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April 2008

Breaking News: Richard Morgan Wins Arthur C. Clarke Award

As reported here via text message, Richard Morgan has won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Thirteen (published as Black Man in England). Thirteen made Amazon's best SF/Fantasy list last year.

Now Morgan has one more reason for readers to pick up the book. Last year in an exclusive Amazon interview, we asked him to tell us what made Thirteen special. His response then? "It is, by all critical accounts, the best thing I’ve written so far. It’s stuffed full of contentious material that, whether you agree with it or not, will give you conversational ammunition at dinner parties for months to come. Shock and Awe your guests with Provocative Genetic Science! It’s my first conscious attempt at a world that is not dystopian--roll up and see a cheery(ish) future society, one you might not actually mind living in for a change. It has a very unpredictable storyline--I know this because I had no idea where my characters were going half the time, and if I couldn’t guess, it’s unlikely the reader will either. If thirteen is a thriller, it certainly isn’t what the gaming community would call 'mission-based'. It isn’t as long as "Against the Day", and is therefore both easier and lighter to hold while reading. You could take it with you on the bus, easy.


"When You're Born Into It": Margaret B. Jones's Unearthed Video

Pardon me for piling on but, well, I find it riveting to watch somebody just flat-out lie. Harry Allen at Media Assassin (yes, that "media assassin / Harry Allen") has obtained what appears to be a promo video shot with Margaret B. Jones--er, Peggy Seltzer's faux South Central memoir, Love and Consequences. Have at it (and read Allen's blow-by-blow critique):


(Via GalleyCat. Meanwhile, Ron at GalleyCat has been running an excellent series of posts about the endless trend toward using photos of women facing away from the camera on the covers of women's fiction, but, surprisingly, this now-notorious cover has not come up. Even if "Jones"'s story had been true I wouldn't have expected the cover photo to actually be of Jones and her adoptive "Big Mom," but does it strike anyone else as odd to be using stock photos on the cover of a memoir?) --Tom

Suffering Succotash, Why You Little Bleep!

You could burn your ears several times over reading aloud from Curse + Berate in 69+ Languages, edited by R.V. Branham (and brought to you by the ever-cheeky Soft Skull Press). It's so filthy and rife with controversy, I can't possibly quote from the book itself, except, possibly, from the introduction, in which Branham raises a series of questions, then answered in footnotes so the easily offended won't jump out of their chairs: "What insult has the most time zones, and what is the language of this insult? And what is the most common insult south of the Kush, in south Asia? What was Vladimir Lenin's favorite word?" No, it was not "hushpuppy," "whimsical," or "contented." Instead, it was something that would sear your grandma's eyebrows right off.

I should probably leave it there, though, and let the more adventurous @#&*%! Amazon readers discover more on their own.


Designing for the Real, Irrational World (Author One-on-One: Dan Ariely)

Ariely_dan_250 Dear Reader,

If you have examined the debate between Tim and myself over the past few weeks, you must have realized that, in fact, Tim and I agree on many things. Particularly, that our respective perspectives are not the only useful ones (although we each believe that our individual perspective is more useful than the other's).

However, one major disagreement that Tim and I do have is about the weight of the evidence that supports the other's position. In general, Tim doesn't see how the results from lab experiments translate to the "real world." In essence, he does not believe that these lab-based irrationalities become full-fledged irrationalities outside of the lab. I, on the other hand don't see how the results from many of the statistical analyses he and others report necessarily demonstrate that people are rational. I do see how these studies show that people react to incentives in a way that is compatible with economic theory, and that they are sensitive to the general structure of the economic environment (and psychologists and behavioral economists would say that people should react to these), but I don't see the evidence that people react to these in an optimal way--in a rational way. I hope that Tim can explain this to me in our next exchange, but in the meantime I want to answer the two questions he posed for me in his last post.

At the end of his YouTube video (and by the way Tim has one other great video on YouTube) Tim posed the following two questions:

  1. How can we take the insights from behavioral economics and apply them to economics?
  2. How can we the apply insights from behavioral economics to make real changes in the real world?

Let me try to give my perspective on both of these questions. In terms of applying the insights from behavioral economics to economics: I don't see this as the goal of behavioral economics, I don't expect that we will ever be able to successfully achieve this integration and in fact, I don't want to "fix" economics. I think economics is beautiful, interesting, and that it has provided us with many useful insights. So where do my objections to standard economics come from? It comes from Tim's second question about using insights to change the world. Here I think that relying blindly on standard economics is dangerous, and behavioral economics has oodles to contribute.

