Mum's No Longer the Word on MI5: Chris Rutten of the LA Times reviews Defend the Realm, an in-depth look at the British Security Service by insider Christopher Andrew--a Cambridge scholar and MI5's "official historian" for the better part of the last decade.
Sunday Book Review cover: Christopher Caldwell on Koestler by Michael Scammell: "The biographer Michael Scammell wants to put Koestler’s multifaceted
intelligence back on display and to show that something more than
frivolity or opportunism lay behind his ever-shifting preoccupations
and allegiances. As a source of information, 'Koestler,' the work of
two decades, will never be surpassed. As an argument for the man’s
importance, however, it must contend with the eccentricity of
Koestler’s preoccupations and — although Scammell does not always seem
to realize it — his vices."
Joanna Smith Rakoff on A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein: "If this sounds tawdry, it’s not. Grodstein ... is
a terrific storyteller and an even better ventriloquist. She
beautifully captures Pete’s sly self-deceptions: the man-of-the-people
persona that masks his deeply rooted elitism, the liberal pose that
hides an almost pathological conservatism.... Ultimately, though, this is
less a novel about one imperfect citizen than a sharp account of the
status-driven suburban culture that turned him into a monster of
conformity, a place where the air at parties is rife with 'the vague
but persistent smell of striving' and a father can, without irony, deem
his son’s dropping out of college a 'tragedy.'”
Rick Moody on When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall: "Maybe the time for arcana is past, the time for the picayune details of
dinosaur rock — such that it’s the dirt, not the song, that remains the
same. Maybe some publisher was looking over Mick Wall’s shoulder
saying, 'Put more about the shark incident in there!' ... Wall is conflicted enough about the facts that he
allows this mythologizing title to be appended to his work: 'When
Giants Walked the Earth.' But these were no giants, these were just
young people, like you, who for a time happened to have more power and
influence than was good for them. In the midst of it all, they made
Jonathan Dee on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee: "For all its self-deprecations, there is no contesting that the 'Scenes
From Provincial Life' trilogy is a fundamentally narcissistic project.
But the vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his
own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem
genuine, and genuinely self-indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist
demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well? ... 'How can you be a great writer,' says Adriana, 'if you are just an
ordinary little man?' Coetzee may feel it is too late to amend his
legacy in the second regard, but even from beyond the fictional grave
he is determined to expand upon the first."
Patrick Cockburn on Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco: "The vividness and pace of Sacco’s drawings, combined with a highly
informed and intelligent verbal narrative, work extremely well in
telling the story. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any other
form of journalism could make these events so interesting. Many
newspaper or television reporters understand that the roots of today’s
crises lie in obscure, unpublicized events. But they also recognize
that their news editors are most interested in what is new and are
likely to dismiss diversions into history as journalistic
self-indulgence liable to bore and confuse the audience."
Larry Rohter on Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marias: "On the surface 'Your Face Tomorrow' is a strange hybrid. It is almost as if Henry James or Marcel Proust decided to write a novel set in John le Carre's world. There are occasional bursts of action and much clandestine
skulduggery. But 'Poison, Shadow and Farewell,' like the two previous
volumes, 'Fever and Spear' and 'Dance and Dream' is essentially a
rumination on several of the Really Big Themes that tend to captivate
great writers: love and death, power and violence, and, above all,
betrayal, loyalty and deceit, both personal and at the level of the
state.... 'Your Face Tomorrow' requires patience, effort and intellectual
discipline of the reader. 'Poison, Shadow and Farewell' delivers a
payoff at the end, but the real challenge, and pleasure, is in getting
Simon Johnson on Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin: "Andrew Ross Sorkin is the Stephen Ambrose for our financial crisis,
with the blow-by-blow story of how rich bankers fought to save the Wall
Street they knew and loved. The details in 'Too Big To Fail' will turn
your stomach. The arrogance, lack of self-awareness, and overweening
pride are astonishing.... Sorkin puts you there -- you see events unfold moment by moment, you
hear the conversations, you can sense the hubris. The executives of our
largest banks ran their firms into the ground, taking excessive risks
that even now they fail to understand fully. But, as these individuals
saw it, unless they personally were saved on incredibly generous terms,
the world's economy would grind to a halt. This is as compelling as it
Charles on Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler: "If you know 'Jane Eyre' and love it, don't deny yourself the pleasure
of this intense little companion book. South African-born Sheila
Kohler, who now teaches at Princeton, sinks deep into the details of
Brontë's life to re-create the atmosphere of her tragic, cloistered
family. Parallels between Charlotte and her famous heroine are an
irresistible subject of critical inquiry, and even if those parallels
are sometimes drawn too baldly in 'Becoming Jane Eyre,' Kohler's novel
remains a stirring exploration of the passions and resentments that
inspired this 19th-century classic."
