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March 2009

Omni Daily News

The winner, and still champeen: In the finals, the Tournament of Books turns into a democracy (or maybe an oligarchy) rather than a dictatorship, with all the judges weighing in. Nearly everyone liked both finalists--as more than one pointed out, A Mercy and City of Refuge stand as harrowing bookends to American history--but Toni Morrison wins on points. Junot Diaz sums it up: "In boxing when it’s a tie they always give it to the champ and that’s what I did."

Do not avoid: In Manhattan? Do you find that constraints add to your vigor? Visit Oulipo in NY, April 1-4. (This squib has no "e'.) [Via Lit. Saloon]

Still running: The WSJ talks to John L. Parker Jr., whose cult running novel, Once a Runner, sold out of his car at races for years after he self-published it in 1978, is finally coming out in hardcover.

Dead soul: Happy 200th birthday today, Nikolai Gogol! The Guardian reports the anniversary is one more reason for Russia and Ukraine to argue.


Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Edmund White on Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower: "Every one of the stories in 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned' is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-­raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century, even about a cheerful, insouciant pedophile. His range is wide and his language impeccable, never strained or fussy. His grasp of human psychology is fresh and un-Freudianizing.... I once wondered why Surrealism never really caught on as a literary strategy in America. Wells Tower makes me think that nothing bizarre someone might dream up could ever be as strange as American life as we live it. The 'beyond' that the Surrealists talked about so much, the au-delà, is America itself."
  • Rich Cohen on Good Book by David Plotz: "This is me as Seinfeld doing the Bible, and I can go on like this forever, but won’t — partly because there might actually be a Yahweh and this is exactly the kind of stuff he’ll punish first, and partly because it’s been done better and more thoroughly than can ever be done by me in 'Good Book,' in which David Plotz, the editor of Slate, reads the Hebrew Bible book by book, chapter by chapter, riffing as he goes. It’s CliffsNotes for Scripture — screenplay by Plotz, story by God — which is by turns entertaining, serious, shallow, profound, literal-minded, cute, ingratiating, hilarious."
  • Bill Scheft on My Booky Wook by Russell Brand: "This chronicle of all his notorious, though mostly unseen, moments onstage and on British TV seems at times more like a closing argument at a competency hearing than a memoir. Brand withholds nothing. He drinks. He smokes. He scores. He dope-fiends. And he regrets nothing except those incidents of depravity he may have forgotten. The only thing edit­ed out is remorse. If 'rollicking' means 'wildly uneven,' then his story is indeed rollicking. And that’s the most infuriating thing of all. The bloke can write.... Sadly, when he’s got time and space to kill, he’d rather be naughty."
  • Garner on Land of the Lost Souls by Cadillac Man: "Cadillac Man’s story, and maybe all homeless stories, are surprisingly similar to war memoirs or novels written from the perspective of the grunt. The trials are similar: the exposure to the elements, the lack of sleep, the stockpiling of weapons, the constant threat of physical harm, the lack of status, the strangers with whom you must quickly learn to bond and the presence of death and illness as everyday sights.The difference? The homeless usually aren’t sure, exactly, who or what the enemy is. They fear that it is themselves."
  • Alison Bechdel on A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century: A Memoir by Jane Vandenburgh [Anyone who has read Bechdel's brilliantly bookish memoir, Fun Home, will know what an ideal candidate she is to do what is likely the Times's first graphic book review]:


Washington Post:

  • Charles on Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly: "To catch the spirit of Elizabeth Kelly's first novel, you've got to scream the title in hysterical fury: 'Apologize, Apologize!' The subject of all that chiding is long-suffering Collie Flanagan, the only sane member of a wealthy family of alcoholics, Marxists, playboys, media barons and pigeon racers. As described in Kelly's deliciously witty prose, these are people you can't imagine living with, but can't resist reading about.... If her novel as a whole is somewhat lumpy and poorly paced, its parts are splendid."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Richard Rayner on long-overdue reprints of Patrick White's Voss (" White writes beautifully, precisely, and 'Voss' is a heroic, brilliant novel.") and The Vivisector ("The impressionistic, painterly quality of White's prose is to the fore in 'The Vivisector,' a rambling narrative with eye-peeling power, and perhaps the most convincing of all fictional attempts to capture the magic-lantern sensibility of a great visual artist.").
  • Jon Wiener on Underground by Mark Rudd: "Mark Rudd is the guy from the Weather Underground who is not Bill Ayers. Both were leaders of the group that worked for the violent overthrow of the United States government in the 1970s, but while Ayers remains unapologetic, Rudd is full of regrets."

