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November 2010

Thrilling Wonder Stories 2: Will Self at the Architectural Association in London

Will self 
Will Self, about to lay down the "DUH" on a questioner.
I'm just back from London, where I participated in Thrilling Wonder Stories 2: Stranger Than Truth, organized by Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh. As the conference site noted: "We have always regaled ourselves with speculative stories of a day yet to come. In these polemic visions we furnish the fictional spaces of tomorrow with objects and ideas that at the same time chronicle the contradictions, inconsistencies, flaws and frailties of the everyday. Slipping suggestively between the real and the imagined they offer a distanced view from which to survey the consequences of various social, environmental and technological scenarios. Thrilling Wonder Stories gathers an ensemble of mad scientists, literary astronauts, digital poets, speculative gamers, mavericks, visionaries and luminaries to spin stories of wondrous possibilities or dark cautionary tales."

One of those luminaries was Will Self, in fine form answering a question submitted via Twitter, about whether he takes notes while on his walks to and from airports--the fodder for his latest book. Uncoiling his lanky form kinetically toward the microphone, almost like an oil derrick or a descending hammer toward a nail, Self emphatically replied, "Well, DUH. It's not like I'm some Buddhist monk or something. I'm a writer." I'm afraid this sent me into a spasm of laughter that almost dislodged me from my chair. It was exactly what I'd been thinking but might've been too polite to say had the question been directed toward me.

Self was in the grouping "Cautionary Tales," along with me (talking about my novel Finch and failed cities) and Paul Duffield, one of the masterminds behind the comic Freak Angels. Before the question session, Self had delivered a pitch-perfect reading from his new book Walking to Hollywood: Memories from Before the Fall, which won't be released in the United States until spring of next year.

Freak angels 
Will Self, Jeff VanderMeer, and Paul Duffield occupying their own hinterlands, otherwise known as life in the round.

The airport walks, Self said in the preamble to his reading, were a way to '"radically re-orient" himself by traversing "the hinterlands," spaces that are, to most travelers, just a conduit to a destination. "It takes a whole day to reach open fields from central London," Self added, while noting that the walk to Heathrow was one of the more pleasant in his experience. Flying generally he finds a way of rendering an awe-inspiring experience mundane, as passengers are "herded" from one banal space to another. In fact, he said he's given up flying since a five-week book tour of the U.S. last year. (In a side conversation, I asked him how he'd be getting back to the U.S., vague images of a freighter in my mind, and he made a noncomittal concession to the idea of rescinding his ban at some point in the future.)

Among other strengths, Self's a great satirist and the part of his reading describing a hypothetical leap from the Golden Gate Bridge during an airport walk was not just laugh-inducing but gripping, each word carefully chosen and fitting into an approach to style both modern and baroque simultaneously. All in all, it was a masterful performance--and one I had a front-row seat for, since the participants in each session sat at a table in the center of the audience.

Tomorrow, more on the conference. In the meantime, Paul Charles Smith has a short account online and on my personal blog I've posted a few photos of books acquired during the trip (some of which I'll blog about on Omni).

    Will self--walking 

Omni Daily News

The other Obama: While President Obama's new picture book, Of Thee I Sing, hits bestseller lists, first lady Michelle is also getting high praise from kids, in the form of I Live Real Close to Where You Used to Live: Kids' Letters to Michelle Obama (and to Sasha, Malia, and Bo) (available December 13), the result of a series of workshops inviting students to write to the first lady.

See your name in print: Join the bidding to become a fictional character in a new book by Thomas Perry, Francine Prose, Dave Eggers or a handful of other participating authors who are willing to make you (your name, that is) a part of their story and help the non-profit First Amendment Project at the same time.

"I don't like being an icon": Margaret Atwood spoke candidly with The Guardian about a wide range of topics including her moment as an ice-hockey goalie, Twitter (she had 97,500 followers as of the interview), and her passion for birdwatching.