Los Angeles Times:
David L. Ulin on Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza: "Built around two forgotten incidents (the 1956 mass killings of
Palestinians in Rafah and Khan Younis), it is a book that digs deep,
exploring the relationship of past and present, memory and experience
-- rigorously reported yet always aware of the elusive nature of
testimony, the way that stories solidify and harden over time.... What is the value of history in such a landscape? How do we make sense
of where we are? These are the primary questions raised by 'Footnotes
in Gaza,' and it is to Sacco's credit as an artist and a journalist
that he proposes no easy answers -- nor, indeed, any answers at all."
The New York Times Room for Debate blog has a post on how to sort your books to keep the wheat and sell the chaff. It's tied to the changeover of the year but, man, this strikes me as the most reliably groovy way to pass a few hours regardless of the season.
Whenever my wife gets into a Mike-should-do-some-organizing phase I offer to take responsibility for the bookshelves, and that means many happy hours of checking dog-eared pages for the good stuff, and testing spines for springiness (a split spine doesn't damn it but does move it closer to the sell pile), and sorting books by subject (Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches has probably never left the side of Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia in the ten years since I've read them).
I did a major sell this summer, and it felt good at the time; but I discovered long ago that I have a pretty terrible instinct for what I won't miss. I sell it, and then a few weeks later I go to look something up in it. I'm still grieving for the Historical Atlas of Central Europe I sold then, and even as I stood at the sell counter at Half-Price Books I knew I'd regret the loss of the NYRB edition of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy with the freaky blue-green spine. But it had to go: its blue-greenness was so haunting in its beauty that I could no longer have it in the house.
In any case, the NYT post has some good culling advice from the likes of Francine Prose and Jane Smiley and is worth a read.
What's Old Is Jung Again: One of the pioneers of modern psychology and dream analysis, psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) is enjoying a renaissance of sorts among readers who want to curl up on the couch with him. The facsimile edition of The Red Book--Jung's illustrated chronicle of his own dreams from 1914 to 1930--has been flying off the shelves of booksellers this holiday season. [The New York Times]
J.K. Rowling Dominates the Decade: At least in book sales, that is. Rowling takes the top spot as the bestselling author of the decade with over 29,000,000 copies of her Harry Potter series sold. [The Guardian]
Different Jacket, Still Numero Uno: Like the US, Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is the topselling book in the UK for holiday gifting. Seems fiction is in, while celebrity bios are out among British readers. Check out the UK edition's very different cover. [The Guardian]
Tintin Creator Like Charles Schulz?: Charles McGrath reviews Pierre Assouline's Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin. McGrath observes similarities between the life of George Remi (aka Hergé) and Charlie Brown-creator Charles Schulz who's professional life and fictional heros far outpaced a troubled personal life. [The New York Times]
Moving & Shaking: This morning's Today show feaure on Kevin Michael Connolly--a professional photographer and athlete born without legs--puts his memoir Double Take in a top spot on today's Movers & Shakers list.
