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February 2009

The Battle Begins: Korda Vs. Kakutani on The Kindly Ones

0061353450.01._MZZZZZZZ_ As I mentioned in Old Media Monday, Michiko Kakutani got in the first word on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, the French phenomenon written by an American and now translated into English and due out on March 3. It was a nasty one: "The novel’s gushing fans ... seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness." But this week, in The Daily Beast, cosmopolitan editor and author Michael Korda (he read the book in the original French) strikes back with a gusher of a review, comparing Littell, in his ambition and his success in writing the Great European Novel, to Melville and Dostoyevsky:

I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!—you will be upset, disturbed, revolted, and deeply challenged. Dr. Max Aue is weirdly, distressingly, horribly fascinating, he takes us in excruciating detail to Auschwitz, to the killing grounds of East Europe, to Stalingrad under siege, to Hitler’s bunker, to every strange, distorted, Breughelesque, grotesque and terrifying level of the Third Reich, without ever, for one moment, giving us a chance to feel superior to these people.

It's not a direct riposte to Kakutani (although the headline makes it one), but that "if you have any taste at all" line strikes pretty close to the heart.

As I also mentioned on Monday, I'm about 150 pages (out of almost 1000) into The Kindly Ones. I have to put it aside for a while for other reading (whatever that says about my kind of taste), but I'm going to get back to it, because so far I'm a lot closer to Korda's side of this than Kakutani's. The events described are horribly grim, but told with a riveting restraint. Perhaps Dr. Aue goes off the rails later on--and the novel with him--but so far I'm buying it. Not that I'm the final word on the subject, but I'll let you know what I think when I read further.

0812971280.01._MZZZZZZZ_ Meanwhile, speaking of Kakutani's pre-publication pans and of The Daily Beast, they are also featuring this week four letters from Norman Mailer's voluminous and pugnacious archives, the last of which a complaint from 2003 to New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger about their lead reviewer's penchant for savaging books ahead of publication date:

Over the last ten years, Michiko Kakutani has reviewed every one of my books published in that period. In order, they were Oswald’s Tale, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, The Gospel According to the Son, The Time of Our Time, and The Spooky Art. All five were given bad reviews (The Spooky Art perhaps the least awful), but three of those five could make the claim that the ugliest review all received came from Kakutani. What underlined the procedure and could give it a willful subtext was that four of those five reviews came out a week to two weeks ahead of publication. Michiko was first with the worst. One of the basic tricks in book criticism is to get out early if you really detest a book. Still, four out of five! Kakutani was abusing her privilege.


Graphic Novel Friday: Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings (The Prisoner Syndrome)

It's still winter here in north Florida, with temperatures dropping as low as 20F, but there are hints of spring, too. Early-blooming magnolias. Days when the sear of blue sky is accompanied by weather so perfect you can almost smell the spring to come, with out-door barbecues, a profusion of azaleas, and a thickness of pollen that you don't mind because the air is so clean otherwise.

Which is all another way of saying that Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings: The Prisoner Syndrome is a spring book released on the cusp of the end of winter. It's breezy, delightful, makes the heart glad, and has nothing much more on its mind than drinking in everything around it. (Despite the slightly ominous, tongue-in-cheek cover...)


Continue reading "Graphic Novel Friday: Lewis Trondheim's Little Nothings (The Prisoner Syndrome)" »

Translated!: Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction

In his introduction to the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (out today from Dalkey Archive Press), editor Álvaro Uribe opens with a defense of the short story as a form to be reckoned with in his home country:


"It is often said, without burden of further proof, that Mexico is a country of poets. One could say with equal veracity--and equal neglect of our estimable novelists, essayists, chroniclers, and playwrights--that Mexico is a country of short story writers.

Since the renaissance of the short story in Western literature during the nineteenth century--due in large part to Edgar Allen Poe's imaginative rigor, Guy de Maupassant's versatility, and Anton Chekhov's subtle psychology--there has scarcely been a Mexican writer of importance who did not explore, and in certain cases even broaden, the formal and discursive possibilities of a literary genre that only the misinformed or malevolent consider minor."

