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About Tom Nissley

Tom Nissley knew he wasn't like the other kids when they assigned Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native" in 10th grade and he spent dreamy afternoons in Wessex with Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye (Eustacia Vye!) and then came back to school to find that everybody else thought it was "boring."

Posts by Tom

Looking Back at Bin Laden: Interviews with Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll

The Looming TowerThe late Osama bin Laden not only attracted the close attention of the American military and intelligence forces for the past decade, leading to this weekend's final result, but also some of the best reporters of our day, most notably two New Yorker writers, Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll. Wright unearthed what's turned out so far to be the authoritative story of al-Qaeda in The Looming Tower, while Coll looked to Osama's remarkable and immense family (he was, as Coll says, somewhere between the 17th and 20th of his father's 54 children) in The Bin Ladens. In my days of talking to authors for Amazon, Wright and Coll were two of my favorite interview subjects: thoughtful, good-humored about the most solemn of subjects, and well informed by their indefatigable reporting, and it seems appropriate today to turn back to those interviews for historical perspective, both on bin Laden's background and on how we thought about him three and five years ago.

On the New Yorker's news blog this morning, Coll has a post annotating some of today's headlines, including a fairly serious suggestion that the U.S. Department of Justice call a grand jury to investigate Pakistan's apparent sheltering of bin Laden. When we talked in 2008, as you can listen below, we focused, as his book does, on bin Laden's family background, and especially on his vast and varied generation, the sons and daughters of Mohammed bin Laden, one of the men who literally built the modern, oil-rich Saudi Arabia: "What's fascinating about that generation of 54 is that they all grow up more or less as Saudi Arabia is enjoying this sudden gusher of wealth, and because they're from a privileged and successful business family they enjoy it too.... So these 54 can really purchase any identity that they wish.... They see the world and they make vastly different choices about how to live in it."

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell the recording of my talk with Lawrence Wright from 2006 has been lost to the sands of Internet time, but I did track down a transcript, which you can read in full after the jump. (If you want to get a sense of his deliberate Southern cadence, as well as his responses to bin Laden's death, you can listen to an interview Terri Gross did with him this morning. And you can also watch My Trip to al-Qaeda, HBO's documentary about his path to writing the book, based on his one-man play, starting with part one.) 

Amazon: When did you start working on this book?

Wright: I started on 9/11. The phones were out in New York that morning, so I sent an email to the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, and said, "Put me to work," and my whole life has been tied up in 9/11 ever since.

Continue reading "Looking Back at Bin Laden: Interviews with Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll" »

So Long, and Thanks for All the Galleys: Thirteen Books for Ten Years

In October 2007, I introduced myself in the very first Omnivoracious post by recommending some books: my four favorite novels from what turned out to be a very good year for fiction. Now I'm saying goodbye, and I'd like to do the same. My fellow Omnivores, knowing how I am liable to turn what should be a little newsy post into a giant, digressive treatise--and knowing how much Omni has meant to me over the years--have been expecting an endless, Melissa Leo-style swan song (I've even been told there's an over/under line on the word count). And no doubt I won't disappoint. But since two things I love best are telling people about books and making top ten lists, I thought the best way to depart would be with some recommended reading: ten okay, thirteen books I loved from my ten-plus years as an Amazon Books editor (I don't even want to know how many that is in dog years).

Ah, but first about me! Why am I saying goodbye? Well, it's the simplest and most American of stories: I won a lot of money on a TV show, and I'm using it to buy some time away from Amazon to write. (I know, I'm still bewildered by this plot twist.) And Omni has already moved into the hands of some of my trusted colleagues, whose names are likely new to you but whom I've known for some time as great readers and enthusiasts, and who have some excellent plans for Omni in the coming months. Meanwhile, I'm going to be focusing mainly on some longer-term projects of my own, but I'm sure I'll find a way to surface online as well, and I hope the folks here will point you there when I do. (And of course I still know the password to my Omni Typepad account...)

And now the books. This isn't my top 10 list from the past decade, though I'm perfectly capable of a stunt as crass as that. I thought that rather than tell you about books you already know about, I'd point you to some that may have never made it onto your radar. So yes, I loved Oscar Wao and Henrietta Lacks and The Corrections and The Savage Detectives too, and Suite Francaise and 1491 and Nixonland and Fiasco, and Atonement and The Omnivore's Dilemma and Never Let Me Go (not to mention Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus). But here is a baker's dozen I hope find as many readers as those deserving favorites have:

  • Black HoleBlack Hole by Charles Burns. I'm not actually sure where this book falls: is it an undisputed modern classic that's so familiar you're a little embarrassed for me that I'd bring it up in this context, or is it new to you? My guess is: if you're a comics reader of any kind, then it's the former, but if you're still on the other side of that genre divide (which I thought the last decade had mostly erased), it's the latter. But whatever kind of reader you think you are, this is it: weird and wonderful, gorgeous and grotesque, and quite possibly my favorite book of the whole decade. Burns uses his deep and deliciously exact black ink to give teen life the horrible and humane treatment it deserves. (See my longer celebration here.)

Continue reading "So Long, and Thanks for All the Galleys: Thirteen Books for Ten Years" »

Learning How to Be a Social Animal: Talking with David Brooks

The Social Animal Back in September, New York Times columnist David Brooks joined the post-publication fray about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, arguing that it's "a brilliantly written book that is nonetheless trapped in an intellectual cul de sac." Little did we know then that Brooks was writing a fictional marriage story of his own. His new book, The Social Animal, has been getting even more varied responses than Franzen's, from "weirdly compelling" to "weirdly disorienting," I think in part because it's a strange hybrid of a book (that's where the "weirdly" comes in). On one hand, it's a pretty familiar Gladwell-style popularizing of the latest social science, but on the other it's, as I say below, one of the most experimental novels I've read in a while (though I don't think Brooks himself sees it that way).