006135323x01_mzzzzzzz_ When it comes to making changes in the world, such as laws, policies, or even business and individual practices, standard economics assumes/claims that it can provide the correct and complete answer. The answer! After all if people are rational then what else is there to take into consideration? This is what welfare analysis and the Chicago school of economics is all about. This is also what bothers me about economics, and what I would like to change. If it were up to me, economics would remain as it is in terms of an academic discipline, but we would consider other perspectives, including behavioral economics, when making recommendations for implementing changes in the world. Moreover, I want us to take to heart one of the main lessons of behavioral economics--that our intuitions are not always correct. By doing so, instead of just implementing a policy based on our intuition, we should first experimentally test our ideas to ensure that we are getting what we expect.

To better understand the role that behavioral economics can play in the design of everyday life consider the following analogy: When we design physical products such as phones, cars, and pens, we carefully consider our physical limitations. We don't design products for Superman, and by taking our physical limitations into account we are able to design better products, and live a better life. Why not do the same for products that rely on our cognitive abilities such as mortgages, health insurance, and saving plans? Why don't we learn to recognize our cognitive limitations and by doing so, design products that better fit our actual ability? This is the promise of behavioral economics--once we recognize our cognitive limitations we can design the world in such a way that it will not demand from us the type of computations that we simply cannot do.

So Tim, if we want to live in a world with less financial crisis, better health, and higher savings, then we must apply insights from behavioral economics to make changes in the real world.

Irrationally yours,

Tom Piccirilli: Award-winning Master of Suspense Pens an Instant Classic

Piccold_spot Picfever_kill Picmidnight

Tom Piccirilli is one of the hardest working writers out there, selling his first book while in college and never looking back. Over the last twenty years, he's created keen psychological portraits of people in extreme situations, mysteries as noir as they come, and suspense-thrillers that'll keep you, as they say, on the edge of your seat.

Some of the most recent of his books include The Midnight Road, The Fever Kill, and, in another week, the amazing The Cold Spot, of which suspense superstar Ken Bruen says, ""[the book] is truly dazzling. Piccirilli has taken the mystery to a whole other level."  Publishers Weekly calls The Cold Spot, "a violent and dark tale in an appealingly noirish narrative style, highly economical yet bracingly intimate." As ever, Piccirilli approaches his work with honesty, humanity, and a keen sense of the traditions he's working in and with--highly recommended for anyone who loves mystery and suspense. This may just be the book that catapults him to the top of the bestseller lists. I read a lot of suspense/mystery novels and The Cold Spot has an intensity, economy, and tough lyricism that just plain blew me away. As far as I'm concerned, it's a stone-cold instant classic of hardboiled/noir fiction. (Click here for my full review.)

I caught up with Piccirilli recently and interviewed him about his perspective on fiction generally and his own work... From your perspective, how has horror and suspense fiction changed over the last 20 years?
Tom Piccirilli: I don’t know if there’s been much of a change in form or content. New subjects come to popularity of course. At the moment it seems like readers can’t get enough of the Knights Templar or Da Vinci or historical mysteries, whereas fifteen years ago it was courtroom dramas. The topic of the hour is always changing. In the field, there’s still a lot of fine and intriguing material being produced, as well as plenty of garbage. That’s just the way of all things, and always will be. So far as publishing is concerned, I think we all know that “Horror” is a despised term. I’m not even sure that Leisure Books, who was one of the few publishers with a dedicated horror line the last ten years and who actually put the word “Horror” on the spines of their books, does that anymore. The word itself is anathema although the subject matter of ghosts, monsters, serial killers, etc. is still popular. Maybe even more popular now than ever thanks to “paranormal romances” which take vampires and werewolves and inject a little erotica and Hepburn and Tracy dialogue in order to mine a whole new extremely popular niche. As for suspense, I think that nowadays writers, readers and publishers appreciate the good old crime stuff a lot more than they once did. There’s been a resurgence in reprints of pulp, noir and hardboiled material from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and that seems to have had an influence in producing neo-noir stylized writing. 