This extraordinary anthology of short stories, all written by Mexican authors born since 1945, came about as part of a two-way exchange through the NEA's International Literary Exchange program. Its companion publication, an anthology of U.S. short fiction entitled Lo que cuenta el vecino (What the Neighbor Says), was published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2008.

It represents an important cultural exchange, at least for U.S. readers. Even as Mexican culture has become more a part of our everyday lives here in the U.S., most of us probably have not read these influential editors, translators, columnists, and professors, even though they are the most prominent and award-winning authors of the Mexican literary scene. Why? Because many of these writers, and most of these stories, have never appeared in English before.

Uribe picked the authors (narrowing down from a field of 50), and then the authors chose the stories they thought best represented their style or voice. Authors include: Vivian Abenshushan, Álvaro Enrigue, Eduardo Antonio Parra, Cristina Rivera-Garza, Guillermo Fadanelli, Jorge F. Hernández, Ana García Bergua, Rosa Beltrán, Enrique Serna, Juan Villoro, Fabio Morábito, Francisco Hinojosa, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, Hernán Lara Zavala, and Héctor Manjarrez.

Lo-que-cuenta-el-vecino These are roughly the contemporaries of Robert Olen Butler, Tobias Wolff, Tim O'Brien, Ron Hansen, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward P. Jones, Jayne Anne Philipps, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Susan Minot, Lorrie Moore, Jill McCorkle, Jonathan Lethem and Sherman Alexie--the U.S. authors included in the bilingual U.S. fiction anthology.

There are many reasons to be excited about this anthology, but the most immediately apparent--which you see as soon as you open it--is that it is bilingual. A BILINGUAL book of fiction. You see this with translated poetry, but almost never with translated fiction. This is such a rarity that when I first got the book I walked around showing everyone. "Look," I'd say. And they'd flip through it like you do with a book of prose-filled pages. "No, look at the two pages."


"One of the many things this sort of facing-pages layout makes you realize is how palpably different Spanish and English really are," said Martin Riker, Associate Director for Dalkey, when I asked him about the experience of putting the book together. "Just the idea that you have a lot more words in one language than in the other to say the same thing (essentially) is interesting, and interesting to visualize on the page."

This is the second NEA exchange with Mexico (the first was a bilingual poetry project in 2006 with two publications, Connecting Lines and Líneas Conectadas). The NEA used that model to support publication of Dalkey's 2008 anthology, Contemporary Russian Poetry. It was also bilingual, with facing pages of English and Cyrillic. The NEA has more poetry exchanges in the works: Modern Poetry of Pakistan is coming out this July (Eastern Washington University Press), and they're planning a future poetry exchange with China. Let's hope for more fiction, too.--Heidi

Netherland Wins PEN/Faulkner

Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which I think easily qualifies as the breakout literary novel of 2008 (non-Oprah pick division), captured its first big prize today, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. We should put up an Awards Glossary or something, but here's the skinny on the PEN/Faulkner: it's self-described as the "largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the United States," with $15,000 for the winner. It's designed as an authors' award: it was established by the international writers organization, and books can be submitted by their authors, not by publishers as is often the case with big prizes.

Like the Pulitzers, the next big award on the calendar, the finalists aren't announced beforehand, but they each receive $5,000 prizes and are considered award-winners in their own right, kind of like the Newbery Honor winners. Here's the full list:

A lot of in-house favorites on that list: Netherland (#15), Ms. Hempel (#95), Lush Life (#18), and Serena (#7) were all in our 2008 editors' top 100.

You can see our list of previous PEN/Faulkner winners and finalists: In its 23 years, Philip Roth has won it three times, and Ha Jin and E.L. Doctorow twice each. --Tom

Alan Moore Beyond Watchmen: Tom Strong

Last week, in the shadow of the looming cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, I turned a spotlight onto one of his lesser-known works, Top Ten. In the late 1990s, Alan Moore began his own comics line, The ABC Universe, and from it spun some of his most personal and literary work to date. I enjoyed revisiting the ABC Universe so much that I decided to settle in and re-read another of my favorites this week: Tom Strong.


