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January 2010

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

Quick links from around the kid-lit blogosphere:

Brrrr: A Book of Winter. Il Sung Na's A Book of Sleep is a bedtime favorite around our house, so I was excited to see cover art for a chilly follow-up, Brrrr: A Book of Winter:

Check out the NYT review here of A Book of Sleep. ("It is difficult to praise 'A Book of Sleep,' by Il Sung Na, without sounding as if I’m knocking it: 'the literary equivalent of Tylenol PM' is an unlikely blurb for the paperback, but it is apt, so thoroughly does the book inhabit its sleepy world.") (via Children's Illustration)

Percyguide Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Ultimate Guide. In case you missed it (I did), make sure you check out Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Ultimate Guide if you're a fan of the series. School Library Journal has the latest on the upcoming Percy Jackson movie (premiering Feb. 12) and all the associated book tie-ins.

Frank Cotrell Boyce interview. Publishers Weekly has a great interview with the author of Millions and Cosmic. My favorite anecdote was a crazy bit about the process around Millions, which Boyce wrote first as a screenplay: "[I]t took a long time to get the money together for the film because there was a child as the main character. So while we were waiting, Danny [Boyle, the director] said, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and write it as a book, too?’ It was a very easy book to write so I thought, stupidly, writing books was easy.... It’s even odder than you think. I got a proof copy of the book on the day we finished filming and I gave it to Danny. He read it immediately and I had added things to the book that were not in the screenplay and he liked those things so we wound up reshooting parts of the film to put those things in. The most convoluted process possible, really."

Blogger All the World review. Tea Cozy has a fine review of Caldecott Honor Book All the World. I'm always leery of "message books" (as Tea Cozy aptly describes them), but this does look like one of the good ones. Check out the book's trailer to see more.

On kid-lit and janitors. You can always count on Collecting Children's Books for chin-scratching--and often surprising--musings, and this last week was no exception. Read about the secret powers of custodial staff, and find out which kid-lit writers (like this one) honed their authorial skills at the end of a broom.

Carnival and awards and comics. I would be remiss if I didn't note this month's Carnival of Children's Literature (a collection of bloggy goodness), the ALSC's comprehensive 2010 Notable Children's Books list, and (for good measure) this week's all ages comics and manga list from Good Comics for Kids.

And the award goes to... a ferret? Thank you, 100 Scope Notes, for pointing us to this excellent stop-motion acceptance speech:


Graphic Novel Friday: Weekend Grab Bag

The new year is barely a month old, and my reading journal is already teeming with more graphic novels than I can handle. So as a service to those with similar problems, I'm devoting this week's post to two new releases that shouldn't be missed and one last-minute favorite from 2009.

The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross: Here is a simple way to rope readers into a new series: tell a great story. Carey poses the question of "What if the Harry Potter series were based on a real boy, and that boy grew up to be a convention circuit-hungry C-list celebrity?" Protagonist Tommy Taylor's father wrote a 13-book series-turned-beloved-cultural-phenomenon with his son as the inspiration, providing now-adult Tommy with a day job of making "Tommy Con" appearances and answering hapless, obsessed fans' questions. But with his father missing and rabid speculation about his true identity on the Internet, Tommy finds himself wrapped up in a real-life mystery--and one with magical properties. This first volume sets the stage almost too well, leaving readers with many questions and just a hint of what's to come. It certainly kept me guessing and cursing at its cliffhanger ending. I loved all the literary references and not-so-gentle poking at YA fandom. This is one to watch from Vertigo, and it deserves all the support it can get to keep those cryptic answers coming. Fans of Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic should definitely take notice.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause: I have an embarrassing confession to make. When I heard all the buzz about a comics title called Irredeemable, I thought readers were talking about Robert Kirkman's Irredeemable Ant-Man. While that series certainly has its fans, I finally came across Mark Waid's Irredeemable, which at first glance appears to be yet another superhero-gone-bad deconstruction. Not so. This one has real bite, tracking the "world's greatest hero," The Plutonian, as he decimates the superhero and supervillain population, along with the rest of the inhabitants of planet Earth. The answers come very slowly across the first two paperback collections, as Waid teases revelations just before delivering explosive plot twists. Vol. 1 begins mis en scene and introduces plenty of characters in the first chapter to keep even the speediest of readers from rushing through the pages. Peter Krause's art improves in the forthcoming Vol. 2, losing some of the early stiffness and opening up a wider palette of faces, particularly the female characters. Vol. 3 doesn't release until July, but Waid has another surprise planned for fans: Incorruptible, the flip-side to Irredeemable and centered around a supervillain-turned-hero, publishes in June.

