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January 2011

Old Media Monday Rain Check

Sorry--I try to miss my Monday evening duties as rarely as possible, but just wanted to let regular readers know that Old Media Monday will likely appear on Tuesday (or, at worst, Wednesday). Thanks for your patience. --Tom

Omni Daily News

Three in One: The highly anticipated three-volume novel from Haruki Murakami, 1Q84, will be released in the U.S. on October 25--in a single volume. [via GalleyCat]

Posing: Patricia Zohn of the Huffington Post profiles Claire Dederer, author of one of our favorite books of January, Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

Moving and Shaking: Alan Bradley's third Flavia de Luce novel, A Red Herring Without Mustard, out next month, sneaks up our Movers & Shakers list today. Does the third installment live up to its predecessors, Flavia fans wonder? The Wall Street Journal's Tom Nolan thinks so: "This idiosyncratic young heroine continues to charm."

#fridayreads: Because Friday is the day of one of our favorite Twitter trends (sorry, Justin Bieber), you can see what we're reading (and what others are reading) this weekend.


Graphic Novel Friday: Of Demons, Avengers, and Hair

The recently released The New Avengers Vol. 1 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Stuart Immonen may be the best comic I never read when I was 12 years old. It features a to-the-brim team roster filled with marquee characters like Wolverine and Spider-Man, who share the spotlight with underappreciated B-listers such as The Thing, Ms. Marvel, and Luke Cage. The weird and mustachioed Dr. Strange arrives in a haze of smoke and light along with characters who would have been mostly unknown to me, like Iron Fist, Doctor Voodoo, Jessica Jones, and Mockingbird (super-power: goggles?). There are plenty of supernatural, demonic happenings afoot--mainly a character named “Daimon Hellstrom,” who bears a flaming pentagram on his chest, which would explain why he never wears a shirt--and a dimensional rift that sends ghostly baddies clawing their way into the Marvel Universe. Insane comics like this are why my 12-year-old self never learned to properly throw a baseball--why go outside when I could obsess over a character named Doctor Voodoo?

The book's plot centers on Dr. Strange stressing over the loss of “the eye of Agamotto,” a missing mystical trinket of apocalyptic importance, but no one on the team can fathom a villain who could muster the power to steal it. Cue Spider-Man:

“Maybe this Agamatto dude just wants his eye back.” The team is stunned into silence, then Spider-Man says, “I, uh, I was joking. Is there an actual Agamatto and is that his actual eye?”

Dr. Strange (incredulously): “Yes.”

Writer Brian Michael Bendis spreads plenty of dialogue around the New Avengers team, with The Thing and Ms. Marvel fighting for their lives while discussing the merits of the first Ghostbusters film, but Bendis saves the best for Spidey. At one point, Strange is possessed, and Wolverine defensively sinks his claws into him. Strange wakes up, heals himself with magic (sure), and then thanks Wolverine for his quick thinking: the stab shook Strange free from the spell. “He didn’t know that,” quips Spider-Man. “He stabbed you just to stab you.”

Come for the demons and laughs but stay--and linger--for Stuart Immonen’s incredible artwork. In this collection’s six chapters, Immonen makes a play for the best contemporary superhero artist, and I cannot think of anyone who captures characters and travels panels the way he does. Everyone looks his or her best without puffed-up posing. Immonen flatters them in fluid lines that meet in sharp angles and dramatic shadows. Here’s an odd compliment: he draws the best hair around. Where does the slight breeze come from that always seems to catch Ms. Marvel’s hair (see above cover)? I’ve followed Immonen since his name-making days in Nextwave, but he’s only improved, giving greater depth to figures and expressions. Inker Wade Von Grawbadger (not a supervillain) and colorist Laura Martin, with Matt Milla and Rain Beredo, all likely share in this growth.

The New Avengers need no further introduction, and if the next volume is as good as first, I may never throw a baseball again.



Omni Daily Sort-of News: McCain Aide Wrote "O"?

Well, that was quick. Faster than Michiko Kakutani can type "trite, implausible, and decidedly unfunny," speculation has reached a convincing pitch that the "Anonymous" behind O: A Presidential Novel is not someone in Obama's inner circle, but Mark Salter, John McCain's longtime speechwriter and amanuensis on books like Faith of My Fathers and Worth the Fighting For. The NY Post first guessed it was Salter last week--and got a "coy" non-denial denial from Salter--and then today Time's Mark Halperin (co-author of the bestselling book on the last campaign, Game Change) sticks behind the story with more circumstantial evidence and multiple anonymous (naturally) confirmations, though not from Salter or his publisher yet.

