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January 2009

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times (sorry for all the clips here: lots to link to this week):

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Toni Bentley on Ballet's Magic Kingdom by Akim Volynsky: "This is a fantastic book.... The book is a must for anyone claiming a love of ballet, but it is also the perfect antidote for anyone — I know you’re out there — who still thinks ballet is merely a pretty spectacle with pretty girls (not that it also isn’t). If you can wade through Volynsky’s sometimes dense but always hugely entertaining and surprising text, you will never look at a toeshoe, a tiara or a tendu, not to mention an entire ballerina sporting all of the above, in the same way again. You will realize that you are looking, according to Volynsky, at a being truly not of this world, but here, for now, in this world, who can show you a kind of beauty and truth you will not find anywhere else — not in a book or painting, not in science, not in meditation, prayer or jogging, not in organic hibiscus juice and not even in death, should you survive it."
  • Kakutani on The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci: "'The Yankee Years' does a nimble, if at times cursory, job of reanimating the long highlight reel of the Torre era.... What this book does do and does very persuasively is chart the rise and fall of one of baseball’s great dynasties, while showing the care and feeding it took to bring the city of New York four championships in five years."
  • Maslin on The Associate by John Grisham: "With the help of a well-used cookie cutter he delivers one more hard-charging book about the hellish demands of corporate law.... Soapbox fiction can be stupefying. But Mr. Grisham owes a very long winning streak to his stealth gift for making preachiness thrilling.... Mr. Grisham so often writes similar books that the same things must be said of them. 'The Associate' is true to form: it grabs the reader quickly, becomes impossible to put down, stays that way through most of its story, and then escalates into plotting so crazily far-fetched that it defies resolution."
  • Garner on Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin: "There is a good deal of rehashing of material from her previous book, and she leans more here on the ideas of others than she did before. But to remark that 'Animals Make Us Human' is a slightly lesser book than 'Animals in Translation' is like saying Randy Newman's 'Good Old Boys' is a slightly lesser album than 'Sail Away.' If you liked the first one, you’re going to like the second."
  • Kakutani on The Women by T.C. Boyle: "T.C. Boyle's dreary new novel, 'The Women,' isn’t a rewrite of Clare Boothe Luce’s wicked 1936 play 'The Women.' It’s a rewrite of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright that somehow manages to turn the gripping, operatic saga of America’s premier architect and the women in his life into a tedious, predictable melodrama."
  • Timothy Egan on Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley: "Hensley offers a coming-of-age story for a state and a people, both still young and in the making. And while there are familiar notes in the Dickensian telling of this tale, Hensley manages to make fresh an old narrative of people who arise just as their culture is being erased — be they 'Braveheart' Scotsmen or outback Aborigines. His book is also bright and detailed, moving along at a clip most sled dogs would have trouble keeping up with."
  • Anthony Doerr, who did our Books of the States post for Idaho, implicitly nominates Water Dogs by Lewis Robinson for Maine: "'Water Dogs' is not a dizzying, hugely ambitious novel. Robinson does not appear interested in punching holes in the hull of American literature. What he has created, though, is a quietly commanding book, one that exists mostly within itself.... In its rendering of the complicated, rich, mostly unspoken relationship between a young man and the place he lives, 'Water Dogs' is a lovely novel. Robinson may not evoke the snow falling faintly through the universe, but he certainly evokes it as it falls over Maine."

Washington Post:

  • Our own Jeff VanderMeer on The Domino Men by Jonathan Barnes: "Nothing -- not the promise of its opening nor the lurching complications of its middle -- can prepare the reader for the shock of The Domino Men's resolution. It's one of the most perplexing endings in recent memory....The jaded reader may doubt that Barnes intended this fusion of hysterical hilarity and frenetic nihilism, suspecting, instead, that the author simply surrendered to his material. Does he really mean to combine gonzo science fiction with detailed sadism? If he does, it's because he let the Domino Men -- more than Dedlock, Lamb or even Leviathan -- take control of this novel. Otherwise, all is chaos."
  • Charles on Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips: "There are books you recommend to everybody, and then there are books you share cautiously, even protectively. Jayne Anne Phillips's 'Lark and Termite' is that second kind, a mysterious, affecting novel you'll want to talk about only with others who have fallen under its spell. On the surface, nothing about the West Virginia family in 'Lark and Termite' seems especially noteworthy, except perhaps the consistency of their misfortune, but the author reveals their tangled secrets in such a profound and intimate way that these ordinary, wounded people become both tragic and magnificent."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Donna Seaman on The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo: "In her conceptually brilliant, imaginative, brimming and suspenseful novel, her evocations of place are ravishing; her characters are at once richly human and magical and their confounding predicaments are both commonplace and cosmic. Erotic and mystical, intricately made and deeply felt, 'The Sky Below' is a vivid tale of profound dimension and resonance."
  • Ed Park on The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aiken: "The wit is irrepressible, the invention wild: A baby is transformed into an elephant, which Harriet and Mark then need to stuff into a decommissioned phone booth. (Don't ask -- just read.) Secondary characters do their inimitable turn, then disappear, or get transformed into animals. (Even animals can't escape morphing into other animals: A neighboring sorceress turns Walrus, the Armitage cat, into a wolf.) Such delicious lightness, almost paradoxically, is the fiction's raison d'être.... 'The Serial Garden' is my happiest discovery this year."

Wall Street Journal:

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

Garden Library Profile #2: Amy Stewart

Amystewartredsm It gives me giddy pleasure to present the next installment in my garden library series: highlights from the shelves of one of my favorite garden writers, Amy Stewart. Back when I was taking my first stabs at planting, Amy's witty and informative memoir of making her first garden, From the Ground Up, gave me the courage to launch a full-frontyard assault on my own lawn. I've since devoured her inquiries into the secret lives of earthworms and the ills of the cut-flower industry, and I’m already making room next to my bed for this spring’s Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities, which promises an abundance of evilly fascinating plantfacts (see creepy trailer here). Along with her blog, Dirt, she’s a driving force behind GardenRant, an award-winning blog whose manifesto never fails to make me want to pump my muddy fist in solidarity.

Amy and her husband also own an antiquarian bookstore in Eureka, California, so I knew her garden library would be well worth perusing. Enjoy. -- Mari Malcolm How would you describe your garden library?

Amy Stewart: Overgrown—like my garden. I have six shelves of garden books right next to my desk, and a long and completely overstuffed shelf of coffee table-sized books as well. Oh wait—that doesn’t include the books that I buy as reference materials for each of the books I’ve written, so there’s also a shelf of poisonous plant books, a shelf of earthworm books, and a shelf of books on the cut flower industry. Oh, and then there are the garden books that, for some reason, get shelved with general fiction and nonfiction, which is a whole other section of the house. It is really, really out of hand. And my husband and I own a used bookstore, so there’s no excuse for me not to get rid of some of them. Except that I can’t. What was your first garden book?

Sunset-cover Amy Stewart: I didn’t start gardening until I was an adult, so there’s no childhood book about gardening in my past, unless you count The Secret Garden, which I read many times as a kid. The Sunset Western Garden Book was the first actual garden book I bought for information. Someone who worked at a garden center actually made fun of me for not owning it, so I was shamed into buying it. But it really is the first reference book anybody on the West Coast should buy, and each edition gets better. Who’s your favorite garden writer?

Amy Stewart: I was very inspired by Carl Klaus's lovely book My Vegetable Love and his subsequent Weathering Winter, both written in a highly literary diary style. He’s a wonderfully thoughtful writer, and we’ve gotten to be friends over the years.

 Also, anything by Sue Hubbell. Book-beesI especially love A Country Year and A Book of Bees. I read her book on bees and thought, Oh. If she can make bees that interesting, maybe I can make worms interesting.