On the social science side, it works as a kind of encyclopedia of behavioral research, synthesizing results that will often be familiar to readers of Gladwell, Dan Ariely, Chip and Dan Heath, and many others into an argument that our understanding of human nature has been too wrapped up in ideas of individual rationality, when instead we should see ourselves as, as the title says, social animals, with our consciousness (and especially our unconscious) built out of networked connections with our world and the people around us.

But seen as a novel, it's the story of a married couple, Erica and Howard, who live out what Brooks says research has told us about ourselves--and who learn in some cases to use that knowledge to build happy lives for themselves. Has anyone ever constructed a novel out of research-based probabilities, in which each character's actions are followed by explanatory parentheticals like "Around 96 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree with the statement 'I am certain that someday I will get to where I want to be in life.'"?

I'm still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, but it's big and, yes, in Brooks's buttoned-up way, weird enough that I wanted to keep reading and thinking about it (and I still am). When I talked to Brooks recently he didn't really buy my whole "crazy experimental novel" line of questioning, but we did get back, at the end, to his dissatisfaction with Franzen and his disagreement with Leo Tolstoy: happy families, like the one in his book, are every bit as complex and strange as unhappy ones. I wanted to talk about the format of this book. On one hand it's pretty familiar in the way you connect the latest research to the way we live our lives. But as someone who's read a lot of what you might call Gladwellian anecdotal books lately, I was very grateful for the other side of it, which is that you structure your discussion in the story of two fictional characters. In some ways, if you look at it as fiction, it struck me as one of the most experimental novels I've read in a long time. How did you come to this style?

Brooks: I still consider it nonfiction--maybe more allegory--but I wanted to use the novel, or at least the characters, for a couple of reasons: one, I think it makes it a lot more fun to read; two, because it takes a lot of the research out of the lab and the fMRI machines and brings it into real life. And the third thing it does is it allows you to go deeper, so the book is not just about material success, it's about a different view of human nature, a view that is more social and less rational, and that emphasizes the connectedness of things, and less the idea that we're all just individuals striving for worldly success.

Continue reading "Learning How to Be a Social Animal: Talking with David Brooks" »

My Best Books of February

My reading schedule, by necessity, tends to be organized around months: around our Best of the Month picks, to be exact. I read around as much as I can, going on first dates as it were, looking for books I might love enough to make our list. Some months the search for love is not as easy as others, but for February I was overwhelmed: it seemed like I found a new crush everywhere I turned. I was able to shoehorn a couple of them into what turned out to be a very crowded Best of the Month lineup, but while we still have just the tiniest bit of February left, I wanted to pass them all along to you here, since I liked the two that didn't make the cut nearly as much as the two that did.

To start with, the two that did make our Best of February list:

Townie by Andre Dubus III
I had never read Andre Dubus III--not even his NBA-nominated, Oprah-picked, Oscar-contending House of Sand and Fog--or, as far as I remember, his father, the Carver-era short story writer Andre Dubus, but something made me hungry to pick up Townie, the younger Dubus's memoir, and it wasn't just the gorgeous, matte cover. And I loved it from the beginning. Dubus is not what I usually think of as my kind of writer--I like funny, and ironic, and even vicious, in a dark and chilly Muriel Spark kind of way, and Andre III, at least as a memoirist (and I'm guessing as a novelist too), is none of those things. He is dead earnest, and full of empathy (which, I'll admit, I like too). The cliche of modern memoir is revenge taken on a miserable childhood; Dubus's story fits the latter (after his father ran off with a young student, he and his three siblings were pretty spectacularly neglected, if not unloved), but not the former. It's a story about anger, but not an angry story, and it's full of compassion even for those who treated him the worst (and for those he treated badly himself). And it's that compassion that led him to writing, which for him grows--in a path whose clarity is actually rare in the memoirs of writers--out of his empathy for the lives of others. His memoir embodies that quality, and now I want to go look for it in his fiction too (and his father's).

Continue reading "My Best Books of February" »

Omni Daily News

Unreliable witness: Lots of attention this morning for Diana B. Henriques's prison interview--the first--with Bernie Madoff in the NYT, in which Madoff claimed that banks and funds he worked with "had to know" something was up, but that his own family knew nothing. The interview (and related emails) were for Henriques's upcoming book, The Wizard of Lies, which Times Books has moved up to an April publication date. We currently have an "Email Me When Available" page up for the book, and should be able to take pre-orders very soon.

Five from the East: The Man Asian Literary Prize (often known as the "Asian Booker," which must please the Man Booker Prize's former sponsors, whose name outlives their sponsorship even on prizes they were never involved with), having changed course in its fourth year from honoring books not yet published in English to ones already in print, announced their shortlist today, including authors from India, China, and Japan, one of them a Nobel Prize winner. The winner is revealed in March:

Margaret McElderry, 1912-2011: Margaret McElderry, one of the children's book editors to best earn the term "legendary," died Monday in Manhattan at the age 98. McElderry was the first children's editor to launch an imprint bearing her name (which continues to thrive four decades later), and among the books she published were Mary Norton's Borrowers books and Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series, along with Finders Keepers and Ginger Pye, which gave her an unprecedented sweep of the Caldecott and Newbery awards in 1952. There are obits at the NYT and School Library Journal, and you can find a two-part interview from The Horn Book and an account of a visit to her alma mater, Mount Holyoke (class of '33!).