The disarming nature of the Tom Strong series begins at its name, especially when coupled with the image of its titular hero. Tom Strong is as broad-shouldered and barrel-chested as Superman, but without the cape and goofy tights. Put plainly: Tom looks strong, but unlike Superman, Tom is no alien. Yet his origin begins, like so many heroes, with the death of his parents.

At the turn of the 20th century, Tom is orphaned on the strange island of Attabar Teru. Inheriting his scientist-father's experiments, Strong is the archetypal scientist/adventurer, mixing aspects of Tarzan and Doc Savage (especially the latter; note the same number of letters in their names, as well as adjectives for surnames). This throwback characterization is aided by Strong’s ingestion of the “goloka root,” which is revealed by the island natives to be an edible fountain of youth. While a large conceit, the device allows Moore to play heavily with nostalgia, as Tom battles evil in the present day, while recollecting villains and faux Silver Age team-ups through a century's worth of flashbacks. It’s also a gentle elbow nudging to the Peter Pan nature of comic heroes who never age despite decades of publishing.


Chris Sprouse, the stellar artist and co-creator, uses his bright, clean work to bring the Strong cast of characters to life. Each character is unique in the wide-open, ever-expanding Strong mythology—especially daughter Tesla, whose features are a mixture of both the open, everyman look of Tom and the regal, sharp features of Tom's wife Dhalua.  Sprouse also has a knack for bizarre villains, and has ample room to develop all the giant, killer ants, outer-space vampires, Aztec snake-gods, and busty Nazis.  The world of Tom Strong grows so large that the stories sprawl into two spin-off series, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Terra Obscura, both worthwhile for fans.


In Tom Strong Books 3 and 4, though, Sprouse and Moore really come into their own, revealing intricate plots that the previous books deceptively and quietly built.  Villains return and new heroes are introduced, including one of my favorites, Svetlana X, the female Russian counterpart to Tom. Svetlana is a cheery, hulking sexpot, but to Moore’s credit, she’s never used as a romantic foil for Tom. In fact, much unlike the anti-heroes Strong’s appearance is modeled after, his family is the heart of the series. “Let her make her mistakes, Tom," Dhalua soothes as her husband worries over Tesla’s strange new boyfriend. “Just like we made ours.”


In later volumes, both Moore and Sprouse break from storytelling, but accomplished writers like Ed Brubaker, Geoff Johns, Michael Moorcock, and Brian K. Vaughan take over the scripting duties. It’s still high-class material, but the adventures are centerstage rather than the characters, and it isn’t until Moore and Sprouse’s return in the final chapter of Book 6 that the lifeblood pumps again. In typical Moore fashion, not much can be said about the apocalyptic final chapter of Tom Strong. It’s too rewarding to give away the neatly-tied threads, Top 10 character cameos, and, yes, big twist—except to say that it is not a stand-alone chapter. In fact, it serves as a coda to Moore’s ABC crown jewel: Promethea, which must be read to grasp the context of Tom Strong’s winning finale.  It's the least cynical work Moore has written to date, and its infectious sense of adventure and family values are most surprising.  (More on the enigmatic Promethea next week as we wrap up our "Alan Moore Beyond Watchmen" feature.)

My Afternoon with the Kindle 2

Kindle2_bookshelf People starting getting their Kindle 2s yesterday, and the first media reviews ran yesterday too, so I'm hardly the first to report in, but I did get to spend an afternoon with the little machine a little while ago, and here are my first impressions, for what they're worth. (And you should be reminded that they may or may not be worth much to you, since I am, after all, employed by the people who make the Kindle, although I haven't had anything to do with its development. And further disclosure: I'm am at best a medium-adopter, and I don't yet have a Kindle of my own. For now, I'm sticking to the old pulped-wood books--even if that means throwing 15 or so--including all 1,000 pages of The Kindly Ones!--in my bag for a week's vacation, like I did last week.) For some other early views, check out David Pogue in the New York Times ("The Kindle: Good Before, Better Now"), John Biggs on CrunchGear ("10 Reasons to buy a Kindle 2 ... and 10 reasons not to": I love reason 7 on the second list: "Flight attendants will tell you to turn it off on take off and landing. You can't explain that it’s epaper and uses no current. You just can't. It's like explaining heaven to bears."), and, to really get an inside look, iFixit, where they got out their little screwdrivers and took the whole thing apart.

