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September 2009

Omni Daily Crush: "A New Literary History of America"

In case you're wondering, the perfect gift for someone like me, who loves books but has a house full of them already and a to-read list that's longer than the reading years I have remaining, is a reference book. Most books, like a New Yorker subscription, carry with them the stressful, underlying question, "Lovely, but when am I going to get to read it?" The beauty of a reference book is that you never need to read it. You certainly never need to finish it, and you really never need to begin. The reference book is patient: it waits for you, in all its bulk, for that moment when you might need it, or, better yet, have a spare moment of not-needing, when you can noodle around in it at your leisure, with no responsibility to the usual demands of plot or argument that make poking around in most books an incomplete pleasure.

But there are reference books and there are reference books. A very few, written with personality and style and opinion, are among my favorite books for browsing and even for geekily reading right through from start to finish: David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract, even last year's deliciously useless (at least to me) Perfumes: A Guide. And Harvard's New Literary History of America is aiming for those. It doesn't have the cohesive and idiosyncratic spirit of having been written by one or two people, like the ones I just mentioned, but it does clearly have a guiding philosophy. As a former English grad student and a former encyclopedia editor, I've read (and written) enough reference entries to know that the usual method is to cram lists of names and movements and titles into catch-all essays sucked dry of all style and verve. If you like reading literature, you probably won't like reading most literary reference books.

But editors Werner Sollors and Greil Marcus don't feel the usual burdens of comprehension and responsibility in this history. If they spend four pages on one topic and ignore another of equal historical importance, that's fine. (You'll find Linda Ronstadt in the index, for instance, but not Marilynne Robinson.) They've organized their literary history into a chronological series of cultural moments, and they've strayed far from the usual bounds of capital-L "Literature." The title is telling: it's not a history of American literature, but a literary history of America, which takes everything from the invention of the telephone to the skyscraper to, most notoriously already, the memoirs of Linda Lovelace (as well as usual suspects like Dickinson, Melville, and Bellow) and treats them with the same analytical lens as literature. And in keeping with the pairing of Harvard's Sollors with independent cultural critic Marcus, their contributors are a fresh mix of scholars, novelists, and freelance critics, often in inspired pairings of author and subject.

In the spirit of a true reference book crush, then, here's a sampling of some of the most appealing entries in the table of contents:

And for a take from people who have actually read the book, there's reviews by Wes Davis in the Wall Street Journal, Laura Miller in Salon, and our customer reviewers, one of whom notes that the book's structure was likely inspired by Denis Hollier's New History of French Literature, which looks pretty appealing too. And there's a site for the book itself. --Tom

Recommended for fans of Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film and Marcus's Mystery Train.

Omni Daily News

That's One Speedy Maverick:  Sarah Palin's upcoming memoir, Going Rogue, shot up our rankings yesterday (it's currently #2 in our Top 100) after an updated publication date of November 17 was announced.  Why the change?  According to the AP, the former Alaska Governor penned her autobiography in just four months.  This makes me even more insecure over the fact that it took nearly an hour to write this post.

This Week's James Ellroy Sighting: "Demon Dog" and Omnivoracious favorite James Ellroy explores "James Ellroy's Apocalypse" in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Boogaloo!

No Props for Potter: Yet another member of Bush Administration is publishing a tell-all book, but former speech writer Matt Latimer's claim may be the oddest yet:  The White House thought J.K. Rowling encouraged witchcraft.  Huh?

Moving and Shaking:  Sarah Palin's memoir has the top spot, but John Dufresne's Love Warps the Mind a Little is currently #2 on our Movers and Shakers list thanks to a recent NPR review.

The Rise of the Parasol Protectorate: Gail Carriger's Soulless

Soulless by Gail Carriger features the indomitable Alexia Tarabotti, a woman who is, as the witty ad copy tells us, "is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette." When Alexia kills the vampire, all sorts of unexpected consequences occur--for example, Queen Victoria sends the "loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf" Lord Maccon to look into the matter. I hate to keep quoting the back cover, but Orbit has done an excellent job with it: "With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia is responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?" As you might have guessed by now, Carriger has written a fun cross-genre treat for those who like the novel of manners mixed with both steampunk and supernatural elements. I talked to her recently via email about the novel...


