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July 2010

Omni Daily News

The Big News: In case you missed it, this week Amazon announced two new Kindles--a 3G + Wi-Fi Kindle for $189, and Kindle Wi-Fi for just $139. Many of the most voracious readers around our offices are pre-ordering and eagerly awaiting August 27, and chances are they won't be alone. And, in case you missed it, Jeff Bezos shared some interesting Kindle insights with Charlie Rose on Wednesday, shortly after the big announcement.

More Vampires? No?: Anne Rice, who surprised her fans several years ago by giving up her bestselling vampire fiction after reconnecting with her Catholic faith, "quit Christianity" via Facebook: "Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity." Does this mean more of the Vampire Lestat? No, but she'd like to see him back on the big screen. [via The Huffington Post]

Maybe Vikings, Then?: Thanks to a few recent mentions of Frans Bengtssson's The Long Ships (which is climbing our Movers & Shakers list this morning), The Boston Globe wonders if vikings might be the new vampires.

A Week of (Literary) Meals: Jennifer Egan, author of one of our Best Books of the Year... So Far in Fiction, shares her week-long food diary: lots of butter-and-honey sandwiches, Greek yogurt, leftovers from the kids, and, because "I really thrive on a sense of contrast," bone marrow.

Graphic Novel Friday: Absolute Planetary

“It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.”

This is the motto or mantra of Planetary, the story of three spacetime archaeologists in search of all things weird. It stars Elijah Snow, a man born in 1900, who, despite his years, still looks fabulous in all white; Jakita Wagner, the strong, silent supermodel who likes to punch things; and The Drummer, the cool nerd who can hear and interpret signals emitted from just about anything that emits signals. Deep secrets haunt the team--when the series begins, Elijah has gaping holes in his memories--and the Planetary organization is funded by a shadowy figure known only as The Fourth Man.

Together, the teammates initially chase bizarre mysteries and conspiracies in done-in-one chapters. It feels a little like a super-heroic X-Files, except Planetary has an overarching plot that eventually coalesces into a coherent and satisfying conclusion. As Elijah stares deeper into the undercurrents of his employer, villains grow sharper and pronounced, namely The Four--evil-doers who seek global control through the suppression of knowledge and human advancement. The Four rose to the heights of global villainy thanks to a mind-bending space mission that warped their physiology and sense of morality. If this sounds like the Bizarro version of The Fantastic Four, then it’s time to give Planetary a chance, as writer Warren Ellis makes a point of winking at familiar comic tropes and archetypes. Planetary is full of clever nods to Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Godzilla, and in one chapter, John Constantine and many of the characters who inhabit DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Ellis is firing on all of his best cylinders: characters who aren’t quite anti-heroes but wouldn’t be caught dead in capes; dialogue that jumps between banter and high concept Sci-Fi proclamations (“So we create a closed loop of light, make it incredibly powerful, and it’ll do the same thing, only locally--supermassive frame-dragging.”). But none of this would be anywhere near as successful without artist John Cassaday, whose details and care for expressions only become more refined as the series progresses. In later chapters, Jakita eventually relaxes her steely demeanor, and Cassaday is able to play more with her reactions, especially when she sarcastically digs at The Drummer (“Why do we keep you around, again?”). It looks and feels as if she's more comfortable in the book.

This month, the final half of Planetary arrives in the series’ second Absolute Edition, which includes introductions by Alan Moore and Joss Whedon. Colorist Laura Martin offers commentary on her interpretation of the famously complex snowflake image, and a few pages are devoted to toys and other Planetary esoterica. The first Absolute Edition, collecting the initial half of the series, went out of print several years ago. But in a show of good faith to longtime fans, DC’s Wildstorm imprint has reprinted the first Absolute Edition to give symmetry to collectors’ bookshelves everywhere.

Ellis and Cassaday’s Planetary ran for 27 issues, beginning in 1999 and ending in 2009. While that’s not a very expedient production schedule, it’s difficult to find fault elsewhere with the book, especially when read as a whole and on the Absolute scale. It’s that rare type of series: one that closes at the top of its creators’ abilities and narrative. Like Elijah Snow, it never grows old--no matter how many years pass in its storytelling. “Let’s keep it that way.”


P.S.  Also recommended: Planetary: Crossing Worlds, a collection of somewhat outside-continuity Planetary tales. 

P.P.S. Graphic Novel Friday is on vacation next week, August 6th, as I brave the Canadian wilderness. 

Sweetening the Deal for Reluctant Readers

There are two phases that most kids go through at some point in their young lives. The first phase begins when they decide reading is boring. The second begins when they decide that "bathroom humor" (as my mother always diplomatically called it) is an endless source of hilarity.

So what do you do when these two phases happen simultaneously? 