Wall Street Journal:

  • Stefan Kanfer, however, is not swayed by Rudd's Underground: "A series of rationales for the autobiographer's toxic behavior as a young man, followed by one of the most unconvincing mea culpas since Bernie Madoff turned himself in.... The real value of 'Underground' is not its feeble repentance or its sham modesty. ('My part in the destruction of the Weather Underground was actually very small.') Mr. Rudd's essential contribution is his self-portrait as a youth who persuaded others to wreck rather than create -- and his snapshots of like-minded contemporaries."

Globe and Mail:

  • Cynthia McDonald on The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson: "The best thing about this novel — and there are so many good things — is that it doesn't discount the wan little definition of love offered up at so many Christian weddings via Paul's letter to the Corinthians. To Jacobson, love is still patient, still kind, still bears all things. It's just so much else besides: complicated, funny, cruel, sick and always worth one's while. Much like this wickedly terrific book."
  • Rex Murphy on Shakedown by Ezra Levant: "Now, some people do not like Levant's style. They say he is too aggressive, too noisy and assertive, that he courts controversy and publicity. They should read Shakedown, and they will quickly realize that anyone less 'aggressive' or 'noisy' would have long ago been suffocated by the remorseless, inequitable, taxpayer-funded, bureaucratic grinding of Canada's human rights tribunals and commissions.... [W]e should be grateful for his effort. Support him, too. Buy the book."
  • Annabel Lyon on Don't Cry by Mary Gaitskill: "Short story fans like things short, so here's the skinny: Buy this book."

The Guardian:

The New Yorker:

  • Anthony Gottlieb on The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh: "The publishers of 'The House of Wittgenstein' compare the 'novelistic richness' of its style to Thomas Mann’s first novel, 'Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family,' which was published in 1901. In fact, there are more than stylistic similarities between the Wittgensteins of Vienna and Mann’s invented north-German merchant dynasty. In Mann’s novel, the vitality and the solid businesslike virtues of the Buddenbrook family are sapped by introspection, homosexuality, loss of interest in commerce, overindulgence in art, and illness. If Karl Wittgenstein ever read it, he must have nodded in recognition."


Omni Daily News

Down to the wire: The penultimate day of March Madness (for Books) moves Toni Morrison's A Mercy into the finals to compete against Tom Piazza's City of Refuge; over at Audible, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will go head-to-head with Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. What's your money on?

There is an anniversary for everything, apparently: Pen & pencil nerds, rejoice: today marks the 151st anniversary of the pencil eraser. Now, can somebody fill me in on the history of the Pink Pearl? [via BoingBoing]

The unsinkable Suze Orman: She's one squeaky (squawky?) wheel, but Suze Orman has always been right on the money--today's profile in Portfolio notes (among other no-holds-barred details) that "the core message of her philosophy was eerily prescient. For years, she warned that chronic overspending was going to come back and bite consumers in the butt."

Frost gets the cold shoulder: The Daily Beast tips us off to a piece from The Atlantic Monthly noting their initial refusal in 1912 to publish Robert Frost: "'We are sorry that we have no place in The Atlantic Monthly for your vigorous verse.'" (That is, not until 1915, when the same editor agreed to publish Frost's work sight unseen.) --Anne

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

Quick links from around the kid-lit blogosphere:

Maurice Sendak's little-known first book. One of this week's gems from the always-amazing Collecting Children's Books blog: the story behind Atomics for the Millions, a textbook that Maurice Sendak illustrated for $100, for his science teacher at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. Follow the link for more Sendak samples from the book like this one:


(You can pick up a signed first edition for *only* $1,340.96.)

