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May 2008

Old MacDonald Had a Diverse, Sustainable Farm

Onthefarm Yesterday's post about farmers markets on the Green Scene blog inspired me to post about a couple of farm books I've stumbled across recently. While there's nothing unique about a picture book set on a farm, these books show kids that farms are more than just faraway places for animals' cavorting and mischief. (The books I've just linked to are great, by the way, for reasons completely unrelated to the fact that they take place on farms.)

In On the Farm, David Elliot uses playful verse to show how each animal contributes. The rooster crows and gets everything going. The cows graze and make milk. The goats clean up by eating "everything from trash to trillium." The dog guards. (Elliot gracefully scoots around what the pig does.)

And my favorite,

The Barn Cat

had better
think twice

Essentially, each animal is part of the complex ecosystem of a diverse family farm. This is the kind of farm you see all the time in kids' books but rarely in modern life. The good news is that people are getting more of their food from small farms; the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1996.

(I should also mention Holly Meade's fabulous woodcut and watercolor illustrations--I would love to paste these all around Silas' crib so he could have his own little farm in the city.)

I'll post about the next book later this weekend. Meantime, enjoy some fresh seasonal food, and, if you can, visit a farm. --Heidi

Preview: Naomi Novik Explodes into Hardcover with Victory of Eagles

It's grim days indeed for the dragon Temeraire--removed from military service, his captain sentenced to death for treason and the dastardly Napoleon pushing on toward London. Novik's latest novel, Victory of Eagles, chronicles these harsh times in this fifth book in the series.

But while things might be dark in her fantasy world, Novik's real world is nothing but sweetness and light. There are six million copies of the series in print, Peter Jackson has acquired the film rights, and Victory of Eagles is being released in July in hardcover. Novik will also tour behind the novel--another first.

And, I'm happy to report that Novik will be giving us a report from the road for an Amazon exclusive!

Here's a little sneak peek, the first paragraph of the novel:

The breeding grounds were called Pen Y. Fan, after the hard, jagged slash of the mountain at their heart, like an axe-blade, rimed with ice along its edge and rising barren over the moorlands: a cold, wet Welsh autumn already, coming on towards winter, and the other dragons sleepy and remote, uninterested in anything but their meals. There were a few hundred of them scattered throughout the grounds, mostly established in caves or on rocky ledges, wherever they could fit themselves; nothing of comfort or even order provided for them, except the feedings, and the mowed-bare strip of dirt around the borders, where torches were lit at night to mark the lines past which they might not go, with the town-lights glimmering in the distance, cheerful and forbidden.

Note: Both the Friday graphic novels and video features will return next Friday.



My first night after a couple weeks on the road. Was great to see readers and booksellers, thanks everyone for coming. If I didn't get to see you or meet you, here's a video of one of my events, which was at the W hotel in Seattle:

Also, just read a book called The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. Was pretty great. A smart, tense thriller that keeps you turning the pages. Check it out if you can.

James Frey

Emily the Strange... The Movie

10636_6 Emily the Strange's story has taken another amazing turn. The "subculture of one" that started out as a design on a few t-shirts and went on to become the Emily we know from the Dark Horse Comics series is now going to be--a movie.

The film will tell the origin story of Emily (the character, not the franchise) and feature her four cats--Sabbath, Nee-Chee, Miles, and Mystery--along with some new characters.

The Hollywood Reporter has all the details, plus some background on Emily (the franchise, not the character) from creator Rob Reger:

"It was one my many designs that just stuck. I remember three years (after I created it) thinking 'They're still ordering the same dang shirt!' There's something there."

The film's story will be similar to the first Emily the Strange YA novel, due out next year from Harper Collins (part of a four-book deal based on Emily's diaries.)--Heidi

Omni's Little-Screen Debut: BTP on CBS

I couldn't let today pass without noting the Amazon Books editorial team's network TV debut (at least since the early boom days--who knows what happened then. Ron? James?): this morning our own Brad Parsons stood up in midtown with Julie Chen in what looked like gale-force winds to talk about summer reading for the CBS Early Show. If there's anybody outside our own cube-land who enjoys this as much as we do, you can watch the full segment here. Bravo, Brad! --Tom


Licensed to Thrill

I'll be pouring myself a vodka martini this evening in honor of the 100th birthday of author Ian Fleming.  Best known as the creator of superspy James Bond, Fleming's work has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry in print and film that shows no sign of slowing down.