Moving and shaking: Carrie Fisher's visit (with her mom, Debbie Reynolds) on Oprah yesterday moved the paperback edition of Wishful Drinking (with, yes, one of the greatest covers ever) up the ranks of today's Movers & Shakers.

Old Media Tuesday: Reviewing the Reviewers

My network connection crashed last night just as I was wrapping this post up, so calendrical quibblers rejoice: it's OMT!

New York Times:

  • Jay McInerney on J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski: "If you really want to hear about it, what’s missing — and this is not necessarily Slawenski’s fault — is Salinger’s voice. I was tempted to say his inimitable voice, but of course it’s been imitated more often than that of any American writer, except possibly Salinger’s pal Hemingway.... For this reader, the great achievement of Slawenski’s biography is its evocation of the horror of Salinger’s wartime experience. Despite Salinger’s reticence, Sla­wenski admirably retraces his movements and recreates the savage battles, the grueling marches and frozen bivouacs of Salinger’s war. It’s hard to think of an American writer who had more combat experience."
  • Susan Dominus on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: "Having read the Wall Street Journal excerpt, and decided, like everyone else, that Chua was intimidating, impressive and Must Be Stopped, I sincerely hoped the book would be a bore, full of niggly detail about rehearsals, competitions and her ancestral origins. Sadly, I must inform you that 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' is entertaining, bracingly honest and, yes, thought-provoking. Many parents who revile Chua’s conduct are probably, nonetheless, seriously considering Suzuki for the first time."
  • Garner on Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence: "Bishop published, intentionally, very few poems during her life, only 100 or so. She was a taker-outer, not a putter-inner. ('I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it,' she said.) Since her death, though, she’s become the Tupac Shakur of American poets, with a fat new remixed volume of her fragments or letters seemingly issued every five years.... 'Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker' is not an overwhelmingly necessary book either. It is repetitive, filled with dreary bookkeeping details and overly polite give-and-take. At the same time, there are those — and, full disclosure, I am among them — for whom this kind of shop talk from an adored poet and her serious editors is uncut catnip."
  • Diana Silver on Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser: "Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor of economics, has spent several decades investigating the role cities play in fostering human achievement. In 'Triumph of the City,' he has embedded his findings in a book that is at once polymathic and vibrant.... Clearly, Glaeser loves an argument, and he’s a wonderful guide into one. 'Triumph of the City' is bursting with insights and policy proposals to debate. Sometimes that’s a bit of a problem: there’s a lot of policy in this book, but not a lot of politics. It’s about ideas, not implementation.... No matter though. If separating ideas from implementation can leave you a little lightheaded, you’ll still walk away dazzled by the greatness of cities and fascinated by this writer’s nimble mind."
  • Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum on House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard: "The journey from an odd and difficult childhood to a literary career is not unfamiliar, but the method by which Richard charts his path is unconventional. What’s most striking in his account is the total absence of an 'I.' One could argue that the power of memoir stems from the act of bearing witness — from both the intimacy and the authority of the first-person voice — and that a memoir’s appeal lies largely in the tone of that voice. Yet Richard deliberately chooses detachment over intimacy or winsomeness."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: "Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, 'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,' is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest.... 'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore' is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas.... When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same."
  • Dirda on Endgame by Frank Brady: "Of recent sacred monsters, none is so fascinating and disturbing as Bobby Fischer.... Happily, Frank Brady's superlative 'Endgame' is a biography more than worthy of its charismatic subject. The first half might be likened to an imperial triumph, as the young Fischer progresses toward the world championship of chess; the second half, equally enthralling, depicts what is the human equivalent of a slow-motion train wreck."
  • Carolyn See on Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters by Ben Tarnoff: "This tale of counterfeiting is a treat for everyone. If you want to be prepared for any occasion, start by ordering up half a dozen copies to hand out to your inarticulate brother-in-law, that uncle who spends too much time in the garage, any hardworking office slave or an adolescent who daydreams about making a living without having to do any work.... I'd read 'Moneymakers' again and again before handing it to my brother and uncle for their information and amusement."
  • Valerie Sayers on A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates: "Is it perverse to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates's memoir of widowhood is as enthralling as it is painful? Oates has always focused her writing so intensely that virtually all her prose is compelling, but this brave account of her recent grief seems composed with something close to abandon. It is as if Oates has decided, after the sudden death of her husband of 48 years, that her own inclination toward privacy is no longer important."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Richard Rayner on The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers: "'The Riddle of the Sands' has been described by John le Carré as the foundation stone of the contemporary novel of espionage and the creation of an archetype — the smart, resourceful loner who finds himself in danger but manages to cope. The book does indeed predict not only Le Carré's Smiley but also John Buchan's Richard Hannay, the best heroes of Eric Ambler's wonderful books … and even James Bond.... 'The Riddle of the Sands' retains its ability to thrill and surprise perhaps because it's a one-off, penned by a gifted amateur, a man who was only beginning to suspect how history might, like wind gusting along an estuary, change the course of his own honor and loyalty."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: "'Swamplandia!' the novel is magical realism, American style; lush language, larger-than-life surrealism, a vertiginous line on every page between hopes, dreams and reality, a disorienting mirage of a book. What holds it all together is the voice. Russell's writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild."