30poets30daysA celebration of children's poetry. GottaBook just announced the first annual 30 Poets/30 Days, to celebrate National Poetry Month. Every day in April, we'll see a previously unpublished poem by a different poet--including former Children's Poet Laureate Jack Prelutsky and some other kid-lit names you might recognize, like Jon Scieszka and Jane Yolen.

"Battle of the (Kids') Books" in Twitter and blog form. We mentioned the upcoming Battle of the (Kids') Books last week. If you don't want to miss out on the action, you can now follow BoB on Twitter and/or read their new blog.

Read with your kids, win a trip to Disney World. RIF--a.k.a. Reading Is Fundamental--is starting its second annual Read with Kids Challenge on April 1, with the goal of five million minutes of reading to kids. (Collectively, that is. Not just by you.) Check out the site for more info and neat stuff like these cute bookmarks:


The Magician's Elephant preview. Neat! Check out a free preview of Kate DiCamillo's upcoming novel, right here from the comfort of this very post:

More than 90 novels, and over 25 million books sold in the U.K. alone. The Times Online interviews Britain's bestselling children's author. (No, it's not J.K. Rowling.) (found via Bookninja)

Praise for Duck! Rabbit!. This very fun book was a featured review in Children's Bookshelf this week.


ImagesMatthew Cordell interview... and then a James Preller interview with Matthew Cordell. Children's Illustration tipped me off to this great interview with illustrator Matthew Cordell (whom you might know from books like Righty & Lefty and The Moon Is La Luna: Silly Rhymes in English and Spanish). Then I noticed Cordell turned around and interviewed writer James Preller--his collaborator on the new Mighty Casey--for their imprint's blog. Love this great Mighty Casey image from the Seven impossible Things interview:



Almost Astronauts: Inspiration for Aspiring Girls This Weekend on Book TV

Almostastro Children's nonfiction author Tanya Lee Stone will be on C-SPAN2's Book TV this weekend to tell the story of the "Mercury 13," a group of accomplished woman pilots who trained to become astronauts in the early 1960s but never made it into space, and the subject of her recent book Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream.

When I first saw the movie and read the book The Right Stuff, back when I was around 12 or 13, I totally geeked out on memorizing the names of the astronauts and the extreme physical tests they had to endure--the isolation tank, the altitude chamber, the Dilbert Dunker (description from Almost Astronauts):

"Above a pool, at the top of a steep ramp, is a metal cockpit. You are loaded down--suited up in full flight gear, helmet, parachute. You climb into the contraption and are buckled in. The door clangs shut. The metal cage then hurtles down the ramp, slams into the pool, flips upside down, sinks to the bottom, and fills with water."
It's amazing to me, then, that I didn't know that a woman, Jerrie Cobb, went through all the same tests, or that 12 other women pilots passed the first round of tests, but never even got the chance to try the Dilbert Dunker. Stone's book tells the whole story, with brief profiles of each of the women and a detailed account of the obstacles that kept them from their dream of space. It's disheartening but inspiring, too. They basically paved the way for Sally Ride and all the astronauts who came after her who just happened to be women.

The program, in which Stone presents the book (which is targeted for readers ages 10 and up) to a group of students at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., airs Saturday at 8:45am and repeats at 9pm, Sunday at 4pm, and Monday at 4am.--Heidi

Everybody's Talking About Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

0374292191.01._MZZZZZZZ_ I've been meaning to do a longish post on Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower's new debut story collection, but life keeps getting in the way. But now I'm under the gun, for two reasons: a) it's becoming the book of the moment, at least if the New York Times is any guide, with a rave from Kakutani this week and a cover rave coming from Edmund White in this Sunday's Book Review (also see Sam Anderson's excellent piece in New York magazine); and, more importantly, b) my wife is going away for a week on Sunday and I've grudgingly agreed to let her take our copy of the book with her. So here's a shorter post than I'd planned, which is probably all to the best.