 And of course, Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden and anything by her husband, E.B. White. I especially recommend One Man’s Meat, an amazing collection of essays about country life written in the years leading up to WWII. We know what’s going to happen and he doesn’t, which makes the essays unexpectedly dramatic.

I also really love good fiction that revolves around a garden, but not in a way that feels formulaic. Carrie Brown’s Rose's Garden is a great example, as is Bailey White’s Quite a Year for Plums and Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries. They each have a character or two who garden, but it comes so naturally that it never feels forced. Design-plants What book has most influenced your gardening style?

Amy Stewart: Anything by Piet Oudolf. I love the Lurie Garden in Chicago, which he designed. He favors plants that are very vigorous, almost aggressive, and plants that look good when they’re dead. What a concept—a garden that is interesting to look at year-round! Which book in your collection has the most inspiring images?

Grasses-cover Amy Stewart: I love Grasses by Nancy Ondra, with photos by Saxon Holt. I was completely not into ornamental grasses until I saw that book, and it changed my mind. I have replanted my front yard garden because of that book. Really, any book that Saxon photographed is worth checking out. What’s your most essential reference book?

Amy Stewart: That would still be Sunset’s Western Garden Book. California has so many odd little microclimates that you really need very region-specific advice on what grows here. But now that I live in Eureka, I also really like a new book called The Timber Press Guide to Gardening in the Pacific Northwest. What’s so great about it is that it doesn’t try to cover every single plant one might theoretically grow out here—it focuses on what works. Which volume in your collection has the most sentimental value?

Amy Stewart: My husband has given me a few rare old botanical books over the years. I’m afraid to own anything too valuable—I’m sure I’ll spill coffee on it or ruin it somehow—but he gave me an early edition of Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany with color plates that’s really wonderful. The hand coloring is as bright as if it was done yesterday. What’s your favorite recent addition?

Stylish-sheds Amy Stewart: I really like Jeff Gillman’s books The Truth About Organic Gardening and The Truth About Garden Remedies. He’s not afraid to question long-cherished beliefs about what works in the garden, and he’s a very funny person. Go see him speak if you ever get the chance.

Oh, and Debra Prinzing wrote a book called Stylish Sheds that is so fun and inspiring. She visited the novelist Amy Bloom, whose work I love. She has an amazing writer’s cottage—I want one! What’s on your wish list?

Poisonous-plants Amy Stewart: Timber Press always has something I want. They have a new book coming out called Tall Perennials that looks great—I am really into tall plants that make you feel completely surrounded. And I think they have a couple of new poisonous plant books. Even though my new book, Wicked Plants, is done, I still want these to complete my collection. They are: The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms and Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World.

ALA Announces Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners

Graveyard_200 What happens when you find out you've won the Newbery Medal?

"You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo. This was a wise thing to think because otherwise huge, mighty and fourletter swears were gathering. I mean, that's what they're for. I think I said, You mean it's Monday?"

(Thanks to Monica at educating alice for linking to this excerpt from Neil Gaiman's journal today. She loves The Graveyard Book as much as I do.)

The American Library Association (ALA) announced all their children's literature awards this morning, including the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott Medals, which are basically like the Oscars of kid's books.

For those of you who aren't glued to the kid-lit blogs, there has been a fair amount of controversy about the Newbery Medal recently, kicked off last fall when a "children's book expert" complained that recent winners skewed more toward librarian favorites than books that are popular with kids. School Library Journal touches on this in their run-down of this year's awards (in fact, the title of their article is, "Surprise! The Newbery Goes to a Popular Book"). They also highlight a few favorite titles that people were surprised not to find on the lists this year. 