Yet it was nerves, not profits, that motivated the former British Intelligence officer to begin his debut novel in 1953.

"I was just on the edge of getting married, and I was frenzied at the prospect of this great step in my life after having being a bachelor for so long.  I merely wanted to take my mind off the agony, so I decided to sit down and write a book."

The result of this anxious exercise was Casino Royale, and fifty-five years later, the world is still enthralled with 007. Although Fleming wrote only twelve novels before his death in 1964, the series has expanded to thirty-six titles (including the latest, Devil May Care, which hits bookshelves today) and twenty-two films that have made James Bond a cultural icon.

While many have speculated that Bond was a self-portrait, Fleming dismissed such talk with a laugh. "I certainly haven't got his guts," he told an interviewer in 1963, "nor his very lively appetite." 

SF-Fantasy Heavy Hitters for the Summer


Want a big fat science fiction or fantasy book to lead the way into summer? Well, for SF you could do worse than pick up the huge new (definitive) Orson Scott Card collection from Tor, Keeper of Dreams. It includes story notes and commentary from the author and the sheer variety and talent on display will keep you on your toes.

For the kind of dark, epic fantasy that resides somewhere between China Mieville and George R.R. Martin, be sure to sample Iron Angel from Alan Campbell. His previous novel Scar Night was a great steampunkish debut, and this one contains even more of the same grand storytelling and exciting adventure.

Another fantasy sequel by Kate Elliott, Shadow Gate, takes readers back to a rich fantasy world of fabled cities and mysterious gods. A little lighter but just as engaging as the Campbell, Elliott gives readers a great heroic fantasy, complete with spirits and flying animals.

Finally, for fantasy a little closer to home, Paul Park weighs in with the concluding volume to his Novels of Roumania series, Hidden World. Award-hyped and brilliantly written these intelligent and stylish books deserve your immediate attention. If you haven't read any in the series, start with A Princess of Roumania. You'll be glad you did.

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Liesl Schillinger on Black Flies by Shannon Burke: "Although 'Black Flies' is a novel, it contains more reflections of lived experience than some memoirs (particularly recent memoirs). Reading this arresting, confrontational book is like reading 'Dispatches,' Michael Herr's indelible account of his years as a reporter in Vietnam. Like Herr, who endured the ordeals of warfare at first hand but at a journalistic remove, Burke was both a participant in and an observer of the scenes he records, distanced from the men he worked with by his capacity to isolate and analyze his memories and by the fact that he had not been compelled to join the fray but had chosen to do so."
  • Cathleen Schine on The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon: "Aleksandar Hemon has taken the formal structure of humor, the grammar of comedy, the rhythms and beats of a joke, and used them to reveal despair. His new novel, 'The Lazarus Project,' is a remarkable, and remarkably entertaining, chronicle of loss and hopelessness and cruelty propelled by an eloquent, irritable existential unease. It is, against all odds, full of humor and full of jokes. It is, at the same time, inexpressibly sad."
  • Stephen Burt on Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Kleinzahler: "Many poets try to sound tough, or masculine, or self-conscious about manhood, and fail miserably: what qualities let Kleinzahler succeed? His eye, and his ear — he is, first and last, a craftsman, a maker of lines — but also his range of tones, and his self-restraint: he never says more than he should, rarely repeats himself and keeps his focus not on the man who speaks the poems (and whose personality comes across anyway) but on what that man sees and on what he can hear."

