but this title easily earns a place among the top 10."

Times Literary Supplement:

  • Joyce Carol Oates on Bernard Malamud by Philip Davis: "It is rare that a biographer succeeds in evoking, with a novelist’s skill, such compassion for his (flawed, human) subject; yet more rare, that a biographer succeeds in so drawing the reader into the shimmering world he has constructed out of a small infinity of letters, drafts, notes, manuscripts, printed texts, interview transcripts etc, that the barrier between reader and subject becomes near-transparent."

The New Yorker:

  • Joan Acocella on Kahlil Gibran: The Collected Works: "Gibran was familiar with Buddhist and Muslim holy books, and above all with the Bible.... In 'The Prophet' he Osterized all these into a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, 'The Prophet' ’s sales climaxed."


Age of Bronze: The Story of the Trojan War

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Part One of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze: Betrayal, originally scheduled for July of this year, is finally out from Image Comics in a handsome graphic novel edition. For those who haven't been following this saga, it's the tale of one man's quest (that's Shanower's) to detail all of Ancient History's greatest legend in comics form. If you were disappointed with the movie Troy and you're not sure you want to go back to the original source material, definitely check out Shanower's creation. He rather effortlessly has managed to re-imagine the myth as an illustrated narrative. If you think that's easy, just check out the list of character names with descriptions in the back of the book--or the copious bibliography of research materials.   

The Oak King: A Conversation with Peter S. Beagle

Omnivoracious readers may remember my brief post on Peter S. Beagle's great novel A Fine and Private Place back in November. As I wrote then, "If there's one novel that makes you contemplate life, friendship, love, and your place in the world, A Fine and Private Place is that book. A love story with ghosts that features a talking raven, told with a quiet eloquence and a wisdom that is satisfying without being sentimental, it's still my favorite novel by Beagle." Since then, Beagle took time out of his busy schedule to answer the following questions.

       Psb_for_amazon_1_2 When you were writing A Fine and Private Place, did you have any idea it was going to have such staying power?

Beagle: No. Not at all, of course. When I was 19 years old I never thought in terms of classics or being permanently around. I’d known enough writers, even at that age, to see that what happens to your work is so far out of your control you simply can’t afford to let that kind of concern enter your thinking. The publisher asked you to remove four chapters from the book. At the time, did you agree with the decision? Have your feelings about it changed over the years?

Beagle: At the time I was outraged. I fought every step of the way, and every sentence. Today I’m inordinately grateful to Marshall Best, the editor who did that. Marshall is long gone, so I just hope that back then I had sense and courtesy enough to say thank you. But I don’t think I realized fully what his effect on the book had been until many years later. If it weren’t for him I don’t think the book would still be in print. He’s also the one who came up with the title and the allusion to those marvelously appropriate lines from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”--I'd originally called the book The Dark City, after the way that Jonathan Rebeck saw the graveyard. Titles, sad to say, have never been my strong suit. Most of my best have actually come from friends or editors.

Continue reading "The Oak King: A Conversation with Peter S. Beagle" »

The Behemoths Approach: Three Major SF/F Titles for 2008


That thunderous, earth-shattering sound vibrating through the pavement and up-ending your coffee is the harbinger of approaching giants: three novels of prodigious page count and ambitious intent. Yes, that's right, Iain M. Banks' new Culture SF novel Matter, Peter F. Hamilton's latest space opera The Dreaming Void, and first-time novelist Felix Gilman's incredibly imaginative New Weirdish urban fantasy Thunderer will all be unleashed upon the world in winter-spring 2008. You can either start running for your lives now, or show some spine, buckle down, and prepare to read over 1,600 pages of science fiction and fantasy goodness.

The only real question for the serious genre devotee is what plan of attack will work best--something you must work out before receiving the books. Once gazing upon their thick spines and mind-blowing covers, you will no doubt be struck dumb and senseless, unable to think properly.

Personally, I recommend beginning with Thunderer, the purest fantasy of the bunch (as well as the shortest and, well, it's always polite to give a brilliant new author the first position), followed by Matter, because it has a fair amount of fantasy in it. Much as in Banks's previous novel Inversions, Matter concerns the all-encompassing space-faring Culture impinging on a less technologically advanced culture. In this case, that culture resembles a somewhat Medieval society. Thus nicely protected from the bends by this gentle transition (Matter is also the second-longest of the three), you may easily pass on to Hamilton's all-out SF novel, The Dreaming Void (also the longest). There you'll find your space battles, your mysterious alien research facilities, and surprises galore.