Moving & Shaking: Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century goes to the top of our Movers & Shakers this morning after an article on the book appeared in the New York Times, complete with a photo slideshow.


Monkeys, Cephalopods, and Creative Play: Lynda Barry on Picture This, an Amazon Best of 2010 Selection

Earlier this month, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, Lynda Barry's follow up to her stunning What It Is, made Amazon's best of 2010 graphic novels top 10 list. That prior book was one of my favorites of 2008, and made my list of the best of the decade. I wrote at the time that it was "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." Picture This is a different type of creative play, but just as compelling and wonderful.

Barry talked to Omni about Picture This via email recently, touching on everything from the idea of creative play to, erm, how squid might serve up human calamari...

Picture this 

Continue reading "Monkeys, Cephalopods, and Creative Play: Lynda Barry on Picture This, an Amazon Best of 2010 Selection" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Toni Bentley on Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans: "It has never been done, what Jennifer Homans has done in 'Apollo’s Angels.' She has written the only truly definitive history of the most impossibly fantastic art form, ballet.... Homans’s accomplishment is akin to setting the most delicate and beautiful of all the imperial Fabergé eggs into a fissure high on Mount Rushmore and tracking its unlikely survival. And the question of ballet’s survival lies at the core of Homans’s moving story.... So what is one to do now, having seen, having known, a thing of such beauty that is facing imminent extinction? Jennifer Homans has put her mourning into action and has written its history, an eloquent and lasting elegy to an unlasting art. It is, alas, a eulogy."
  • Adam Langer on In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut: "[T]he further you delve into 'In a Strange Room,' Damon Galgut’s taut, mesmerizing novel, a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, the more you realize that the shocks of recognition do not arise so much from any particular artwork you may have encountered but from the uncanny relevance that the novel ultimately seems to have for your own life. Or perhaps more impressively, from how deftly Mr. Galgut uses rhetorical devices to intermingle his narrator’s thoughts with your own, even if you have little in common with his narrator, a tragically isolated South African traveler named Damon."
  • Alexandra Jacobs on An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin: "The text is as useful an idiosyncratic art-history primer as it is a piece of fiction.... As fiction, though, it is thoroughly delightful, evoking a vanished gilded age with impertinence but never contempt." And Maslin: "The knowingly nuanced descriptions of this behavior are at the book’s real heart.... Although 'An Object of Beauty' is made extremely entertaining by Mr. Martin’s cool, caustic insights and fearless willingness to puncture vanity, Lacey eventually becomes more of an obstacle than an asset."
  • Geoffrey Wheatcroft on And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding: "Thirty years ago, while reporting on Latin America for The New York Times, Alan Riding began wondering how artists and writers responded to brutal dictatorships. He then went to live in Paris and realized that not so long before, the French intellectual and cultural elite had provided an answer, in often unlovely ways. 'And the Show Went On' describes this history in gripping and painful detail."
  • Charles McGrath on Selected Stories by William Trevor: "[T]hey are more than ample proof that Trevor is one of the two greatest short-story writers working in English right now. The other is Alice Munro, and no one else is even close.... Trevor’s is a style that could be called old-fashioned or even Edwardian except that he has stripped it of mustiness and excess decoration. He is a master at leaving things out, even more than of putting them in, and an eloquent evoker of silences. He is not a clever or metaphorical writer. Nothing in a Trevor story is 'like' something else; things are what they are."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on Martin's Object of Beauty: "Martin's portrayal of Lacey's conscience is sensitive and moving, and works well on a small scale, but he has trouble keeping the element of corruption in focus across the whole novel.... But those flaws are not likely to trouble you as you move through this graceful novel. If Martin isn't a talented art critic himself, he does a convincing imitation of one.... Given Martin's capacity for zaniness, the subtlety of his fiction is always something of a surprise, particularly in this case when the claptrap of so much contemporary art makes a ripe subject for comedy."
  • Troy Jollimore on Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li: "[T]he smallness of these lives is in part a matter of perspective, and there is considerable drama hidden beneath the placid surfaces they present to the world.... To see the bleakness in other people's lives can be, as 'Kindness' suggests, a terrible thing. But in the hands of a storyteller as gifted as Li, it can also be a moving and unforgettable experience."
  • Art Taylor on Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane: "In the decade between the last Kenzie-Gennaro book and this one, Lehane has made quantum leaps as a craftsman.... In returning to his old private eye series now, Lehane has narrowed his scope a little: The social commentary is less nuanced, more direct, and plot twists are more prominent than deep moral predicaments. Still, 'Moonlight Mile' should hardly be considered a step back. Instead, Lehane is a writer bringing new confidence and an easy prowess to a new chapter in an epic story - the Kenzie-Gennaro saga."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Charles McNulty on Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim: "The essential qualities of Stephen Sondheim's artistic temperament — the peppery precision, the refusal to traffic in received wisdom and the commitment to truth over sentimentality — help turn what could have been a perfunctory curatorial service into the most valuable theater book of the year. 'Finishing the Hat,' the first of a two-volume set of Sondheim's collected lyrics, springs to life with sharp-eyed annotations, zingy anecdotes and frank appraisals of his most illustrious lyric-writing predecessors."
  • Tim Rutten on The Gun by C.J. Chivers: "If somebody were to tell you that the long tragedy of human warfare entered a new and deadly phase in the fourth decade of the 20th century, the historically literate mind almost certainly would jump to the invention of the atomic bomb.... C.J. Chivers makes a convincing case in 'The Gun' that a far more lethal and consequential weapon was devised at about that same time in a sprawling Soviet military design facility — the first Avtomat (Automatic) Kalashnikov assault rifle. 'The Gun' is the author's exhaustive history of the rifle's origins, development and astonishing influence on global security."