Speaking of short, here's the micro review I wrote when I put ER,EB in our Seven on the Side list on our Best of March page:

Best Set of Misfits: Bitter, dissolute, and funny, funny, funny: Tower's first story collection bristles with the lonely havoc wreaked by stepdads, carnies, and Vikings.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'd get it any better than that if I had any more words to work with. And speaking of the Best of the Month, I had a tough time making my pick for March. It came down to two story collections, ER,EB and Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry. I actually read them at the same time, alternating a story from each. I thought that would make the comparison easier, but it didn't: my main reaction was, wow, these two can bring it. Both made me laugh and shake my head throughout, both ended with long title stories that stretched their craft in ways I did not come close to expecting. I ended up choosing Don't Cry as my main March pick, and I'm not even sure why I did--it could have gone either way. Gaitskill had a couple stories that didn't work for me, while Tower's were more consistent, but when Gaitskill's at the top of her game, I feel like she is peeling back about 17 layers from the face of humanity.

But now, a month or so later, maybe it's just that everybody's talking about it, but Tower's stories are the ones that are living in my head a little more vibrantly. For one thing, the reason my wife is running off with the book is that I've read this opening paragraph from the first story, "The Brown Coast," to her more than once, because it just keeps getting better:

Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants. He'd come in late, his spine throbbing from the bus ride down, and he had stretched out on the floor with a late dinner of two bricks of saltines. Now cracker bits were all over him--under his bare chest, stuck in the sweaty creases of his elbows and his neck, and the biggest and worst of them, he could feel lodged deep into his buttock crack, like a flint arrowhead somebody had shot in there. Yet, Bob found that he could not fetch out the crumb. He had slept wrong on his arms, and they'd gone numb. He tried to move them, and it was like trying to push a coin with your mind. Waking up for the first time in this empty house, Bob felt the day beginning to settle on him. He shuddered at the cool linoleum against his cheek, and he sensed that not far below, not too far down in the sandy soil, death was reaching up for him.

See? You'd want me to let you take the book too...  And then there's the paragraph that I read aloud at the family dinner table the other night, to a giant guffaw from my nine-year-old:

He watched a mouse walk out from behind the soda machine. It was eating a coupon.

I don't think I need to say anything else, except that Tower pretty much keeps this level of concrete hilarity and fine-tuned (but somehow open-hearted) misery going throughout the entire collection. For your weekend viewing, here is a short animated adaptation of the title story, an outlier in the collection in subject, if not in language or attitude toward life:

Enjoy. --Tom

Operation Storm City: the electric conclusion to a great British kids' series

1210729126880The final installment in the "Guild of Specialists" trilogy, Operation Storm City, pretty much has it all: Secret societies within secret societies. Clever codes using arcane symbols. Swordfights a mile in the air involving arcing bolts of electricity. Zeppelin sabotage. Vengeful Tsarists. Double-crosses inside ancient labyrinths. Prehistoric doomsday devices. Tattooed lips. Horse-mounted Cossack flamethrowers. (Yes, seriously, HORSE-MOUNTED COSSACK FLAMETHROWERS!)

In Britain (where the series was first published, and where the third book is already out), this trilogy has been called "The Da Vinci Code meets Alex Rider." If, like me, you're not familiar with the British Alex Rider books, you can think of it as The Da Vinci Code meets Johnny Quest meets Lara Croft meets Young Indiana Jones meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The story, set in post-WWI India and China, follows teenage sister and brother Becca and Doug as they search for their lost parents--members of the mysterious Honorable Guild of Specialists--while racing against time and an eccentric rogues' gallery trying to track down elusive gyrolabe "gravity devices" and find the legendary Storm City of Ur-Can.

Continue reading "Operation Storm City: the electric conclusion to a great British kids' series" »

Omni Daily News

Books Bracketology:  In Tournament of Books action, reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin chose City of Refuge by Tom Piazza to advance to the finals over E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.  In lieu of nets, what will the champion cut down?