Peanut_cover With initial response to the book pretty tepid, I'm not sure how much legs this story will have, but for political historians and junkies this scenario--a top aide writing a novel about his boss's presidential rival--is of some interest. Imagine, say, Ted Sorensen penning "Dick" in disguise in 1963, or Dick Cheney heading back to Wyoming in '82 to write "Peanut," with a giant Georgian grin on the cover. History might seem a little different. Meanwhile, picturing Salter behind the wheel might explain why the most appealing figure in the book, apparently, is O's GOP rival, a character most reviewers are comparing to Mitt Romney, but who Ron Charles saw another source for as well:

Instead, Obama's opponent is Tom "Terrific" Morrison, the perfect amalgamation of John McCain (without the maverick instability) and Mitt Romney (without the Mormonism): "square-jawed, straight-backed, irresistibly perfect." He's got it all: military service, humility, savvy and business acumen. You think this is a setup for the big reveal - the pregnant campaign aide, the blue dress that's never been dry-cleaned, the wide stance in a public restroom - but Morrison really is a fine, upstanding man. And what's more, he's determined to run a clean, fair, courteous campaign. Wake me up when it's over.


Vladimir Nabokov Vindicated: The Importance of Butterflies in the Life of a Literary Master

Pages from my copy of Nabokov's Butterflies, the author and butterfly enthusiast pictured on the left.

“I found it and I named it, being versed/in taxonomic Latin; thus became/godfather to an insect and its first/describer—and I want no other fame.” – from “A Discovery by Vladimir Nabokov, New Yorker, May 15, 1943

I don’t know why it seemed such a shot of adrenaline to read this article in the New York Times about Nabokov being vindicated on a butterfly migration theory--even down to the number of waves, and roughly when. “By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.” Maybe it’s because I’m a huge Nabokov fan, and know how important specific detail and precision  were to him as a writer. Maybe it’s because my father is an entomologist. But, mostly I think it is just energizing and inspirational to think of a man who left such a huge literary legacy managing to excel at what many would consider his hobby. Who doesn’t like to see a hardworking “amateur” win out?

Consider, too, that butterflies abound in the man’s fiction. Indeed, it’s hard to buy a book about Nabokov that doesn’t feature butterflies on the cover or spine. Yes, Nabokov loved chess, too, but butterflies make better eye candy than chess pieces. The dust jacket for The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov actually pins the letters much as one would pin butterflies for display. Tales like “The Aurelian” burst with appreciation for butterflies: “In these impossible dreams of his he visited the Islands of the Blessed…which are the haunts of the squat and dusky Corsican swallowtail. He visited the far North, the arctic bogs that produced such delicate downy butterflies…”

     Storiesofnab Nabokovbutterflies

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Omni Daily News

The 45s are live: Our colleagues on the Kindle side launched their first Kindle Singles list today, 20 shorter nonfiction works, each "expressed at its natural length" of 5,000 to 30,000 words. Take my being impressed with my own company with a grain of salt, of course, but it's an attractive lineup, with a lot of writers (like Darin Strauss, Mark Greif, Jonathan Littell, Cristina Nehring) whose bylines I'd perk up at if I saw them in a magazine table of contents. While writing this post I pulled the 1-ClickTM trigger on two items already: Piano Demon, Brendan Koerner's profile of expatriate jazzman Teddy Weatherford and, most delicious, The Real Lebowski, the smart and funny Rich Cohen on the one-of-a-kind cultural figure John Milius, the Red Dawn and Conan auteur who wrote many of the iconic films of the '70s and steals the show in the Eleanor Coppola's great making-of-Apocalypse-Now documentary, Hearts of Darkness. (Though side note: the title of the Single is misleading, since Milius wasn't the Coen bros' model for the Dude himself, but for his heavily armed bowling teammate Walter Sobchak.)