Continue reading "The Rise of the Parasol Protectorate: Gail Carriger's Soulless" »

Omni Daily News

Politics and Prose: Big news yesterday on the political book front as it was announced that former Alaska governor and 2008 vice president candidate Sarah Palin's memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, would be moving up from its scheduled Spring 2010 publication date to November 17, 2009, with a 1.5 million copy print-run.

Steamless in Seattle: BoingBoing likes Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, a new set-in-Seattle steampunk novel that populates a walled-in-after-disaster city with zombies, air pirates, heavily armed refugees, and criminal overlords.

King of the Smallscreen: Stephen King will return to television with an hour-long series adapation of his noir novella, The Colorado Kid.

Moving & Shaking
: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer's The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, one of our editors' picks for the Best Books of September, jumps up to the No. 5 spot on our Movers & Shakers list.


Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers


New York Times:

  • Susann Cokal on Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: "Lovers of Niffenegger’s past work should rejoice. This outing may not be as blindly romantic as 'The Time Traveler’s Wife,' but it is mature, complex and convincing — a dreamy yet visceral tale of loves both familial and erotic, a search for Self in the midst of obsession with an Other. 'Her Fearful Symmetry' is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate [cemetery] itself."
  • Joe Klein on The Clinton Tapes by Taylor Branch: "The rowdy, discursive intellectual brilliance of the man is evident on almost every page, and so is the self-­indulgence, self-pity and self-­destructiveness — the magisterial excessiveness of every sort. Compared with the buttoned-up cool of the Oval Office’s current occupant, Bill Clinton is a one-man carnival — a magician, tightrope walker, juggler, mesmerist, hot-dog-eating contestant and burlesque show. You kind of miss the guy."
  • Garner on The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman: "In 'The Dead Hand' he delivers a readable, many-tentacled account of the decades-long military standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.... What’s particularly valuable about Mr. Hoffman’s book, however, is the skill with which he narrows his focus (and his indefatigable reporting) down to a few essential areas. Thanks to interviews and new documents, he provides the fullest — and quite frankly the most terrifying — account to date of the enormous and covert Soviet biological weapons program, developed in defiance of international treaties at the same time that the Soviets appeared to be earnestly interested in reducing their weapons stockpile.... 'The Dead Hand' is deadly serious, but this story can verge on pitch-black comedy — 'Dr. Strangelove' as updated by the Coen Brothers."
  • Maslin on Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer: "Mr. Krakauer cobbled together his book in a spirit of desperation. Though he set out in search of Mr. Tillman’s whole story, he didn’t find what he was looking for.... 'Where Men Win Glory' keeps readers constantly aware of Mr. Krakauer’s straining. He had some of Mr. Tillman’s journals and the cooperation of Mr. Tillman’s widow, brother and mother.... But he didn’t have enough new, firsthand information to sustain a book."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby: "As usual, Hornby's dialogue between exasperated women and clueless men hits all the right comic notes. The likable slackers who mope through his stories appeal to that stuck and frustrated adolescent in us all. While wicked novelists like Jonathan Franzen or Claire Messud expose our pettiest thoughts and snicker at them, Hornby's gentle satire of arrested development offers a comforting, shame-free sense of recognition. You may want to knock some sense into his Peter Pans, but you also want to give 'em a hug."
  • Anna Mundow on The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott: "With consummate skill and compassion, Stott plunges Daniel the innocent into a serpentine plot that involves spies, philosophers, revolutionaries and scientists. Treasure may be at the heart of Stott's mystery, but fossils and corals are equally precious in this hybrid novel of action and ideas. Like Daniel, the reader emerges from 'The Coral Thief' having had an adventure and an education."