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

If All Robots Looked Like This, the Future Wouldn't Look Too Bad

I had sworn off Jeopardy! posts, but the only way I can justify posting the video below is to say that the unsettling but pleasing way the machine in the video comes to life reminds me of its much glossier (and it must be said, not quite so spectacularly adorable) cousin in artificial intelligence, Watson, which begins its three-day attempt to destroy mortal genius today on Jeopardy!, and the only way I can even excuse mentioning that on Omni is to link to my interview last week with Final Jeopardy author Stephen Baker.

But really, I just want to pass on the clip because it makes me so happy to watch it. Thank you, crazy Dutch maker of beauty, Theo Jansen.

(Via Fallows/Comstock.) --Tom

Omni Daily News

Brian Jacques, 1939-2011: We're belated in noting the passing last weekend of Brian Jacques, the storyteller behind Redwall, the wildly popular series of animal adventures (and the longtime host of "Jakestown"--his last name is pronounced "Jakes"--on his local BBC station). He died in his native Liverpool at the age of 71, after a writing career that began in his late forties when he was working as a milk truck driver and wanted to tell a ripping good yarn to students at a school for the blind on his route and didn't like anything he found in the library. School Library Journal and the NYT have lengthy obituaries.

New Eugenides!: Meanwhile, the news is still too fresh for us to have a page for the book on Amazon yet, but it's true: as I've already heard from a few breathless fans, "Did you hear Eugenides has a new book in the fall?" The novel is called The Marriage Plot, and though his publisher's announcement didn't say much more than that, we did note it last summer when he gave a work-in-progress preview: "A college love story? Maybe.... The book deals, among other things, with religion, depression, the Victorian novel, and Roland Barthes." The Book Case also did some excellent detective work and found a theory he floated in Slate in 2004 about the decline of, yes, the "marriage plot" in Western fiction.

Bolano gets Dickens treatment: The Paris Review has announced that for the first time they are serializing a novel: over the next four issues they will publish Roberto Bolano's "famous lost novel," The Third Reich (in its entirety, it sounds like), which won't appear in book form until 2012 or so. (TPR is now edited by Lorin Stein, who somehow pulled off the feat of making bestsellers out of the thousand-page experimental novels of a deceased Chilean/Mexican/Spaniard (i.e. Bolano) when he was still at FSG.) In other news about the Spring '11 TPR: the interviews will be with Ann Beattie and Janet Malcolm--I'm sure any interview with the author of The Journalist and the Murderer will be self-reflexively fascinating.

Moving and shaking: An NPR Morning Edition story on Academically Adrift, whose authors argue that half of college students show no improvement in critical thinking for their first two years in college, has moved it into our overall Top 100 and near the top of today's Movers & Shakers. (Side note: the photo used to illustrate the NPR online article is of the place where I spent most of my grad school years--and I hope learned something!--the lovely Suzzallo/Allen library at the University of Washington.)

Two Men Vs. Machine: Stephen Baker on Watson, IBM, and Jeopardy!

Earlier this week, I outlined my haphazard preparation for what turned out to be nine bewilderingly fun games of Jeopardy! (well, the ninth was less fun). Really, what my preparation amounted to was forty years of turning my omnivore's flypaper outward toward the world, and then spending a couple of weekends cramming in whatever extra facts I thought might be most worth having stuck somewhere in my head. Meanwhile, another Jeopardy! contestant was nearing the end of his its training period: roughly four years of ingesting reams of information, constructing guessing and wagering strategies, and playing thousands of practice rounds, many of them against former Jeopardy! champions, with the backing of a team of dozens of engineers, not to mention 16 terabytes of state-of-the-art hardware.

That contestant is, of course, Watson, the machine built by IBM to win the next generation in a line of John Henry-style challenges, this time battling all-time Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day match set to air Feb. 14-16. (One hopes that neither Jennings nor Rutter will "die with a buzzer in his hand, lord, lord.") Stephen Baker, a former technology reporter at BusinessWeek and the author of The Numerati, a well-received book on the brave new world of data mining, got an inside seat for the development of Watson, and he was at the taping of Watson's shows last month. His account of the machine and the match, Final Jeopardy, will be released the day after the shows air (a Kindle ebook is already available, which readers can update for free with the final chapter--about the match--beginning on the 17th).

Of course, I've had Jeopardy! on the brain lately, and I was very eager to read Final Jeopardy and talk to Baker, and he was happy to talk too, although even off the record he declined to divulge anything about the results of the big match. The book is a fascinating glimpse into a high-profile technological sprint, and, for those of us who care, an equally interesting look at how to prepare for the game, if you are made of silicon rather than carbon (although carbon-based forms could likely learn a thing or two from the machine). I came away equally impressed by the brainpower and determination that went into building a machine that can play this very human game as well as any human can, and by the remarkable machines we already have in our damp heads, which can still (for a few months yet at least) hold their own against this closet-sized, parallel-processing juggernaut.

You can get a glimpse of how human Watson seems (especially when Jennings starts beating it to the buzzer, and most especially when it says, "Let's finish 'Chicks Dig Me'") in this advance clip of a practice game, and tonight, PBS's Nova has an hour-long documentary on Watson. And for my conversation with Baker about Final Jeopardy, you can listen to the two-part audio below, or read the transcript after the jump.