In 2003, I remember reading Blood and Water by Judd Winick and Tomm Coker in single issues and being fairly impressed at its shocking look at vampirism. Today, of course, new takes on the vampire genre are as common as Hot Topic mall stores, but this under-read five-issue miniseries is still worthwhile, particularly the first three chapters. Protagonist Adam Heller is terminally ill, and--wouldn't you know it?--his two best friends are vampires who have just the answer to his ailment. The early fun is in watching Adam and his cohorts basking in the newfound nightlife while Winick experiments with a time-honored mythos in a contemporary setting. Tomm Coker's artwork is full of emotion and shadows (much moreso than Brian Bolland's surprisingly goofy covers), and I wish I could find more work from him (Wikipedia claims he's moved on to film direction). Winick would later graduate to high-profile characters like Superman, the Titans, and Batman, which, while good for his career, meant that Blood and Water met an early grave. The soil is prime for a resurrection, however, should Winick ever want to give the capes and tights a rest. [Note: Vertigo Comics actually published Blood and Water in October 2009, but I re-read it this month.]

So far, my new year has been full of excellent reads.  How about you: which graphic novels have you been recommending in 2010?  

Omni Daily Crush: "Succulent Container Gardens"

When my 5-year-old nephew came by my garden last summer, the otherworldly plants snaking out of my patio containers fascinated him. He wanted to feel them, but when I told him they were succulents, he drew his hand back fast and asked gravely, "What do they suck?" (Cuuuuuute.)

Succulents--a plant gang that includes cacti, the tender and showy echeverias, and cold-hardy sempervivum commonly known as hen and chicks, among others--so do not suck that I'm always amazed when I realize so many people I know and love haven't really noticed them before. For my money, succulents are the most exciting plants for new gardeners. As Debra Lee Baldwin says in her gorgeous new Succulent Container Gardens, "these are plants that allow you to be lazy" and still look amazing--just give them sun, drainage, and a little water every week or two, and they'll reward you by looking plump and happy.

Succulent leaves come in colors rarely found in the natural world (like frosty robin's egg blue and inky purple, pink, and red), in amazing geometric shapes that spiral or drape in green beads or fish hooks. Some look like candy, or have intricate patterns on their leaves. Some look like coral, and when the sun hits them, they seem to glow from the inside so your undersea scene looks surreal and sci-fi. The texture and color combinations you can mix up offer endless creative variety. They're so fun to play with! They're also among the easiest plants to propagate, so you small collection will be fruitful and multiply. And they're amazingly versatile, suiting style from minimalist to quirky to lusciously exuberant, as Succulent Container Gardens so gorgeously illustrates.

Designing with Succulents, Baldwin's previous book, is a seductive guide to integrating succulents into your larger landscape. But beginners seeking the satisfaction of starting small, apartment dwellers, and anyone in a climate that could kill the more tender varieties if they were left outside will be wowed by the planting possibilities (in pots and on walls) on display in Succulent Container Gardens.

It also offers ample inspiration for more seasoned gardeners, from design advice to info on rare varieties. The playfulness of Baldwin's prose is matched by her knowledge, making this both an accessible introduction and a valuable resource.

I've been obsessed with succulents for years, and as I paged through this book for the first time, I think I shouted some obscene expression of admiration every few pages. (Thank God I wasn't in public.) --Mari Malcolm

More on Salinger and Zinn

Catcher-cover With a writer like J.D. Salinger, everyone brings their own memories of reading him: being forced to read Catcher in school and hating it (and then going back to it years later and getting it), being forced to read it in school and loving it (and then going back to it later and thinking you were too old to get it anymore), or discovering him on your own, particularly the stories. I was one of those people who loved Catcher the first time 'round, in ninth grade or thereabouts. I may not have been your typical Salinger audience (I was still holding out hope that everybody wasn't phonies), but I loved the voice from the very first page. And then I think the summer before college I bought all the other little paperbacks--Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters--and by the last one felt I had wandered down a rabbit hole I didn't quite understand.

I didn't go back to him until years later, when I was staying with a family I didn't know for a weekend while spending the summer alone in Germany. They were very nice--we watched Formula One on the TV and the son took me out to drink Radlers--but one night I retired to my room a little early, exhausted from trying to hold my own in this strange language and place. And there on a shelf in the guest room was a copy in English of The Catcher in the Rye, in the same elegant maroon paperback edition I had read at home a decade before. And I'm not sure I've ever devoured a book so happily and hungrily, transported home for a few hours.