As we mentioned last week, The AP recently released an article discussing the relatively modern trend of bathroom humor in children's books, designed to get kids--boys in particular--reading more.  It's likely that some parents and teachers still find these books a little distasteful (Captain Underpants doesn't seem quite as pristine as Caddie Woodlawn, after all), but there's no denying that books filled with fart jokes and gross-out humor often have a better chance of grabbing the attention of reluctant readers.

The AP interviewed author and fourth grade teacher Ray Sabini (who writes under the pen name Raymond Bean) about his two books, Sweet Farts and the sequel, Sweet Farts: Rippin' It Old School, which are geared toward the most unwilling young readers:

"Reaching those reluctant boys, it's a challenge I take very, very seriously and this is what they think is funny," Sabini said. There's also history in there. There's science in there, the problem of bullying, but it's the humor that gets their attention." 

Ray talks about the issue a bit more in this video interview. What it boils down to, he says, is that convincing kids that reading can be fun will ultimately get them reading more and more. And he believes gross-out humor can act as a springboard for reluctant readers to discover more favorite books--one of his students fell in love with The Day My Butt Went Psycho, and was reading The Lightning Thief by the end of the year.

I'm sure gross-out humor books still have their opponents (my mom probably would have been appalled if I'd traded in Ramona Quimby for fart jokes), but if bathroom humor gets a hesitant young reader to pick up a book for the first time in years, I think most parents and teachers would consider it a win. Omni readers, what do you think?

Omni Daily News

The life of a library: There's something very Marksonian about this process of literary composting: some folks have noticed that the library of the late David Markson has been appearing for sale among the 18 miles of used books at the Strand, the store that Markson himself famously habituated. Alex Abramovich has snapped up a few bags of them, and has a writeup on some of Markson's marginal notes (and passes on some of his disdainful comments in his copy of White Noise: "Except, dammit, satire should be amusing!"). And in a lovely 21st century development that the technological non-adopter Markson might have appreciated, he has set up a Facebook group to help track where the copies are ending up, so Markson's library could once again be brought together, either physically or virtually. (Via Literary Saloon)

"Jaundiced, hostile": In further literary exhumations, Jessamyn West (the librarian, not the late novelist) has tracked down the student evaluation the young David Foster Wallace wrote of her for English 18f at Amherst in the fall of 1987 and has posted it to Flickr. She also posted her memories of the class after his death in 2008 (side note: she must have been at the same Elliott Bay reading I went to). (Via HTMLGiant)

"Speechlessly marooned in emotion": At the Millions, Sonya Chung writes about literary endings, with excellent and extensive examples of a taxonomy of varieties, including the perspective given by the DVD outtakes on Wong Kar-Wai's cryptic and appropriate ending to (*sigh*) In the Mood for Love.

Moving and shaking: Must You Go?, Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter, doesn't come out in the States until November, but Tina Brown's early recommendation on Morning Edition today has sent it up Movers & Shakers.

What's Next for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind?

With the paperback edition of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (one of our top 10 books of 2009) hitting shelves today, we checked in with author/inventor/dynamo William Kamkwamba to see where his inspiring journey has taken him over the last eight months.

Not surprisingly, he provided a staggering list of accomplishments.

Dear friends at Amazon,

So many great things have happened since the last time we spoke. Our book tour took us all across the United States, into so many wonderful places and back out again that I remember it almost like a dream. Along this great journey, I got to meet Jon Stewart, speak with Diane Sawyer, and tell my story at such great institutions as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the Seattle Public Library. But what stands out the most were the crowds of young people who came to each event saying how my book inspired them to learn science and encouraged them to think big. To me, that was as great an achievement as building my very first windmill.

Another thing: over the spring and summer, I also achieved one of my biggest dreams and rebuilt my village primary school. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my friends at buildOn, a group who organizes community service projects for young people in American cities, while even recruiting them for their other mission: building schools in poor countries. So far, they’ve built 364 schools in five countries, including Malawi. In Wimbe, we added classrooms to accommodate 1,540 students, supplied them proper desks and chairs, and installed over a dozen computers donated by my friends at One Laptop Per Child. And of course, I built a hybrid system to produce the school’s electricity: two giant solar panels and a windmill powered by a 1500-watt generator that I built myself from big magnets and lots of wire.

Amidst all of this, another dream of mine was fulfilled: I finally graduated high school and was accepted into a university. After two fantastic years at African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, I’ll be studying engineering in the fall at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. While on our book tour, Bryan Mealer (my co-author) and I visited several colleges who were kind enough to invite me to see their engineering programs. I visited Harvey Mudd in California, Virginia Tech, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and was amazed at the beautiful campuses and equipment available to students. But after seeing Dartmouth and meeting its president Dr. Jim Kim – who I admired for his previous work treating people with AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa and Haiti – I knew it was the place for me. In addition to having a cool project-based curriculum (meaning I can get my hands dirty the first week there), the Thayer School of Engineering even has a lending library for power tools! Seeing this, I couldn’t stop smiling.