Washington Post:

  • Michael Dirda on The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie: "Set during the 16th century, The Enchantress of Florence is altogether ramshackle as a novel -- oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly minor compared to such masterworks as The Moor's Last Sigh and Midnight's Children-- and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder."
  • John Pomfret on China's Great Train by Abrahm Lustgarten: "Lustgarten translates the palpable excitement of being a builder in a nation where builders rule. He also accomplishes something more valuable: He provides insight into the seat-of-the-pants nature of many of China's massive schemes. Reading China's Great Train, we recognize China's engineers, and by extension its leadership, for what they are: some of the world's biggest risk-takers. Geeks with guts."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Laurel Maury on Netherland by Joseph O'Neill: "It's an incredible novel that doesn't work. Author and critic Joseph O'Neill can't write a bad sentence and is incapable of thought that isn't elegant, eloquent and wise. But a perceptive eye isn't enough -- some sort of viscera are necessary, and though O'Neill tells us certain things are important, he never really makes us feel it. Even a story about detachment needs attachment to work."
  • Samantha Dunn on Personal Days by Ed Park: "Park portrays Thoreau's quote about the masses leading 'lives of quiet desperation' as urban satire for the dot-com generation. It's a satire at times so droll, so trenchant in its observations of corporate 'culture' and human weakness, so pitch-perfect in dialogue, you can't help but feel for the author.... [C]hances are, Park ... drew from personal experience of really lousy jobs to create this bitter, pathetic world that makes you snort your Starbucks when laughing at unexpected moments."

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

On the politics of the "authoritarianism" temptation (Author One-on-One: Rick Perlstein)

Perlstein_rick_300h John feels strongly about the scientific merit of the literature on the "authoritarian personality," whereas I'm agnostic, or at least heuristically suspicious. John's right: I'm not qualified to evaluate to evaluate this literature on scholarly terms. So let's grant John the arguments on the scientific merits. (At least one historian I greatly respect, however, Christopher Lasch, argued at length in this book that the concept collapsed back on itself, and was analytically useless.)

Even so, I'm pretty confident that labeling wide swaths of the American public as "authoritarian" is politically disadvantageous. How do I know? It's been tried, and backfired badly.

In 1966, new mayor John Lindsay promised to improve law and order in New York by installing a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police. The police were, after all, corrupt; a 1964 investigation had traced gambling graft all the way up to the department's elite 48-man "watchdog" group. Law-abiding ghetto residents became used to being forced to carry around the receipts for every possession they carried so they wouldn't be accused of stealing them. The cops had lost the confidence of the public, Lindsay said; restoring trust between the police and the community would make it easier to fight crime together--or so he reasoned.

In May his police chief handed down General Order No. 14, officially establishing the board. And the police went berserk. They immediately got 96,888 signatures to get a referendum on the November ballot to dissolve it. The law only required them to get 30,000. And their methods for gathering these signatures were not entirely un-authoritarian: if a policeman went up to you and forcefully presented you a petition to sign, how free would you feel to refuse? And the political campaign the Patrolman's Benevolent Association ran to secure the initiative's passage bore unmistakable authoritarian elements as well.

When a bill to cashier civilian review came up for consideration before the City Council the PBA saw to it a highly unorthodox call went out over all radio cars: "Everybody to City Hall!" They mustered 5,000 cops in their civies, a record quarter of their membership, many with signs around their necks: "Pressure Groups Want Control of the POLICE DEPARTMENT" (ironically or not, the PBA, a presure group, was also then demanding a civilian board to hear their labor grievances). And when the CCRB's membership was announced at a televised news conference, the PBA's president John Cassese snapped, "I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting." The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced Cassese's "thinly veiled racism." Wilkins of the NAACP called his opposition "irrational"--unless he believed a policeman, unlike any other civil servant, was "above the law."

074324302101_mzzzzzzz_ Of course, the cops did believe themselves above the law. Ever seen Serpico? The man on whom it was based, Frank Serpico, whose story was told in a classic book by Peter Maas, was an idealistic young cop who, during riot duty, was handed, possibly mistakenly, an envelope with $300 cash in it by another cop. He asked a captain what he could do about it. He was told he had two choices: forget it happened, or end up "face down in the East River." The PBA talked about the CCRB fight as a battle over the soul of their profession, over "who's going to run the police in New York." They said they were prepared to spend their entire treasury of $1.5 million, culled from $2 monthly dues, to make sure it wasn't nosy do-gooders. No wonder, that: even the lowliest beat cop stood to preserve many times that each month by preserving the system of traffic bribes, shakedowns of neighborhood bodegas that wished to remain open in contravention of the city's labynthine Sabbath laws, in free meals and "flutes"--Coke bottles topped off with liquor--from their precincts' restaurants and bars. (Then there were the especially sought-after assignments: the Youth Squad, which made for easy graft from establishments that relied on the custom of underage carousers; plainclothes divisions, where each officer might make a monthly "pad" in the four figures in payoffs from numbers runners, pimps, and drug dealers.) Civilian review queered their sale.