More Salingeriana is appearing as the day goes on (while we wait for the answer to the big question: was he writing for the past 40 years, and will any of it be published?), and here are some links:

Meanwhile, a friend of Omni who saw Patti Smith speak in San Francisco last night (about her wonderful new book Just Kids) wrote in to say that she talked about the late Howard Zinn, and that every time he saw her he'd ask her to recite the words to her song "People Have the Power." Here those words are.

More, I'm sure, to come. What's your memory of reading Salinger? --Tom

Omni Daily News: Remembering J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, Louis Auchincloss

J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)   CNN has reported that author J.D. Salinger passed away yesterday at his home in Cornish, N.H.  Jerome David Salinger was 91 years old. Salinger wrote numerous short stories and novellas, but it was his sole novel, The Catcher in the Rye, that brought him commercial success, and catapulted him into the realm of literary greatness. This groundbreaking coming-of-age story about the antihero Holden Caufield--a snarky sixteen-year-old prep-school student--has sold several million copies since it was published in 1951. The book continues to spark controversy and remains on the list of most contested or banned books.

Salinger was himself a controversial figure, who became increasingly famous for his efforts to shun the public spotlight. He led a reclusive life, and granted his last interview in 1980. In the summer of 2009, the author made headlines worldwide when he initiated and won a plagarism lawsuit against the Swedish author Fredrik Colting, who wrote a novel featuring a seventy-something Holden Caufield.  

The New Yorker has just posted all 13 of Salinger's published short stories, all of which originally appeared in the magazine from 1945-1965.

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)  Historian, playright, and impassioned social activist Howard Zinn died yesterday at the age of 87. Professor Zinn wrote more than 20 books, including A People's History of the United States--a landmark bestseller that has prompted readers of all ages to reconsider their understanding of American history.  This revisionist account led to a broader reassessment of how narratives of America's past are written and taught to students.  Zinn recently published a revised edition of Voices of a People's History of the United States--a companion to A People's History that features primary accounts of events, letters and other documentation which Zinn drew upon in his interpretation. In the book's introduction he observes: "What is common to all of these voices is that they have mostly been shut out of the orthodox histories, the major media, the standard textbooks, the controlled culture ... to create a passive citizenry."  Howard Zinn devoted his life to the defense of civil rights and civil liberties.  

Louis Auchincloss (1917-2010)  The New York Times reports that the National Book Award-nominated  and author Louis Auchincloss died on January 26 in New York City.  Auchincloss (pronounced AW-kin-kloss) was a critically acclaimed and bestselling chronicler of Manhattan's WASP elite throughout his half-century career.  In more than 60 works of fiction, biography, and essays, he penetrated the inherent complexities and contradictions of his beloved city's most privileged class. A distant relative of Edith Wharton, Auchincloss was part and parcel of the retreating world of which he wrote so eloquently and often. His stories piqued the interest of middle-class readers who enjoyed literary access into an otherwise closed world governed by the seemingly secret social codes of well-to-do New York blue bloods (bankers, lawyers, and heirs to fortune).  In 2002 he published an insightful and accessible biography of Theodore Roosevelt.  His final novel, Last of the Old Guard, was published in 2008.

Omni Decade Crush: From Barbery to Whittemore, Barry to Vollmann

Wait! The decade's best lists aren't quite finished. Below find mine.

In general, “Best of Decade” book lists are arbitrary and too close to the period they pretend to cover. At point of impact, the pool of visible worthies has been reduced due to environmental factors that (sadly) include lack of the right push by the publishers, lack of charisma or some other quality on the part of the author, or a writing style or subject matter that bravely pushes against the grain of what’s acceptable for the time. A decade from now many “best of” books will no longer be seen as such, while some lucky few will be re-evaluated and resurrected—becoming visible in a way they did not upon publication. Hype and the ever-greater domino effect of commentary on the internet will fade and the excited crushes of yesteryear will give way to a more mature and lasting love.

For this reason, I haven’t applied anything approaching a scientific method to my picks for the books of the decade. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a process, however. First, over a period of days, I thought about the books I’ve read that I still intensely remember. Second, to supplement my memory, I went back over a good many of the reviews and features I’ve written over the past decade.  As I re-read these pieces, some elicited an emotional reaction and some did not. More than a few connected with me on several levels—as a reader foremost, but also as a writer whose principal accomplishment in the aughts was to finish the Ambergris Cycle: City of Saints & Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch. Thus, there was a weird doubling effect of seeing the books from several angles, because many of them made me think about my own fiction in a new way.