When I took the first Kindle home for a test run a little over a year ago, before it was announced to the world, it was a mystery: the first time Amazon had made a product of our own, and an experiment in a field--the e-book reader--that had been coming for so long that it was starting to seem like it might never get here. When I tried out the Kindle 2 (for an afternoon in a conference room this time), it was a different story. The Kindle has caught on, even, I think, beyond the expectations of the people who made it, and the question is no longer whether people will ever read e-books, but how will they read them. Using the first Kindle was almost a philosophical moment (what is it like to read a book on a machine?). Using the second (unless you've never tried the first!) is more practical (hmm--what's new this time?).

So what is new?

  • The first thing you'll notice about the new Kindle is that it's slim and smooth. The first thing everyone remarked on about the first Kindle was its chunky, angular body, which looked a little like someone had gotten careless with a cheese slicer.  The Kindle 2 is 0.36" thick, half the thickness of Kindle 1 (at its chunkiest), and has curves and tapers where Kindle 1 had lines and angles. As CrunchGear says, it could actually slice cheese itself. (The weight's about the same: the Kindle may have slimmed down, but it's all muscle now.)
  • The first thing you may have noticed after you picked up the old Kindle was--oops--you turned the page by mistake. The Next Page and Back Page buttons, designed to make turning pages easy, made it so easy that it was hard not to turn them, until you learned how to hold the device. The new buttons are in roughly the same places on the sides of the Kindle 2, but they are designed so you have to press the inside of the buttons, not the edges, so you're not likely to do so by mistake.
  • The new Kindle has replaced the old little scroll wheel that moved you up and down the links on a page with a "5-way button" (four directions and pressing it to click). There's a sacrifice in speed (the old wheel could move pretty fast) for the advantage of two dimensions (you can move both up and down and across now), which, for one thing, makes it a lot easier to select text for making notes or looking up.
  • The menu button is now on the side, rather than something you have to click on the screen, which is a nice plus.
  • The eInk screen is the same size as before, with a slight improvement in clarity thanks to a more detailed grayscale.
  • Inside the Kindle, there are two big changes. One you might expect, spoiled as were are by the bounty of Moore's law (although it's still impressive): the old Kindle could hold "over 200 books," while the new one can pack in "over 1,500" (which is starting to sound like an actual library). Either books have gotten smaller, or the Kindle's memory has gotten bigger.
  • The other big inside change could be a game-changer for some people--I'm curious to see whether it turns out to be. There's a new "Text-to-Speech" feature that can read every book (and blog and newspaper and magazine) on your Kindle on the fly. Switch it on, and it will start reading from whatever page you're on--kind of like if the lady on your GPS could tell you how to get to Staten Island and read Netherland to you as you drove. How does it sound? Not bad--it's a lot more fluent than you might expect--but not perfect. The pronunciation of individual words and the pauses for commas and periods are surprisingly smooth for the most part, but nevertheless, rather than the plummy British tones of, say, Jim Dale, there's still a strong, recognizable accent from somewhere around the moon Triton. Whether you'd get used to that or driven crazy over time, I'm not sure, but the hands-free potential for reading your books any way you please is very high. (And just like the adjustable font size, you can set the voice to read as a woman or a man, and to read more slowly or quickly than the normal speed (or as I came to call those settings, on Quaaludes or amphetamines)).
  • But what may be the biggest change between this year and last is available to Kindle 1 owners too: the number of books on the Kindle has more than doubled, from around 100,000 at launch a year ago to over 240,000 (and growing) now. An ebook reader is only as good as the ebooks you can read. Not everything I searched for was there, but with over 90% of the New York Times bestsellers available, the gap between what you want to read on the Kindle and what you can read is narrowing every day.