Los Angeles Times:

  • John Freeman on The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: "Because Atwood thinks deeply on these matters, her vision is often bleak. So it's a welcome surprise that her new novel, 'The Year of the Flood,' is a slap-happy romp through the end times. Stuffed with cornball hymns, genetic mutations worthy of Thomas Pynchon (such as the rakuunk, a combined skunk and raccoon) and a pharmaceutical company run amok, it reads like dystopia verging on satire. She may be imagining a world in flames, but she's doing it with a dark cackle."
  • Sonja Bolle on The Georges and the Jewels by Jane Smiley: "'The Georges and the Jewels' bears none of the signs of a literary writer slumming it for the kids -- no condescension, just the keen interest in what makes life tick that animates all of Smiley's fiction, but with a seventh-grade narrator. I have never admired her writing as much as I do in the first of what promises to be a series of books for children."
  • Ben Ehrenreich on Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio: "The problem with 'Desert' is not that its author is European or that he won the Nobel, but that it is a truly dreadful book, a dull and dimly plotted fable based in one of the West's oldest and most self-serving myths, that we are the locus of all corruption and that purity lies outside. What better escape from the beguiling demands of humanity than to strip another of all complexity and will?"

Globe and Mail:

  • Randy Boyagada on The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tenenhaus: "What I miss most from my time in the United States is all the yelling. I lived in the U.S. from 1999 to 2006, a tumultuous period from any political perspective.... More than once in those years, I was at dinner parties where people were standing on chairs yelling at each other until it was time to go home, at which point they would shake hands and return to their corners until next time. The only reason I think you would see someone standing on a chair at a Toronto dinner party is to change a light bulb."
  • Donna Bailey Nurse on Suddenly by Bonnie Burnard: "As Burnard reiterates – repeatedly – Suddenly is not a religious novel, even though the staircase in the Rusano household is as 'wide as that of a church,' and the young Sandra regards her pubescent body as an 'article of faith,' and Jack describes Sandra's pills, and the juice to wash them down, as 'communion.' However, Burnard does exhibit great faith in memories – in stories – as a kind of salvation. In oral or written form, stories keep us alive. She champions vivid, modest portraits, where not much happens, with an emphasis on character and quotidian detail. And as everybody knows, God is in the details."

The Guardian:

  • Geoff Dyer on A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore: "On first reading A Gate at the Stairs, one can become not frustrated, exactly, but impatient with Moore's determinedly lackadaisical way of proceeding. Second time around, when you know what's going to happen, when you give yourself up to the book's unusual and distinctive rhythm, it quivers on the brink of being a masterpiece. That quivering, that slight feeling of uncertainty (like 'candlelight vibrating the room') is entirely appropriate given Moore's hesitant engagement with the demands of a big novel and the protracted gestation of this, her eventual response and solution."
  • Graham Parry on A Gambling Man by Jenny Uglow: "This is panoramic history of a high order. Uglow evokes the tumultuous events of the 1660s, and catches the feel of men and women living at the extremes of danger, pleasure and recklessness..... Yet from first to last it is the king who lives again through these pages, holding the age together, making his own history through calculation, compromise, whim and ingenuity. To understand how Charles learnt the difficult art of kingship, read this book."

The New Yorker:

  • Bad James is back! James Wood on Generosity by Richard Powers: "His novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller. What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings.... Powers’s new book, 'Generosity,' his most schematic and coarse, exaggerates the weaknesses of his better work.... 'Generosity' is a slimmer, hastier, more crowd-pleasing book than anything Powers has yet written. Perhaps it is just a quick folly between more considered works. Still, in insidious ways it diminishes its better predecessors."

Harper's (behind subscription wall):

  • Nicholas Fraser on The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard: "Like the Orwell of 1984, as well as Daniel Defoe and Thomas Hobbes, Ballard was an arch-dystopian, making his debut amid the postwar British scene of cracked Bakelite, chipped teacups, and squadrons of bombers on the flatlands of East Anglia, readied for Armageddon.... He was to prove formidably effective in destroying the last vestiges of the British official morality of cheeriness and stiffened upper lips, and you can still see people reading Ballard in the crowded, ramshackle carriages of the London Underground, absorbing a whiff of catastrophe between the familiar, blandly named tube stations, as their forebears must have done when turning the pages of H. G. Wells’s end-of-civilization fantasies.... When his wife died in 1964, he brought up their three young children by himself. If one envisions Ballard ironing school ties and cooking bangers and mash, these glazed, absent stories set in other worlds acquire miraculous, restorative properties."
  • Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Bite the Hand That Feeds You by Henry Fairlie: "He combined brilliance as a writer with self–destructive profligacy as a man to a degree unusual even among his journalistic contemporaries, and he left behind a wreckage of debts and lawsuits, of broken contracts and hearts—but he left fond memories too. After a first Fairlie cult had flourished in London, a new cult was born in Washington, D.C., where The New Republic offered him a home, eventually in the most literal sense of the word.... This fascinating book allows us to judge how far his admirers were justified. It might also prompt some reflections on the nature of conservatism, of journalism, and of our trade’s equivalent of the poète maudit: the myth of the heroic but doomed scribbler."