The resulting list I present here is in alphabetical order by author.  Some of these books received the appropriate amount of attention upon publication. Some did not. Some choices readers will easily see as legitimate and other choices, due to their obscurity or to the perception of the genre in which they are categorized, they will not. But each, it seems to me, does something unique and not easily replicated by other books. Each, in its own way, creates its own universe...

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008) – Delightful and bittersweet, this translation of a bestseller in France creates lovely portraits of an eccentric concierge and a melodramatic but gifted twelve-year-old girl. It lazes along at a leisurely pace, interjecting bits of philosophy and character background until the arrival of a Japanese gentleman at the apartment complex. From there, the plot begins to quicken and the various pieces of the story become luminous and at times devastating. It’s the kind of novel that could easily have become precious, and it’s a testimony to Barbery’s strengths as an author that instead it’s a quietly effective and lasting achievement.

What it Is by Lynda Barry (2008) – As I wrote as part of an Omni feature, Barry’s extraordinary book is “An exploration of the imagination, an invitation to create, and a moving autobiographical account… one of those rare books that offers solace for the soul and brilliant commentary on the artistic impulse. The images by themselves would be amazing, the text by itself wise and luminous yet pragmatic. The combination of text and art provides new insight that feels three-dimensional and oddly soothing. I cannot over-emphasize the therapeutic effect of What It Is.”

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007) – In this story of her dysfunctional family, Bechtel perfects and showcases the ways in which graphic novels can offer as much or more than novels or movies. It is the perfect synthesis of image and text, with the visual impact of a film and the easy ability to slip through time, double back, and return to the present that typifies the best fiction. The illustration style is perfect for the subject matter, making the settings, from old gothic house to funeral parlor, evocative and real.

2666 by Roberto Bolano (2008) – Powerful, haunting, profane, political, and simultaneously wide and personal in scope, 2666 may well prove to be the novel of the decade. Bolano keeps turning inward and outward, his narrative riddled through with ancillary stories that seem to digress but in some luminous way hint at hidden patterns. The recitation---the endless and unrelieved repetition ---of the details of murders of women in a Mexican city is unsettling, brilliant, and makes the crimes impossible to ignore, or, ultimately, to comprehend. Most impressive, perhaps, is how equally comfortable Bolano is writing from such varied perspectives as a former Black Panther, a Mexican congresswoman, or the German novelist whose mysterious life provides just one of the many puzzles of human existence explored in 2666

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey (2001) – As I wrote in a review for Locus at the time, this novel is “simply the best Gothic fantasy of the new century…stunning in its use of a dark fantasy atmosphere even though, as in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, nothing fantastical happens. Francis Orme narrates this story of an ancestral mansion converted to apartments, of a place in the country become a virtual island, surrounded by urban traffic. But Carey, at every step, raises the stakes; he isn't interested in just portraying eccentric characters in an eccentric setting. He wants nothing less than Mastery — of technique, of characterization, of setting, of memory, of resonance. “ Observatory Mansions, with its critique of our modern attachment to things, its portraits of damaged but sympathetic characters, and its beautiful, incisive writing, is another novel that deserves more attention.

Continue reading "Omni Decade Crush: From Barbery to Whittemore, Barry to Vollmann" »

Omni Daily News

"I'll take care of you, Andrew. You know I'm good for it.": In case you didn't get enough gossip from Game Change, the Wall Street Journal got their hands on an early copy of The Politician: An Insider's Account of John Edwards's Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down, by Andrew Young, Edwards's long-time aide who, among other things, once publicly claimed paternity for the child that Edwards now admits he fathered with his mistress. (Via NYMag)

Top Costa: The Costa Book of the Year, chosen from among the five Costa category winners named earlier this month, is Christopher Reid's A Scattering, a sequence of poems about his wife's illness and death, which upset the favored best novel, Colm Toibin's Brooklyn. It hasn't been published in the States yet, but it's #14 on our UK site today.

"Stop being so damned dainty and polite": Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways writes the umpteenth obituary for fiction, citing the death/irrelevance of lit mags despite the explosion of MFA programs, and novelists' indifference to the world's wars in favor of navel-gazery.

The room and the chair: Something's happening down in San Francisco today that may or may not change the way we live and read forever. Latest dispatch from Engadget: "The setup on stage is really interesting. There's a chair with a table next to it..." Here's our own End User's latest report--I expect they'll be posting an update today. [Update: Yes, they're live-blogging the iPad, like everyone else is.]