Here are the winners for most of the awards:

Newbery Medal
honoring the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

honor books:
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle For Freedom by Margarita Engle
Savvy by Ingrid Law
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Caldecott Medal
honoring the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children

The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes, written by Susan Marie Swanson

honor books:
Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee
How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz
A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams illustrated by Melissa Sweet, written by Jen Bryant

Michael L. Printz Award

Jellicoe_200 for literary excellence in young adult literature

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

honor books:
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M. T. Anderson
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Nation by Terry Pratchett
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Coretta Scott King Awards

given to African American authors and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributionsWeareship_200

author award:
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

illustrator award:
The Blacker the Berry illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Joyce Carol Thomas

honor books (same for authors and illustrators)
Keeping the Night Watch by Hope Anita Smith, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award:
Shadra Strickland, illustrator of Bird by Zetta Elliott

Pura Belpré Awards

honoring a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose works best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth

author award:
The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle

author honor books:
Reaching Out by Francisco Jimenez
Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book by Yuyi Morales
The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos by Lucia Gonzalez, illustrated by Lulu Delacre

illustrator award:
Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book by Yuyi Morales

illustrator honor books
Papa and Me, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, written by Arthur Dorros
The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos, illustrated by Lulu Delacre, written by Lucia Gonzalez
What Can You Do with a Rebozo? illustrated by Amy Cordova, written by Carmen Tafolla

(Theodor Seuss) Geisel Award
honoring the most distinguished American book for beginning readers 

Are You Ready to Play Outside?
by Mo Willems

honor books:
Chicken Said, 'Cluck!' written by Judyann Ackerman Grant, illustrated by Sue Truesdell
One Boy
by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
by Eleanor Davis
Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator
written by Sarah C. Campbell, photographs by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

Sibert Award
honoring informational books

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

honor books:
What to Do About Alice? by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Bodies from the Ice by James M. Deem

Mildred L. Batchelder Award

for books translated into English and published in the U.S.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano

honor books:
Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis, translated by Anthea Bell
Garmann’s Summer by Stian Hole, translated by Don Bartlett

William C. Morris Award

for a debut YA novel

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Alex Awards

best adult titles for teen readers

City of Thieves by David Benioff
The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
Just After Sunset: Stories by Stephen King
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Over and Under by Todd Tucker
The Oxford Project by Stephen G. Bloom
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck

See the ALA website for a full list of ALSC awards for children's books, and YALSA for more about the teen awards. --Heidi

National Book Critics Circle Award Nominees Announced

The National Book Critics Circle announced the nominees for their 2008 awards on Saturday, with some familiar award-circuit titles and a few surprises. (The NBCCs are the middle one in the big three of US book awards, between the National Book Awards in the fall and the Pulitzers in the spring, and probably third in the pecking order, with no cash but a fair amount of prestige on the line.) The fiction shortlist includes two NBA nominees (Home and The Lazarus Project, both of which were in our editors' top 20 for 2008), and three of the five NBA nonfiction nominees got NBCC nods (The Dark Side and This Republic of Suffering in nonfiction and the NBA winner, The Hemingses of Monticello, in biography).

The 800-pound (or should I say 912-page) gorilla in fiction is 2666, which is the only non-American entry there, highlighting the NBCC's somewhat odd mix of being an American award that's open to any book published in English in the US, which makes it not quite an American award and not quite an international one (there's usually one or two fiction nominees from outside the US each year). And the big discovery there is The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, a debut novel from Glenn Taylor, published by West Virginia University Press. I must confess I hadn't heard of it, but as usual our customers are ahead of the game, with nine generally glowing reviews, including one that makes a strong comparison with Little Big Man. Also lesser known in fiction, though not quite as much of an underdog, is Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, a book of linked stories that we were on the ball enough to include in our editors' top 100. But if anybody beats out 2666, I'll be stunned.

The powerhouse category to me is biography, with two of the most celebrated nonfiction books of the year, The Hemingses of Monticello and The World Is What It Is, along with White Heat, an in-house favorite here, and The Bin Ladens, which didn't get the attention I expected, or that it deserved. Also worth noting: three of the "autobiography" nominees are actually portraits of the authors' fathers--as were both the 2007 and 2005 winners in that category (Brother I'm Dying and Them--well, both parents in the latter case).