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

Ask the Editors: The Return of the Omni Personal Shoppers

Loyal Omni readers might remember that this time last year we put out our shingle to offer book-gift advice for the trickiest readers on your holiday lists. We certainly remember, since it was, hands down, The Most Fun We've Ever Had at Our Jobs (well, with the possible exception of that two-hour lunch with Christopher Hitchens a few years back...). Some of the profiles you sent in were such fascinating character studies that if we could gather a few more they'd make a fine gift book themselves: we remember with particular fondness the Raging Canadian Granny ("My eighty-four year-old grandmother is blind and deaf and in denial of those important facts."), the Mother-in-Law Who Loves Ondaatje and Good Food ("She is my mother-in-law, and despite all stereotypes, I like her."), and, greatest--and most challenging--of all, the Boy Who Taped Cats ("If there is a book of instruction on how to be an irritating little brother, he must have read it three times. Other than that, I don't think he reads.").

So it's with particular relish that we put out our call again: please, stump us, amuse us, and, hopefully, make your holiday shopping a little easier. Post your reader profiles in the comments below, or mail them to us at omnivoracious at We'll post a response a day starting on Wednesday, December 1 (just in time for the first night of Hannukah), and continuing over the next couple of weeks. And if we get more requests than we can handle on Omni, we'll post additional replies on our Facebook page.

By the way, don't be daunted by those admittedly brilliant samples above. We'll be more than happy to reply to requests even if they don't read like they came out of the latest Lydia Davis collection. But be as detailed as you can and have fun capturing the characters in your life, and I can promise you we'll have just as much fun coming up with the best gift ideas we can for them. Thanks! --Tom

Omni Daily News

To Hogwarts via NYC: The New York Daily News notes a slight change to the 14th Street Union Station subway sign--the addition of platform 9 and 3/4s.

Black Friday Books: If you'd rather read than go shopping on Black Friday, check out the Huffington Post's list of books with the best shopping scenes.

Moving and Shaking: The Jedi Path's appearance as a Black Friday Lightning Deal sends it to the top of our Movers & Shakers list this morning.