Omni Daily Crush: "The Unnamed" (and Omnivoracious Podcast with Joshua Ferris)

Not everybody likes The Unnamed. As regular Old Media Monday readers may have noticed, there have been raves (it's an "accomplished and daring work," or "This is fiction with the force of an avalanche") but also a number of reviews of the "boy, kudos for trying something new after your first book was so awesome, but it didn't quite work" (e.g. Jay McInerney, Janet Maslin, and, most eloquently and extensively, Wyatt Mason in the subscription-only Harper's). You may have also noticed that it's our Spotlight Book of the Month pick for January: Brad and I both loved it, and Brad also posted what I think for us was a first: an author-to-author podcast, with David Sedaris interviewing Josh Ferris about the book. I'm not exactly sure how it came about, but I think it was pretty much that Sedaris read the book before it came out and loved it and wanted to do his first interview. And it's already inspired many thoughtful customer reviews on both sides.

So it's turning out to be a love-it-or-hate-it (or, rather, a love-it-or-be-disappointed-by-it) book, and I wanted to say a bit about why I love it. I read it more than half a year ago (in preparation for the interview I've posted below), and have gone back to it here and there since. I'd love to have the luxury to reread it fully with these recent critiques in mind, but I don't expect they would change the way I feel about the book. I feel a little like Jane, the wife in the book, when Tim, her husband, the high-powered lawyer beset by a strange walking compulsion, phones in from the road. "You were assaulted behind the supermarket by Janet Maslin? Oh banana, come home. We'll take care of you." I bought the premise completely, both Tim's illness and their marriage, and when I hear something about the book, or page back through it, I'm brought back to the feeling of melancholy that the story increasingly evoked. Beginning with the drama and curiosity (and even the humor) of the initial return of his illness, and the rather inevitable hopefulness that modern readers, used to medical miracles, bring to such stories, the novel shifts halfway through into an episodic, impressionistic, isolated wander. That's the part where some readers get off the bus; I felt disoriented and exhausted in those sections too, but it only deepened the effect of Tim's (and even more so, his family's) predicament for me, and for me the novel is one of the most moving evocations of what it really means to love and to be loyal.

Clearly, your mileage may vary, but I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks who has had a chance to read it yet. But in the meantime, here's my interview with Josh Ferris, from the floor of BookExpo America all the way back in May. For all the discussion of how different this book is from Then We Came to the End, not much has been said about what they share: an interest in the often-neglected literary subject of work: what it means to us when we have it, and what it means when we don't. That's where we started: Tell us where we begin in The Unnamed.

Joshua Ferris: Well, it's a departure from Then We Came to the End, in terms of tone and subject matter. It's about a man named Tim, who is married to his wife, Jane. He is suffering from a mysterious illness. An illness that is mysterious because I created it, so it doesn't really exist. He is compelled to walk, without really being able to control those bouts of walking. He's made to walk, and walk, and walk, until his body sort of releases him and he's completely exhausted and falls asleep wherever he finds himself, and then wakes up and has to get home, and his wife is more or less responsible for getting him home.

Continue reading "Omni Daily Crush: "The Unnamed" (and Omnivoracious Podcast with Joshua Ferris)" »

It's Time to Submit Your Novel, along with Penguin Group (USA) and CreateSpace, is pleased to announce that submissions are now open for the third annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the international competition seeking the next popular novel. For the first time, the competition will award two grand prizes: one for General Fiction and one for Young Adult Fiction.The 2010 competition will also now be open to novels that have previously been self-published. Each winner will receive a publishing contract with Penguin, which includes a $15,000 advance.

Manuscript submissions are now being accepted through February 7, 2010, at 11:59 p.m. (U.S. Eastern Standard Time), or when 5,000 entries have been received in each category, whichever is earlier.

Visit the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award page for official contest rules for more information on how to enter.


Omni Daily News

DIY Lit: Steve Almond chronicles his first foray into the world of self-publishing with his new flip-book, This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey. [via LA Times' Jacket Copy]

City Pages: New York magazine offers an entertaining profile of The Unnamed's "boyishly gangly" Joshua Ferris.

Heavy Metal Memoir: GQ's The Verge chats with John Michael Osbourne, better known as Ozzy, about his new book, the appropriately titled I Am Ozzy.

Movers & Shakers
: The pre-order title Fancy Nancy: A Flutter of Butterflies, A Reusable Sticker Book sticks to the No. 1 spot on our Movers & Shakers this morning.