I was also happy to see Ron Charles win this year's Nona Balakian award for excellence in reviewing--as someone who reads his work every Monday night (and links to it more often than not) I've raved already about how he's one of my favorites. I don't remember seeing them list the Balakian runners-up publicly before, but this year they have: Michael Antman, Kathryn Harrison, Laila Lalami, and Todd Shy. [Update: I'm told--by a former winner--that the Balakian nominees have been traditionally announced, so it's just my radar, or my memory, that's faulty.]

The winners are announced March 12.








End-o'-the-Week Kid-Lit Roundup

In this week's roundup, we're finally back after a long holiday and vacation break! Before I share some recent links from the kid-lit blogosphere, I want to show off a few of our vacation pics. Because Heidi also writes about agriculture, we visited the National Western Stock Show while we were in Colorado last week.

One of the best parts (along with the stick-horse rodeo, gigantic barbecued drumsticks, beaming rodeo royalty, and Navajo fry bread) was a farm-and-ranch-oriented book section up in the "Hall of Education," near the FFA booths:

IMG_0229 I didn't even know that the Scholastic's "Heartland" series existed--but wow, that doesn't mean it isn't popular. This horse-centric series for ages 8 to 12 has many, many devoted fans.

IMG_0230 I was happy to see one of Silas' favorite books on display, Cowboy Small, by Lois Lenski. Her books, mostly from the 1940s, are a fixture around our house (with the Little Train and National Dairy Council-propaganda My Friend the Cow frequently headlining a tight bedtime rotation). Heidi early on started calling Lenski "the Hemingway of children's books" for her spare style and idiosyncratic ear for detail.

IMG_0232 I'm always suspicious of product tie-in books (does Silas really need to be building brand loyalty for tractor equipment this early?), but it's hard to argue with the quality and hands-on appeal of these John Deere flap books. I'm less familiar with the Breyer Stablemates books (for ages 4 to 8, and related to the popular toys), but you can judge the customer reviews for yourself.

IMG_0233 Teeny Tiny Ernest was another nice find, a cute short story for kids 4 to 8. And of course there's no escaping Gallop, no matter where you go! We are already on our second copy, since Silas tore through most of the first one after getting a little too inquisitive about how it worked.

More links from around the kid-lit blogosphere:

"Robot built from upcoming kids science fiction trilogy." Kid-lit *and* robots? Say no more. Check out this endearingly weird story from Boing Boing.

More well-deserved praise for Chains. Laurie Halse Anderson's excellent Revolutionary War tale just won the 2009 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction (found via Fuse #8).

"The best kid-friendly manga of 2008." A killer list, brought to you by the inimitable Good Comics for Kids blog.

Tintin turns 80. And it just keeps getting more popular, with a Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson trilogy in the works (found via Bookninja).

The first Ranger's Apprentice book available for free online. For a limited time, you can read the Ruins of Gorlan online. Book 4 in this popular series, the Battle for Skandia, just came out in paperback this month.

The Year of the Ox has begun! And Children's Illustration has pulled together some fitting kid-lit art, e.g.:



Graphic Novel Fridays: All Good Things...

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Joss Whedon’s work. I own the complete Buffy series on DVD and Angel Season 5 (not to mention the respective comics here and here). I am also a fan of the X-Men. So in 2004, when Whedon agreed to write 12 issues of the newly titled Astonishing X-Men comic along with superstar artist John Cassaday, I geeked out.

The last time I’d read an X-Men comic was during Grant Morrison’s controversial New X-Men run (collected in three mammoth volumes), and while it took the team to new places and introduced a few radical ideas, it never had that old-school Uncanny feel I loved as a kid. But Whedon’s first two arcs, Gifted and Dangerous, were chock full of nostalgia and new school mutant mayhem (classic moment: the return of the “fastball special”). He created new teammates and new enemies while managing to keep an older generation of readers happy by using characters like Lockheed in ways they’d never been written before.