The last Minimalist: Mark Bittman fans are mourning the final installment yesterday in the 13-year run of The Minimalist, his NYT cooking column beloved for recipes and techniques of often game-changing simplicity. He'll now be writing a recipe column in the Times Magazine and contributing pieces on food matters to their op-ed page, but readers can also turn (or turn back) to his bestsellers like How to Cook Everything and The Food Matters Cookbook.

Top Costa: The UK's Costa Book Awards announced their overall Book of the Year: Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability, which won their poetry category prize earlier this month and topped better known competitors (and former Amazon Best of the Month picks) The Hand That First Held Mine and The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Moving and shaking: News of the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in which the Democratic-appointed majority who signed the report "casts a wide net of blame" for the 2008 meltdown, has pushed the print version of the report high on this morning's Movers and Shakers list.

The True True Grit

As Seira, like more or less everybody in the media world, noted this morning, True Grit, the second adaptation of Charles Portis's novel into film, was one of the top nomination-rustlers in today's Oscar announcement, and it's the most prominent book-to-movie among the contenders. (Trivia side note, which I'm sure has been mentioned elsewhere: since Jeff Bridges is nominated for Best Actor for playing Rooster Cogburn, the same role John Wayne won Best Actor for 40 years before, is that the first time two actors have been nominated twice for playing the same character? Wikipedia's already on the case, and the answer is: not even close. It's happened at least 10 times among the men, although only once--De Niro and Brando both winning for playing Vito Corleone in the Godfather series--have both men won. End of detour. Wait, sorry, another detour: True Grit is not the only 2011 nominee that was mentioned in our Books of the States survey a couple of years back--representing Arkansas. The first time I ever heard of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, the source for the low-budget Best Picture nominee, was when researching the Missouri list, although I couldn't quite find room for him in that crowded state.)

Portis is one of those writers who contribute to the perpetual overhang of my to-read pile (The Dog of the South has long been near the top of my list), and while watching the movie and greatly enjoying its language the other night, my wife and I were wondering whether we could credit it to the Coens--certainly capable of wry and off-kilter wit on their own--or Portis, somewhat widely acknowledged as one of the comic geniuses of American fiction. As soon as we got home, I opened our copy of True Grit and thumbed through to see if I could find our favorite bit of dialogue. Indeed, it was there, verbatim (at least as far as I can recall it from the film), from the scene in which Mattie and Marshal Cogburn come across a self-described "Methodist and a son of a bitch" (also straight from the book) in a remote cabin and notice what a big dinner they've prepared:

"Was you boys looking for company?" he said.

"That is our supper and breakfast both," said Quincy. "I like a big breakfast."

"I would love to watch you eat breakfast."

"Sofky always cooks up bigger than you think."

(Yes, sofky is real too.) One side note to this scene (and not much of a spoiler), for those who have seen the movie: in the book, LaBoeuf is with Mattie and the marshal when they come upon the cabin. In the movie he arrives separately, with some consequence for the plot.

The only other time I had looked up movie dialogue in the source book I'd had the same result, successfully tracking down the blissfully bizarre conversation when Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh meet on a train in the original (and blissfully bizarre) Manchurian Candidate (also since remade, which I can't bear to bring myself to watch, since the original is utterly perfect) in Richard Condon's novel by the same name:

"Maryland is a beautiful state," she said.

"This is Delaware."

"I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid track on this stretch, but nonetheless Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter."

"I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town. You in the railroad business?" He felt dizzy. He wanted to keep talking.

"Not any more," she told him. "However, if you will permit me to point it out, when you ask someone that, you really should say: 'Are you in the railroad line?' Where is your home?"

Three cheers for underrated midcentury American comic novelists frequently adapted into films! (Condon, after all, was also the author of Prizzi's Honor, and, my god, they made Portis's Norwood in 1970 with Glen Campbell, Joe Namath, and Dom DeLuise!) --Tom

Amazon Exclusive: Daphne Kalotay Reviews "Stalina"

 Daphne Kalotay is the author of the novel Russian Winter, and a critically acclaimed collection, Calamity and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 2005 Story Prize. She received her M.A. from Boston University's Creative Writing Program, where her stories won the Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from the Henfield Foundation, before earning her Ph.D. in Modern and Contemporary Literature. Read her exclusive guest review of Emily Rubin's Stalina:

There are many delightful moments in this odd and entertaining novel.