Continue reading "Two Men Vs. Machine: Stephen Baker on Watson, IBM, and Jeopardy!" »

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Emma Donoghue on Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: "Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride: Russell has style in spades.... If Russell’s style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life’s nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned 'Swamplandia!' into a credible world."
  • Susannah Meadows on The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (yes, it must be said, the husband of the Tiger Mother): "Too many higher-brow writers forget their obligation to entertain. But Mr. Rubenfeld’s novel bustles with kidnapping, knife throwing, gun fighting, poisoning, bank robbery, corruption. 'The Death Instinct' is that rare combo platter: a blast to read — you’ll be counting how few pages you have left with dread, and you’ll do this before you’re halfway done — and hefty enough to stay with you. There’s a steady beat of intrigue and confusion and explanations you wouldn’t have guessed."
  • Garner on Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo: "Her book is among the least political, and most intimate and valuable, to have come out of the Iraq war.... There are many good reasons to read 'Day of Honey.' ... These things wouldn’t matter much, though, if her sentences didn’t make such a sensual, smart, wired-up sound on the page. Holding 'Day of Honey' I was reminded of the way that, with a book of poems, you can very often flip through it for five minutes and know if you’re going to like it; you get something akin to a contact high."
  • Christopher R. Beha on The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: "Hale’s novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical and literary interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let’s get this out of the way: 'The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore' is an absolute pleasure. Much of its pleasure comes from the book’s voice.... There’s also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself.... [T]he depictions of interspecies love are certainly discomfiting, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Ultimately, the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human."
  • Kakutani on Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld: "The tedious, self-serving volume is filled with efforts to blame others ... for misjudgments made in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the failure to contain an insurgency there that metastasized for years. It is a book that suffers from many of the same flaws that led the administration into what George Packer of The New Yorker has called 'a needlessly deadly' undertaking — that is, cherry-picked data, unexamined assumptions and an unwillingness to re-examine past decisions."
  • Holly Morris on The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler: "This book is about people, and it’s deeply unromantic. Want somersaulting polar bears? Explorer heroics? Inuit magic? Look elsewhere. Wheeler doesn’t trade in sentiment or noble savagery. As for 'the Big Melt,' well, it’s happening, and devastatingly fast. Just so you know. With wry humor and extensive research, Wheeler captures a swiftly transforming region with which we all have a symbiotic relationship."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on Russell's Swamplandia!: "Russell has perfected a tone of deadpan wit and imperiled innocence that I find deeply endearing, but readers allergic to self-consciously quirky characters should take precautions.... After half-a-dozen detours, skating along a thin layer of plausibility, Russell runs through the final pages as though she's being chased by a seven-foot gator. I know that feeling, but I wish she'd taken her time and given this finale a little more room to breathe. After all, she sends her smart, vulnerable characters to hell. We want to know just how deeply they've been singed."
  • Dan Fesperman on Donald by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott: "If you were to cast this stunt as a war movie, co-authors Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott would be the wily tricksters who don fake uniforms to slip behind enemy lines, speaking the language like natives and clearing all checkpoints until they vanquish the opposing general with his own diabolical weaponry.... Martin and Elliott make it through to the end of this ordeal with both Rumsfeld's and their own humanity intact. Even as the grinding days turn their character's mind inside out, they carefully retain a kernel of his essence. In tone and style, he is still Donald."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Tim Rutten on Rumsfeld's Known and Unknown: "It's wearisome always being right, particularly when so many others are so wrong, so often — at least that's the impression a reader is most likely to draw from Rumsfeld's exhaustive, exasperating but vigorously written memoir, 'Known and Unknown.' ... Masterful bureaucratic survivor that he was until he ran out of room to maneuver, Rumsfeld delivers a memoir that is all about shifting blame and settling scores."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on The Still Point by Amy Sackville: "Many novels explore the sliding planes, the archaeology of past, present and future and the still points where the fabric of time is rent and characters slip through. This is a lot to juggle, especially in a debut novel, but Amy Sackville pulls it off — thrillingly, seductively, dreamily. Not only do all the moving parts hold together, but a new fictional voice emerges here as well; not harsh, brash and shiny, not overly self-conscious and sentimental — somewhere between the calm beauty we expect from novels that invoke Victorian England and the raw edges of modern life."

Wall Street Journal:

  • Robert H. Scales on Known and Unknown: "Many of us outside the Pentagon's inner circle would expect Mr. Rumsfeld to be more openly critical of his colleagues in the administration than he is in these memoirs. He treats almost everyone with respect and softens his barbs.... Mr. Rumsfeld inadvertently reveals himself as the 21st century's first marble man: supremely confident of his ability to manage a war of machines and sadly unapproachable to those below him willing to offer an alterative view of the shifting conflict. In truth his formidable and dominating personality, which had served him so well before, now served to impede those trying to steer a different course—the one that would prove successful in Iraq after Mr. Rumsfeld's timely and inevitable departure."
  • Sam Sacks on new fiction, including Rana Dasgupta's Solo, "The tacit assertion of this invigorating novel is that the more constrained a person's life, the more his imagination flourishes, until what's real is merely grist for the more vital stuff of dreams," and Alison Espach's The Adults, "one of the funniest books I've read in a long time. Ms. Espach's coup is to chart Emily's growth through her maturing sense of humor. The hilarious first chapter features biting adolescent snark (adults, she complains, are "boring and powerful—saying any boring thing and getting away with it"). But as disasters strike, Emily's reflexive joking becomes layered with a sense of helplessness. Witty ironic detachment becomes her means of escape, and it gives her a strange double identity."

Globe and Mail:

  • Zsuzsi Gartner on Hale's Evolution of Bruno Littlemore: "[T]he most unsettling thing here is not bestiality, but rather, a grossly over-blown prose style.... Despite an affinity for both talking animal narratives – whether for children or those of the NC-17 variety – and wordy, maximalist fiction, I found the first 200 pages of this grotesque romp both boring and annoying.... From this point on, there is enough magic and melancholy in this somewhat repulsive but eventually compelling novel to captivate a jaded reader."