Once digested in this order, these novels, while still unruly monsters, will be much better behaved than they might otherwise, and you may safely leave them on the shelf without fear that they might devour your smaller, more timid books. --JeffV

Sunday at the Market with Patricia and Dorie

We're very fortunate that Seattle is a frequent stop on the cookbook book-tour circuit and this past spring celebrated food critic and cookbook author Patricia Wells visited Amazon for a late-morning talk over coffee. Wells has lived in France for more than 25 years and during our talk we asked her if she ever runs into  Dorie Greenspan and Ina Garten, two women who have also stopped by Amazon over the years and who also spend much of the year in the City of Lights. We pictured a high-end foodie sitcom of sorts, with these culinary all stars running into each other at the markets, shopping together, or tapping on each others' doors to borrow sugar cubes or exchange a recipe or two. Patricia was sweet enough to remember this and sent us an e-mail this past Sunday with photographic proof that such Parisian culinary adventures do exist. (A little French bird told us that we just might receive another photo for New Year's featuring a certain Barefoot Contessa.)

Happy holidays!


There's a little corner of Paris that probably has more American foodies than many major American cities. The city's 6th and 7th arrondissement is inhabited by a happy party of part-timers and full timers, and since food is our mission, we tend to gather often for multi-course feasts. Cookbook writers Dorie Greenspan and Ina Garten are a stone's throw from our apartment on Rue du Bac. Eli Zabar and his wife Devon Fredericks are not far away, and restaurateurs Johanne Killeen and George Germon are just about to move in, too. So there’s never a problem if you need to borrow a tin of caviar or a few fresh black truffles!

Dorie and I get together often, and we manage to talk nonstop wherever we go. When she is in town, we meet on Sunday mornings at the Boulevard Raspail organic market, and talk so much that our shopping list has to take a serious back seat. We meet at the potato galette stand for breakfast and go on from there.

We all love to cook for one another, and surely one of our New Year's feasts will be made up of some of the fresh black truffles just coming into season: There might be scrambled eggs with truffles, fresh pasta and truffles, for sure the Chaource cow's milk cheese layered with the fragrant mushroom, and a lamb's lettuce salad dotted with minced truffle trimmings. Dorie will prepare dessert, of course, hopefully it will be her famous Chocolate-Crunched Caramel Tart.

Champagne and wine will flow freely, with our favorite house champagne, Rose de Jeanne, a 100% pinot noir from winemaker Cedric Bouchard, a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape old vines wine from Château du Beaucastel, and our own red Cotes du Rhône, Clos Chanteduc.

Dorie, her husband, Michael, myself and my husband, Walter will be sure to toast all of our readers, thanking them for their support, and wishing them a very delicious 2008!

Patricia Wells
Paris, France
23 December 2007

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: David Leavitt on Henry James: The Mature Master by Sheldon Novick: "Like its predecessor, 'Henry James: The Mature Master' strives to supplant the common view of James as 'a passive, fearful man, a detached observer of the life around him' with one of the writer as a gregarious, sometimes heroic, often troubled citizen of the world. Far from a sniffy celibate living comfortably on independent means or a 'little boy with his nose pressed against the glass of a shop window,' Novick’s James was an authentic cosmopolite who led a life as emotionally, sexually and financially complex as those of the characters in his fiction."
  • Matt Weiland on Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place by Will Self and Ralph Steadman: "As with Self’s novels, the ideas behind his long walks can be more engaging than the walks themselves. This may be because on the page Self is a sprinter, not a distance man; certainly he is at his most perceptive and convincing when writing short and focused little pieces. Which is to say: Self is a natural and excellent columnist. So skip the introduction and proceed directly to the short pieces, all of which originally appeared as the Psychogeography column in the London newspaper The Independent."
  • William Grimes on Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson: "The book is a savagely funny act of revenge for years spent servicing the travel fantasies of gullible readers.... A cloud of guilt envelops Mr. Thompson as he writes, conscious that he and his travel-porn colleagues have strip mined the earth of its most precious resource: pleasant, undiscovered destinations. 'We venerate what we destroy,' he writes. 'But first we destroy.'"
  • Kakutani on Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg: "the wonder of this memoir is that the author survived her traumatic childhood and found a way of turning her memories into a fiercely observed, fluently written book that captures the chaos and confusions of her youth, the daughter of an unpredictable pill-and-coke addicted mother and a brilliant, self-absorbed father, neither of whom had the faintest idea of how to be a parent."