Continue reading "Tom Piccirilli: Award-winning Master of Suspense Pens an Instant Classic" »

Catching Up with Rebecca Woolf in Seattle

9781580052320 After I had my son, I went in search of all these DIY, irreverent mommy blogs that I just knew were out there. All I found were tips and tricks, ways to pamper myself or get organized, or cool gadgets I had to buy. I quickly gave up, and now I realize that I missed at least one irreverent mommy, who, thankfully, has now turned her blogs into a book.

Rockabye: from Wild to Child is Rebecca Woolf's first book, and it's more than just a compilation of entries from her blogs. (She writes Girl's Gone Child and's Straight from the Bottle.) It's a fully formed book of essays about her experience of motherhood.

Woolf had always planned to become a writer, and she had been freelancing since she was 16. She was living in L.A., collaborating with a guy on a script, then they started dating, then she was pregnant. She was 23. She decided to have the baby, marry the guy, and keep writing. After her son, Archer, was born, she not only worked two jobs, she kept blogging and freelancing, writing when he took his naps.
People kept giving her unwanted advice: you need to cover his face, you can't be out walking with him, he's too little, etc. One stranger even grabbed her son's hands and tried to teach him how to walk (!). Exploring these anecdotes allowed her to keep asking, Why? Why do I need to do this? Why do I need to do it this way?

On Saturday, Woolf had a reading a couple of blocks from my house, so I got to meet some of her very loyal fans, who braved the neighborhood on the day of a baseball game and a gigantic motocross event (read: $40 parking). Here are a few highlights from the reading and Q/A:

After she read the title of the first chapter, "Holy Shit! I'm Pregnant," she looked around the room to see if any kids were there. "I have to edit the expletives," she said. "I keep saying, Duck. Duck. Duck. Everyone gets very confused."

For Rockabye, Woolf said she took the blog entries, hundreds of pages worth, and put them in order to decide what she wanted to use. About 25 percent of the book came from the blog, then she went back and filled in the rest.

The book is not exactly what she pitched. Her original pitch to Seal Press was a DIY Parenting Guide with lists and funny anecdotes.

For her next project, she was going to pitch a book called Love in the Time of Jason Priestly, essays about growing up in the '90s. But when she started to write them, they were too much in her teenage voice. (One of her teen writing gigs was Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.) Instead, she is writing fiction and working on a pilot with her husband, Hal, based on Rockabye.

Someone in the audience asked, "How long did it take you to get to the new normal, as a mom?" Her answer: "I don't think you ever go back to what normal was. I know that I'm more myself now than I ever was. You figure out a way to be engaged with your life. But you have to do it for yourself. You can't fake it. What's the point of life if you just lie there and wait?"

Oh, and she's pregnant. She finds out whether her second baby is a boy or girl as soon as she gets home from the book tour. --Heidi

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Leon Wieseltier on The Second Plane by Martin "Chucklehead" Amis: "Amis seems to regard his little curses as almost military contributions to the struggle. He has a hot, heroic view of himself. He writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate.... Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer.... You get the feeling, reading these pages, that for his side Amis will say almost anything, because being noticed is as important to him as being right. The complication is that there is considerable justice on Amis’s side.... I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful." [Sorry for all the ellipses, but I had to squeeze in some of the best lines in this classic of vitriol.]
  • Kakutani on The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: "Writing in prose that combines the magical sleight of hand of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the earthy, American rhythms of Faulkner, Ms. Erdrich traces the connections between these characters and their many friends and relatives with sympathy, humor and the unsentimental ardor of a writer who sees that the tragedy and comedy in her people’s lives are ineluctably commingled.... With 'The Plague of Doves,' she has written what is arguably her most ambitious — and in many ways, her most deeply affecting — work yet."
  • Tom LeClair on Shadow Country by Peter Mathiessen: "By reducing his Watson materials to one volume, Matthiessen has sacrificed qualities that gave those novels their powerful reinforcing illusions of authenticity and artlessness. Book I still has that Ten Thousand Islands quality, but 'Shadow Country' as a whole is like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the Everglades. It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows."
  • Katie Roiphe on Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer: "One might wonder why this book, filled with mundane accounts of business deals, wills and birth records, is so riveting. It may be that one senses the passion in the archives, in the artifacts of daily life that Greer meticulously uncovers.... The details — so rare, so tangible — have the bareness of poetry. The world of Elizabethan England is so completely lost to us that these hard facts glow a little in the darkness."