An Homage to Fromage: The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais has won the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year.  Apologies for the sour grapes, but how does Baboon Metaphysics not take home the title?!  (See the long list here)

Sleuth Debut: The TV adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's bestselling series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, hits the Home Box Office screen on Sunday, and the New York Times preview is a bit lukewarm : "The series might seem too sweet for HBO, too NPR, too pledge-week PBS, but it doesn’t feel like a walk through Busch Gardens either."

And Finally: The Guardian has an interesting follow-up piece on the recent revival of Ayn Rand.  I'd recommend reading the entire article, but think the headline says it all:  Atlas Shrugged is absurd but strangely compelling.


Graphic Novel Friday: Waltz with Bashir

Waltz2    Waltz

Ari Folman and David Polonsky's Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story is the companion piece to the movie of the same name. The tale told is of Folman's experiences in Lebanon around the time of the terrible Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres. Carried out in 1982 by Christian militia members as revenge for the death of a leader, these massacres occurred under the eye of occupying Israeli forces in Beirut. Folman's story, as illuminated by Polonsky, highlights not just the tragedy of the situation but the surreal, absurd quality of war, as well as how moments of great beauty can co-exist with moments of utter horror.

As the now much older Folman struggles to remember what happened to him as a soldier in the conflict, the story switches between past and present. Mindlessly shooting out into the darkness from the top of an armored vehicle as they race to a destination brings back echoes of the opening of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Other scenes, like that of a cut-off Israeli soldier finding his way back across enemy lines by way of the sea, have a strong symbolic pull, evocative of Tim O'Brien. Walking through a bombed out airport has the kind of pseudo-science fictional pull of the best of J.G. Ballard's disaster novel. But conversations in the present-day as Folman tries to piece together his fragmented memory contain just as much power, especially interviews with other soldiers. And, as in the movie, Folman and Polonsky include real photographic images of the massacre at the end. (Although there seems to be less of this than in the movie.)

Definite differences between the graphic novel and the movie include re-sequencing of some of the flashbacks. There's also a bit of compression in the storytelling, in that some of the resonant repetitions of moments cannot be sustained in the graphic novel. But perhaps the most striking difference, for me, is how the graphic novel cannot quite pull off the title sequence. The "waltz with Bashir" refers to an extended gun battle that ends when one soldier tries to end the stand-off by going out into the middle of the street and doing a kind of brutal, violent, evasive dance as he shoots at the buildings above him. In the movie this is perhaps the most vivid sequence, brilliantly choreographed. In the graphic novel, the kinetic quality of the scene is largely lost.

On the other hand, a reader can linger on some of the more awe-inspiring moments in Waltzing with Bashir in a way that you can't watching the movie. For a topic so terrible, it might seem strange to use the word "linger," but that sense of strange beauty I mentioned does indeed touch many parts of the story. They even serve to emphasize and underline the horrors documented, as well. Perhaps chief among these is the appearance of a giant floating woman near an Israeli troop transport. It's the kind of surrealism that explains why Folman wanted to use comics and animation to tell his story. Dreams and reality merge in comics in a way they can't in live-action.

Is it essential to own the graphic novel if you've seen the movie? Each reader may have a different answer, but for my part I cherish the book as much as the movie. Both are complex, poignant reminders of the particulars of a specific massacre. But both also document the general banalities, horrors, and strangeness of war.

For video footage and interview, visit the Amazon page for the book.

Heidi's Moonlighting

YA Wednesday fans: just a shout out that our own Heidi Broadhead has also debuted as the BookNerd at Publicola, a new news-and-culture site here in Seattle that's started up to fill the gap left by newsroom cutbacks. (Full disclosure: it's run by a very good friend of mine whose own booknerdism runs heavily toward the Federalist Papers (hence the site's name) and the late '60s NBA.) She'll be posting every Sunday on whatever bookish thing she pleases, beginning with this account of what it was like to go back and read The Second Sex way after it was cool:

I figured I already knew what was in it. I was raised in the wake of said movement: My mom taught me to get a job not a man. She purposefully did not teach me how to cook or sew. She had “the talk” with me (complete with a mail-order kit and pamphlet) when I was 10. I didn’t know if the book would be illuminating (like, oh, I totally get my mom now!) or if I would be completely bored.