The Guardian:

  • Sara Wheeler (see the last Times review above) on To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron: "[I]n this slim book, Thubron allows his emotional range to expand. This journey, he reveals in the opening pages, is a form of mourning for his mother, who has recently died – the last of his living family.... One misses the sustained themes of the more substantial volumes – the disparity between political borders and ethnic realities, for example – but many of the author's preoccupations reach maturation in these pages. The youthful faith surrendered, the reverence for 'the tang of human difference', the necessary abjuration of sentiment, the doomed pursuit of truth at all costs and a painful joy at the world's wonder. In many ways, all Thubron's books celebrate the terrible, pitiful, beautiful human condition."

The New Yorker:

  • Adam Gopnik on books about the Internet: "A social network is crucially different from a social circle, since the function of a social circle is to curb our appetites and of a network to extend them. Everything once inside is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet, and which all the Better-Nevers rightly testify to, has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud."
  • Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch (subscription only): "'Middlemarch' is not about blooming late, or unexpectedly coming into one's own after the unproductive flush of youth. 'Middlemarch' suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been--but it also shows that, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living. The book Virginia Woolf categorized as 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people' is also a book about how to be a grown-up person--about how to bear one's share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy hard-won moments of happiness."


Top 10 Jeopardy Tips from Someone Who Didn't Expect to Become an Expert

Trebek_Connery It's a big month in the Jeopardy! world. Later this week I'll post my interview with Stephen Baker, the author of Final Jeopardy: Man Vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, an inside account of IBM's building of Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing computer that takes on all-time J! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three-day battle February 14-16. And this week is the big one for Jeopardy! aspirants: the once-a-year window for taking the online test that begins the qualification process for the show is February 8-10. (You have to register ahead of time to take the test, but there's still time.)

As I've tried not to bore you with too much (although those who know me might feel differently by now), I somehow won a lot of times on Jeopardy! in December. So for those who might be considering trying out this year (see #1 below), and for those who manage to make it past that round, I'm taking the liberty of offering my top 10 Jeopardy! pointers. Take these not as the diligently planned and executed maneuvers of a master Jeopardy! strategist, but as some things a player who didn't really have much of a plan at all learned along the way. (For more systematic advice, I recommend Bob Harris's Prisoner of Trebekistan and Jennings's Brainiac (which I have to confess I still haven't read!), as well as Karl Coryat's classic advice page and these two pages by a contestant who lost a close game a couple days after me but clearly had the chops to go much further if the breaks had gone differently (see #10 below). And Final Jeopardy turns out to be very useful as well, revealing the strategies that Watson's creators used, as well as the surprisingly similar, data-driven preparation of Roger Craig, who had a record-breaking run in September.)

Apologies for this not-directly-book-related material, but I figure there are a few other Omnivores out there who might like to test their knowledge, and perhaps this will help (I know a few of the pointers below helped me):

Continue reading "Top 10 Jeopardy Tips from Someone Who Didn't Expect to Become an Expert" »

Expand Your Shelf at Shelfari

Big news for us today is that our partners over at Shelfari have made it possible now to sign in to your account there (or create a new one) with your Amazon login, and, once you've done so, import all the Amazon book purchases in your history into your Shelfari bookshelf. Choosing whether to add your purchases to your bookshelf is optional, and you can pick and choose which of your purchases you want to bring over (helpful in my case since at least half of mine were gifts for other folks).

What is Shelfari (if you're not already familiar with it)? It's a social reading site that lets you keep track of and comment on the books you've read (or want to read) and share your bookshelf and your comments with others. As on Amazon, you can write and read reviews of books, but there are many more features on Shelfari that Amazon doesn't have (yet!). One of my favorites: the Ridiculously Short Synopsis, a reader-uploaded description of the book in as few words as possible, which can range (to use examples from my own bookshelf) from the straightforward ("Sam goes to the city in search of donuts, but instead finds love." for Who Needs Donuts?) to the cheeky ("A chef, banker, and teacher, all siblings, put the fun in dysfunctional." for The Corrections) to the near-cryptic ("Boy seeks Dad. He = a disappointment. So looks for better Pop & parries blow. Oh. Mom = rational but ≠ suicided." for the admittedly cryptic but incredible Last Samurai).

And then, for a book-cover nerd like me, there's the best part: a display of covers of various editions of the book. Obviously, this can get quite extensive for older books (I could get endlessly lost browsing through all the editions--many of them in other languages--of a personal favorite like Kafka's Amerika), but even for something more recent like Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage there's a fascinating range of choices (nearly all of which incorporate that iconic beard of the book's subject):


Go ahead--upload your books and get lost for a few hours. You don't have any work to do today, right? --Tom

Old Media Wednesday: Reviewing the Reviewers

[with apologies for the delay]