So if you’re ever in Hanover and see me walking around with my stack of books and looking stressed and sleepy, say hello. But I assure you, I won’t be there long. After I graduate college, I’ll be going back to Africa. As I’ve always said, my heart belongs to Malawi, and so does my work.

--William (and Bryan Mealer)

To keep up with the always-moving William, visit his blog at

2010 Man Booker Longlist Announced

Oh lordy, is it award season yet? In other words, is summer over already? Here in Seattle the mercury just rose about 70 degrees last week, so you can understand if I'm a little grumbly, but I do like the prizes, and today's ceremonial first salvo got my blood going. It's the Man Booker longlist, a baker's dozen that will be narrowed down to the shortlist of six for the big UK/Commonwealth prize on September 7:

Peter Carey is a two-time Booker winner, but the 800-pound gorilla is The Thousand Autumns, a big book by a big author who was a popular runner-up for Cloud Atlas and number9dream (and yes, it's one of my current Best of July picks). Room, C, Skippy Dies, and Trespass are all highly anticipated fall releases here in the US, while Dunmore, Galgut, Jacobson, and Warner are all still waiting for US editions to go on the schedule (I expect some will get them now). I was especially happy to see Lisa Moore on the list--I've been a fan ever since we picked her story collection, Open, as our Book of the Year on way back when. She's the only Canadian on the list, and one of only a few from outside the UK (Galgut is South African and Carey and Tsiolkas Australian). [Update: Sorry, forgot: Donoghue is Irish and lives now in Canada too.]

Over at William Hill they've put The Long Song as the early favorite, at 4-1, with Mitchell close behind at 9-2 and Dunmore at 5-1 (the customer reviews in the UK for the latter, a story of the Soviet Union in the late Stalin era, are terrific, by the way).

Who didn't make this first cut? The big names Amis and McEwan are absent, which is not a complete surprise. Sarah Crown at the Guardian points out there are no debut novelists this time around, although there's a fair amount of fresh-ish blood nevertheless. What am I looking forward to checking out? I really liked Tom McCarthy's Remainder (saying I "loved" it seems wrong for such a chilly book), and I've just started C, which seems like a very different animal. But Skippy Dies looks like a tasty romp, and not just because of the adorable 3-book paperback set that Faber is offering alongside the standard hardcover. It's like a cute little sidekick to the more monumental 2666 set from a couple of years ago. --Tom

Two Sides of Freedom: Comparing Franzen Covers

Another installment in one of my favorite literary pastimes: comparing US and UK covers of the same book. In this case, two views of perhaps the biggest novel of the fall, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, in US and UK versions:


What do you think? Could hardly be more different, except for the feather motif, which readers, particularly finishers, of the book, will understand (and which readers of his recent New Yorker piece on the mass slaughter of songbirds in Europe will not be surprised to see). The US cover has a stronger thematic tie to the story, but I find myself drawn to the bold blocks of the UK one.

And, for another view, my own vacation snap of some appropriate lakeside reading a couple of weeks ago:



Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: David Leavitt on The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings: "As I read Hastings’s biography (and I read it in great gulps), I could not help wondering if Maugham might deserve the 'flaying alive' to which she subjects him.... Hastings makes a strong case against Maugham the man. Where she runs into trouble is in her half­hearted attempt to make a case for Maugham the writer.... If so much of Maugham’s fiction comes across today as brittle, arch, world-weary and heartless, it may be precisely because he devoted more energy to maintaining his own double standard than he did to interrogating the double standards of others. He tried to have it both ways, and as his stories so amply demonstrate, those who try to have it both ways rarely come to a happy end."
  • Also on the Sunday cover: Colm Toibin on The Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat: "There is a strange moment in Moffat’s book when she refers to 'Maurice' as Forster’s 'only truly honest novel.' But 'Maurice' is, while fascinating in its own way, also his worst. Perhaps there is a connection between its badness and its 'honesty,' because novels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession."
  • Daniel Gilbert on Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz: "Schulz tells us early on that her goal is 'to foster an intimacy with our own fallibility' and to 'linger for a while inside the normally elusive and ephemeral experience of being wrong.' These goals she accomplishes with aplomb. For most of us, errors are like cockroaches: we stomp them the moment we see them and then flush the corpse as fast as we can, never pausing to contemplate the intricate design of nature’s great survivor, never asking what it might reveal beyond itself. But Schulz is the patient naturalist who carefully examines the nasty little miracles the rest of us so eagerly discard."
  • Rebecca Barry on Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr: "In lesser hands, this would be another in a long line of feel-bad books examining the human underbelly, in which reprehensible characters do reprehensible things until you just want them to get over themselves and grow up..... But as Mohr demonstrated in his previous novel, 'Some Things That Meant the World to Me,' he has a generous understanding of his characters, whom he describes with an intelligence and sensitivity that pulls you in.... These people are marginalized and angry, but for good reasons, and Mohr captures them with haunting acuity. His characters are tortured and reckless but still feel familiar."