After that Eisner Award-winning run, Whedon and Cassaday agreed to another 12 issues, and the second half of Astonishing X-Men is just as good as its first. I’ll probably be chastised for even making the comparison, but like in The Dark Phoenix Saga, the X-Men travel into outer-space to battle and rescue in epic proportions. There just seems to be something about watching these characters quip and trek among the stars that brings out the best in the telling. There’s a particularly rewarding scene in which Whedon pulls a fast one on readers, spinning an entire issue on its head with a bit of telepathic dialogue between characters.

My favorite moment, however, is much more terrestrial. Before heading off into space, the team is mind-wiped by a villain who is too good to spoil. Wolverine reverts to a quivering schoolboy and makes paper cutouts on the X-Mansion floor (“Say mine is the best or I shall be cross all day!”). After an explosion, the still-brainwashed Wolverine falls against a refrigerator and knocks loose the door. A beer can rolls out and lands on his head. In the following close-up panel, Wolverine stares at the beer can, his face blurry in the background. He is thinking. Cassaday makes the most of these tiny moments. The next panel is the same image, only the can is now blurred, and Wolvie’s face is clear--his brow furrowed. And just like that, Wolverine snaps back into consciousness. Beer saves the day.

Sure, readers familiar with Whedon’s writing know there is only one way a happy couple will wind up in this story, and yes, the finale relies heavily on Comic Book Physics, but there is also glee in these pages. In this second oversized hardcover, fans can collect all of the final 12 issues plus the Giant-Sized Annual that conclude the total arc. Be sure to note that the first hardcover sadly went out of print (don’t worry, the first twelve issues are still available in six-issue paperback collections here and here). Like Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men and Morrison’s New X-Men, Whedon’s journey is exactly what the title proclaims: Astonishing.

The Books Behind the Oscar Nominations


As usual, many of the movies all over the Oscar nominations announced this morning have the prestige of a literary property behind them: four out of the five Best Picture noms are based on a book (to varying degrees...).  Here's the list:

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: based on a short story by the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald, although as many have pointed out, it seems based much more on another movie, Forrest Gump, which was itself based on a book. See the excellent faux trailer below for evidence.
  • Frost/Nixon: based directly on the play by Peter Morgan (who wrote the screenplay), but he used as one source a manuscript by James Reston Jr. (played by Sam Rockwell in the movie), which has been published since as The Conviction of Richard Nixon. (Read Reston's interesting take on how history was turned into drama.)
  • The Reader: based on Bernhard Schlink's Oprah-approved bestseller of the same name.
  • Slumdog Millionaire: based on Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, which has since been rereleased with the same title as the movie.
  • Milk: The only Best Picture nominee with an original screenplay, but for more about Harvey Milk, you can go to Randy Shilts's classic bio, The Mayor of Castro Street.

Some of the other nominees have books behind them as well:

  • Revolutionary Road: Perhaps the biggest Best Picture snub is also the best-known literary adaptation of the year, of Richard Yates's searing (and bitterly funny) takedown of suburban bohemia.
  • Doubt: The only Adapted Screenplay nominee that didn't make the Best Picture cut did get four acting nods. It's based on the Pulitzer-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, who wrote and directed the movie (and won Original Screenplay way back when for Moonstruck (which he deserved for "You got a love bite on your neck!" alone)).
  • Man on Wire: My favorite movie of 2008 still sets my heart fluttering both for its delirious story and from sheer vertigo. It's a Best Documentary nominee, and it's based on Philippe Petit's memoir of his audacious escapade, which has just been rereleased.
  • The Class: France's Best Foreign Language Film nominee is based on François Bégaudeau's autobiographical novel, which is coming out for the first time in English in April. Based on the raves I've heard about this one, it might well be my favorite movie of 2009.
  • Waltz with Bashir: The makers of Israel's Best Foreign Language Film contender went the other direction with this, creating a graphic novel out of their animated film, which also sounds fantastic.