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Paul Berman on The Neoconservative Persuasion by Irving Kristol: "[T]he largest of his inspirations was an insistent nostalgia for the America of his own youth — even if, in the title essay, he explicitly repudiated anything of the sort. But who in the world of sophisticated thinkers does not repudiate nostalgia? And who does not end up yearning, even so, for various Golden Ages of yore? Kristol’s yearnings were relentless, though. In his picture of American life, the virtues of long ago invariably seem more virtuous than the virtues of the present, and even the vices of the past turn out to be roguishly preferable to vices of more recent times."
  • Kakutani on I Think I Love You by Alison Pearson: "Though we know after two dozen pages or so exactly where this novel is headed, Ms. Pearson writes with such humor and affection for her characters that we’re perfectly happy to sit back and see how she steers her people toward that happy ending.... It showcases its author’s skills as an observer and her uncanny ability to render on the page exactly what it’s like to be a teenage girl, trying to navigate the merciless social hierarchy at school, while pouring all her yearnings into the impossible dream of somehow, someday becoming Mrs. David Cassidy and moving to Los Angeles."
  • Jennifer Gilmore on The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard: "One of the most impressive aspects of 'The Fates Will Find Their Way' is how it summons up the elements of a suburban youth, with each image reinforcing the idea that danger has a different meaning for the young.... Memories of even the saddest parts of this childhood — drunken fathers, dying mothers, raped girls — acquire a gossamer quality. And yet the grace of Pittard’s prose makes it difficult to feel the brute force of the book’s central tragedy: we don’t fully understand the boys’ obsession with the disappearance of this girl for whom they once pined."
  • Anthony Gottlieb on The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran: "Because Ramachandran is an exceptionally inventive researcher who tosses off suggestions at a dizzying pace, readers may sometimes lose track of what is firmly established, what is tentative and what is way out there.... Even if mirror neurons turn out not to be quite as important as Ramachandran thinks — he has elsewhere predicted that they will do for psychology what DNA did for biology — the book is packed with other evidence that neuroscience has made illuminating progress in recent years. Reading such accounts of exactly what our brains get up to is apt to leave one with the disconcerting thought that they are often a lot cleverer than their owners realize."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on The Fates Will Find Their Way: "It's an arresting incantation, and I couldn't believe how strongly the story drew me back to events in my own life that I hadn't thought of for decades, tragedies that smoldered in gossip without the oxygen of any real information.... [But] the novel's voice seems weirdly incorporeal, lacking the visceral sense of what it's like to inhabit a breathing, sweating, working male body. These 'we boys' who grow up to become 'we men' are an oddly sensitive, feminine ideal of male consciousness, filled with quiet sorrow for the transgressions of men."
  • Dennis Drabelle on Shortcut Man by P.G. Sturges: "Sturges has an ample supply of authorial ingenuity, which he distributes throughout the novel. Besides saddling Dick with the burden of, in effect, investigating himself, he puts this shortcut man in the predicament of having 'to kill, convincingly, someone who never lived.' ... [O]verall, this is an assured and diverting performance, with an ending that should impress even the most seasoned fan of hardboiled detective stories. You thought every twist ending in the noir bag had been taken out and used up, P.G. Sturges seems to be saying as the book rushes toward its final page. Well, get a load of this."

Los Angeles Times:

  • Richard Rayner on While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut: "The stories set themselves up with neat swiftness, proceed at a clip, and shut down with equal speed. They're very skillfully done, 'mousetrap stories,' as Dave Eggers describes them in his foreword, tales to be taken at a single sitting, with a twist or moral pill that comes so quickly at the end the reader scarcely notices it slipping down.... The endings of some of the stories feel glib or rushed, and that's maybe why they were initially rejected or heaved by Vonnegut into his own reject pile. But vibrating through many of them is the ache, the undercurrent of loss and sadness, that we associate with this most impish yet rueful of American writers."
  • Susan Salter Reynolds on Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban: "...a fascinating, highly voyeuristic and, at times, vicious biography .... Most of 'The Art of Not Sitting Pretty' is about Neel's transgressions as a parent. Reading the life of an artist, one wants to deepen one's understanding of the work — not judge the artist in her role as mother. Hoban goes too far.... Her work amounts to much more than the terrible sorrow she left behind."

Wall Street Journal:

  • Joseph Epstein on Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby: "Imagine a modern-day Cassandra but one ticked to the max. Ms. Jacoby notes that whenever she hears or reads the phrase 'defying old age,' it fills her 'with rage.' ... 'Never Say Die' is an attack on self-help health efforts and on the belief that medical technology, like the cavalry in a John Ford movie, will ride to the rescue....  One departs this book with the impression that the only protection against the depredations and sheer bloody horrors of old age are lots of money or a benevolent government watching out for one. But the experience of aging is richer, more complex, more subtle and philosophically interesting, I fear, than Susan Jacoby, with her feminist's depth and journalist's breadth, can hope to fathom."
  • Richard Hart Sinnreich on Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars, edited by Matthew Moten: "Read as a reminder of that troublesome reality, the essays in 'Between War and Peace' are a timely and persuasive antidote to military hubris. But while Mr. Spiller may be right that the concept of decisive victory 'is not as useful as orthodox military thought has traditionally assumed,' that devaluation may say more about contemporary Western attitudes than it does about war itself."

Globe and Mail:

  • Scott Taylor on My Friend the Mercenary by James Brazebon: "When you combine the virtually lawless political environment in West Africa with ruthless mercenaries, desperate rebels, shady arms dealers, greedy oil executives, soulless intelligence operatives and the lure of illegal diamonds, you have a recipe for a spellbinding adventure story. With My Friend the Mercenary, first-time author James Brabazon certainly cooks this mix into a fast-paced page-turner."
  • Robert J. Wiersema on Don't Be Afraid by Steven Hayward (available on "That balance of conflicting elements and emotions – of sorrow and joy, of grieving and humour – is breathtaking in the way it manages to capture and convey the nature not only of the novel, but of life in general. Don’t Be Afraid will break your heart in both sympathy and empathic celebration. It is both an elegy and an enthusiastic affirmation, darkness and light. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll wish more books were like this."