Graphic Novel Friday: The Plague Widow

As I type this, it’s a Northwestern blizzard outside. Normally, I have a decent view of the Space Needle from my balcony, but it’s entirely obscured this evening by snow--a sure sign of bad tidings. Given how temperate Seattle is, an upset in the weather pattern can shut down the city. As I walked home from work, I ducked into my favorite bar with every intention of warming up with a book. I brought the latest volume of Northlanders with me, thinking that the snowy cover and Viking set pieces would fit with the dreary forecast.

The Plague Widow is a stand-alone volume in the Northlanders series--do not fear the “Book Four” on the cover; the characters within are brand-new and so is the setting. It’s a perfect jumping-on point in one of the consistently better books on the market. In 1020 A.D., a small Viking village succumbs to a plague outbreak. The superstitious residents immediately assume this is divine retribution, but a new priest, Boris, attempts to educate the townspeople on the “idea of communicable disease.”

“That...even the breath from a sick person can cause disease to take hold in another. A mother kissing her child, or a young woman her lover. It’s not a matter of luck, or fate, or divine will--but simple biology.”

Of course, he is greeted with shouts of “Heathen!” but his words convince the town’s lord, known only as “the old man.” Soon, Boris orders that the sick be cast out from the town and the gates closed behind them, allowing no trade with outsiders until winter’s end--a season that can last seven months. Food must be rationed and power is tenuously balanced, with the most fearsome villagers immediately grasping at whatever footholds they can find to leverage their needs. The newly widowed Hilga and her daughter have much to lose without a patriarch, especially since Hilga refuses to blink under the gaze of Gunborg, the local muscle who is capable of any terrifying nightmare. Plague.widow1

The Plague Widow is, as its back copy notes, “pure survival horror.” Paranoia deteriorates sane men and women, as do pride and lust. This is a small village made smaller by the locked gates and severed contact with the outside world. The violence is cutting, sharpened by the chill of ubiquitous snow, but writer Brian Wood knows how to use quiet moments to devastate. In the first chapter, after listening to Boris describe how disease can be passed, a hopeless Hilga forces her daughter to kiss her plague-stricken father and promises that she will never ask her daughter to do anything again. “If Boris was right...,” she thinks, “the promise would take care of itself.”

Brian Wood is a writer of chameleonic abilities: he also pens the political DMZ, the mixed-tape-esque anthology Demo, and the indie Local, among others. Northlanders is entirely of its own voice, full of purposefully anachronistic dialogue--contemporary slurs are commonplace and readers are spared “thees” and “thous.” The fears and appetites are timeless even if the setting is not, but none of this would work as well without artist Leandro Fernandez, who fills faces with emotion and backgrounds with scenic snowscapes just out of everyone’s reach. He illustrates mad wolves and even a steer as it is impaled with frozen bark from an ice-snapped tree. The swords and axes look heavy with actual weight and battered from everyday use.  Plus, the covers by Massimo Carnevale serve as linger-worthy breaks between chapters. 

It’s all too convincing, and as I watched the snow pile up outside and listened to the few patrons within the bar--one of whom coughed and sniffled at the worst possible moments (plague!)--the bleak narrative offered no reprieve. The isolation compounds until escape is the only option. I never finished a beer so quickly.


10 x 3 + 100 from the NYT

The New York Times Top 10 books of the year is probably the most influential in the business (present company not quite excepted, much as we'd like it to be), but they release an entire parade of lists before the main one, including top 10s in gifty categories and, this week, top 10s from their three daily reviewers and their overall top 100 notable books. Some ground rules for NYT newbies: their daily reviewing operation is a separate organization from the Sunday Book Review (which explains in part that often-griped-about phenomenon of the Times reviewing many books twice). And their 100 Notable books does include their overall top 10, which means its a really long shortlist of sorts for the final top 10. And it includes books they've reviewed since last December, which explains the presence of some late 2009 releases like Changing My Mind and Pops.