Those are the main differences I could see between K1 and K2, but the biggest difference is still between K and what came before. There were I think four elements to what made Kindle work well from the beginning: the quiet, no-glare eInk screen (which it shares with some other e-readers), the storage (which lets you take a year's worth of reading wherever you go), the selection (see above), and the constant (and free!) wireless connection (which lets you zip a book to your machine in about 15 seconds from almost anywhere in the country). Those are the real game-changers, and they are the things, elegant new package and audio capabilities aside, that will still wow someone who's never picked up a Kindle before. --Tom

P.S. What did I read this time? Last time I ordered Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. This time, having read so much about Donald E. Westlake, and especially his alter ego Richard Stark, after his death in December, I decided to order one of his recent Richard Stark/Parker novels, Nobody Runs Forever. Needless to say, Kindle fans and Parker fans, I had the book in 15 seconds, and about 15 seconds later Parker had killed his first man, a stranger at an underworld poker game who, it turned out, was wearing a wire.

YA Wednesday: The Cowboy (and Cowgirl!) Edition

I grew up on a small ranch, and I groused pretty much every time I had to get up at dawn to move the cows (my dad will attest to this). Now, of course, I love stories about ranches. And cattle drives. And kids bonding with animals, testing their mettle, connecting with nature... everything that comes along with a good novel about cows. So, I have been pretty giddy about the recent streak of cowboy books showing up at my house. All of them have something different to offer fans of the coming-of-age western, and each young character has a distinct voice. (These books are actually for ages 10 and up. So... today we're YYA.)


Lifting the Sky kicks off our list with two cowgirls. Blue is a 12-year-old girl with a wandering ranch-hand mom and an ability to see "lights" around people and animals, but she doesn't think of herself as a rancher.

"As for me, I was no cowgirl like my mom. I was okay on a horse and pretty good at helping to round up the cattle or to check on the cows and calves, and I could even fix fences if they didn't need to be stretched. But there were some things, like branding, that I absolutely, totally hated. I shied away when it came time for weaning the calves and sending them away from their mamas. Mam always said I was overly sensitive and should just get over it. Easy for her to say. Sometimes I figured being overly sensitive was the worst possible trait one could have. Especially if you lived on a ranch."

It soon becomes clear that her kind of sensitivity is a valuable skill at Far Canyon Ranch. Blue nurses two bum calves back to health, and takes in a lame antelope, which leads her to some surprising discoveries. Author Mackie D'Arge lives on a ranch on the Wind River Reservation, and she uses her first-hand knowledge to create realistic scenes of ranch life and to depict the austerity and natural beauty of Western Wyoming.

In Bull Rider, Cam faces the test of his young manhood when his older brother Ben returns from Iraq seriously injured. Before all this happened, he would rather hang out in town (Salt Lick, Nevada) and perfect his skateboarding skills than ride a bull. Ben was the bull rider in the family, after all. Cam takes his first ride as a dare, with his brother watching. It doesn't go so well (he blacks out), but it does give him the itch to ride:

"I sat on the fence and tried to act cool, like blacking out on the back of a steer happened to me every day. Meanwhile, Darrell got settled for his ride. He picked the big black Brahma. Andrew pulled the gate clear back and man, that bull shot out. He bucked high and landed four-footed, turned right, and then threw his head back, then ducked it to the left. Darrell went flying off to the side. He hit, bounced to his feet, hopping one, two, three, four. He sprang up the fence like a jack rabbit and landed next to me.

'So, you gonna be a bull rider like your brother?'"

Author Suzanne Morgan Williams has created a compelling story of two brothers and of rural life. It's actually one of the first stories for young readers that I've read about the effects of having a family member serve in Iraq. (And I love the bull riding scenes... you have to love a 1,600-lb bull named Ugly.)

Heart of a Shepherd is another story of a family member who's gone off to war. Brother, "a full-time sixth grader," takes on a lot of the family ranching responsibilities with Grandpa when his dad goes to Iraq. (His four older brothers are away at school, preparing for military careers.) He's a sensitive kid.

"Probably Frank will just tell me something depressing like Half of all the bum lambs die in their first week, and a bunch more don't make it past a month. Just don't get too attached. I know he's right. Nobody fusses about death except me. They always shrug and say "That's life," in exactly the same tone of voice that they say "That's baseball" when I strike out.