That wasn't what they said, of course, when they launched their political campaign at an American Legion luncheon with the cry that, "Communism and Communists are mixed up in this fight. If we wind up with a review board, we'll have done Russia a great service.... The doctrine of the Communist Party is to knock out religion and break the spirit, as well as create confusion in the police department, cause chaos, and interrupt the public function."

The people fighting to keep the Civilian Complaint Review Board presumed they had a can't-miss electoral strategy: they called their opponents authoritarians. "A crusade against the Civilian Review Board is being waged by a coalition of right-wing groups--the Conservative Party, the fascist National Renaissance Party, the John Birch society, and the American Legion allied with the PBA against the forces of reason an civic leadership in this city," a press release stated. "Don't Be a 'Yes' Man for Bigotry, Vote 'No,'" their billboards read. "Do New Yorkers Want a Police State?" A pro-review spokesman proclaimed, "Before this campaign is over people will feel ashamed to do anything but vote against this referendum."

Long story short: they didn't. Civilian review was crushed by 26 points; even Jews, supposedly liberal, opposed it 55 percent to 40.

I offer this more as allegory than argument. Perhaps John will find it irrelevant to his larger point. The point is not that the cops, in this campaign, and in many cities at that time, didn't exhibit profound authoritarian tendencies (in fact I document in Nixonland that policing in 1960s in America was badly broken, fatally rife with authoritarian tendencies; a new police chief in Chicago, in 1967, shut down a Ku Klux Klan cell operating within the force, with its own arsenal of firearms and hand grenades; in Oakland, on Friday, nights officers lay in wait outside the bars that served as the ghetto's de facto banks. A factory worker would emerge, find himself arrested for drunkness, and be robbed of his week's wages on the way to the precinct house.

This is, by any measure, authoritarian behavior—worse, I think, than anything anyone can pin on David Frum.

I'm just not sure of the political utility of labeling it thus. Cops are much better now; I'm not sure why; it's something I'd like to research historically myself. How did that happen? I don't know. I know how it doesn't happen: you don't achieve social change by accusing the people you'd like to convert of being crypto-Nazis. New York's cops were authoritarian; but to defeat their authoritarianism took something more than patiently explaining this via intellectual arguments.

How do you defeat right-wing abusers of power? How do you call to account genuine evil, when it's invested in the authority of the state, within a democracy? That is a very, very tough question. It's one I look forward to debating with John for years to come. But not with labels; of that I'm pretty confident. --Rick Perlstein

Friday Afternoon Videos: This Is the World We Live In

Jeff's taking a few days' breather, and, as it happens, I happen to have two book videos I want to share Friday, that is, today (and I'm not going to wait until the night to do it). Now that every author is supposed to make a video to promote their book, we get questions all the time about what makes a good author video. Well, look no further. Yesterday, I posted a clip from John Green on the page for his YA novel, Paper Towns, which comes out in the fall, which was homemade-hilarious enough that I wanted to post it here too:

Only after posting it did I find out how he got so comfortable with the camera: he does these things, like, every day with his equally bright (well, you can debate which one's your favorite) brother Hank, and posts them on their supersite, For example, watch a recent bit about Paper Towns' two covers. John's also the author, by the way, of An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska.

But that's only the second-best video I found yesterday. While I was in John Green-land (and you can spend a lot of time there very quickly, to put words in Yogi Berra's mouth), I came across this gem on his blog, which is not only beautiful in its own right but sums up many of the mysteries of my profession and describes, with knowing and rueful precision, exactly what I am doing right now, instead of, say reading or writing a book:

Who is Dennis Cass? Until now I didn't know, but it looks like he's the author of Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain. Something tells me, after this gets around (somebody else already forwarded it to me today), more people will know that. Or else he'll just drop the writing thing altogether and take Samberg's gig on the late night show. --Tom