As someone who reads their work every Monday all year long, there are few surprises in the daily reviewers' top 10s (which are each limited to books they reviewed in the paper, so there aren't any shared books between them), but it's still interesting to see which of their raves held up in retrospect. (Unlike so many year-end lists--but not ours!--these top 10s are in ranked order, a sporting gesture for which, as always, I applaud them.)


  1. Life by Keith Richards
  2. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
  3. Letters by Saul Bellow
  4. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  6. Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan
  7. Crisis Economics by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm
  8. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
  9. You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier
  10. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell


  1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  2. Savages by Don Winslow
  3. Just Kids by Patti Smith
  4. Faithful Place by Tana French
  5. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
  6. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson
  7. 61 Hours by Lee Childs
  8. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  9. The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr by Ken Gormley
  10. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson


  1. The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan
  2. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  4. Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends by Tom Segev
  5. Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes
  6. The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant
  7. I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester
  8. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman
  9. Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
  10. Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb

I don't have the cut-and-paste stamina to list and link all of their 100 Notable picks (though you can find them listed in full on our site), but I will say that I'm a little surprised, in this year of consensus, that our top 100 only shares 25 books with theirs. Rather than list all 100, I'll just highlight 10 of their favorites that might have otherwise not hit your radar:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. --Tom

Omni Daily News

Give and get: Penguin continues a holiday tradition by asking some of their authors what books they want to give and get this year (not limited to Penguin books!). Some highlights: Tana French (high on our own list of best authors to give) is giving Watership Down (not just for kids!) and George MacDonald Fraser's Black Ajax, and would most like to get new copies of read-till-they-fell-apart favorites like National Velvet and The Once and Future King (also not just for kids!); Dinaw Mengestu is giving David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and wants Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad; and Sarah Dessen and Khaled Hosseini both want Keith Richards's Life. And I'll second Nick Hornby's recommendation of Sarah Blakewell's delightfully and appropriately nontraditional biography of Montaigne, How to Live, which he celebrated at entertaining length in his latest Believer column (available online only as a teaser).

Blomkvist the bimbo: The WSJ prints two emails Steig Larsson sent to his editor Eva Godin, which are also included in the extra volume, "On Stieg Larsson," that's part of the new Millennium Trilogy Deluxe Boxed Set, and which provide some interesting background on his thinking about the series (warning, though: I'm midway through book two, and the first email contains a major spoiler about that book!):

I have tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels. Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn't have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn't listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model airplanes. He doesn't have any real problems, and his main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotypical "slut," as he himself admits. I have also deliberately changed the sex roles: In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical "bimbo," while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical "male" characteristics and values.

Geek gifts: The NYer's Book Bench offers some gift suggestions for the "art and design geek" in your life, including a delicious-looking "book" I am planning to give and hoping to get: Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box.

Moving and shaking: A Diane Rehm Show feature on Wendell Berry's 2004 novel Hannah Coulter appears to have hoisted it near the top of our Movers & Shakers list this morning.


Omni Daily News

My friend Steig: The Los Angeles Times looks at a new book about our favorite Swede, Steig Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm: "...this is the story of a friendship. Baksi writes that Larsson lived for his work as a journalist and activist. He had insomnia, was stunningly productive, had terrible eating habits and was haunted by certain memories that, in many ways, fueled his writing." 

Oprah's final favorites: Along with 2012 Volkswagen Beetle's, Oprah included these books in her last--and perhaps most extravagant--Oprah's Ultimate Favorite Things show:

Decoded by Jay-Z
The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo
A Course in Weight Loss by Marianne Williamson

Speaking of Oprah...: James Frey is back in the news, accused of exploiting young authors in his Full Fathom Five writing collective which produced I Am Number Four, and has sold 12 titles to publishing houses so far.

Moving and Shaking: Carlos Eire spoke with NPR's Terry Gross yesterday about his memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, bumping it up our Movers & Shakers this morning.