One of the pleasures of visiting Baltimore was getting a chance to meet the editors of Raw Dog Screaming Press, an indie publisher that has been putting out fiction that might otherwise fall through the cracks. RDSP books tend toward the gritty or the surreal, often flirting both with what you might call "literary" and what you might call "pulp." There's a definite hyper-real noir vibe to their books as well--a wonderful energy and visceral quality that helps lift their efforts above the ordinary. Editors Jennifer Barnes and John Lawson have a definite vision for their press and I expect them, over time, to become a major player in the indie press. Here are a few recent titles of interest... Welcome to Oakland by Eric Miles Williamson - From the Washington Post's review: "The novel swirls through a series of half-plots, portraits and anecdotes of Murphy's various bar buddies, interspersing diatribes on race, class and literary fiction, among other things. Williamson rails against almost everybody, including readers and critics who live in a fantasy world of justice and resolution. Between its episodic structure -- brilliantly echoing the rhythms of jazz, by the way -- and the blunt-force trauma of the narrator's attitudes, what emerges is no easy read. T-Bird navigates a sea of violent revenge with a cargo of rot-gut booze."
Finale by Paul A. Toth - When Jonathan Thomas receives a threatening letter apparently sent by an ex-girlfriend, he pursues the sender but finds himself unraveling another mystery he would have better left unsolved.
Unintended Consequences by Larry Fondation - The fourt installment in Fondation's "LA Stories" series. This new collection reveals with precision the way life can tangle good intentions and trip up even the most sure-footed among us. Compact city fables for our times.
D.D. Murphy, Secret Policeman by Alan M. Clark and Elizabeth Massie - D.D. Murphy has a way with words-or is it that words have their way with him? Work the clues alongside this unlikely sleuth to reveal an underground cabal of letters, a conspiracy of meaning, right below the surface of the everyday world. Murphry is both hero and villain, an unforgettable personality who will have you cringing while you laugh and rooting for his every misguided plan.
Cursed by Jeremy C. Shipp - "A tightly written story of suspense and occult horror. Nicholas believes that he has been cursed, and he is not alone; his eccentric love interest, Cicely, is convinced that the fate of the world depends on her possession of a tennis ball...Using Nicholas's idiosyncratic voice and fondness for lists, Shipp effectively conveys the claustrophobic world of people caught up in events beyond their control." - From the Publishers Weekly review.
When You Wish Upon a Chef: British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was awarded the $100,000 TED grant for his work fighting obesity and promoting healthy eating in the UK.The prize money will be used "to enact a wish" that will be revealed at the 2010 TED conference in February.
(The kind folks at Fountain Bookstore, including owner Kelly Justice, created a wonderful display for Finch; meanwhile, a flagging author stands next to a bust of a dead one; more on Poe below...)
I was on the road from October 28 through December 12 traveling up and down both coasts promoting my books Finch and Booklife with a series of gigs at indie and chain bookstores, universities like MIT, the Library of Congress, comic shops, and even a bar. This is the latest in a series of reports from events like the National Book Awards. You can read the others on my Omnivoracious contributor page. Weird Southern Juxtapositions
Richmond's one of those studies in contrasts that makes your head spin. You can drive into the city through a semi-battered industrial section and see a weathered, pollution-blackened pseudo-doric column with "Entering Richmond" chisled into it against a backdrop of a burnt-out car and yellow grass struggling up through cracked asphalt. If you stand in one of the more famous cemeteries, you can see not just the roiling river and its insane rapids, but also the 1970s-style concrete of the university buildings surrounded by old-style Victorian and Southern Gothic statuary, beyond which loom factory smokestacks. Standing amid a bunch of dead confederate war heroes, looking out on a multi-cultural college, and then later wandering through some cool bohemian shops only minutes away from huge stone stallions rearing up with folks like Stonewall Jackson atop them...well, that's parts of the South for you, I guess. (Another statue depicts Arthur Ashe, but the way he wields his racquet, it truly looks like he's beating the crap out of the adoring marble children looking up at him.)
(Wait. What's that there pyramid doing in the cemetery?)