The Guardian:

  • John Banville on The Immortalization Commission by John Gray: "John Gray has laid bare an astonishing seam of thanatological fantasising and psychical conspiracy running from late-Victorian English high society through the Russian revolution and the Stalinist terror to the computer age neo-spiritualism of today. The Immortalization Commission is a sober account of a hitherto almost unnoticed but remarkably widespread phenomenon – and also a romp of a read.... In this brief, modest-seeming yet profound book he makes his most compelling plea yet for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality, for himself and for the earth." And Richard Holloway agrees: "His vision is a fierce one, but it is ultimately one of compassion for poor deluded humanity. We flourish briefly like the flowers of the field and are cut down like the grass. Let us not waste our brief flourishing in vain longings."
  • Ursula LeGuin on Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano: "Readers open to the autodestructive element of modern art may find the surrealist devices in Monsieur Pain more deeply engaging than coherent narrative. I find them curiously old-fashioned, overly cinematic, and all too close to self-parody. But this early Bolaño novel has a moral and political urgency that obliges me to accept its noir banalities. Its tortuous method of approaching the unspeakable reveals the face of evil without glamorising it, as popular literature and film so often do. By indirection it avoids collusion."
  • Antony Beevor on Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore (available on "The 3,000-year conflict provides a terrible story, which he tells surpassingly well, and although not his purpose, one that is likely to confirm atheist prejudices.... Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality."

The New Yorker:

  • Joan Acocella on J.P. Ackerley, especially My Dog Tulip and My Father and Myself: "The real fruit of Ackerley’s candor, however, is the power it lent his writing: the richness of characterization, the tartness of metaphor, the protection that honesty gives against sentimentality, or just a stupid simplicity. His portrait of his mother, whom he loved, is a study in wit and indirection. Netta was a sweet, kind, ineffectual, hypochondriacal, garrulous, silly woman.... But no one benefits more from his unflinchingness than his greatest character, Queenie. He knows that there is a measure of comedy in this passion of his for a dog, and that, to observers, the comedy was magnified by the fact—which he reveals only gradually—that Queenie was a nightmare to have around."


Omni Daily News

Treacherous times: Given Mohamed ElBaradei's prominent role in the opposition demonstrations against the Egyptian regime (today he warned that the pro-Mubarak crackdown could "turn into a bloodbath"), Henry Holt has announced that they are moving up the publication date of his first book, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, based on his time at the helm of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which lead to his Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, from June to April 26.

Countdown to Zero: Meanwhile, in other pre-order news, Colson Whitehead, as yet unconnected to Middle East unrest, tweeted yesterday that his new novel, Zone One, which "concerns the rehabilitation of NYC after the apocalypse," will come out October 18. Not sure if he means an apocalypse that's already happened or one yet to come, but he followed up with the cryptic explanation, "If the book were a mash-up, it'd be Leonard Cohen's 'The Future' + Wire's 'Reuters' + Joy Division's 'Decades.'"

Mine? Justine Bateman: Inspired by Alison Pearson's new novel, I Think I Love You (itself inspired by Pearson's schoolgirl crush on David Cassidy), the editors in the august (and still sometimes smoke-filled) halls of Alfred A. Knopf confessed their own youthful infatuations for the video camera, from Scott Baio to (only at Knopf) Charles Boyer, the great Judith Jones's choice for the Justin Bieber of the late 1930s:

Moving and shaking: When Oprah says, "Eat vegan for a week," it's no surprise that guest Kathy Freston's Veganist would take over our overall #1 spot, and rate highly on today's Movers & Shakers as well.

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 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.


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

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."

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

National Book Critics Circle Nominees Announced

The National Book Critics Circle announced the nominees for their six annual awards this weekend, and perhaps because these awards reflect a critics' consensus more than other prizes with smaller juries (NBCC president Jane Ciabattari explains their process on the Daily Beast), you'll see many familiar names from the year-end best lists (11 of the 31 nominees were in our own editors' Top 100). Only four, though (Nothing to Envy, Just Kids, The Eternal City, and Lighthead), are holdovers from the National Book Award nominees. The NBCC, unlike the other major US awards, is open to books written by non-Americans, which, as usual, doesn't actually mean there are that many non-US nominees, although it did open the door this year to three non-Americans in the fiction category, two in translation. I was very happy to see my favorite novel of the year, To the End of the Land, among them, and also happy to see favorites like The Possessed, The Professor, How to Live, and Just Kids (not to mention Freedom) there too. The most surprising omissions? Henrietta Lacks, certainly, and Matterhorn, and with an entire category devoted to autobiography (and with an "unprecedented" six nominees because the judges were deadlocked), I'm surprised that the late Tony Judt's wonderful Memory Chalet didn't make it (although his widow, Jennifer Homans, is among the nonfiction contenders).


General Nonfiction:





Also, winners were announced for their two special awards, the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, which went to the Dalkey Archive Press, and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, given to Parul Sehgal (the other nominees were Sarah L. Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, and Kathryn Harrison). I have to confess that while I know the bylines of all the other nominees, I wasn't familiar with Sehgal, but according to her site, she's the Nonfiction and Audio reviews editor at PW (which no doubt means I've read plenty of her unsigned reviews without knowing it), and she's reviewed for Bookforum, Time Out NY, and other places, and you can see her reviews of three of the nominees above: The Cruel Radiance, The Warmth of Other Suns, and The Emperor of All Maladies.

The winners of the other prizes will be announced March 10, and the NBCC will be writing about all the nominees on their blog, Critical Mass, in the meantime. --Tom

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