The Books of the States: Oklahoma (7 electoral votes)

Quarter_Oklahoma_Thompson Oklahoma is one of the few states I've never even set foot in, but it's come to have a pull of fascination for me as a literary crossroads, a territory where some of the writers in my personal pantheon mingle (on the page if not in actuality). Both Ralph Ellison and Jim Thompson were born and raised there, and the book I often cite as my very favorite ends there, memorably, even though its author, Franz Kafka, also never set foot in Oklahoma--or anywhere else in America, for that matter. "Territory" is the operative word--it was one of the last states to join the Union, remaining Indian Territory--though chipped away by white settlement--long after all around it had become states. So it has a rich cross-cultural history, as the end point of the Trail of Tears, and the beginning of the Dustbowl Okie migration to California, and the source or the subject of my nominations below:

  • Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson: Many might choose his best-known book, The Killer Inside Me, or his superb The Grifters (which I put on the California list), but this is the one that put Thompson right next to what apparently is my cold, cold heart. Thompson, who spent a long, sour apprenticeship bouncing around Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska before sort of hitting it big in Hollywood (he wrote The Killing and Paths of Glory for Kubrick), is considered one of the kings of hard-boiled crime, but "hard-boiled" doesn't begin to sum up Pop. 1280 (which was itself translated onscreen into the French West Africa noir, Coup de Torchon). It's brutal and cynical all right, but the first word I think of is "sly," with perhaps the all-time great stupid-like-a-fox narrator, who knows that great truth, "who wants a smart sheriff?"
  • Amerika by Franz Kafka: "Up, and to Clayton!" Kafka's imagined America, which begins with a Statue of Liberty carrying a sword, not a torch, aloft, ends--to the extent that this unfinished novel has an ending--with an uncharacteristic (and unsettling) hopefulness when Karl Rossmann is accepted into the infinite artistic ranks of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma (or, in the spelling that Mark Harman's new translation keeps from the original German, Oklahama). Is it a sign of my incurable optimism that this is my favorite book by my favorite writer (who usually doesn't end things nearly so well)? Or that I even interpret the ending as happy, which many don't (and which I actually don't either--what I really love is the menace and the joy running together in those last pages)? I'm linking to the original Muir translation of the book, the one I fell in love with, but I do want to check out Harman's new one, especially after reading his smart, short essay on the ending.
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: One aspect of the menace in Kafka's Oklahoma is the echoes a later reader will hear, both in the train trip that Karl sets off on with his fellow artists at the end (which recalls the trains that would take most of Kafka's family to the Nazi camps after his death), and in the placards advertising the theater's limitless opportunity, which might remind you of the handbills advertising California plenty that lead the Joads to set out on the road west in The Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison: Ellison's great novel was set in the East, but in his excellent essays, which sustained his reputation in the long decades when everyone waited for its sequel, he often pointedly reminds us of the surprising cosmopolitanism of his provincial childhood, with its potent mix of homegrown culture and European influences, as well as Jim Crow segregation.
  • And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes by Angie Debo: Much like Nebraska's Mari Sandoz, Debo was a groundbreaking midcentury historian of the Plains Indians who persisted despite resistance to her gender and her subject and whose histories are still in print and influential. This book, the second in her trilogy of the Five Tribes, named local names so dangerously that the University of Oklahoma declined to publish it. It's not a history of the Trail of Tears, but what came after, in Indian Territory: as Larry McMurtry quotes her in his appreciation of Debo in Sacagawea's Nickname, "The age of military conquest was succeeded by the age of economic absorption, when the long rifle of the frontiersman was replaced by the legislative enactment and court decrees of the legal exploiter, and the lease, mortgage and deed of the land shark."
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday: Momaday has said he thinks of himself as a poet more than a novelist (and he's the current Poet Laureate of Oklahoma), but the world thinks of him as a novelist, thanks to this breakthrough Pulitzer Prize winner about a young Kiowa man returning from World War II.
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: The YA classic that was written by a YA: Hinton was a student at Will Rogers High in Tulsa when she wrote her greaser's tale. Teens are still reading The Outsiders, and Hinton still lives in Tulsa and is still writing: Some of Tim's Stories came out in 2007, and she wrote the Oklahoma essay for State by State.