Washington Post:

  • Jerome Charyn on Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon: "'Lives Like Loaded Guns,' Lyndall Gordon's book about Emily Dickinson and the fury that surrounded the publication of her poems, reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next.... Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears. She takes us into that undiscovered territory of the poet's favorite motif -- the dash. 'Dickinson's dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language.' And it's into this void that Dickinson's very best readers have to go."
  • Charles on Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman: "Waldman sometimes seems engaged in an act of emotional masochism. It's hard to look away, even when you can smell the burning rubber of such expert manipulation.... Until that point [a "car wreck" of an ending], though, Waldman keeps her eyes on the road, carrying us into dark territory with wisdom and grace. As usual, she offers something to admire and something to annoy -- something borrowed, something blue."
  • Dirda on The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto by Bernard DeVoto: "Today, it reads very much as a period piece, directed at male readers, arguing fiercely that there are really only two adult beverages worth caring about: straight whiskey (rye, bourbon or scotch) and martinis made with gin and dry vermouth. Fans of the television show 'Mad Men' will feel right at home.... 'The Hour' isn't an important book, but it is almost a cocktail in itself, being at once soothing and refreshing. And perhaps that's all we require from a book in July."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Troy Jollimore on Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: "One might, I suppose, accuse 'Super Sad True Love Story' of being nothing more than an extended expression of the paranoia that afflicts so many contemporary intellectuals, who worry that the space for anything resembling a 'life of the mind' (the very phrase has come to sound somewhat quaint) is being squeezed out of existence by our increasingly superficial, increasingly oppressive, consumer culture..... For my part, I find the novel pretty much on target: The Eunice sections aside, it is on the whole both frightening and devastatingly funny. What remains to be seen is whether its depiction of the fall of the American republic will turn out to have been frighteningly, devastatingly prescient."
  • Ed Park on BodyWorld by Dash Shaw: "Graphics and text overlap, the timeframes and layers of meaning there to be teased out; in this haze, bits of one body get transferred to another, and it's tantalizingly unclear whose thoughts are being articulated. Most graphic novels are easily consumed at a gallop, but these sequences slow down the speed of 'Bodyworld,' making for a rich experience (or should that be an irony-free synaesthetic experience?) that can't be achieved through words alone."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Jane Austen Fight Club

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that no one shall speak of Fight Club. Enjoy the latest mashup, which skips the book and goes straight to the trailer:

(Via BookNinja) --Tom

Omni Daily News

"A partisan of the octopus": The NYT profiles Omni favorite (and recent contributor of a guest post on "5 Underrated Literary Cephalopods") China Mieville:

“I spent much of my youth soul-suckingly horrified by 'Star Trek' and not understanding why no one else could understand that it was a charnel ship manned by ghosts, because you die every time you teleport!” Mr. Miéville said. “It freaked me out.”

No one puts Doctorow in the corner: At Jacket Copy, Joshua Mohr (whose new Termite Parade is rounded up later today in Old Media Monday) talks about the summer read that became his favorite book, E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel:

I remember being so excited by Doctorow’s book that I brewed a pot of coffee at midnight, so I could stay up and inhale the narrative in one sitting. It’s a pretty big book. But my insomnia + all that caffeine = a jittery, palpitating success! It was also the first book that I finished, then immediately flipped back to page one and started again. I wanted to understand how he’d mesmerized me in such a strident way.

Artemis Fowl and the Penultimate Adventure: Eoin Colfer, back to his bread-and-butter after a turn at being Douglas Adams, tells the Guardian that his new book, Artemis Fowl and the Atlantis Complex, will be the second-to-last in the series about the boy-genius criminal mastermind with, increasingly, a heart not completely of stone. The request from the bedtime Fowl readers and listeners in my household: a spinoff series featuring the explosively hilarious Mulch Diggums.

Moving and shaking: A Sunday NYT piece on Secret Historian, a new biography of Samuel Steward, the English professor turned Hell's Angels tattoo artist and lover of Rudolph Valentino, Thornton Wilder, and Rock Hudson among many others, makes an interesting bookend with the Sunday Book Review cover reviews of bios on more closeted contemporaries E.M. Forster and Somerset Maugham, and spurs the book into our top 100 and high on this morning's Movers & Shakers.