Richmond also has a fabulous institution, the Fountain Bookstore, now run by Kelly Justice and ably assisted by, among others, Doc, Heather, Tess, and Steve. Not only did they have the cool display for Finch when I came in, they also were playing the Murder by Death soundtrack for the novel. Tess actually is a third-generation indie bookseller, and when I mentioned the movie Santa Sangre, Doc immediately came back with the name of the director, "Alejandro Jodorowsky." Which is when I knew I was in good hands--and I was right. The Fountain folks were among the most knowledgeable and friendly of any bookstore I read at during the tour. As the holiday party special guest, I thought I ought to entertain, so rather than a straight reading I told the Romanian "professional cockroach" story (direct link to podcast here), which pertains to part of Finch, then read the part of Finch that was inspired by the incident, followed by the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Evil Monkey Guide to Creative Writing published as an appendix in Booklife. It was a good event, and I was in an excellent mood, with Finch having made the year's best lists of the Washington Post and the Barnes & Noble Review, among others, and been on the Wall Street Journal's holiday gift book guide.
I even shot my first promo in the bookstore basement, which is undergoing a makeover. "We thought it looked a lot like your fantasy city of Ambergris," Kelly told me, before positioning me, teetering on boards, in front of some messed-up bricks. It's a measure of how comfortable I became on the tour doing things on the fly that it was all one take, reproduced below for your amusement (note the blooper at the end).
Sunday Book Review cover: Jeanette Winterston on The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar: "Concealment was her game, and her way of life. Dating three women at a
time was not difficult for her. She collected snails, liking their
portable hiding place and the impossibility of telling which was male
and which was female. She traveled with snails in her luggage and kept
hundreds at home. If she was bored at dinner parties, she might get a
few snails out of her purse and let them loose on the tablecloth. As
she didn’t eat much, she was often bored at dinner parties.... This is a biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind."
Suzanne Vega on Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin: "Our eyes dry in a hurry as we careen from breathless fan-boy writing
to dusty travelogue descriptions of Liverpool at the turn of the 20th
century, while Carlin describes some immigrants flooding in and others
flooding out, 'departing for the untrammeled shores of the New World.' Yawn. Why are shores always untrammeled? No one ever seems to write about how trammeled most shores actually are these days."
Barry Gewen on In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp by Er Tai Gao: "It’s tempting to try to read Mr. Gao’s story optimistically, as a
lesson about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, with this
book as the happy ending.... Mr. Gao is less sentimental; he understands how
little his own choices had to do with his survival. If he hadn’t been a
painter at a time when the government needed painters, he probably
would have died at Jiabiangou like most of the prisoners there. At many
steps along the way he had the good fortune to find mentors who taught
him, patrons who protected him. We don’t hear the stories of those
people who didn’t happen to find patrons because they aren’t here to
tell their tales."
Charles on The Anarchist by John Smolens: "Have you ever cut yourself on a piece of glass without realizing it?
Just like that, Smolens slides through gruesome episodes in such muted,
unadorned prose that you barely realize what's happened until you see
the blood. The genius of this novel is the tension he creates by moving
quickly from quiet, moving scenes in the president's sickroom or
Czolgosz's prison cell to raw, startling flashes of violence during the
criminal investigation.... It's an enthralling descent into the dark byways of the criminal
mind and the vast system of canals that ran through Buffalo. Here is
the crime that launched the 20th century, the unlikely imprint of a
lonely man's delusion on the soft metal of the world."
Seth Faison on When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques: "The result is 'When China Rules the World,' a compelling and
thought-provoking analysis of global trends that defies the common
Western assumption that, to be fully modern, a nation must become
democratic, financially transparent and legally accountable. Jacques
argues persuasively that China is on track to take over as the world's
dominant power and that, when it does, it will make the rules, on its
own terms, with little regard for what came before."
Los Angeles Times:
James Marcus on The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam: "It is very difficult to write even a small masterpiece. But there is something harder still: writing a sequel to a masterpiece.... There are scenes of exquisite power, including a couple of encounters
with the slippery Veneering (perfect name, by the way). So why does
Betty's story pale next to that of her husband [in Gardam's Old Filth]? ... 'The Man in the Wooden Hat' retains the
feeling of a subsidiary work. And yet without it, these scenes from a
marriage would be woefully incomplete. It turns out that even a
(relatively) silent partner has something important to say."