Omni Daily News

Prize-winning history: Annette Gordon-Reed wins the 2009 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for The Hemingses of Monticello, which also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2008 and was one of our Top 10 Editors' Pick in History last year [via GalleyCat].

A glimpse at The Petting Zoo: The New York Times revisits Jim Carroll's final days in Manhattan--spent in the Inwood building where he grew up (and which figured large in The Basketball Diaries)--and concludes with a brief excerpt from his novel (expected to be released by Viking in the fall of next year).

Full disclosure: not really news, but... I liked this headline a lot. [Thanks to The Millions.] And, as someone who has lifelong petty preferences about how I like my orange juice, I laughed at the comment from @ Scotland about "bits." (I'm dubious about that packaging. Will it be like Capri Sun?)

Moving & shaking: Last night, while I was watching some of Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns's The National Parks on PBS, I had a vision that books by or about John Muir would be driving our Movers & Shakers this morning. And so it came to pass: Lost in the Yellowstone, John Muir: Nature Writings, and The Wilderness World of John Muir hold the top three slots. It's also a great day for new releases, with Amazon favorite The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind appearing at #6 (thanks to an ABC appearance) and Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou jumping to #7 (driven by a strong review in this weekend's New York Times). Both books release tomorrow. --Anne

William Safire, 1929-2009


The New York Times reports that one of its own, William Safire, the former Nixon aide who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist and a longtime arbiter and celebrant of the English language, died today in Rockville, Md., at the age of 79. Safire followed an unlikely but exuberant career path from college dropout to TV host to PR man to political consultant to White House speechwriter to conservative columnist at the liberal Times to self-tutored lexicographer, the key transition of which may well have been when as a PR man abroad in Moscow he managed to arrange, and photograph (see below), Nixon's famous "kitchen debate" with Khrushchev, which led Nixon to hire him soon after. Working at the White House a decade later, he provided Vice President Spiro Agnew with his most memorable phrase, "the nattering nabobs of negativism."

The Times obit is written strongly enough in the Safire style--in one case he's described as "a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns"--that it makes you wonder if he drafted it himself. There's plenty more Safire on the Times site: you might begin with where he ended, his last opinion column, in 2003, called "Never Retire."

Of his dozens of books, the one that may last the longest combined two of his passions: Safire's Political Dictionary. For the latest edition, published in time for last year's election, he answered some questions from our own Lauren Nemroff. Here's her final question for him: You call this dictionary your "labor of love." How do you feel about passing the baton off to a new editor when it comes time to work on the next edition?

Safire: A political lexicographer gets a secret thrill out of discovering the origin of a phrase that, but for his digging, might disappear into the mists of Newsweek. Sometimes you just stumble across it like one of the princes of Serendip: an example is selling candidates like soap, which never had a demonstrable printed "attestation". But looking for the origin of Oval Office, I stumbled across it in the Times archives: put forward by a supporter of a general for president in 1920. Col. William Proctor, scion of the Ivory Soap family, was the demonstrable coiner. A minor triumph, but mine own.

More important to this work was the result of a "fishhook"--a query placed in my Times Magazine "On Language" column for the coiner of "Social Security is the third rail of American politics--touch it and you die." Henry Hubbard of Newsweek and Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe agreed on the anonymous source: the late Kirk O'Donnell, an aide to Speaker Tip O'Neill, who used it to both journalists in 1984. Whew! The coiner's widow sent me a lovely, sentimental letter of thanks, which I suppose has no place in a dictionary, but I put it in anyway because my name is in this dictionary's title.

I hope the editor of the 2018 edition of this hefty volume is making notes about the election of '08, parsing Barack Obama's speeches ("Fired up! Ready to go!") and Hillary Clinton's debate ripostes and John McCain's adoption of FDR's warm my friends as his salutation. This work, like the language it covers, is great fun and never finished.