More from Oklahoma: John Hope Franklin, C.J. Cherryh, Woodie Guthrie's Bound for Glory, the apparently insane stories of R.A. Lafferty, which I've never read but want to check out, Ron Padgett (the poet who wrote a memoir of his bootlegger dad, Oklahoma Tough), and the mother-and-son combo of Oprah-tapped novelist Billie Letts and Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts. --Tom

YA Wednesday: Maggie Stiefvater's Lament

In this edition of YA Wednesday, we spotlight one of many great books from Flux, the teen fiction imprint that continues to charm and surprise me.

Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception by Maggie Stiefvater
Since it came out last November, Lament has been star-reviewed again and again. In this haunting and original Lament romantic mystery (and debut novel!), Stiefvater injects faerie legend into the everyday life of sixteen-year-old Deirdre Monaghan. She's a talented harpist, but she lacks confidence so badly that every time she's about to perform, she throws up. That is, until Luke, a mysterious stranger (wink), appears backstage and coaxes her into a duet with him--which brings down the house. Luke's sudden appearance coincides with other oddities: Deirdre starts to find four-leaf clovers everywhere. She is stalked by a freckled, impish boy. Her grandmother becomes strangely protective and makes her wear a weird old iron ring. As Deirdre gets to know Luke, she discovers that she's a cloverhand; in other words, she can see fairies. And they're everywhere. And they're drawn to her. And she's a threat to the Faerie Queen. What starts as a story of a girl hanging out with a forbidden, older guy turns into a full-on thriller, with Celtic music and faerie lore woven in. Very cool.

Quick links...
Little Willow
interviewed Meg Cabot about the end of the Princess Diaries and other upcoming books.

The Edgars, the Mystery Writers of America's annual awards, announced their nominees in books for young adults:
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo
Paper Towns by John Green
Getting the Girl by Susan Juby
Torn to Pieces by Margot McDonnell
(thanks, bookshelves of doom)

Vibes Young Adult (and Kids) Book Central reviewed Vibes, by Amy Kathleen Ryan, a book from 2008 that I loved but somehow never wrote about. Ryan finds a clever way to show the time in a girl's life when she realizes that she's not the center of the universe. And there are some very funny bits about her protagonist Christi's new age school, "Journeys."  

Kid-book-only Fuse#8 adds a little YA to her roundup of publisher's presentations at the New York Public Library, including Candlewick's Swim the Fly, Toby Alone, and Sophomore Switch:

"I don't generally pay much attention to anything aside from children's literature, but when I heard the description of Sophomore Switch by Abigail McDonald I could only describe it one way: Candlewick Chicklit. Which is fun to say."

The Bush sisters offer advice to Sasha and Malia, the next generation of White House YA.


(image from Jezebel)

What I'm reading this week...
Nothing. I'm oddly between books. Hmmm. What to start next... Eternal or The Fetch?--Heidi

A 2008 Year's Best from the Amazon SF/F Top 10's J.M. McDermott

Back in February 2008, I wrote about J.M. McDermott's debut novel, Last Dragon, saying in part, "I really loved this novel because it reads like fantasy for adults, because it contains wonderful invention to it, such as its take on golems, and because it is extraordinarily like looking in on an alien place–something we don’t get much in fantasy. We tend to get echoes or reflections that while they may be entertaining, may indeed be deep, still seem familiar. Familiar is good sometimes, but the strange is also something fantasy readers look for, I think, and Last Dragon delivers that. (Not to mention, that it’s a very interesting take on swords-and-sorcery.)" Nothing during the year dislodged it from my imagination, and it made Amazon's list of the top 10 science fiction/fantasy books of 2008.

I've been asking writers on that top 10 to submit their own best-of list. Here's McDermott's, with the caveat that two books I co-edited appear on his list. Amazon preferred that I leave them in the list rather than alter McDermott's view of the year in review.

Last dragon

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