Washington Post:

  • David Leavitt on The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon: "Whether describing turn-of-the-century Chicago, with its mean tenements and decrepit outhouses, or the 'onionesque armpits' of a Moldovan pimp or an 'unreal McDonald's' in Moldova, 'shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic,' Hemon is as much a writer of the senses as of the intellect.... [B]eauty and violence, in Hemon's universe, are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, he seems determined not to let his readers (particularly his American readers) escape the experience of war as a personal affront and a personal transformation."
  • Ron Charles on Erdrich's Plague of Doves: "What marks these stories ... is what has always set Erdrich apart and made her work seem miraculous: the jostling of pathos and comedy, tragedy and slapstick in a peculiar dance. As horrific as the crimes at the heart of this novel are, other sections remind us that Erdrich is a great comic writer.... 'I am sentenced to keep watch over this small patch of earth,' says one character, who could just as well be speaking for Erdrich herself, 'to judge its miseries and tell its stories. That's who I am.' Sit down and listen carefully."

Los Angeles Times:

  • One more rave, by Brigitte Frase, for The Plague of Doves: "She gets better and better. If her first book, 'Love Medicine,' was a concerto, then ever since 'The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,' she has been composing symphonies filled with a complex wisdom about the strands of darkness and light that make up a human life.... Erdrich moves seamlessly from grief to sexual ecstasy, from comedy ... to tragedy, from richly layered observations of nature and human nature to magical realism. She is less storyteller than medium. One has the sense that voices and events pour into her and reemerge with crackling intensity, as keening music trembling between sorrow and joy." 

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Pop Culture Report #3: James and Kathryn Morrow's European SF Anthology

Earlier this month, Tor Books released the trade paperback edition of James and Kathryn Morrow's The SFWA European Hall of Fame, a collection of sixteen stories translated from a variety of European countries. Contributors include Jean-Claude Dunyach, Panagiotis Koustas, Joao Barreiros, Andreas Eschbach, and many more. Most of these writers are well-known in their own countries but have had very little work translated into English. Our Pop Culture Report #3 (above) gives you more information on this intriguing, some would say essential, anthology. I conducted the interviews with the editors and Greek contributor Koustas in Nantes, France, last year, at Utopiales, a wonderful speculative fiction festival.

From Publishers Weekly's starred review: Wondrous worlds await U.S. SF fans in this sensitively chosen, impeccably translated anthology of Continental European science fiction stories, ranging from 1987 to 2005. Offering "emotional satisfaction and cerebral excitement," as James Morrow puts it in his introduction, highlights include Johanna Sinisalo's "Baby Doll," a Finnish denunciation of materialistic exploitation of children; Romanian Lucian Merisca's "Some Earthlings' Adventures on Outrerria," an excruciating political satire; Valerio Angelisti's "Sepultura," which offers a neo-Dantean Infernoscape; and W.J. Maryson's "Verstummte Musik," a Dutch near-future Orwellian nightmare. A French twist on human-machine interface lifts Jean-Claude Dunyach's "Separations" into a meditation on the nature of artistic creativity, while Elena Arsenieva's "A Birch Tree, a White Fox" exquisitely illustrates the quintessential Russian soul. These "disciplined speculations" by European writers and their painstaking translators not only excite the mind, they move the heart.


Nebula Award Winners Announced

Breaking News: Michael Chabon wins the Nebula Award for best novel. The Yiddish Policemen's Union was announced the winner last night at the Nebula Award banquet in Austin, Texas. Michael Moorcock was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. For the full list of winners, visit Locus Online.

Friday Night Videos: Hidden Cities versus Toddler Reading a Dinosaur Encyclopedia

Tonight on Friday Night Videos, we bring committed bibliophiles across the world a clear choice--a clash of Titans that pits the brand-new Hidden Cities series by rising star Tim Lebbon and best-seller Christopher Golden (Mind the Gap, book one, out in May) against over five minutes of mind-numbing dinosaur name-reading by an anonymous toddler.

Yes, it's what you asked for in the non-stop phone calls, emails, and missives sent through my window with bricks. Lebbon and Golden beating up on a defenseless child. Enjoy!

(And remember: If you're here on a Friday night, you're not alone. There's at least one other.)