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

Quick links from around the kid-lit blogosphere:

"Augmented reality" comes to kid-lit. This hologram-like technology has been popping up in marketing campaigns and most recently baseball cards--so it was only a matter of time before we saw some holographic action in a kids' book. Publishers Weekly has the story, and here's a quick pic of a dragon seemingly roaring out of Drake’s Comprehensive Compendium of Dragonology:



A book about bullying and "inclusion." Twenty by Jenny recommends the book One as a conversation starter about keeping kids from feeling left out. ("Yesterday I was talking with a school librarian friend in her office when a third grade teacher came in requesting a picture book about 'inclusion.' It's only the third week of school, and already a group of children were attempting to exclude other children.")

Levar Burton unloads on Reading Rainbow. E.g.: "These were not the classics. Anyone who could glue paper between two pieces of cardboard and hire a publicist could get a book on that show." (Okay, okay, it's just an Onion spoof--but don't miss "My Living Nightmare Of Encouraging Kids To Read Is Over". Ha!) (via Bookninja)


"Like a kiss from the beyond." That's what Arnold Lobel's daughter is calling The Frogs and Toads All Sang, a new book assembled from private sketches of her late father's famous amphibian duo. Check out an interview with Adrianne Lobel in School Library Journal.

"Guys Read" revamp. Guys Read is a terrific Web site if you're looking for books for boys, and it seems that it's just gotten even more useful with a big redesign. (via Achockablog)

The "Almagor/Flake debate." For serious kid-lit theoreticians and other meta-kid-lit enthusiasts, Read Roger sums up some of the issues behind a debate about race and "didacticism" while talking about the Newbery, Caldecott, and Coretta Scott King Awards along the way.

Visitor for Bear

The E.B. White Read Aloud Awards. Jen Robinson over at PBS Booklights has a great write-up on this award for "terrific books to read aloud"--in the spirit of E.B. White's classics Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. It's fun to see that a bedtime favorite for our 2.5-year-old Silas--A Visitor for Bear--won in the picture book category this year.

A star-studded game of Exquisite Corpse. Educating Alice has all the details on a new online serial, The Exquisite Corpse Adventure. (Zounds, check out the contributors: M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Calef Brown, Susan Cooper, Kate Di Camillo, Timothy Basil Ering, Nikki Grimes, Shannon Hale, Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket, Steven Kellogg, Gregory Maguire, Megan McDonald, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, James Ransome, Jon Scieszka, and Chris Van Dusen.)

Fox in Socks beatboxing. Warning, after watching this video, you may never read Fox in Socks the same way again. (Via 100 Scope Notes, who sagely points out, "If you knew that Dr. Seuss invented the work 'crunk,' then this will seem like a natural combination.")


What Is Ellroy Trying to Tell Me?


In the spirit of Tom's "What's General Petraeus Reading" mystery from earlier today, I submit my own plea for help.

Mark it now: James Ellroy is one of my favorite writers. I chose his latest American Underworld novel, Blood's a Rover as my Best of the Month selection for September, exclaiming, "Ellroy's hipster prose--inimitable for its high style and spectacular energy--snaps and surges through more than 600 pages like black electricity." Overwrought? Maybe. True? Certainly.

So I was naturally thrilled this afternoon when I opened the box containing a signed copy, and even happier to note that it's personally inscribed with a special message meant only for me. But here's the problem: I can't translate. Here's what I think it might say:

To Jon Foro--
Let this book bite tuna.

James Ellroy

Could this be it? Is there an encoded message, the key to a bloody conspiracy with roots in Castro's revolution, or a lost page of the Warren Commission Report? Or is it just something that Ellroy says? (It could be.)

Help me. Here's a larger image. Don't leave me tied, dyed and swept to the side.

Thank you,


Omni Daily News

Something of a slow news day.

Banned Books Week starts tomorrow: Here, some well meaning yet befuddled puppets learn a valuable lesson about the dangers of banning books and the limitation of free speech (from the American Library Association). Banned Books Week runs for one week.

Moving and shaking: Hiroshima No Pika, Toshi Maruki's children's book recounting the horrors of the first atomic attack against Japan, occupies the number one slot. The book was the winner of the 1983 Jane Addams Children's Book Award, which honors titles that promote peace and social justice.