Named after the man whose many victims include her own father, Stalina Folskaya embodies the ambiguity of so many Soviet citizens toward their country and its communist past; her mother named her for the leader she both "worshipped and feared" out of reverence as well as protection--necessary for a Jew in Russia. And so at the start of this quirky novel, Stalina, like so many Russian Jews in the early '90s, leaves her country for the United States, where she makes a modest yet happy career for herself at the Liberty Motel, a by-the-hour place outside of New Haven, Connecticut.

Despite this surely seedy setting and a plot that involves the Russian mafia, the story and its narrator remain obdurately jolly; even with the many sad stories in our narrator’s past, we sense that no one will come to real harm. But that is part of the charm of this joyful book, which, though it at times tends toward farce, embraces the many bizarre and sorrowful truths in this world.

Setting the tragic absurdities of Stalina’s life in Soviet Russia against the peculiarities of the capitalist USA allows the author’s gr eat sense of humor to shine. (For instance, stepping out of Kennedy Airport upon arrival, Stalina is disconcerted to immediately hear Russian being spoken--by the taxi and limo drivers waiting for their fares.) Stalina is admirably good-natured--self-confident, outgoing, mischievous--and her observations are spot on: "Everything is potentially a drama. I noticed that holidays here always coincide with sales in stores. In Russia we have parades."

Stalina embraces her new life in "Connecticut, USA" whole-heartedly and with optimism, finding the world a curious and amusing place. Her spunk and resourcefulness make up for a storyline that relies a bit much on coincidence, and while the book could use some editorial shaping, what it lacks in plot structure it makes up for in wackiness, including a stray cat raised by a crow, revenge via crematory ashes, and a crime boss whose dream "is to have Berlin, Connecticut become the short-stay capital of the East Coast."

There were many moments where I laughed out loud and many moments where I thought, That is so true. The author respects the often harrowing histories of her Russian characters and, most importantly, is true to human nature, to our weaknesses and superstitions, to the strengths and frailties of our friendships, and to the baggage of the past that we bring with us no matter where we go. As Stalina proudly says of the various betrayals, both horrible and petty, that motivate much of the action in this novel, "It was all very Russian." --Daphne Kalotay

(Stalina is now available as an ebook for just $0.99 for a limited time, or in paperback.--Lynette)

Omni Daily News

And the nominees are:  This morning the 2011 Oscar award nominees were announced, and the two most nominated movies are remarkable films based on remarkable books--The King's Speech with 12 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Lead Actor, and True Grit with ten nominations, also including Best Picture and Best Lead Actor.

Prize-winning poetry: Nobel laureate Derek Wolcott's collection, White Egrets, was awarded the TS Eliot prize for the best new collection of poems published in the UK or Ireland.  One committee member described White Egrets as "...the yardstick by which all the others were to be measured."

The game of life:  Author and video game designer Jane McGonigal spoke with The Daily Beast's Josh Dzieza about the valuable skills that result from playing video games--such as optimism in the face of adversity--and her book that explains it all, Reality is Broken.

Moving & Shaking:  The Walk by bestselling author Richard Paul Evans is available in paperback for the first time today, and thanks to his many fans it's landed on the top of our Movers and Shakers list this morning.



Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Two reviews on the Sunday cover: Sarah Bakewell on Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James L. Miller: "[H]is entire book conveys a sense that the genuinely philosophical examination of a life can still lead us somewhere radically different from other kinds of reflection.... It is an extraordinary thing to do: a project that remains 'quite personal,' as Husserl admitted, yet that reaches in to seize the whole world and redesign it from the very foundation. Perhaps this is what still distinguishes the philosophical life: that 'once in a lifetime' convulsion, in which one reinvents reality around oneself. It is a project doomed to fail, and compromises will always be made. But what, in life, could be more interesting?"
  • And Susan Neiman on All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly: "Here, two distinguished philosophers from the heart of the profession offer a meditation on the meaning of life, in a sharp, engaging style that will appeal to readers both within the academy and beyond it. They provide a compressed narrative of changes in Western understanding of human existence over the course of nearly three millenniums, and argue that reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.... 'The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us,' they conclude. 'We have kicked them out.'"
  • Kevin Canty on Caribou Island by David Vann: "'Caribou Island' reads as briskly and suggestively as a story sequence..., but lingers in the mind with the gravity and heft of a longer narrative. Its interplay of incident and character gives it the feel of a 19th-century novel on the grand scale, only without any particular grandeur: this is a novel made of plywood and plastic sheeting and gravel banks, a world where people make out in the snow on bleachers at the go-kart track."
  • Olen Steinhauer on Crime: Stories by Ferdinand von Schirach: "The result is a slim, utterly absorbing collection of 11 stories plucked from his legal career and told in a cool, patient voice that immediately draws the reader in. Von Schirach guides us through the unpredictable sequences of events that can maneuver regular, flawed people into unbearable positions, leading them to abhorrent acts. He presents only the facts he has access to, leaving sentiment to our imagination."
  • Maslin on Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady: "'Endgame' is a rapt, intimate book, greatly helped by its author’s long acquaintance with Fischer ... and his deep grounding in the world of chess.... What changed boyish, chess-loving Bobby into the erratic, loathsome old crackpot and man without a country that he would eventually become? Mr. Brady is not in the business of tossing around facile judgments or easy answers. Instead, he gets as close as he can to a Bobby’s-eye point of view for 'Endgame' and tries to convey what Fischer’s character-warping experiences as a public figure may have been like, and how they shaped him."
  • Kakutani on O: A Presidential Novel: "Well, now we know why the author of this much gossiped about, heavily marketed new book wanted to remain anonymous: 'O: A Presidential Novel' is a thoroughly lackadaisical performance — trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny.... The author of 'O' is described on the book flap as someone who 'has been in the room with Barack Obama,' but given this novel’s many inane implausibilities, the reader can’t help but think that the writer was either a lousy observer or that the room was really enormous — a hotel ballroom, perhaps, or maybe a convention center."
  • Maslin on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: "'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,' a diabolically well-packaged, highly readable screed ostensibly about the art of obsessive parenting. In truth, Ms. Chua’s memoir is about one little narcissist’s book-length search for happiness.... Wherever she is in this slickly well-shaped story, Ms. Chua never fails to make herself its center of attention."

Washington Post:

  • Patrick Anderson on Heartstone by C.J. Sansom: "The novel has it all: an ingenious plot, ceaseless suspense, villains galore, tipsy priests, a bull-baiting, a stag hunt, several murders, the horrors of war, a brooding sense of evil and a glittering portrait of a fascinating age. I rank it with Iain Pears's 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' (1998) among the very best of recent historical thrillers. Finishing it, I longed for the leisure to go back and read the previous Shardlake adventures, but my thoughts also turned to those still to come."
  • Lily Burana on You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon: "'You Know When the Men Are Gone' is a terrific and terrifically illuminating book.... The highest praise I can give this book - as a critic and a soldier's wife - is that it's so achingly authentic that I had to put it down and walk away at least a dozen times. At one point, I stuffed it under the love seat cushions. If Fallon ever expands her talents into a novel, I may have to hide in the closet for a month."
  • Lisa See on Pictures of You by Catherine Leavitt: "The pages here are full of professionals who don't do their jobs, classmates who behave like monsters, and even Charlie, who's so afraid to do anything about his son that he may ruin Sam's life. But of course we know people try to do the right thing all the time, but often fail. This is a novel that invites us to look at our own imperfections, not the dramatic crimes, but the niggling little sins of omission that so often render our lives tragically undernourished and small."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on O: "(It's hard to escape the impression that this is less a political novel than a New York publisher's concept of a third-generation Hollywood sequel, but that's another story. Memo to Simon & Schuster: Don't look so quickly past the book to the film deal.) Perhaps this dreary book's largest shortcoming is its implacably earnest tone. Politics can be raffish, ribald, antic, chaotic and mind-boggling, but an authentic account never reads quite like something pulled out of a newspaper's pile of unsolicited op-ed page submissions from assistant poli-sci professors at the local state college, as this novel too frequently does."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter: "Baxter knows how to play with a reader's emotions; he knows when to flatten the curve, when to turn up the volume. He knows exactly what you will feel if the thing you fear is about to happen doesn't happen. Because he is so good, his writing so seemingly effortless, his landscapes and portraits so precisely detailed, the effect is harder to shake. And this is the effect: We stumble. A certain disintegration is inevitable; with so much that is known, mapped-out, understood about the human condition, foolish joy is a supreme triumph."

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