Washington Post:

  • Jason Roberts on Stanley by Tim Jeal: "Jeal's biography is an unalloyed triumph, not only because it is painstakingly researched and eminently readable, but because it never loses sight of the abandoned child in the man, driving him forward, 'able to frighten, able to suffer, but also able to command love and obedience.' Such a personality, Jeal notes, is 'an extinct species, and all the more remarkable for that.'"
  • Jonah Lehrer on The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker: "The Stuff of Thought concludes with an optimistic gloss on the power of language to lead us out of the Platonic cave, so that we can 'transcend our cognitive and emotional limitations.' It's a nice try at a happy ending, but I don't buy it. The Stuff of Thought, after all, is really about the limits of language, the way our prose and poetry are bound by innate constraints we can't even comprehend."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Matthew Sharpe on It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature by Diane Williams: "What, then, is good about depicting egregious feelings and behavior in language that is resolutely strange? Couldn't one, a reader might ask, be coaxed from one's habits of perception by stories written in more quotidian language and depicting more kindness and politeness? Perhaps, but the extremity that Williams depicts and the extremity of the depiction evoke something akin to the pity and fear that the great writers of antiquity considered central to literature. Her stories, by removing you from ordinary literary experience, place you more deeply in ordinary life. 'Isn't ordinary life strange?' they ask, and in so asking, they revivify and console."

Globe & Mail:

  • Greg Buium on Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff: "Ratliff ... could easily have written something persnickety and parochial; music writers too often adore the equivalent of inside baseball. Instead, he's turned a real jazz book into an immediate declaration of relevance. Coltrane is about artistic influence and American culture, and Ratliff uses perhaps the toughest matter at a critic's disposal to tell this story: a musician's sound."
  • Claire Berlinski on Other Colors by Orhan Pamuk: "For page upon page, Pamuk stresses in these self-enamoured tones that he is a man who really likes to read books. Good ones, too, by famous writers like Dostoyevsky and Borges - not, you know, easy ones. He's different from other Turks, you see. But he's not like the Europeans, either. He's an outsider, eternally apart, rejected by all, accepted by no one (the Nobel committee aside)."

The Guardian:

  • Tibor Fischer on The White King by Gyorgy Dragoman: "The novel won awards in Hungary, and it's easy to see why. It's the Just William books teamed up with Nineteen Eighty-Four; a superb novel about childhood, schooldays and gang fights, but one that manages to put the world of the adults firmly into focus as well. The first few chapters struggle in a sort of Joycean-Beckettian straitjacket (as an indication of his intellectual weight, Dragomán translated Watt into Hungarian for fun), but then Dragomán forgets all that and lets the narrative rip, shifting the characters around like he's Stephen King or Elmore Leonard."

The New Yorker:

  • No new issue this week, so go back and read more of the Fiction issue.

K.J. Parker's The Engineer Trilogy

Devicesanddesires_2 First published in England a few years back, Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil, and The Escapement--the three books of K.J. Parker's The Engineer Trilogy--were released by Orbit in North America on an audacious one-a-month schedule starting this past October. Which means that you now can pick up the entire set in what I can only describe as beautifully designed editions. I haven't yet made it through all three novels, but from what I have read I think it's unlikely readers will be disappointed. This is well-written, complicated adult fantasy fiction. From one single act--a death sentence for an engineer who has violated guild law--comes a firestorm of consequences when the engineer escapes and vows vengeance. Especially in the second and third books, this then opens up into even more complex intrigue and war. Parker's muscular prose, fascinating characters, and intricate world-building should appeal to anyone who likes fantasy fiction.

Monster Spotter's Guide to North America

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This holiday season, on those long, endless hikes you take with your squabbling extended family into anonymous woodland prior to sitting down to a feast of carbs, you could do worse than take along the Monster Spotter's Guide to North America. Here in Florida, for example, you'd look up the section on the mighty Skunk Ape (p. 51) and pick up some pointers--like the fact that it enjoys stealing "pots of lima beans." Oh--and it smells like something found in a dumpster. These are important facts to know if you want to survive out in the wilderness. From Abominable Swamp Slob to Zombies, divided up by region of the country (with additional sections on Mexico and Canada), this book has you covered--complete with drawings and maps. Check out their website as well.--JeffV

Virginia Woolf's Return

Virginia_cover_2 What if you could walk in Virginia Woolf's shoes in the classroom and imagine how she might have taught creative writing? What kind of advice might she have given? That's the premise of Danell Jones' audacious The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing. To be honest, I was skeptical. Jones has chosen to dramatize Woolf in the classroom, creating little fictional scenes that include Woolf's advice as conjured up by the author. Each chapter ends with a series of exercises. What gives the book legitimacy is Jones's copious research, using Woolf's essays, letters, and diaries as source material. It's clear that Jones loves Woolf and means to reanimate her with respect and fondness. It's still a somewhat jarring effect at first, but as you slide into the book you forget the conceit and become fascinated by the advice. From Killing the Angel in the House (about the value of modesty) to quotes like "A true novelist can no more cease to receive impressions than a fish in mid-ocean can cease to let the water rush through his gills," you do get a coherent impression of Woolf as a creative writing teacher. More importantly, by the end of The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop, I realized that I was getting more context and more of some hard-to-define but essential element from encountering Woolf's words clothed in Jones's conceit. So, if you're one of the millions of would-be writers here in North America, pick up this oddly beguiling, lovingly designed guide.