The things is, I hate striking out and I hate death. I hate it every time. Nobody teases me when I get all sad, but I see them shake their heads at each other like they're wondering, How am I ever going to be a real rancher? And what else am I going to be? Ranching and soldiering is what men do around here."

In her debut novel, Rosanne Parry has captured the complexities of modern ranch life. She beautifully portrays the values of sensitivity, humility, and hard work that Brother needs to learn to take his proper place on the ranch and in the family.

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones is very different from the other books in this post, but I love it so much I couldn't leave it out. This is an old-west-style adventure tale of Prometheus Jones, an African American wrangler who wins a half-blind horse (which he names "Good Eye") and hooks up with a cattle drive bound for Deadwood. Along the way he makes a few friends:

"I hand the ropes of the steers to the young Indian, but he don't take the braided hemp. He stares at me, then wipes his finger along my cheek and looks to see if I'm painted same as him, only black.

I rub the white paint on his face, and it comes off a faint powder on my fingers.

Ole Woman watches us. "That white paint is good luck to Pawnee scouts," he says. "Don't mess with that."

I smile and nod. The Indian takes the rope and smiles back at me like I'm some traveling-show curiosity."

Author Helen Hemphill was inspired by the autobiography of Nat Love (a real-life African American cowboy) and the late-19th-century pulp westerns of Edward Wheeler. A smart, funny, action-packed book.

Thanks for indulging my love of all things cowboy. I'll close with wise words from real-life cowboy/Vaudevillian Will Rogers:

"Never kick a cow chip on a hot day."--Heidi

Tournament of Books: Brackets Revealed, Office Pools May Begin

Rooster-tee For the fifth year, The Morning News is running one of the best book awards out there, the Tournament of Books, which takes 16 of the most acclaimed novels of the year and pits them, Gladiator- or March Madness-style, in a bracketed, judged tourney that manages to hit pretty much the right balance of seriousness and goofiness appropriate to the whole literary award phenomenon. With a pedigree of having chosen Cloud Atlas, The Accidental, The Road, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as previous winners, and with a judging lineup at least as glamorous as the books under debate (and with the ever-popular Zombie feature, which allows reader favorites that get capriciously bounced in the early rounds to rise from the dead again), the ToB is worth paying close attention to, with the first battle commencing on March 9. (Wagering is expected to begin earlier at Coudal Partners, however.)

In fine NCAA style, there's a full PDF bracket, suitable for printing and tacking on your cubicle wall, that I won't attempt to recreate, but here's the opening round lineup:

Among the later-round judges are Maud Newton, John Hodgman, and defending champ Junot Diaz.

One small detail I dig is those numbers in parentheses next to the titles: pre-tournament seedings "based on books' evaluated reputations." Pretty good calls all 'round, though I'd have given Netherland, which was the one book this year it seemed like everybody felt like they had to read based on reviews and word of mouth, a 1 seed. But that would have broken up the best second-round matchup, pitting perhaps the two most talked-about novels of the year, 2666 and Netherland, which have oh, pretty much nothing in common, against each other. Maud Newton has the enviable/unenviable task of making the call there.

The top first-round matchup has to be The Northern Clemency (our own semi-controversial pick for Best Book of 2008) and The Lazarus Project (which also made our year-end top 10), but I also like the looks of Home vs. My Revolutions--I liked both of them a lot, but I might go with Hari Kunzru's underdog, which in its quiet way (though not as aggressively quiet as Home) was one of the best books I read all year.

Also, t-shirts are available. --Tom

Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest: An Exclusive Excerpt

Fresh off of the triumphant conclusion to her duology The Orphan's Tales, World Fantasy Award finalist Catherynne M. Valente returns with Palimpsest, which is getting blurbed by everyone from Warren Ellis to Elizabeth Bear. Award-winning author Daniel Abraham writes that "Catherynne Valente has once again proved her mastery of the fantastic. Full to the brim with beautiful images and gorgeous prose, Palimpsest belongs on the same shelf with Calvino's Invisible Cities and Winterson's The Passion. Valente is writing the smartest, gentlest, deepest work in the field, and she's good enough to do it. I remain in awe."

What's it about?

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse--a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important--a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life--and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

Amazon's pleased to present an exclusive, what Valente calls "a deleted snippet related to the large-scale war waged between factions in Palimpsest." Also check out the story that served as the inspiration for the novel.

Continue reading "Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest: An Exclusive Excerpt" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times

  • Sunday book review cover: Carl Hiaasen on Fool's Paradise by Steven Gaines: "Gaines evidently spent many nights hanging with the young, beautiful and clueless. Shockingly, they take lots of drugs and have lots of stoned sex and then wonder what it all means. They are walking, talking clichés in a town that is ebulliently cliché, but it doesn’t mean there’s not an occasional glimmer of insight."
  • Kakutani on The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell: "The novel’s gushing fans ... seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, 'The Kindly Ones' ... is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies. Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis's 'American Psycho,' after repeated viewings of 'The Night Porter' and 'The Damned.'” [Yowch! I have to say I've read the first 150 pages or so, and thought it was very good so far, although to that point it's a relatively restrained, if grim, story, with little sign of the Ellis/de Sade side of things. We'll see...]
  • Dwight Garner on Nine Lives by Dan Baum: "Criticism, H. L. Mencken said, is 'prejudice made plausible.' That’s why, reading the first 50 pages of Dan Baum’s new book about Katrina and New Orleans, I tried to puzzle out exactly what I disliked about it. I wanted my eventual pan of 'Nine Lives' to make fine distinctions, to be 99.4 percent airtight.... Silly me. Because at about Page 65, something very real clicks in 'Nine Lives.' The small, stray, unobtrusive details that Mr. Baum has been planting along the way begin coming together and paying off, like a slot machine that’s begun to glow and vibrate. By the final third of 'Nine Lives,' as the water begins pouring into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, I was weeping like an idiot in the coffee shop where I was reading." On Sunday, Thomas Mallon was won over too: "People in 'Nine Lives' sometimes use the phrase 'You feel me?' the way other people say 'You understand?' If Baum had employed these words as the last line of his book, as a question about everything he’s told us, the answer would be a firm, appreciative yes."
  • Roxana Robinson on The Good Parents by Joan London: "London’s dark and lovely work is both a novel of ideas and one of emotions. Here are dangerous currents that pulse beyond control, as well as the great intellectual movements that shape our lives. London’s vision, finally, is compassionate. Parents are not held accountable forever; tolerance and wisdom illuminate the landscape; generations learn from each other. But the mystery of enthrallment only deepens, irradiated by London’s gorgeous prose." [She also compares London to my dear, sainted Shirley Hazzard: I gotta get a copy of this one.]

Washington Post:

  • Yardley on Flannery by Brad Gooch: "No doubt O'Connor, who delighted in giving her characters unusual if not outlandish names such as Lucynell Crater, Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater, would be tickled to know that the author of her first full-scale biography is named Brad Gooch. A professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, he has done an earnest, respectful but mercifully not hagiographic job.... Whether Gooch's conscientious, respectful biography will bring new readers to her work is doubtful, since literary biographies rarely sell as well as their authors and publishers wish, but readers who already know that work will be glad to have it."
  • Annette Gordon-Reed on Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss: "If you drop the name Clarence King to almost any group of Americans today, it is unlikely they will have heard of him. This was not always so. During the final decades of the 19th century, King strode across the national scene as the scion of a prominent family and a Yale-trained geologist who mapped the American West.... But there was another side to King that neither the public nor his glittering friends knew, a side that Martha A. Sandweiss explores with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research in 'Passing Strange.' .... It would be hard to imagine a man more 'white,' meaning a man who was more thoroughly steeped in the privileges available only to whites of his class during the Gilded Age. But he was also secretly married to Ada Copeland, a black woman who had been born a slave in Georgia. Even more astounding, she knew nothing of his life as Clarence King."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Wendy Smith on Baum's Nine Lives: "Dan Baum's extraordinary book reads more like fiction than journalism. Indeed, despite its brevity, 'Nine Lives' resembles a vast Victorian novel in its many-sided evocation of an entire world -- worlds, actually, because the New Orleans that Baum lovingly conjures belongs to people rooted in neighborhoods with strong traditions, each one a universe in itself."

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